El Chaltén, Argentina; Parque Nacional de los Glaciares

Latitude 49.32441°S Longitude 72.89253°W

Friday, February 28, 2003

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From El Calafate, we took a 3 day excursion to the village of El Chaltén to trek around the northern borders of the park and explore the remarkable Cerro Fitz Roy and surrounding areas. Here we found yet more fierce weather - the winds were unbelievable - but the hiking trails, while tough, yielded vistas of unremitting natural beauty: aquamarine lakes, wind-ravaged forests, deep avalanche-filled valleys and soaring ice-capped towers. The hike to the Lago de los Tres, at the base of Fitz Roy, was the highlight.

While in Chaltén we thought we'd have another go at glacier trekking. If you recall, Keiko had missed the chance to do it in Torres del Paine on the Grey Glacier due to a sprained ankle. Well. An outfit - Chalten Travel - that in my humble opinion should not be in business, was marketing a "Glacier Trek" in El Chaltén on the Torre glacier. Right up front, I don't mind saying that this so-called "Glacier Trek" by Chalten Travel should be avoided at all costs by everyone. It was staggering to me to see an adventure agency operate a tour with such recklessness and unprofessionalism, and how no one died on this particular day was nothing short of a miracle.

The first complaint concerned the itinerary of the trek. It turned out that the glacier was a 5 hour hike away from El Chaltén on quite a strenuous and difficult trail! Round trip this added up to 10 hours - before you have even set foot on the ice! Now that little detail was not elaborated by the tourist office selling the tour, was it?! And no one really thought to ask - who would have expected to do 10 hours of land hiking for a "glacier" trek?! Most of the people in our group were not fit or experienced hikers and were completely worn out by the time we arrived at the glacier. Mutiny was in the air before we took our first step on the ice.

The second, and more worrying, problem concerned the weather. It rained continuously all day, from the time we set off from El Chaltén in the pre-dawn darkness until we returned at dusk (yes, it was a long day!). While the rain was only a slight drizzle in El Chaltén, by the time we got to the "base camp" near the glacier, it was steady and hard. And the wind that blasted us once we got in sight of the glacier face! My God! The resulting wind chill factor dropped the temperature to sub zero. Now, the fact that most of the people on the trek had not brought any kind of wet weather gear didn't perturb the guides one bit! Canceling the trek from risk of exposure was not an option with these guys! By the time we got to the ice and put on our crampons, after 5 hours of hiking in this condition, nearly everyone was soaked to the skin and some had started shivering badly (hypothermia, here we come). Did we rope up? Did we get helmets? Did we get ice axes? Did we have something hot to drink? I'll let you guess. Apart from my one time, no one else on the trek had ever used crampons to walk on ice before. Falling into a crevasse is not as farfetched as it might seem. I wondered if the guides had any radio contact back to the base camp to get help if someone fell into a crack, or what their emergency rescue capacity was. It was scary to think about it.

Predictably, the accidents started soon after we got onto the ice. A girl slipped and fell on the ice, smashing her knee so badly she could barely stand up again. We all wondered if she would be able to get off the ice and hike the 5 hours back to El Chaltén. Another misstepped with her crampon and her legs flew out from under her, landing heavily on her back on the hard ice. To cap everything off, after about 30 minutes on the ice in the blinding wind and freezing rain, the guides announced that it was time to go! And further, the ice climbing that was a part of the trek was to be cancelled, as they (correctly) surmised people would start dying of exposure in their soaked and freezing state while waiting their turn.

So, that was the extent of the glacier trek! 10 hours of walking for 30 minutes on the glacier! We were quickly led back off the ice with only a few more little slips and falls (one twisted ankle, one sprained wrist), and we took off our crampons. As we climbed back up a steep rock fall alongside the glacier, we were startled by several loud, sharp cracks. We looked up to see a group of boulders the size of small cars hurtling down the slope, just meters away! So much rain had fallen that the entire rock fall area had loosened up and become a veritable minefield for landslides! We put our heads down and grimly pushed ahead... At this stage, most people were seriously wondering how they were going to make it back to El Chaltén. Everyone was weak and tired and shivering in their soaked clothes under the onslaught of the relentless gale blowing off the glacier.

Luckily, we all did make it back to hot showers in El Chaltén - but it was a long day we would not forget in a hurry! Perhaps in warm, sunny weather, this trek would have turned out differently. But on this day, it really was an extremely unpleasant experience that was a nightmare to most - and an ultimate insult that we had to pay for it! We barely got a taste of trekking on the glacier - the whole purpose of the trip, remember? - lost as it was in the protracted ordeal of battling the elements getting to and from the glacier. The primary concern of the guides on these kinds of treks should be to ensure the comfort and safety of the customers at all times. If bad weather is encountered and people do not have adequate gear or protection, they should either provide equipment, cancel the expedition or prevent the customer from going (for their own safety) and refund their money. As for not providing helmets and ice axes or roping people up? Unnecessary recklessness inviting accidents to happen.

My advice is that if you want to go glacier trekking in these parts, choose the glacier trek on the Grey Glacier in Torres del Paine National Park run by Big Foot Expeditions. It was infinitely safer and more satisfying.

Photos: (click on images to see full size)

Trekking around El ChaltenFirst glimpse of Cerro Fitz RoyMt. Fitz Roy from Laguna de los TresMt. Fitz Roy, one of the most technically challenging climbs in South America

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