Protean. [proh-tee-uhn] adj. able to do many different things; versatile.
Days like this are why we pay the extra bucks for protean gear.
When we stepped out the front door of our hosteria in El Chalten that morning, the sky was black to the north. Mount Fitz Roy was visible, but wrapped in clouds. But off to the right, only the nearest mountains were in view.
Everything else – in the direction we were headed – was obscured by dense, dark clouds. It was 7 a.m., the sun was shining to the East, but the north sky looked like the dark of night.
Yet we set off and our shuttle driver dropped us off about 17 km north of Chalten at El Pilar in Los Glacieres National Park. We began hiking south through a lush forest of lenga, on a path mostly parallel to the Rio Blanco. Through breaks in the trees, we caught glimpses of mountains and hanging glaciers across the river.
Luckily, what looked like it would be downpour had receded to a light rain, but the fog and clouds were still obstructing most of our view. I can only imagine how breathtaking the same hike might be on a clear day, but even though we missed out on stunning glacier vistas, the most amazing rainbows followed us as we trekked.
A couple hours later, we reached a decision point – do we continue on, cross the Rio Blanco and make the steep hike up to Laguna de los Tres, or do we take a left and hike south to El Chalten? Our guides decided that despite the weather, it wouldn’t be unsafe to do the climb to Laguna de los Tres. So our group split into one group heading up and one group heading down.
I debated. On the one hand, I was tired of hiking in the rain. There was a chance the views would be so obscured at the top that our effort would be for nothing. On the other hand, I didn’t travel all this way only to have a little rain ruin our plans.
“This is what the gear is designed for, right?” I decided whether there would be a view or not, whether we’d get to see Fitz Roy up close or just a stack of clouds where the massif ought to be, these conditions were why I’d spent a nauseating amount of money on gear with features I might never otherwise use. So up I went.
I went through every combination of clothing in my day pack that afternoon. Rain jacket, fleece, windbreaker, short-sleeves, down jacket, spare socks, gloves, baseball cap, winter hat, buffs. At times wearing as many as five layers. Patagonia had lived up to its reputation – we experienced four seasons in a single day.
The ascent was slow going after we crossed the river and began the real uphill portion. Although only a horizontal quarter-mile, the steep pitch of loose rock took more than an hour to cover. Looking at the trail ahead, some portions appeared sheer vertical from a distance.
We were not greeted with a great view when we reached Laguna de los Tres. Or if we were, I might have missed it. We barely lingered long enough to snap a few pictures at the top due to the biting cold. My face was freezing and I was exhausted from fighting the whipping wind on the open expanses of rock scramble. I spent most of those five minutes at the top head-down, hunched against the wind, trying to keep my balance. The fact that it was snowing(!) at the top was reward enough for me.
By the time we reached Campamento Rio Blanco, the base camp for those climbing Mount Fitz Roy, the sun was shining. We started shedding layers as we dried out and warmed up.
It was bittersweet when we saw this view an hour later. I had several pangs of jealousy that the folks we passed going up as we were coming down were getting this spectacular weather. But they didn’t get snow, I kept reminding myself.
When we reached Laguna Capri, the clouds almost fully cleared. We took a break on the beach to bask in the sun and even waded into the frigid glacial lake to cool our tired feet.
Carrying very little yet being prepared for a myriad of weather during a nine-hour hike meant every piece of clothing and gear had to be versatile. Protean.
Jackets folded up into their own pocket to clip on a carabiner and keep handy for the next drop of rain. Poles could be extended or shortened with a flip of a switch as terrain changed. Even my soft shell cycling gloves got a new gig as they kept my hands safe from scrapes on rock scrambles and blocked the wind for warmth.
I hope I’ll have the opportunity to one day return to Laguna de los Tres and see on a clear day what’s touted as one of the most stunning views in the Chalten area. But until then, I’ll remember this as the day I put my gear to the test and discovered it was worth every penny.