We passed through lakes of blue sky, breaks in the Patagonian weather system we had avoided for so long. Behind us were banks of grey cloud, ahead were more of the same. For now the bus was in full sun, a rainbow arcing away from us. We were back in Argentina, heading towards El Chalten to see more of the things, do more of the stuff. The yellow-green ground, the blue-grey sky. I thought of the way I was taught to shade an object to make it look 3D. Empty gravel roads that reach towards the horizon. Turquoise rivers feeding the lake, a mirror of the sky. The distant blue mountains on the torn edge of the horizon. Thumb smudged blurry clouds. Impossibly vast. An endless landscape. If I were an artist this is where I’d come to paint. The view from the front of the bus is better than any inflight entertainment. An unmistakeable peak drawing ever closer. I look at it and think “I can’t”, but knowing what I’ve already done, of course I can.
El Chalten exists for the mountains. There is only one road into the village. This is the end of the line. Please change here. We are beyond WiFi, out of reach of sanitation. There is but one, often empty, cash machine. Restaurants, accommodation and gift shops line the main street. Mountains rise on every side. Condors glide between them. Mike and I arrive at our hostel where I am immediately struck another problem. The man on reception only had a booking for one. I was sure I booked two but with my track record on this trip it’s possible I’ve made another mistake. I wait and wait for the WiFi to connect and find my confirmation for two. Fortunately there was a spare bed. Otherwise who knows how we would have resolved this latest minor disaster.
The forecast for the next day was good. We prepare to do what we must; the Fitzroy hike. It’s a gentle walk, free from the weight of our packs, knowing that at the end we walk back out to civilisation. As is our way we are on the trail early. It’s quiet. We stop to look down the valley and feel the force of the wind racing down out of the mountains.
A little bird leads the way. There is nothing to fear. Little holes in rotting wood. Tap tap tap. Our old friend the woodpecker is smashing it’s face against a nearby tree. The first full view of Fitzroy knocks me back. It’s stunning. I can’t stop looking. The trees in the valley have started to turn, those higher up are already flecked with copper and bronze. It is beautiful here. There are fewer rivers, less water. A gentle path hits a slope that advises a climb of 400m over less than a kilometre. It’s the hardest thing we’ve walked so far. It might be the best thing we’ve walked so far. Arriving on top of the moraine ridge to see the range of peaks beneath a bright blue sky. How have we been so lucky? By going, by doing, by being. Right place, right time. We sit at the top for a while before I make my way down to the lake. The view never stops stealing my breath. I doubt if the smile ever leaves my face.
Wind whistles through the hostel. It scratches at the roof and more than once I mistake it for rain. It rips through the tree tops like waves breaking on a beach. I’m glad we’re inside. Eventually the wind does bring the rain and I’m thankful that we had a good day. We wait, hoping that tomorrow will be better, will be brighter. The forecast shows a strong start that rapidly declines in the afternoon. We won’t have much time, but we have to try and catch a glimpse of Cerro Torre. We marched into the valley early, counting down the distance. We passed through an old growth forest. A battleground of wind against tree. Victims of the weather lay scattered across the floor. We left the forest to tackle the final ridge. Even from here it doesn’t look promising. The wind races down the mountain walls and into our faces. We can barely move forward. The stronger gusts pick up sand, dust and small pebbles and throws them at us. This isn’t going to be a place we stop for long. We come down on to the lake, waves breaking against ice and rock on the shore. Ahead of us is a wall of grey. We’ve arrived at the birthplace of storms, the home of winter. The weather only shows signs of deterioration. The clouds begin to spit at us. The storm looks set to break out and it chases out of the valley and back into town.
Throughout the night the wind and rain are relentless. We wake to find snow dusting the hills. Rivers of mud run down each side of the road. We arrived in El Chalten in late summer, five days later we left in early winter. We were on the road back to El Calafate for our final stop. That evening was spent in what you might call a celebratory mood. With one final outing, we had seen almost all of the things and done almost all of the stuff. We had a recommendation for Isabels and a booking so far ahead of when Argentinians believe is dinner time that we needn’t have bothered. I know nothing about wine so we were fortunate in that when led to the library of wine I picked a good one. We ate a meal fit for four and retired, with bellies full and heads gently buzzing from half a bottle of wine.
The road to Perito Moreno is lined with softer, more simple mountains. The rise of land, the end of trees, the beginning of snow. They look like they’ve been carved by a more gentle force. On the bus I can feel anticipation building. Around one of these corners is a huge wall of ice. We turn again to find another corner ahead. A triangle of blue appears nestled in the valley ahead. Still the road bends away and then back again. The closer we get the angrier the mountains get. Hooks and knives, a selection of butchers tools. Flecks of red in the trees beneath the snow line. There, beyond the fence is a river of ice the size of Bueno Aires. The silence of a library broken by the snap, crackle and boom of ice breaking away into the lake.
Perito Moreno is an anomaly. In a world that’s super heating and the all too real fear of glacial retreat, it’s growing. At least the information boards say it’s growing. Watching the ice crumble off the front makes it look anything but. On the other hand, the sheer volume of ice in almost beyond imagination. There’s so much of it, it stretches as far as the eye can see, which isn’t very far because of the low clouds resting on top of the ice. Mike and I walked the viewing platforms end to end twice. Stopping whenever we heard fractures erupt to send huge sheets of ice tumbling into the lake below.
The bus back to El Calafate was the start of a long journey home. We packed our bags for the final time. Separating carry-on from what we no longer needed. We caught the first plane across Argentina to Buenos Aires, where we stopped for the night before making our respective journeys back to the Northern Hemisphere. Our time in South America was over. We came, we saw, we did.