El Chalten

Laguna De los Tres hike (El Chalten)

The second of the two hikes in Chalten took us toward the mighty Fitz Roy via the Laguna De los Tres hike. We didn’t make it to Fitz Roy, unfortunately.

Laguna De los Tres is the hike everyone travels to Chalten to conquer. We fell short of conquering this hike; however, given the factors at hand, we made the right decision to turn around 20 minutes shy of the end.

Our bodies were wrecked from injuries and sore from the hike the day before, and we were at the point in the hike that I’d describe as the “Hillary Step” of Laguna De los Tres – the last dangerous hurdle before reaching the destination.

Trailheads

There are two trails to Laguna De los Tres that merge into one trail near Camp Poincenot on the bouldery banks of the Rio Blanco. 

Not the actual trails, but you get the idea

The green trail begins a few hundred meters from El Chalten. The red trail begins 9 mi / 14.5 km from Chalten at Hosteria El Pilar. We chose to drive to Hosteria El Pilar and hike the red trail.

The most popular route to complete this hike is to take a shuttle from Chalten to Hosteria El Pilar, hike the red trail to Fitz Roy and descend to Chalten via the green trail. 

Don’t let the short drive of a few miles fool you. Due to the road condition, it took us 45 minutes to drive from Chalten to Hosteria El Pilar along RP23. 

The road is comprised of rocks. Not gravel or even large gravel. Literal rocks.

It was a rough drive that failed the Peter Nap Test.

It’s reported that the green trail is steeper and more difficult than the red trail and the green trail takes 30 minutes longer to get to the merge than the red trail. I suppose this is another reason why hikers chose to outbound hike via the red route and return via the green route – it’s a savings of 30 minutes. 

A review of the red trail described it as “not so steep,” which I translated as flat. To be clear, the red trail is not flat. It is the opposite of flat, and though we did not hike the green trail, I can’t imagine it is much steeper than the red trail. Both trails arrive at the same merge point, meaning the same elevation is gained via both hikes.

On the night of our arrival in Chalten, we were at a restaurant not too far from the green trailhead. We watched people walking back to their hotels, having completed the hike. 

Every hiker was in some state of agony. Some were better off than others, but, in general, it was apparent that they were in pain and exhausted.

Hikers ranged from children to retirees, and I even spotted a vision-impaired woman who was being guided by a cane and her hiking mate.

I thought that if all the people I saw exiting the trailhead could do it, so could we, broken toe, herniated disc, and all.

Hike

The hike via the red trail was long, 343 minutes, and we turned around 20 minutes shy of the lagoon. 

Below are my stats as tracked by my phone.

When comparing our Laguna Torre stats from the day before to our Laguna De los Tres stats, the two hikes have a similar distance and elevation gain, but they were two different types. 

Laguna De los Tres is more difficult for reasons I struggle to put into words. If we could do our two hikes over again, we’d reverse the order and hike the longer and more difficult Laguna De los Tres first and Laguna Torre on our second day. 

In addition to making the mistake of hiking Laguna De los Tres as the second hike, another error we made was setting out too late in the day.

The night before, we decided to set out on the red trail, hike to Glacier Piedras Blancas, and then turn around. We had no intention of hiking to Fitz Roy.

Nine o’clock in the morning would have been a proper time to set out on the hike. We underestimated the time it would take us to drive to Hosteria El Pilar, and since we did not intend to hike the full trail, we ended up leaving our hotel at 10:15am, which is basically midnight in “hike time.”

We learned from the hike the day prior that we were dressed too warmly (exception: the 15 minutes we spent at the lagoon), but we wore the same clothing for our second hike. Why? 

Well, I don’t know why.

Inexperience is probably the best answer. Fear of being underdressed is another – you can always shed layers, but you can’t pull layers out of thin air if you need them.

It took an hour of hiking for me to become blazing hot and decide to strip down. I felt like a new person without my base layers on!

With my body temperature under control, I could focus on tackling the hike.

Here’s how the first part of the hike went.

TimeDetails
10:15Departed Chalten for Hosteria El Pilar (red trailhead)
11:03Arrived at Hosteria El Pilar
11:08Arrived at the fake red trailhead
11:12Started to get hot and sweat
11:20Continued getting hotter, and my broken toe started to hurt
11:30Arrived at the official trailhead sign for the red trail, and was extremely hot
11:50Wondered if I would be able to tolerate the pain of my broken toe
12:10Wondered why Peter was walking fast. It didn’t make sense. This was not a race. None of this made sense. Hiking did not make sense.
12:18Hoped the trial would flatten soon because I was out of breath, and it had only been 1.25 hours of hiking. Wished for M&Ms and a donut, or both.
12:30Felt a burning sensation on my lower legs, not muscle-burning, like actual flesh burning
12:47Questioned why I still was wearing pants because I was burning up
13:19Decided it was time to strip down and remove all of my base layers, including the NASA-style thermal pants that literally left burn marks on my legs

Not long after changing clothing, we got our first glimpse of Fitz Roy at the Glacier Piedras Blancas scenic overlook. Visibility was pretty terrible all day long, but those were the cards that we were dealt.

Fitz Roy is referred to as the “Smoking Mountain” because clouds often gather around the peak, giving the illusion that the mountain is, you guessed it, smoking.

The actual glacier was off in the distance, across a wide river in the valley below. The glacier fed into a lake which was pretty. Here’s a zoomed-in photo of it.

And here’s a photo of the distance between us and the glacier.

As we continued the hike, the trail leveled out, which was appreciated. We’d been hiking at a constant incline from the parking lot to that point. The forest eventually ended, and we found ourselves in the middle of a flat and windy plain.

This is when we sort of lost our minds.

When we set out on this hike, we agreed to hike to the Glacier Piedras Blancas scenic overlook and then return to the car. We were well beyond the overlook when we arrived at the plains.

We didn’t speak a word and kept walking toward Fitz Roy. 

Across the plains was Camp Poincenot, located on the Rio Blanco. I’d read that Camp Poincenot was considered the base of the climb to Fitz Roy. Perhaps it was, but we considered the parking lot the base of the climb to Fitz Roy.

We met a hiker at the camp who told us that the climb from that point on was very steep but that it only took about an hour to get to the top. We thought, an hour? No problem!

The information we received from that hiker was not entirely accurate. His one-hour estimate was from the real base of the climb to Fitz Roy, which was 30 minutes from Camp Poincenot.

What was it with this region’s fake trailhead signs and bases?

I have a handful of photos of the hike from Camp Poincenot onward. I was miserable and getting more miserable by the second. My broken toe was incredibly painful. I was hungry. And it was starting to drizzle.

Every step I took felt like I was re-breaking my toe, and my quads were on fire. Furthermore, I’d developed a large blister on my toe. My feet were raw by the end of the two hikes in Chalten.

When we finally reached the real base of the climb to Fitz Roy, I was unsure if I could make it. I was experiencing a serious case of hiker rage. We should have turned around, but this is the thing with hiking; you never know how close you are to the destination, and the allure of it being another 5 or 10 minutes keeps you going. 

The trail in this section was in terrible shape. There was a lot of erosion, and it should have been closed to allow for regrowth. The climb was steep, roughly 1,300 vertical feet over two-thirds of a mile. 

Worst of all, it was dangerously crowded with hikers, most of whom were descending. 

The photo below is one I took at the start of the steep ascent. It got narrower and steeper as we ascended. The upper half was wide enough for one-way traffic only. 

The yellow arrows were there to keep hikers from veering off of the trail and causing more erosion.

The boulders got larger and larger (2-3 feet in diameter stacked on top of each other). Loose rocks got looser and looser. 

The rain got heavier and heavier. Water was seeping through the boulders causing everything to be slippery. 

Peter and I moved at a snail’s pace, which undoubtedly annoyed other hikers. Hikers would push past us, literally sometimes shoving us out of their way. I spent 45 minutes climbing and 45 minutes descending, terrified that someone would either step on my toe or stab it with a hiking pole. 

Then I started crying. It was all a bit too much for me at that moment.

Near the top, we asked a random couple how much longer we had to go. They told us that we had another 20 “very steep and wet” minutes to go, and I told Peter, “I’m done.”

The situation was too dangerous with the rain and aggressive crowds, and he said, “Yep, I’m done too.”

And we immediately started our descent, stopping only to note the fresh blood another hiker had left on a boulder somewhere about two-thirds of the way down the climb.

We arrived back at the car at 4:46pm and back at the hotel around 5:15pm (drove a lot faster back to the hotel than we did driving to the trailhead).

To this day, our failed hike to Fitz Roy remains one of our biggest travel regrets.

The next post on Argentina is here.

2 comments on “Laguna De los Tres hike (El Chalten)

  1. What made it THAT hard exactly?

    • Constant incline for miles on end. Extremely steep incline for the last hour. Rocks. More rocks. Boulders. More boulders. People. So many people with no regard for safety. A broken toe. My right leg taking all the weight as to lighten the load for my left leg/foot/toe.

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