After spending almost 6 months photographing and exploring Parque Nacional Los Glaciares one of the few things I still hadn’t done was to go and see the other side of those mountains I had been looking at for so long. The other side though, is an inaccessible and hostile place made mostly of ice. The mountains around Cerro Torre mark the eastern border of the so called Southern Patagonian Icefield, a huge compound of glaciers forming the second largest ice sheet outside of the pole regions. It extends for around 350km from north to south and is home to Patagonia’s most famous glaciers like Glaciar Grey in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine or Glaciar Perito Moreno, Upsala and Viedma in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Right behind Cerro Torre lies a small cirque – called Circo de los Altares – which can be reached via a short expedition along the Southern Patagonian Icefield.

Map of Circo de los Altares

Circo de los Altares Map

I knew that the easiest way to go would be with an expedition-style tour like they sometimes are offered in El Chaltén. It was late in the season though, there were no tours left and honestly speaking I wasn’t too keen on going with a group anyways. I decided to do things my way and started looking around for a guide who I could hire. After a few days without any success I was about to give up – as said before the season was almost over and most guides had already left town. But then I remembered that a few years back I had met a climber and guide in El Chaltén. At that time he had owned a little wine bar on the main street of El Chaltén and we happened to return quite a few nights for a bottle of Malbec and a chat about the remoter places in the national park. Somehow we had stayed connected via Facebook and I decided to give it a try and wrote him a message.

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Tibu, as everybody called him, had been out of town but he would be back in El Chaltén within a few days. He had nothing better to do, and so he agreed to take me to Circo de los Altares. I told him right away, that the most important thing for me was to spend more than one night there and so together we came up with the plan to enter via Paso del Viento and return the same way, instead of taking the unnecessarily long route via Paso Marconi. That way we would reach Circo de los Altares in two tough days instead of three or four. The downside of this plan: we needed perfect weather conditions, as otherwise we’d have to ascend Glaciar Viedma against the wind and in possible whiteout conditions – something we definitely wouldn’t want to do.

Day 1: Laguna Toro

Soon a good enough weather window was forecast and so Tibu and me left El Chaltén on a grey and wet afternoon in late April. There was no reason for us to be in a hurry. We expected rain all day and the first day on our tour was a bare necessity to get to where we wanted to. The short and familiar ascent that starts behind the park’s headquarters took us through lenga forests glowing red with autumnal leaves. Instead of following the popular trail to the top of Loma del Pliegue we turned left on the path that leads towards Laguna Toro and Paso del Viento. The trail kept climbing at a steady rate. Soon the clouds got thicker and thicker and after roughly 1 ½ hours we had ascended high enough to be walking through the fog in a mix of mud and snow.

Valley with trees in autumn colours

Autumn Valley

Once we had gotten past the highest point of the day’s route and were descending into the Rio Tunel valley the clouds started to open again. It had stopped raining but the air was still humid and damp. We descended following a narrow path that soon entered the forest. Whether it was raining or not wouldn’t matter there anymore as the leaves were still dripping wet and we pretty much got soaked walking between the trees and bushes. It still took us another 1 ½ cold hours to reach the camp at Laguna Toro, where we set up our tent. The following day would be a tough one and so we soon settled in our sleeping bags to give our bodies time to rest.

Day 2: Paso del Viento - Circo de los Altares

The next morning we had a cold and early start. We ate breakfast wrapped in our sleeping bags, packed our stuff and stashed some food in a wooden crate at the camp before we left. Soon after leaving the dark camp behind we crossed the partly frozen Río Tunel – the remaining rapids were sparkling in the moonlight. We dried and warmed our feet on the other side before starting the ascent alongside Glaciar Río Tunel. The path climbs steadily and for quite some time we kept scrambling over rocks in the dark. When the sun finally came out we had already hiked for more than two hours and climbed roughly 700m to Paso del Viento. The mountain pass, named aptly after the winds often blowing there at hurricane force, was covered in fresh snow but was showing its quiet side. We had just about reached the ¼ mark of our way to Circo de los Altares.

Descending towards Campo de Hielo Patagonico Sur

Descent into a frozen World

On top of Paso del Viento we were finally welcomed by the first rays of sunlight. We were tempted to just sit down and enjoy the warmth of the sun for a while, but we knew that we still had more than 16km in front of us. Losing time was no option and we quickly descended into a chaotic world of boulders and ice. It was hard to make out the trail but Tibu knew his way around. I followed him carefully, passing a series of frozen lakes.

We kept walking in the cold blue of the shadows for more than two hours. Desperate for the warming rays of the sun we looked at the mountains in the distance reflecting warm light. But it wasn’t until we reached the base of Glaciar Viedma that we finally got to see the sun again. It had passed noon – Circo de los Altares was still about 11km away.

The terrain was quite flat, but strewn with narrow crevasses. Any sense of distance was lost in this huge desert of ice lined by the giant peaks of the Southern Patagonian Icefield.

Once we were walking on the glacier – thanks to the good weather – things went straightforward albeit still slow. The sun was shining, the air was still. It was easy for Tibu to spot the crevasses that were scattered all over the place and we could see Circo de los Altares clearly in front of us. I tried to imagine how, what for us was a walk in a beautiful white desert, could easily turn into a fight in a frozen hell if wind and snow set in.

Campo de Hielo Patagonico Sur at sunset

Frozen Land

We finally reached Circo de los Altares late in the afternoon, after a total of 9 ½ hours of walking, but we were not done yet. We ascended a small hill on the northern side of the glacier flowing out from behind Cerro Torre. There we dug a platform in the snow next to a huge boulder in order to set up our tent. Tibu made sure that the tent would be protected from any winds approaching from the north. He knew how those winds sometimes blowing at speeds upwards of 150km/h back here could easily transform our sweet dreams into a nightmare. For now the weather was fine and the setting sun put on a show for us to enjoy.

Day 3: Circo de los Altares

The next morning we awoke in the dark hours once again. Like the day before we drank our tea and ate our cereals inside the tent. My boots had remained wet from the day before and were frozen. There wasn’t much I could do about it at the moment and so I put them on and stepped out of the tent. It was clear and cold. I could see sparkling stars above the distant mountains of the Southern Patagonian Icefield. Cerro Torre and the other mountains of the Circo de los Altares were still in the dark – a few high clouds hovering above.

Crevasses leading towards Cerro Torre

Empire of Ice

We returned to a field of crevasses that we had passed on the way in. It was quiet around us, safe for the sound of the metal of our crampons scratching the hard snow and ice. After a short walk of not more than 20 minutes we found ourselves in the middle of an ocean of ice. We stood there like two lost sailors in a rough sea frozen in time – its waves of the bluest glacial colours. Above us the sky exploded with sunrise colour.

While the day had started dark and cold, soon enough the sun rose behind Cerro Torre and brightened up the white desert that surrounded us. Temperature was pleasant and the sky was of a deep blue. Our bodies still hadn’t fully recovered from the long walk the day before and with nothing else to do we spent the day chatting and eating, waiting for the sun to approach the horizon again. We were already thinking about our way back and although I knew this would be my last day in this fascinating place, I was happy to just sit and do nothing.

Cerro Torre seen from inside a tent

Room with a View

Before going to bed that night I stayed outside breathing the fresh air for a while. It was still hard to grasp this place so huge and void of any life. To my left there was Cerro Torre standing tall as part of a vertical headwall, seamingly impossible to conquer, to my right a distant range of mountains covered in ice. I turned around and looked at the tiny green tent that would be our home for another night and couldn’t help but feel tiny myself.

Days 4 & 5: Back to El Chaltén

Our way back would start with another long day. We decided to get up early for a sunrise shoot and then continue straight away. That of course meant, that we would have to wrap our tent in the dark, but would also guarantee that we would not arrive at Laguna Toro too late. It was another cold and clear morning. Once again the moon was the only natural light source in the otherwise dark night. After packing our things we returned to the field of crevasses. This time the mountains of the Southern Patagonian Icefield became the stars of the show.

Volcán Lautaro at sunrise

Lautaro Awakes

The panorama above shows the view towards the west as it was lying in front of me. Lautaro, an active volcano named after a Mapuche leader, is the tallest of the peaks – the only one receiving direct sunlight. I already mentioned that it was impossible to guess distances on the frozen plateau. Can you believe that the peaks shown here are located approximately 40 kilometers away from where I was standing?

The rest of the way back was just a matter of retracing or own footprints. The walk on the glacier was monotonous but a lot easier that way. The weather was still fine. No wind, high clouds. Paso del Viento wasn’t covered in snow anymore and crossing Rio Tunel before reaching our camp was a pleasant treat to my sore feet after another walk of 9 hours. It had been a quick but tiring expedition. Early starts and long days had left their mark on my body. I was desperate to get back to a normal bed and comfortable shoes. The last day on the way back to El Chaltén was filled with one even more urgent question: what would be best for dinner after the return? I’ve had these mouth-watering thoughts on many of my adventures and the bigger and hungrier the group, the more fantastic the imaginary menu can get. Well, in this case truth was quite close to our imagination. You know – Argentina is Argentina – and so we ended our trip to Circo de los Altares at one of my favourite places in town, having – you guessed it – steak and red wine.

A picture says more than a thousand words they say. If you don’t feel like reading the whole diary, have a look at the gallery below. Click on the images to open a lightbox and start exploring.

Have you been to the Circo de los Altares? Tell me about your expierence! Are you planning to go there and have questions? Feel free to ask anything in the comments section below!

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Quick Facts

Information

Circo de los Altares is El Chaltén’s best kept secret. Tucked away behind Cerro Torre it lies on the brink of the Southern Patagonian Icefield. Access is difficult and thus usually limited to climbers on the way to one of the peaks around Cerro Torre.

How to get there

If you want to get to Circo de los Altares there’s only one way: you’ll have to walk. The classic route enters through the Valle Electrico, climbs Paso Marconi and descends via Glaciar Viedma. It returns via Paso del Viento and the Rio Túnel valley. You can also enter and return via Paso del Viento. Either way it’s an expedition. Come equipped, contract a guide and register at the national park’s visitor’s center and customs (you might be crossing to Chile).

Where to stay

Sorry, there’s no fancy boutique hotel at Circo de los Altares. Bring a tent. And do yourself a favour and bring a good one. Bad weather hits the area often and winds can get quite severe. You won’t find shelter apart from a few bigger erratic rocks or digging a hole in the snow. Even if you know your way around alpine environments, the knowledge of a local guide comes with an extra pinch of safety.

Why Go

If you’re just after a walk on the Southern Patagonian Icefield I recommend going on a tour onto Perito Moreno Glacier. For the real deal, go to Circo de  los Altares. Getting to see Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy from behind is a definite plus.

Photography 85%
Comforts 5%
Adventure 100%