Laguna de Los Tres
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Thursday was the big kahuna, the hike to Laguna de Los Tres, up towards the Fitzroy peak. It was one of those hikes that everyone comes to Chalten to do. Most hikers begin in Chalten and hike the nine hours round-trip, but the first hour out of town is all uphill. Instead we took a taxi to the next town along the river and began our hike in another place, walking along a stream and through some blissfully flat forests.
We didn't take this alternate route out of laziness; we were saving our energy. After hiking for a few hours, we reached Rio Blanco, the back country campsite that marks the start of an extremely steep 500 meters, completing the first half of the hike. Many people skip this last leg of the trail. Warning signs begged hikers to stay off this trail if they were inexperienced or wearing improper gear. Basically, hiking sometimes turned into climbing as we headed straight up the side of the mountain in a series of tight switchbacks. In some places, there were nice big boulders to provide traction, but in others, slippery gravel covered dirt, and pretty close to the edge of the cliff. As we hiked up and up and up, I felt the way I used to after a regatta. My heart was pounding out of my chest; sweat was dripping down me despite the cold breeze, and my legs were past the point of muscle strain and approaching numb, so that sometimes I didn’t feel fully in control of them.
Given the extreme difficulty of the hike, the trail was surprisingly crowded. The crowd made things extra dangerous, since people had to move off to the side of the already narrow trail to allow each other to pass.
Luckily, the hikers were not only considerate of each other, but very encouraging. As we neared the top and my batteries started to die, I grumbled something along the lines of, "This had better be worth it." A passing hiker, headed back down the mountain, patted me on the shoulder and said, “Oh, don’t worry, it’s worth it. Don’t lose hope.” Another time, two Argentine girls resting on the side of the trail watched me pass. I must’ve been a pathetic sight, because one reached over and gently pushed me forward, up the hill. When I looked back, they both laughed and said something encouraging in Spanish.
At the top, we discovered the reward the other hikers had alluded to. Before us lay a spectacular view of the mountains up close, plus another milky blue, glacier-fed lake. We ate our lunch down in a little rock cave, sheltered from the strong winds. It was totally amazing and I am so glad I savored the moment, because I am NEVER doing that hike again. What that mountain needs is a nice red cable car, like they have in Chamonix. The day they build that will be the day I return to Laguna de Los Tres.
Our hike back down was initially easier. The steep portion of the trail was pretty scary to descend, since I kept slipping, but much easier from a physical standpoint, since my heart wasn’t racing. Then, we had a couple of hours going back across a river valley, alongside some other, smaller mountains, before our final descent into El Chalten. Going downhill for so long really strained my knees. They killed for several days afterwards.