The Fitz Roy Range
When I learned the objective of this exhibition was to circumnavigate the Fitz Roy Range during an estimated 1 week / 50-mile trek, I was sold. The beauty of the region had made a deep impression on me during my first visit in 2013, and I was excited to get the rare chance to view this incredible mountain range from the ”backside" perspective (i.e., from the Chile side West looking East). I had no idea just how strenuous, beautiful, and captivating the adventure would prove to be, and I am admittedly still processing the experience internally as I sit down to write this travel journal weeks after the adventure.
Pictured above is the Fitz Roy Range from a road leading to the small mountain town of El Chalten, Argentina. Our expedition would spend a week circumnavigating this magnificent range, providing us the unique backside view of this epic landscape. These mountains are hard to describe in words or even pictures. For me, they're among the most beautiful mountains in the world. I can't help but feel admiration and respect for the amazing forces of nature when in their presence. Patagonia is a timeless and forever landscape.
A Mountain Town on the Edge
El Chalten has a population of less than 1,000 and is known in the mountaineering world as a destination for world-class rock climbers & hard-core alpinist. Each season the best of the best come to El Chalten to push the sport of mountaineering another step (or finger hold) further… well beyond what seems humanly possible. At roughly 400 meters (1,300 feet) above sea level, the small town is quite literally the last civilized stop before reaching the imposing jagged granite peaks that form the wild Fitz Roy Range. Cerro Torre and Mount Fitz Roy dominate a cast of formidable spires exploding more than 3000 meters above the town below. The mountain range is by far the most dramatic and rugged I've ever seen. Unimaginable in scale, and scenic in beauty. Beyond this range to the west is the Southern Patagonian ice cap - our expedition’s destination.
Exhibition & Planned Route
The plan for our expedition was to trek from a drop off point on the Rio Electrico about 15K north of El Chalten. From this point, we would start working our way west - deep into the Fitzroy mountains - before making a strenuous climb over 1000 meters (3000 feet) up the Marconi Glacier and onto the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap.
Depending on weather, which can be notoriously windy and variable in Patagonia, we estimated this westerly portion of the journey would take two days before we could reach the ice cap. Our first camp was on the northern shores of the ice-cold Lago Electrico. From there we would make the difficult accent up the Marconi Glacier - crossing into Chile as we reach the ice cap at roughly 1500 meters (5000 feet). We planned to camp at a Chilean outpost (Refugo Edwardo Garcia Soto) for two nights to rest and recover from the brutal climb to the ice cap. This would Allow us to explore the Refugo and its surroundings on Day 3.
On day 4 we turned south, paralleling the Fitz Roy and Marconi range for roughly 32 km (20 miles). The hope was for clear weather during this leg so we could witness the Majestic Fitz Roy peaks from its unique backside. Camp 4 was planned to be directly behind the famed Cerro Torre Peak located at Ciro de Los Altares, a majestic amphitheater with our proposed campsite providing front row seats of the Fitz Roy Range.
On day 5 we would continue south until we reached Lago de Los Esquies where we would start swinging back in an easterly direction following the curving arm of the Viedma Glacier. The Viedma flows east off the ice cap for reaching its dramatic end where its 100-meter-high ice cliff walls dump building sized icebergs into the frigid blue waters of Lago Viedma. We estimated the eastern leg would take somewhere between 2 and 3 days. Again, depending on weather.
Our pick-up location was roughly 28 km (18 miles) from camp 5. The Eastern trek home would include a very steep descent from camp 6 perched high on the cliffs above the Viedma Glacier to Camp 7 located on the shores of Lago Viedma. Our last day would be an 18k (11 mile) traverse over rolling Patagonian grassland foothills with the zip line crossing over the rapids of Rio tunnel before reaching our pick-up point on the shores of Lake Viedma South El Chalten.
The total distance of our proposed journey was over 50 miles of extremely variable terrain, providing our team with a unique opportunity to photograph a very special and remote landscape. Most days would require over eight or nine hours of hiking - with backpacks fully loaded with our camera equipment, food, clothing, and other camping gear.
Meeting the Team & Personal Goals
On the first evening in El Chalten I met up with the team and our guides, Juan and Rafa, who checked our gear and helped us determine what to bring for the journey over the next eight days in the backcountry. One issue with being a landscape photographer on a trip like this is the weight of camera gear. Even when you trim down to one camera body and three lenses the weight adds up. When combined with food for eight days, crampons, a harness, a heavy duty four-season tent, and the clothing to withstand the notorious variable weather and high winds of Patagonia, my 85L backpack easily weighed over 60 pounds.
Our team consisted of international group 5 photographers (3 of us from the US, one German and one Englishmen) and our two Argentinian guides. With a detailed topographical map laid out on a table in our hotel, our head guide Juan explained the planned route of our expedition. We discussed the fact that we will be facing everything from the “comfort” of regular trekking trails on our approach and exit days to the unpredictability of “off trail” trekking including boulder hopping through moraine fields, rope assisted climbs and descents, zip line river crossings, and significant time on the ice with crampons - roped together (10 yards apart) to prevent crevasse disaster.
Caution and focus are the theme of the pregame chat. As I took in the information and studied the topographical map, I remember making a commitment to myself to try to be the best team member I could be. I know from experience that positive and sincere team bonding enables better individual and group performance. While anxious, I was excited for the challenge ahead, but also was not naïve to think it would be a simple walk in the park. I remember being curious to see how I would handle the physical and mental challenges in the days ahead. I asked myself how my efforts to be a team player would stack up when fatigued, hungry, and/or cold? Would I maintain a positive and supportive mindset? All these thoughts and more were on my mind, as I got ready for our departure.
Getting the right equipment is crucial. Once we were out of El Chalten the support systems would be simply nonexistent. Juan and Rafa helped us hone in on our gear and explained that in this region of Patagonia Search & Rescue is underfunded and thus unreliable. Even a sprained ankle could present a very serious problem when out in the field.
After completing my final gear check, I called my beautiful wife to say good night and promise to call her just before we leave in the morning. I'd spend many hours thinking of her and my family in the days ahead in the wild. She is my warm hearth to come home to and I am lucky to have her and my family in my life. She understands my need to get “off grid” and allows me to roam these beautiful landscapes. I am incredibly fortunate in this regard it and it adds to my appreciation of my outdoor experiences.
January 26 (day 1) We meet at 9 AM and go to a final gear check before loading up onto two pick-up trucks for the drive out to our starting drop-off point (Rio Electrico). It's relatively quiet on the ride. Perhaps a product of our collective anxiety. Everyone's questions of the challenges that lay ahead could be felt, if not heard.
As we start out from the bridge at Rio Electrico we quickly enter the shade of a forest. After two hours we stop for a quick bite to eat. After lunch we continue west for a solid four hours towards camp one located at the northern shore of Lago Electrico at the foot of the Marconi Glacier.
That night after reaching camp one, I climb high above camp in the direction of the Marconi Glacier to explore. About 15 minutes in, I hear what sounds like a freight train, a constant whooshing of some powerful and unseen engine. I followed the sound and discovered the source is a narrow canyon flushed with angry gushing glacier water fed from the Marconi Glacier high above. I spend a good hour carefully exploring compositions on the edge of the gorge in all of the power of nature.
January 27 (Day 2): We wake up at 4:30 AM and are the trail by 5:30 AM knowing today will be one of the exhibition’s toughest days. With over 3000 vertical feet to climb to get to the ice cap the day will be long and strenuous. The trail starts by working up through rock and moraine fields (moraine is a mass of rocks and sediment carried down and deposited by glacier). To add to the drama, it begins to rain. We quickly put on our outerwear as we slowly wind our way up and towards the glacier. The scale of the mountains and terrain in Patagonia is so large I find it hard to judge distance. What looks to be a mere 15 minutes away takes 60 minutes to get to. I quickly learned to fall into rhythm - one step followed by the next. I copied the slow and deliberate pace of Juan (our guide), who we later learn as an expert Alpinist and one of the few hundred in the world to have reached summit at Cerro Torre. His pace never falters and his balance is exceptional. Finally, after several hours of hiking in the rain, the clouds lift and light begins to shift into the mist. Suddenly, a rainbow appears as if marking our path forward. An omen?
January 27 (Day 2): After we work our way up through the moraine fields we finally reach the ice of Marconi Glacier. At this stage we put on crampons and start the long ascent to the ice cap. After hours on the ice, and still long before we have reached the ice cap, we come to what Juan describes as a “tricky” section. We are required to use ropes to ascend a rocky waterfall. It’s treacherous and slow going as we work our way up.
After reaching the top of the rocky section, it's back to crampons for a steep climb up the ice to reach the cap above. Fortunately, the sky begins to clear revealing a hint of the Majestic Fitz Roy Range behind us. We have been moving for eight hours and still have an estimated three hours to go.
After nine hours we finally reach the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap! The terrain levels with only a gentle incline as we work our way to camp two. Snow covers the ice cap making for slow going and a few surprises along the way.
Watch your Step
About 10 hours into the day we are finally closing in on our destination at the rocky moraine of camp two, which is still an hour away. My body is on autopilot taking one step at a time, and I am in the second position of a three man rope team. I am following directly behind Juan when I suddenly feel a strong yank on the rope from behind me. I turned to see our German team member, Stephan, has fallen into a crevasse. Arms outstretched, all I can see are his torso, head, and shoulders! He is holding himself up by his arms and I brace against the rope pulling back as much as I can. At this moment we see the experience of Juan and Rafa come into action. With cat-like speed they dig a hole into the ice with a ice axe and begin to drill a spike into the hard ice below the snow. Using his spike as an anchor they attach a pulley system that enables us to slowly pull Stephan out of the crevasse. His legs were dangling in thin air. It was a deep crevasse and served as frank reminder of the perils of ice cap travel. After 10 exhausting hours it was a wake up call to stay alert. I can say for certain all of us felt some anxiety with each step we took from that point forward.
Finally, Day 2 comes to an exhausting close after 11+ hours when we reach the rocky moraine outcropping of Camp 2. Perched on the rocks overlooking the massive ice cap as a Chilean outpost, Refugo Edwardo Garcia Soto.
January 28th (Day 3): Later in the afternoon on our rest day a few of us decided to hike down to explore a cliff of glacier ice. Team leader Michael, in true action photographer fashion, captured Juan scaling the face of ice (taking him only five minutes).
January 29th (Day 4): On the move again we start at 5 AM and have an estimated 18 km (11 miles) to cover on the variable ice terrain to reach camp at Circo de los Altares. The day starts with low visibility and snow, but with each hour the sky begins to clear. It's slow going roped up again with crampons and with every step I can't help but wonder if I will fall through.
After a quick lunch on the ice cap, we continued the long trek south towards camp four. I followed Juan into what felt like a never-ending white carpet. As I said, distances were difficult to gauge out there in the desolate and lonely landscape. What felt close proved to be hours away. Our destination for camp four was the dark red scene below the small cloud picture above it took us a solid four hours to reach the ridge despite it feeling like it was just steps away.
Our first backside view of the magnificent Cerro Torre — one of the icon peaks in the Fitz Roy Range, and one of the most difficult mountains to climb in the world. Juan is one of only a few hundred to reach the summit.
Hours later as we finally turn the corner to discover the raw beauty of Circo De Los Altares. We lucked out to have a crystal clear day to experience chia rarely seen view of the Fitz Roy Range. It was a simply mind blowing vista. The size and scale of the peaks, hanging glaciers, and the vast labyrinth of crevasse all came together in an otherworldly amphitheater that is rarely seen, but certainly always appreciated by those lucky enough to witness its glory.
January 30th (Day 5): Camp 5 is over 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) away so we break camp at Circo De Los Altares early and head south on the ice cap. The traverse is no longer on snow, which provides relief from the potential of falling into a crevasse, but makes for difficult travel on wind swept hard packed ice as pictured above. This shot is looking back north at camp 4, which was tucked against the rocks (on left) at Circo De Los Altares.
After at least 7 hours of travel, we finally begin to reach the end of our time on the ice. At the grayish rocky hill pictured above, we will begin to head east following the swing of the Viedma Glacier, which can be seen in the distance.
January 30th (Day 5): Moraine fields are slow going and force you to focus very carefully on each step. Even without the heavy backpacks, travel through the rocks and boulders of all sizes can be treacherous for footing.
January 30th (Day 5): The view looking back onto the ice cap. Two glaciers come together at this point and both flow eastward feeding Lago Viedma. The Viedma Glacier can be seen by its moraine lines arching from the right to left ad the Upsala Glacier is seen arching from the left to right.
January 31st (Day 6): After a well deserved rest at Camp 5 we break early the next morning for another long (9 mile) day to reach Camp 6 high above the terminus of the Viedma Glacier. During this phase of the trek, I realized that there is a part of me that actually enjoys the physical suffering. Crazy, I know, but there is something about pushing one’s self through thresholds that I guess I miss from sports.
The view from the cliffs at Camp 6 make the long journey worthwhile. After dinner, I scramble up far above camp to watch sunset and repeat the exercise the next morning - leaving camp at 5am to watch sunrise cast last light on the blue ice cliffs of Viedma Glacier. The sound of ice breaking off thunders and echoes through the mountains. It is a special moment that I’ll never forget.
On reflection, while I am still processing the trip, I can say with conviction the expedition was an amazing experience. The remote and stark beauty of the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap is hard for me to express in words. Beyond a scale that seems imaginable. From a photography perspective, I am not sure if it was the most successful trip. But for me, these adventures are not about the outcome, but the journey. I am comfortable letting the photography happen (or not happen) as the light and the moment dictate. As for my goals, I will let me teammates be the judge of that. I can say I gave my best effort to provide support, lending a helping hand or word of encouragement to my teammates whenever possible. Patagonia is a special place still untouched by man. I am greatly appreciative of the opportunity to witness this magnificent landscape and hope you enjoyed reading about this adventure.