Trekking Argentina – South Patagonia Icefield Expedition – Circo de los Altares – Day 4

The weather forecast over dinner last night predicted clear skies and little-to-no wind for our first day hiking down the South Patagonia Icefield to the Circo de los Altares campsite.

Or not…

The day didn’t start out too bad to be honest, but within an hour, the clouds had completely obscured the mountains and the wind became a force to reckon with.

Heading towards the Icefield - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Heading towards the Icefield, the weather didn’t start off too bad

We spent the first hour crossing another crevasse field towards the smooth snow we could see from the Refugio Garcia Soto.  After 1.5 days, hiking across a glacier with crampons had started to lose some of its novelty and, if you have weak ankles, I wouldn’t recommend that you undertake this trip this late in the season.  

crevasse field and dark clouds over the icefield - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

By the time we’d reached the other side of the crevasse field, the weather was looking a lot worse

Juan bought our friend, the rope, out again once we reached the snow and tied us together in a 3rd configuration.  We were in an area where the crevasses ran parallel to our direction of travel, so hiking in single file would result in all of us falling into the crevasse if Juan was clever enough to find one.  In this new configuration, we fanned out in the same way that search and rescue teams do, so that if one person fell into a crevasse, the rest of us would hopefully still be on solid ice and could pull them out.

Another rope configuration - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

I was in the middle of the group and so had trekking companions fanned out on either side of me

This was tough going!

Although the snow was only about 5-15cm deep, it still required more effort than walking on a solid surface, and we were battling a strong headwind.  Fortunately, this section was relatively short, and we once again changed into the original configuration of a single-file.

My shadow and the rope - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

My shadow and the rope as I follow Reto down the Icefield

Here I discovered that being short is a disadvantage.   Although our route was fairly flat and the snow not terribly deep, it was still easier to walk in the bootprints of those in front of me than to forge my own way through the snow.  But everyone in front of me had a much longer stride.  I felt like a little kid trying to walk in the footprints of my dad – managing to reach the first few, but then either having to jump or make my own way for a few paces before rejoining the trail.  

For the next 8km, Anita (who was roped behind me) and I half-walked/half-ran to keep up with the pace.  It was a great workout, but when we stopped for a brief lunch, we had to ask them to slow down a bit!

Trekking down the Icefield - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

The bootprints made by Juan, Rafa and Reto were just a little too far apart for me. I ended up half-walking, half-running down the Icefield

By this time we were out of Argentinean empanadas and had moved on to our “brick sandwiches” for lunch.  These are large, heavy bread rolls stuffed with a huge amount of meat and cheese, and were very reminiscent of our lunches on the Torres del Paine Circuit (where I first coined the term).  As I did in Torres del Paine, I ended up pulling all the filling out and eating just that, not bothering with the bread.  While it is important to eat more calories on an Expedition like this, it was still too much for me – particularly when I don’t eat a lot of bread normally.  The difficulty was actually getting to the filling!  Because it was so cold, prizing the roll apart took some skill and perseverence!

lunch - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Lunch on the Icefield. This was an exceptionally brief one due to the lack of shelter and the fierce wind – to the point where most of us didn’t even sit down (top). The “brick sandwiches” were enormous (this one is already have eaten) and difficult to pull apart to get to the good stuff (bottom)

Almost all of our snack or lunch breaks on the Expedition were very short as, in these conditions, you cool down very quickly once you stop moving.  Here on the Icefield we had no protection from the howling wind, and we soon hoisted our packs and continued our hike South.

Looking back up the flat icefield - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Looking behind us in the direction from whence we’d come. The Icefield was relatively flat with about 15cm of snow, and the strong wind roaring down it meant we didn’t stop for long at any of our breaks

For the next hour or so we continued hiking down the back-side of the mountain ranges that have turned El Chaltén (a town which didn’t exist before 1985) into the hiking capital of Argentina. By this point we had a tailwind of at least 60km/hr and, even though it was working with us, it was tiring to continually need to brace yourself against its pressure and random gusts. 

Mountains - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

The back-side of the mountains for which El Chalten is famous. Not many people get to see this!

We entered another crevasse field covered in a light dusting of snow, and Reto, Rafa and I all fell.  Reto was first, falling to his knees as the snow gave out underneath him.  Then Rafa plunged to hip-depth about half an hour later.  My own experience was just to knee-depth, but it was an interesting experience to have what appeared to be solid ground disappear beneath me.

water-filled crevasse - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

We came across these easily visible water-filled crevasses, but there were many, many others that were hidden beneath the thin layer of snow!

Our campsite for the night – Circo de los Altares – was located about half way down the mountain range and set in a small valley that offered some protection from the wind.  It is meant to be the most spectacular campsite of the Expedition, but unfortunately the weather was not cooperating!  Perhaps tomorrow…

Circo de los Altares camp - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

View towards the mountains from the Circo de los Altares camp. Unfortunately, this was the best view we had of what is apparently the most amazing campsite of the entire trip

We arrived at about 3pm and quickly went about setting up the tents and creating small snow walls for extra protection. 

Setting up camp at Circo de los Altares - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Setting up camp at Circo de los Altares. Pitching tents and building snow walls

And I have to admit, even with the mountains obscured by cloud, it was pretty spectacular!

Circo de los Altares camp - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Views of our camp at Circo de los Altares – towards the mountains (top) and towards the Icefield (bottom)

Despite the relatively sheltered location and our snow walls, it was still very cold and windy outside, so we hunkered down in our tents listening to the wind beat against the outside.

Inside the tent - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

It was nice and cosy inside the tent, despite the wind howling outside

The weather deteriorated as the afternoon progressed, but Juan and Rafa kept us supplied with hot water, and eventually appeared with a delicious rice and lentil stew for dinner and a Dulce de Leche Milka bar for dessert 🙂  Juan also explained the plan for the next days before we all had another early night.

Explaining the plan - South Patagonia Icefield Expedition - Argentina

Juan explaining the plan for the next days

Hiking Details

  • Hiking time: 5.5 hours
  • Distance Covered: 14.7km
  • Altitude:  +73m, -335m

Read more about the South Patagonia Icefield Expedition

If this post has piqued your curiosity, read about the rest of my adventure on the the 8-day South Patagonia Icefield Trek with Serac Expeditions and Swoop Patagonia:

  • Prelude – leading up to departure
  • Day 1 – El Chaltén to Laguna de los 14 
  • Day 2 – Marconi Pass to Refugio Garcia Soto
  • Day 3 – Gorra Blanca summit
  • Day 4 – Refugio Garcia Soto to Circo de los Altares
  • Day 5 – Circo de los Altares to Laguna Ferrari
  • Day 6 – Laguna Ferrari to Refugio Paso de Viento
  • Day 7 – Refugio Paso de Viento to Paso Huemul to Bahía Témpanos
  • Day 8 – Bahía Tempanos to El Chaltén
  • Summary

Alternatively, check out my other posts about hiking and trekking in Argentina and around the world.

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