After years of wanting, and months of planning, after 37 hours of taxis, planes, airport lounges and buses; I am alone in the dark and rain at the trail head that leads from El Pilar to Poincenot camp, the shorter and supposedly better way into into Fitz Roy valley if your carrying in a load. Its about a 4 mile hike, with an elevation gain of 1200 ft. Normally this hike would be a breeze for me, today it will be a 5 hour test of will, as I am carrying in all my supplies for a 9 day stay at poincenot base camp in Fitz Roy valley Argentina. At home I stopped weighing my pack at 90 lbs, my best guess is it tipped the scale at a little over 100 lbs.
There are many ways to get down to Calafete, Argentina the last airport en route to the Argentinian side of Patagonia. Be prepared to have delays, miss flights and take things in stride, keeping your itinerary a little flexible and open makes sense, if you have a bit more time, a couple of days in Buenos Aires might be enjoyable as well. If you plan your flights from Buenos Airies to Calafete too closely, you might not make it, as many of the flights leave from a completely different national airport and clearing in, getting your bags and transiting to the national airport will take at least 3 hours, and that's if it goes smoothly. From Calafete, there are many buses or shuttles to El Chalten; a very nice little village, with accommodations ranging from budget hostels to very nice luxury hotels. Anything you need is there, from mountaineering and camping gear, either to rent or buy, guides, tours, or supplies can be found in El Chalten. It is billed as; the trekking capital of Patagonia, and its a title which can be worn reasonably well. The people seems fairly friendly and helpful. All in all El Chalten is surprisingly prepared to assist you with anything you need (except camera gear!), and I can say well done Argentina! And a big thanks for your apparent warmth and hospitality!
I left my Pack by the closed for the season Hostel of El Pilar and sorted out the trail, I was not keen on false starts carrying the beast of a pack. Its April 6th, the start of what I hope is peak fall colors, it's 35 degrees, and blowing about 10-15 kts with on and off again light rain. Having sorted out the main trail, I shouldered my gear and headed in.
Patagoina is vast. I always feel I am better off finding an area of interest and working from that area. Getting some quality time in one area rather than constantly moving from place to place, seems to get me more of what I want; which is making pictures and less of what I don't want which is planes roads, hotels and time wasted in transit. A bit of research will reveal great locations in both Chile and Argentina, but to To me Fitz Roy valley located in the vast Los Glaciers national park Offered nearly everything I wanted within a reasonable distance. I felt I could get the lay of the land fairly quickly and get an idea of promising locations that could be reached easily from the base camp at Poincenot. You could just as easily stay in El Chalten and do day hikes into the valley, Its relatively quick and easy to get up to some nice morning locations from El Chalten, especially in the fall when the light does not kick off until after 8 AM - The trail in from El Chalten is easy but its no joke, your going to go from 1200 feet elevation to 2400 feet of elevation in pretty short order, do some conditioning before you come here, you'll be glad you did. The trails are pretty well defined and easy to follow even at night with a headlight. There are no dangerous mammals to contend with nor snakes. In summer the wind is an issue, less so I found in fall. Although one frigid night my thermometer sat at -10 degrees, the weather was a mild mixed bag of rain, overcast, sunshine, light snow and torrential downpours. I hoped to get a couple of days with good light, but honestly I found with the exception of one day, of fairly constant rain, any light is worth shooting in in the valley, its that good! I did get a couple of days with excellent light, its definitely better in the morning, with pretty typical cloud cover moving in in the late afternoon, or just the opposite! LOL
I was after mainly fall colors and snow covered peaks ablaze with light. But the area is much more than that, there are a number of Glaciers and ice fields within a short hike, guides can also get you further up in the mountains, there are a good number of small lakes and a few pretty big ones close by.
The fall colors are pretty awesome, I guess I missed peak by a few days, but that's a bit tough to call, as it varies from season to season. I was there from April 6th till The 16th, and I noticed a continual progression to better color nearly every day, my guess is the colors peaked in the week after I left.
Which is inspiring to imagine as it was gorgeous when I was there.
Moving at a snails pace up the trail from El Pilar into the valley through the fairly dense Lenga forest, I gained altitude one slow step at a time, pre-dawn light began to illuminate the trail a little, I was not even close to where I wanted to be and I knew that if it came; I would miss the legendary morning show of Fitz Roy ablaze in the morning light.
At a tad over 11,000 feet Fitz Roy peak and its lesser neighbors tower over the valley catching the morning light well before the valley floor. This is the big show, and the yearned for Iconic shot. I suspect it pays to be completely self sufficient with your camera gear, I saw no indications of any outlet for photographic equipment in El Chalten, with the exception of memory cards. Bring all your lenses if you can, there is lots to shoot at any focal length, I shoot with primes, but a guess a few nice zooms would be handy, if you are so inclined to use them. If you like natural macro work, you'll be in heaven! wide angle heaven again! I use circular polarizing filters on all my lenses and these served me well yet again. I use grads as well, they can come in very handy down here, lots big dynamic range to contend with at times. Bring lots of batteries and film/cards, you'll probably shoot more here then normally as the opportunities are everywhere. A Back up system, certainly worth considering given the effort needed to get down here. A sturdy tripod is a must of course, if your gear is sensitive to cold or moisture you might have issues here. Plan for crap weather and hope for the best, wool base layers, good solid boots, and a hard shell outer are really mandatory, for extended stays. Hiking up into the further reaches will get you out of the tree line and can put you into some pretty serious weather in no time.
Day hikes from El Chalten will require lighter gear, and less preparation, for sure and there is something to be said for that as well. There is also something to be said for ending the day at La Tapera restaurant in El Chalten, (which I would highly recommend, I can say I had one of the finest meals of my life there!) and sleeping soundly in a warm bed, and getting up and going back in to the valley early the next day...
Three hours shy of my destination, light curled over the horizon and blasted the now clearing skies, the kaleidoscope of colors was painful to watch as I could make nothing of it, being nowhere near anything to shoot, I consoled myself with the thought, If its that good once, today, it will come again when I'm ready. Slightly before noon I arrived set up my tent and camp, and collapsed on my sleeping pad, knowing after a little rest, I would be ready to truly start my adventure!
Poincenot Base camp sits up against the true peaks of the valley, its free, its safe and its out of the wind, in fall it was never too densely populated and
few nights I had it completely to myself. It's a nice location to work from. Camping is allowed, as well in a couple of other locations around the valley.
Fresh clean water is a few steps away and is perfectly safe to drink, unfiltered right from the stream. It is somewhat protected from the elements, at night on a few occasions the wind would roar through the trees above my tent with such force and density it was a little hard to believe my tent would not be swept away by the giant winds; sounding like giant semi-trucks moving down a rain soaked road at high speed, a singular sound to be sure, and my tent would do little more than breath slightly in and out with each passing.
In my humble opinion, Fitz Roy Valley is one of the finest and most diverse areas for photography I have ever seen, I was amazed, inspired and humbled by the grandeur and beauty of it. As I sit and wait for my proofs from the lab to come back, and reflect I'll just say; hell yes, I will go back!