The most iconic symbol of Argentinian Patagonia is Mount Fitzroy. The majestic mountain complex has two peaks considered among the most difficult in the world to climb – the main Cerro Fitzroy at 3,405 metres, and Cerro Torre (the Tower) at 3,128 metres. The mountain was named for Captain Fitzroy of the HMS Beagle, the British ship that explored and mapped much of southern Patagonia in the 1830s, one of its crew being a young Charles Darwin.
The dusty tourist town of El Chalten lies nestled at the very foot of the mountain. The approach along the main highway ranks among the most dramatic of any town, anywhere. El Chalten is so new that it wasn’t even founded until 1985, established primarily to preempt claims by Chile, which lies just over the mountain tops. The town may be dusty when the inevitable Patagonian winds whip up dust devils and fierce gales, but what a location! Billed as the Trekking Capital of Argentina, magnificent hiking trails abound – everything from day trips to multi-day excursions lie literally out your back door.
It’s easy to find excellent vantage points to photograph the mountain from around El Chalten, the most obvious of which is along main highway running into town. To a get a bit closer or to find different angles, it’s best to hit the trails. Days hikes can be quite rewarding, but to really get up close and personal with Fitzroy, you should take the overnight hike to the foot of the mountain.
The day we start our hike, something is unusual. No wind; a strange but welcome respite from the daily blast we’ve come to expect. We walk along hilly slopes, through forest, along mountain streams, most of the way enjoying stunning views of the peaks, which keep getting closer and closer. When we arrive at the campsite overlooking the base of the peak, several campers are already there. This is by far the most popular backcountry campsite in this region of Los Glaciares National Park, and by evening close to a hundred tents have sprung up. After a quick camp walk-through, we estimate that perhaps half the hikers are Argentinian. Judging by the mix of Spanish, Portuguese, German, French, English, Dutch and other languages we hear, the other half seems to come from all over the world.
Our hope is to photograph sunrise on the mountain peaks. But as all photographers know, changing weather can make short work of the best laid plans. It doesn’t look promising due to heavy cloud cover. Then by dusk the sun breaks through just enough to light up the clouds behind the mountain peaks, making for a spectacular sunset.
Next morning we rise well before daybreak to find a gloriously clear sky. As the sun begins to come up, the stark rocky spires of Fitzroy start to warm, while the surrounding landscape remains in darkness. Then over the next five minutes or so, the magical transformation takes place, as the peaks turn a brilliant, almost unreal red, as if they’re on fire.
One of the 12 chapters in our book, Sleeping with Rhinos – Journeys to Wild Places, is about our travels in Patagonia.