Sunday 13 January 2013

Overnight to Mt Fitz Roy

The weather had started to change on the day we set out for the base of Fitz Roy. The wind was breezy and there were clouds coming and going, but we still had excellent views of the massive peak as we hiked towards it.

Looking up the valley north of El Chalten

Pretty (and prickly) fields of flowers on the way to Fitz Roy

The true size of Fitz Roy, like Cerro Torre, seems harder and harder to judge as you draw closer to it. It is 3,400m and towers over the rest of the range.

The weather was starting to change

By the time we reached Camp Poincenot and set up our tent the clouds had entirely covered the peak. We decided not to hike up to Laguna de los Tres just yet, in the hopes that it would clear later in the evening, or the next morning.

Unfortunately the weather continued to worsen overnight, the wind roaring through the trees. The campsite was very sheltered but hard gusts of wind would occasionally blast the tent, covering everything in a thick layer of dust. Ben did get up at 5am to see if there was a good sunrise, but most of the light was diffused by the clouds.

The soft light of dawn

By 7am it had started to rain, so we quickly packed up, had breakfast and headed back to town for a warm shower and a room inside! It was our first real experience of the famous Patagonian wind and we were glad that it was only a short trek back to town.

The next few days the weather continued stormy so we cleaned all our trekking gear, and started really thinking about returning home – only one week left! We were lucky to have some good company - Kim and Susan from the Whalesound trip were in town at the same hostel – so we managed to keep ourselves busy.

Hiking to Cerro Torre

The toothy peak of Cerro Torre beckoned us onwards for a day walk to the lake at the base of the mountain.  The weather was still perfect and it was a glorious day for a walk.

Cerro Torre is just over 3,000m, rising sharply up from the lake at 650m.  It is huge and imposing, but it seems almost impossible to judge it's true height from underneath it.  We could only imagine how hard it would be to climb.

Cerro Torre just left of centre, Mt Fitz Roy dominating the right

Great day for a walk

More glacial ice!

Back in town the last rays of the sun shine on Cerro Fitz Roy

Friday 11 January 2013

El Chalten - New Year's Eve in the mountains

A few bus rides later we were back in El Calafate, Argentina.  From there it was a short (2.5hr) bus ride to El Chalten, dubbed 'the trekking centre of Argentina.'

As the bus approached the town the impressive Mt Fitz Roy and striking Cerro Torre became more and more awe inspiring.

From the moving bus. Yet again we wished we could stop!

El Chalten is tiny, with about 1,000 permanent residents.  It's nestled in a valley, right under the mountains.  This does make it perfect for trekking as many trails start right from town.  Which of course means it's a gringo mecca, with hundreds of backpacks and walking poles everywhere, and high prices for food and accommodation.

Cerro Fitz Roy towering abouve the town

For New Year's Eve we cooked a nice dinner with a bottle of Argentinian vino tinto - the budget didn't want to stretch to the expensive set menus!  Then we hiked up the viewpoint behind the ranger station, with all our warmest gear.  Sunset was after 9:30 and it didn't get properly dark until well after 11pm!  The weather was perfect; clear and still, the mountains sharply etched against the sky.

Viewpoint offered great views of  the peaks in the setting sun

The small town of  El Chalten on New Years Eve

Granite spires illuminated by both light from El Chalten and the rising moon

Thursday 10 January 2013

The last day – back to earth

We were sad to say goodbye to our dome tent
– very comfortable with a  little wood stove

Due to the long distance to return to civilisation there wasn't time to visit the whales again, instead we hoped to see them on the way.  It wasn't to be, no whales to be seen.

As if to make up for the lack of whales the weather stayed impossibly calm, just a steady rain falling into a smooth sea. Hard to believe that the Strait often gets 3-4m swells!

Albatross reluctantly taking off

Gliding so close to the water

After lunch we were lucky again to see more dolphins austal – this time they were playing in the bow wave!  We rushed out to see them; all of us as excited as children.  It was amazing to watch them effortlessly swimming alongside the boat, twisting to look up at us.

Incredibly fast and effortless swimmers

Finally we arrived back in Punta Arenas, just in time as the weather  was changing and the wind was starting to pick up.  It was an incredible trip; an amazing landscape and the whales were better than we'd ever hoped for.

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Whales Ahoy!

Another beautiful, calm day greeted us as we set off in search of the humpback whales.  Because of the incredible power of the currents in this area the sardines get trapped in the currents and the whales can eat them very easily.  It sounded kind of strange for the current to be able to trap fish, but when I saw it, I understood – the currents are quite extraordinary.

The major benefit is that the whales gather in the same places, so Marcelo was able to take us directly to them.  It was so exciting when we started to see spouting in the distance and one of the whales jumping out of the water!

Then we were right amongst six of them, including a very playful baby, who was testing out his body.

Going up . . .

. . . and down. All humpbacks have unique tail markings.

Baby testing out his tail . . .

. . . practising back stroke . . .

. . . slapping the water . . .

. . . twisting back in.

The baby giving the kayakers, Marcelo, Kim & Susan, a really thorough check

Practising breaching

All out effort for this fantastic jump...

Penguins fishing in the same currents

The older whales were a little more sedate

Eye spy with my little eye

Another super effort . . .

. . . with twist.

I know I have said many times on this blog about how wonderful an experience has been, but watching the baby humpback play was something else again.  Often the whales were very close to the boat, and six humpback whales is a lot!  Ben took hundreds of great shots; it was almost impossible to cull them down to what is on here.  Rodrigo and Marcelo both said how unusually active the whales were, normally they only breach two or three times.
After all the excitement both the baby whale and ourselves needed a break, so the boat headed off to visit a glacier for lunch.  Rodrigo produced another great meal as we motored through the beautiful fjords.

Urk, wave!

Oh no, too late! (Terns on an iceberg)

Marcelo, Susan and Kim among the ice bergs

Right under the glacier

The crew hoisted out some 5,000 year old glacial ice for us to have pisco on the rocks (rather like whiskey) and we motored back to the whales.  This time they were busy eating, so the engine was turned off and the boat drifted down the current, spinning and circling like a cork in a river, not a decent sized boat in the ocean.  The currents were so powerful!

Back to the dome camp, with fresh bread baked on board for an afternoon snack, then dinner and bed again.

Tuesday 8 January 2013

Onwards towards the whales

I was sad to leave the gorgeous lodge behind but we had to press of for an eight hour navigation to the whale watching base.  Just as we rounded the point there were dolphins!  Sadly they were going the other way so there was only a brief glimpse of them.

The weather was still very calm so we spent a lot of time on deck, watching the birdlife, admiring the rugged landscape and hoping for whales. I had two good naps, which helped me catch up on some missing sleep.

Cabo Froward: the southern most tip of the continent.
The rock to the right of the lighthouse clearly shows the force tectonic plates where 

it is folded – very impressive considering  it's granite!

Effortless glider: giant southern petrel

Up closer

Kelp goose

Kelp geese and Magellanic penguins

Fur seal lion and red headed vulture

Red headed vulture

Another effortless glider: albatross

Fur sea lions

Southern skua; wondering what's happening . . .

. . . coming closer . . .

. . . checking the boat out and deciding that there's no food.


Rock cormorants nesting near the camp.
We've seen a huge number of different types of cormorants on our travels,
from the equator on south.  They're still just shags though . . .

The dome tent camp on Carlos III Island

Carlos III Island is set in the first marine reserve in Chile.  It is an amazing area because of how the  Pacific and Atlantic oceans meet in the Straits of Magellan -  this creates incredible currents and a richness in sea life that brings the whales and many other species.

Board walk up to the observation station

At the observation station Marcelo told us more about the project studying humpback whales and other sea life in the area.  We headed back down to a delicious dinner cooked by Rodrigo, then it was time to head  to bed in the dome tents, surrounded by pristine silence, ready for some serious whale watching in the morning.