Trekking in El Chalten, Argentina (Patagonia) - the trek to Laguna Torre
The wind had been blowing pretty strong the entire hike – more so than the previous days in El Chalten. As the trail connected with the Rio Fitz Roy, almost three hours into the hike, it really picked up. The wind scooped the top layer of water from the river and sprayed it hundreds of yards downstream. I was slightly protected by the trees and bushes, which separated me from the river. I moved as quickly as I could to get past this section as I continued on towards Laguna Torre, which was the turnaround point of the hike.
I could see the top of the next hill approaching. I knew I was getting close because the last km marker I passed indicated I was at km 8 of 9. As I approached the small hill, I was more exposed at this point. I didn’t have the trees and bushes for protection. The wind continued to get stronger. Walking directly into it made it more challenging. The loose gravel was hitting me straight on. I had to lower my head and put my hand on my forehead to shield my eyes and face from being pelted. I could feel the small pebbles hitting my hands and top of my head.
I didn’t want to stop or slow down. There was nowhere to go to get out of, what was literally by now, a windstorm. As I trudged up the 100 meter hill, which was nothing more than dirt and gravel, the wind was gusting more than before. A few times, I had to turn my back and hunker down as best I could. It caught me off guard a couple of times and almost knocked me over.
There was no way I was turning back without getting at least a glimpse of the lake – and you couldn’t see it until you got to the top of this hill. I just knew the lake was suckering me into something. The wind was steady at about 30 miles per hour with gusts getting stronger on a consistent basis at 60 to 70 miles per hour – my estimates. All I know is that I had never felt wind so strong before. I felt vulnerable. I was only a few meters from cresting the hill and seeing the target for today – Laguna Torre, the runoff from the Glaciar Grande. Again, the gusts hit me straight on. As I was turning around to shield myself, the wind ripped my glasses right off my face and carried them down the hill 40 to 50 meters. I couldn’t believe it. I was stunned. I knew I had a couple of spares back in my hotel room. And I had my prescription sunglasses in my backpack so I was fine. I saw about where they landed so I went to look for them. What a dumb idea. I was smack in the middle of the wind tunnel. A couple of times, the gusts caught me off balance and almost pushed me off my feet. I realized I was putting myself in danger of getting knocked down and hitting myself, or my head, on one of the boulders so I said adios to the glasses and continued on to get a look at the lake – probably another dumb idea.
There was literally no protection at the top. There were probably twenty other people there who were doing the same thing as I was – trying to protect themselves as best as they could. Turning your back and crouching into a round ball seemed to be the best strategy – not easy for us older folks who don’t have good knees any longer. Off to the side, there was a man made rock wall with about 7 people hunkering behind it. I made my way over there, sat down and took inventory. I was still in one piece and I had all my stuff and my glasses.
I grabbed my sunglasses out of my backpack and put them on. I pulled the hood of my sweatshirt over my head, tucked my glasses inside and then tied down the hood. Hopefully, this will protect them. I took my camera out, stuck my head up a few times and got as many photos as I could. By the time I finished, the camera lens was covered with dirt and water blown from the lake. I asked myself if these photos were worth the effort I had just gone through. I’m not sure; however, I do know I felt good about completing the hike.
I didn’t hang around long. This was not the place to have a nice, relaxing lunch. I put my backpack on and staggered down the hill. The one good thing at this point was that the wind was hitting my back. I had to brace myself several times on the way to the bottom when the gusts hit me square in the back. At six feet two inches, I make a big target.
The hike to Laguna Torre is 11 km from the town of El Chalten (Argentine Patagonia). Returning to town on the same trail gives you a total distance of 22 km. The hike to the lake takes about 3 hours and has an increase in elevation of over 800 feet. The return to town, being downhill, takes less time. The scenery is absolutely beautiful throughout.
The trail is well defined and marked at strategic points along the way. It’s self-guided and easy to follow. There are many other hikers (a number of them solo) on the trail going in both directions.
The first half of the hike to Laguna Torre is the most challenging due to the condition of the trail plus most of the elevation gain is in this half. Rocks, boulders, tree roots from one side to the other make for a slow go. The rocks vary in size from larger ones that are imbedded into the ground to smaller ones laying on the surface. You have to be careful to not twist an ankle as you step. I’m not sure how many times I stumbled – fortunately I didn’t go down. It’s during the first half of the trail to Laguna Torre that you come to the Mirador del Cerro Torre with a view of Mount Torre, which was shrouded in clouds and barely visible today. The snow-capped peaks on each side were clearly seen above the Rio Fitz Roy, which skirted along the side of the wide and expansive valley below and directly in front of the mirador.
After ascending through most of the first half of the hike, the trail settles in and meanders through trees and across open plains with different types of bushes until it connects with the Rio Fitz Roy. This half of the trail is narrow in many sections; however, it’s got, for the most part, a smooth, packed dirt surface to walk on. It’s easy walking here. The last 100 to 200 meters to the lake is uphill on a gravel surface that can be slippery so you have to be careful.
I learned a lesson on this hike to come better prepared for the elements – primarily the wind. I underestimated the strength of the wind. I had read where it gets windy; however, until you’re actually exposed to winds this strong, you don’t fully know what to expect. I wore a hooded sweatshirt, which protected me from the wind; however, since it wasn’t very cold, it was somewhat warm at times to hike in. I could have better protected my face and my glasses by pulling the hood up, tieing it, and securing my glasses underneath. A few people hiked with goggles and a jacket that seemed to be made for this type situation. Those are the two things, plus a pair of hiking shoes instead of my Nike running shoes I would get for my next trip to a place like this. It’s a lesson learned. I’m glad that I had an awesome hike and returned in one piece. The glasses can be replaced.
Basic trail information
This is a self-guided trail that is very well defined in my opinion. There are directional signs where it crosses another trail. There are many other hikers (including both solo men and women) going in both directions. Sometimes, you feel you are all alone; however, there may be someone just ahead of or behind you that is out your line of sight.
The first half of the hike is a constant climb over rocks, boulders, solid rock and tree roots. You have to be very careful of your footing in this section of the trail.
The wind was strong the day I completed this hike. For the most part, it’s not a factor because you are protected much of the way by trees, bushes and the mountain itself. Nearing Laguna Torre, the wind was the strongest I had ever experienced before. Next time, I will arrive better prepared to protect myself from the wind – a jacket made for these conditions and goggles to protect my eyes.
The following information shows the hiking time, increase in elevation and distance from the start of the trail to:
Cerro Torre Mirador – 1 hour 15 minutes, 250 meters, 5 km
De Agostini campsite – 2 hours 45 minutes, 250 meters, 10 km
Laguna Torre – 3 hours, 250 meters, 11 km
Mirador Maestri (viewpoint) – 4 hours, 300 meters, 14 km (the Laguna Torre to Mirador Maestri section is exposed to wind; when I got to Laguna Torre, there was no one hiking to Maestri due to the windy conditions; in fact, no one was staying at Laguna Torre more than a short time)
Start of trail is halfway along Avenue San Martin. Look for the sign that states: Laguna Torre – Inicio Sendero – 500 metros.
Getting here – arrive at El Calafate (by plane or bus); take a three hour bus ride from El Calafate to El Chalten (I used Chalten Travel for a one-way fare of about 300 pesos; payable in cash at the bus station); there are a number of hotels and hostels in El Chalten which is only operating from about October to April each year.