I am obsessed with mountains. Many of my travels are fueled by a desire to trek or just lay my eyes on a specific mountain, and our first trip to Patagonia was no exception. My goal was simple – to get as close as I could to Mount Fitz Roy in Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina. I have no technical climbing skills, and it’s too late to start, but my fascination with the world’s most difficult ascents can be satisfied with circuit treks, base camp visits, and partial climbs. I am willing to hike for weeks on end, up and down, through heat and cold, to glimpse the heights that stir men’s souls.
Fitz Roy drew me because it is so extreme. Not the highest of mountains – the Himalayan peaks have double the elevation – Fitz Roy is still considered one of the world’s toughest climbs. The sheer verticality turns away most comers; in some years, more people summit Everest than even attempt Fitz Roy. Fitz Roy also attracted me because it is so fearsome-looking. Its stony gray face looms threateningly over a remote and barren landscape, raising goose bumps on my skin even from a distance – even from a photo! Often sheathed in cloud cover, the pillar pushes dramatically upward, a knife piercing the usually leaden skies above. The mere thought of clinging to its wind- and rain-lashed face brings shivers.
As we approach the small town of El Chaltén for the first time, our driver pulls over and suggests a photo of the spike and its neighbors from afar. In a hurry to get to our lodging and dinner after a long day of travel, I demur at first, saying that we are hiking to a better vantage point the next day. He pulls over anyway, looking at me pityingly, obviously more aware than I that this may be my one and only shot of the unobstructed peak.
We meet briefly with the guide we have hired for the next day and he lays out three hiking options. The longest (estimated at 8-10 hours round trip) is a trek to Laguna de los Tres, a high-altitude glacial lake with the most spectacular view of Fitz Roy. We will not be dissuaded from taking this route, even when he warns us that tomorrow’s weather will be atrocious. We fortify ourselves with the coziest dinner ever – thick local stew and dark home-brewed beer at La Cervecería, a warm cocoon of rustic wood benches and tables crammed together in one snug little room.
Our trek day dawns gray and foggy, as predicted, and we pile on warm and waterproof layers for the hike.
My spirits are already sinking, but we try to stay upbeat and optimistic as we walk, first through gently rising lenga forests, then past ice-cold streams and glacier tongues, and on up to the barren flanks that house two base camps for real climbers.
The closer we get to the lagoon, the denser the fog becomes and the more heavily the rain falls. We are now fully draped in rain ponchos, our hoods and hats and headbands underneath deadening the senses. Our pants are drenched; there is no sheltered place to stop and eat, and our legs and lungs are burning as we near the apex of our climb.
We stumble over slick rocks, seeing nothing but our own boots and the back of our guide. He suddenly halts and points ahead. We are on the shores of the lagoon, a murky pool of dull liquid, topped with a gloomy mist so thick it hovers mere inches from the surface. Behind the lagoon and the damnable vapor lies the best view of Fitz Roy in the world, but it is not for us to see today.
I am not a good sport about this. I have tears in my eyes and sulky words for my family and the guide, who is cranky himself at our insistence on completing the hike. We yank our lunches from our backpacks, eat soggy sandwiches in disagreeable silence, straining for a tiny gap in the murk that never appears, before turning helplessly downhill for the five-hour trek back to El Chaltén. It is the most disappointing day of my travel life, and even my strapping son collapses in exhaustion and frustration at the end of the day.
Like many disappointments, however, the day allows us to focus on smaller scenes of beauty, like the delicate calafate berry below, and serves as motivation to go back to this enigmatic mountain and charming frontier town at the bottom of the world someday.