Even before we arrive in El Chaltén, we know we’re in for an immersive experience. The mountains in this region of Argentine Patagonia surround you, their narrow summits covered in ice stab the sky. It is other-worldly and seemingly unspoiled by modernity. El Chaltén is a small town whose only real purpose is to serve adventure-seekers like ourselves. There are children who walk home from school but it is clear that their parents are likely employed by the tourism industry.
Our first day we hike to Laguna Torre. It is a beautiful trek. Fog rolls in through the mountains and spreads itself upon the valley you hike through to the iceberg filled lake created by a small glacier. It does not disappoint, and yet we were not ready for what came next.
The following day our plan is to hike to Laguna de Los Tres, which is known for its spectacular view of and proximity to climb Mount Fitz Roy—a mountain that kills climbers every year. While we are not professional climbers, we plan to hike up the steep face of the trail heading up to the view of Laguna de Los Tres because, at the time, conditions seem right. We are in for a rude awakening.
As the hike continues, we pass through different landscapes that feel like wholly contained ecosystems. Each turn in the trail feels like its own planet. I am totally lost in the scenery, it’s like a drug. The light of this place is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It creates deep contrasts, with dark ponds reflecting bright snow and green trees. Leafless branches are stark against the thick, white fog. The eyes sometimes struggle to compute the visions are you are seeing.
There are some glaciers around every corner. Ominous mist rolls in and out. Much of the trail is muddy and treacherous, but I don’t care. This place has a beauty and calm serenity unlike anywhere else. It helps that there are few hikers on the trail and me and my partner get to experience some real, genuine solitude.
But for now, as we begin the hike, it is magical. One of your first views is a panorama of snow-covered peaks, deep red foliage, and a crystal lake that struggles to torrent through the valley. This is only a short climb up the steep trail and immediately as you leave the town you are transported into another world.
It is actually difficult to describe this full day of hiking. It went by like a dream, a psychedelic trip that smears the images and memories in my head with a saccharine filter of bliss. I recall fragments, moments of purity and austere beauty around every corner. The vistas are improbable, almost incomprehensible.
World after world, finally we reach the mountain we have to climb. It’s about a mile, but straight up, and it gets more dangerous the further you go. About halfway up the weather starts to turn. Wind howls. The cold pierces through our gear. More and more snow gathers as we ascend. There are a lot more people now, struggling to climb the mountain. Most are woefully unprepared. A couple of Iranian tourists wear nice clothes that are not made for hiking, let alone climbing a mountain. As we get closer to the summit, it becomes difficult for us to keep going. Even we don’t have the right equipment. We expected a steep hike, but we don’t have the climbing material necessary to traverse this snow-covered mountain.
When it gets to the point that it is dangerous, we decide to head back. The fog thickens and we can’t see what’s in front of us. The ice is slippery and there are no rails or anything else to protect us from falling down the face of the mountain. When we ask someone who summited, they say that the fog was too thick to see Laguna de Los Tres anyways.
Descending is, of course, harder than climbing up. We did not get to see the view or finish the trek, but we are not disappointed. Adventure is not about the destination but about the journey, and this journey was nothing short of spectacular. In a place so daunting, awe-inspiring, and foreign, nature always wins. Instead of risking our lives, we hike back to town and have a few drinks, marveling about the experience I will surely never forget.
Ryan Beitler is a journalist, writer, and blogger. He has been published in Paste Magazine, New Noise Magazine, The Slovenia Times, Deadline News, OC Weekly, his travel blog Our Little Blue Rock, and more.