El Chalten, Argentina; Food for the Soul


imageA short bus ride on from El Calafate; the road winds and bends through soft rolling hills and long ribbon lakes until the almost gothic peaks of the Fitzroy range start to become visible. El Chalten holds some of the most unclimbable peaks challanging even those who think everest is a walk in the park. The Fitzroys without doubt leave an impression. Vertical sharp shards of granite rise high into clouds from steep green mountains. EL Chalten also leaves an impression. Like “why am I here?!” People strolled around this mountain strewn town in thousands of pounds worth kit, all muscly and tanned having had 5 days roped to a precipice living off adrenalin and will power alone.

Our milky white slightly wobbly bodies didn’t blend into the throng but we were not to be defeated! We headed for the Fitzroys at first light. Well at about half past eleven because I needed a third cup of coffee and a pastry and Simon needed to clean his lens….. Again!

The first few hours were twisting footpaths through fairy tale like woods next to a pastel blue stream. Views came and went of glaciers, valleys and clear blue skies. That last hour was a bit less fairy tale and a bit more Saw III. Simon scoffed at my suggestion that the 70 degree hill in front of us was the way up. It was a thin rock strewn path, very steep, a bit slippery and with no ability to slow down as there were people behind. We felt completely in our rights to whinge until a saga holiday group all well within their seventies started gaining ground. We had no option to pick up pace and to stop breathing quite so hard when people passed on the way down…

Simon didn’t even chew his sandwiches and drained 2 litres at the top of the 70 degree endurance clamber. All the efforts were put into perspective as the final push led up to the postcard perfect view of glacier fed lakes full of deep turquoise all backed by the Fitzroy peaks and glaciers from one of the biggest ice fields in the world.
The walk down felt like walking on hot coals with us both making various excuses to stop. Must taste this glacier water, need to tuck in my laces, need to clean my lens… Again.

A steak the size of Simon’s head was consumed. I had a salad bowl/ cauldron. Argentina works you hard but rewards you well. There is nothing you can order that is either wholly good for you or in appropriate portion size. As such I have indulged in the four pastries for breakfast and have a disgraceful addiction to dulce de leche. For those who haven’t come across it, it’s like the consumable sin- no nutritional goodness but absolutely food for the soul. On toast, on pancakes…ON A SPOON is what I say!!

Day two we walked on a glacier. I did so disgruntled after it was publicly announced my crampons needed to be ULTRO LARGO and the group sniggered. Simon did feel slightly emasculated by his plain old ‘largo’…

Walking a glacier and winding through ravines was bizarre with odd shapes and shades of blue it was like an alternative world. Crampons on and walking like monkeys we stood in ice caves, jumped over glacier streams and walking over thin passes from one ravine to the next. As we stood with a glass of glacier-iced baileys before catching the boat back the most enormous chunk of the glacier came away…. The size of a 10 storey office block fell to an almighty rumble, crack and smash as it hit the lake and a 20ft wave rolled over the rocks just metres from our viewpoint. Something deeply moving seeing a 500 year old piece of ice fall so spectacularly. An honour to bear witness.

We had intended our final day to climb again towards another peak but the wind picked up, blue sky replaced by racing clouds. A down day of DVD’s with our hostel family, mugs of coffee, Sebastian’s (hostel owner) flamboyant swearing and professional climbers talking of their conquests and failures.

El Chalten is worth a visit whatever the weather. It’s a tiny make shift town on a peculiar green plateau surrounded by crystal rivers dropped amongst the guardians of glaciers and forests- the giant peaks. It was somewhere we found always offered inspiring stories, extraordinary landscapes and buttock ache.

About the Author:  Faye Clarke is 36 and an incorrigible traveller..

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