Visiting Giants in Patagonia

The wind whipped me with a mixture of freezing rain and ice. I lowered my head and tugged on my hood to shield my face. The more powerful blasts forced me to stop and shift my weight to steel myself against getting blown over. But the weather couldn’t dampen my excitement. After weeks of anticipation, we were finally on our way to the foot of the Fitzroy mountain range, where the three jagged granite peaks of Mt. Fitzroy, Mt. Poincenot and Mt. St. Exupery tower over a lonely blue lake.

I lost track of how long we had been climbing up the 1,300 foot tall, mile-long mountain path — the final and steepest section of the Laguna de los Tres trail. This part wasn’t so much of a trail as it was a field of rock and boulder piles — some just barely stable. My boyfriend Javier and I carefully found our footing and inched our way up what felt like a 45-degree slope.

When finally we arrived, I eagerly scanned the bleak landscape. The lake looked desolate and out of place amidst a sea of brown gravel and rocks. But I saw no mountain peaks. They were completely blanketed by thick gray clouds, swollen with an endless supply of miserably cold rain.

Maybe we can wait until the clouds lift, I thought on the way up. I looked around. One couple, battered by the wind, was struggling to take photos, and another was sheltering behind a boulder close to the lake’s shore. In total, there were maybe ten of us even though this was the most popular trail in the area. With the wind threatening to knock us over, we turned around and began our descent. Disappointment mingled with the bone-chilling cold in my body. Every few feet I craned my neck and looked back anxiously to see if the clouds would miraculously dissipate.

When we were almost down, the clouds began swirling around rapidly. Dark silhouettes started to emerge from behind their misty shroud. “Wait, wait, it’s clearing!” I yelled at Javier, who was several yards ahead of me. First we saw Mt. Exupery and Mt. Poincenot. More clouds shifted before we saw Mt. Fitzroy. I was stunned. The three ice-covered giants filled up half the sky. Together, they formed what looked like an enchanted land straight out of a fairytale. I looked at Javier and said, “We have to come back.”

We spent the next two days waiting for good weather conditions. On Saturday, 30 miles per hour winds made the attempt to Laguna de los Tres unsafe. Instead we hiked to Laguna Torre, whose trail is sheltered from the wind by a large mountain. On the way back to town, we met Andrew, a solo hiker from Chicago. Over a dinner of grilled lamb and trout, we swapped stories about our hiking experiences. He recommended that we try to catch the sunrise on the Laguna de los Tres trail.

Strong winds and rain made Sunday the perfect day to rest. We were staying in El Chalten, a charming town with a permanent population of about 3,000 people, no bank, one ATM (with a perpetual line) and very spotty internet connection. People watching is interesting in El Chalten; its restaurants and cafes are filled with hippies with dreadlocks and large groups of adventure seekers in their twenties and thirties. Hebrew, French and German are just a few of the languages that can be overheard.

We dropped off our clothes at a laundromat and wandered around the mostly empty streets before finding a cafe with wifi to check the weather forecast. The park ranger at the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares visitor center had taught us how to read the forecast chart, which consisted of about twenty rows and columns. Each cell was filled with arrows or percentages and color-coded to indicate cloud cover, precipitation, wind speeds and directions. Monday’s cells were a reassuring green; clouds would be high and minimal, the chance of rain was slim, and the wind would be manageable. Though the weather changes rapidly in Patagonia, I felt optimistic about the forecast as I sipped on yerba mate out of a metal straw.

The yerba mate turned out to be a bad idea. The caffeine kept me up all night. And the sugar the barista added to sweeten its sour tree bark taste — though well intentioned — didn’t help my insomnia. All night I tossed around in bed, listening to the wind roar through the streets and bang on our bedroom window. I was exhausted when we woke up at 3:45 AM on Monday.

We walked to the dining room and found the breakfast that Mariana, the innkeeper, laid out for us the night before. I blearily munched on a medialuna — a sweet croissant– and looked outside. It was dark except for the moon. But by the time we left the inn, there was enough light for us to see that the sky was completely clear — and so were the tips of the Fitzroy range. The view jolted me awake.

The sun rose and tinted the sky pink while we made our way up the first hill on the trail. To our right was the Rio De Las Vueltas or River of Returns, snaking through a valley towards snowcapped mountains. Then the path led us away from the valley and into a sparse forest dappled with morning sunshine.

Onward we went through a flat meadow, over rivers, past a strange clearing full of beach sand, and through more forest. By now we could see the full Fitzroy range. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the surreal beauty and my mouth was stuck in a permanent grin.

We didn’t find anyone on the trail until we hit Camp Poincenot, a campsite close to the ascent to the lake. Hikers with headlamps still attached to their foreheads were returning to the camp after watching the sunrise at the lake.

Before long, we reached the steep boulder slope. I drove my hiking poles into the ground, pushing myself up step by step. Once in a while, we stopped and looked at the view. Down on the right was a cluster of three lakes — La Madre, La Hija and La Nieta (The Mother, The Daughter and The Granddaughter). And off towards the horizon was Lago Viedma, a glacier-fed lake so vast and blue that it almost blended in with the sky.

At the summit, we were rewarded with a perfect view. Only the faintest wisp of a cloud kissed Mt. Fitzroy. All the Poincenot campers had left after watching the sunrise and everyone else from town had yet to arrive. The only other person in sight was a dark speck moving up the snow on the other side of the lake. We walked down to the water, sat beside the boulder we saw the first time we came, and marveled at the giants we had traveled so far to see.

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