We had seen Fitz Roy posing out there in the distance, like a monument to adventure, as we made our way further south on Argentina’s Route 40 to El Calafate.
Our group had recently covered 1600 kilometers (994.19 miles) from Bariloche to this Southern Patagonia region with our captain, Rodrigo Harding, a thirty-five year old restaurant and ski shop owner, who knows the president of Argentina. Harding is prompt, all business, but somehow maintains peaceful homeostasis, something Argentines refer to as tranquillo.
“I like to work,” said Harding at the beginning of our drive. “But I want to enjoy the good things in life.”
With a modus operandi like that, Zack and I were quickly on board. Through multiple emails utilizing the best of Google Translate, we had ended up driving the 1,000 miles with Harding (a mere acquaintance from the previous year’s trip) to his home of El Calafate. A rally consisting of dirt roads, guanacos, ostrich, puma, flamingo, sheep, and our sorry attempt at conversation in Spanish, turned into our first sighting of the giant called Fitz Roy.
After a week of exploring El Calafate and the nearby Perito Moreno Glacier, Harding led us on a late-night Kamikaze mission, fueled by a shot of Illy espresso from one of his restaurants, to the town of El Chalten, Argentina. Chalten is a nativity scene of pastoral landscape being watched over by shepherds such as Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. It is the birthplace of Patagonia’s iconic label and for many the rite-of-passage into their lives as serious climbers and adventurers.
In a town that blossoms in the summer months with climbers from all over the world, there is a withering effect that occurs in the winter. Most restaurants and hostels are closed. People are seldom seen in the streets.
Arriving very late into the night, we showed up frantically searching for a place to sleep, not knowing that Fitz Roy was looming over us. Finally, just a few hours from our wake-up call, we found a hostel. Rodrigo, Zack, and I poured into our rooms with an explosion of gear that would likely be difficult to contain. We went to sleep for four hours.
As the daylight barely began to illuminate the massif of Fitz Roy, we were already in Rodrigo’s Toyota Heliux with Max O’Dell, a certified IFMGA guide from Chicago who is now based in El Chalten. Cigarette dangling from his lips and eyes hidden behind narrow frame glasses, O’Dell mentioned he liked Rodrigo’s truck in Spanish. The few, soft spoken words he said that morning were all in Spanish, with no American accent. He started to seem like less and less of an O’Dell from Chicago. But it didn’t really matter.
Pulling up to our destination, at the base of Cerro Vespignani, a peak with an unquantifiable view of Fitz Roy (it was definitely worth more than a million dollars), we noticed a small, decrepit cabin staged quaintly near a river where O’Dell instructed us to fill our water bottles. Giardia? Not here, not now. Zack and I filled two bottles of what seemed like water that could be pouring from the fountain of youth. The novelty of drinking water from a stream was overwhelming. Later in the trip when Zack was battling a strain of South American flu, it would be easy to first point to that water accusingly. But inevitably, we were just Americans unaccustomed to the idea of drinking from the source. There had been too many plastic bottles of water in our lifetime.
We started hiking through a forest, the ground barely covered with snow. Of the five clients that O’Dell may guide in the winter, we were the three that he was going to have a good time with---no extended rest breaks, no falling, no struggle. O’Dell kept a vigorous pace and before we knew it, the forest was only a memory from an early, groggy morning.
Crossing a ridge above the lake we would ski across at the end of the day, we hiked towards the folded and crunched pieces of shifting ice in the glacier up ahead. Cerro Vespignani caps out at 2,146 meters, so we had over 1,500 meters of ascent ahead. Zack didn’t know it, but the flu was just beginning to attack his cells.
Skinning with camera equipment and stopping to get shots as many times as we had the energy to do so, Zack and I fell a little behind Rodrigo and O’Dell. On this day, nearly two weeks into our trip in South America, we hadn’t slept for over six hours since our arrival. With plane rides, airport time, new cities, skiing, hiking, and driving, rest was not feasible. I think our day on Vespignani was the first day we noticed. We were tired.
But being sleepy, energy deprived, and stressed doesn’t change the captivating presence of a glacier. We stared down into crevasses deeper than we had ever seen. Only once did we almost cross a weak snow bridge, with O’Dell taking a step forward and then instructing everyone to wait while he tested the strength of the snow ahead. The bridge was obvious in hindsight, but something that tired eyes and a sore body could easily ignore. We were happy to have him. Afterall, this was O’Dell’s backyard.
Reaching the summit, six, seven, I am not sure how many hours later, the wind was biting and piercing like it always is in Patagonia. The last five minutes to the summit, a ridge boot pack with thousands of feet of exposure below us, was intimidating in a way that you wonder how much longer your body and mind can deal with this kind of adventure. To me, this is the best part of being in the mountains because even with these thoughts you somehow always push through. But a lifetime of safety in the mountains will require you to give up sometime.
Stepping into my Dukes I remember my legs relaxing and the exhaustion pouring out of me. It was like my skis had the effect of a bottle of Advil, a glass of wine, a soak in a hot tub. I was relaxed with a slight edge. I was ready to ski.
Vespigniani offered a lengthy ski of stable 40-degree powder on top of a firm surface, around huge crevasses and down to the lake we had skinned above on our way up. Hours up turned into minutes down. We stopped for a bite of jamon y crudo (prosciutto) and bread on the shore of the frozen lake, basking in the remaining sun of the day and then headed back towards the forest for the remainder of our descent.
As we drove back into town on the winding dirt roads of Patagonia, Fitz Roy never left our sight. Even as we crouched beneath another small mountain or disappeared in the shade of some nearby hill, Fitz Roy was always there because monuments like that are eternal. They never leave.
Eventually we did have to leave El Chalten, but with only one peak under our belts, I am sure we will be back.
Special thanks to BCA for their support on raising awareness about the potential damming devastation to this part of Patagonia.