2013, 2016, El Chalten

Town Days

Editors Note:  In honor of the return to the dusty campgrounds of El Chalten, I am posting this piece I wrote a few years ago.  Life in El Chalten isn’t too complicated and many days that are spent waiting for good weather seem to pass in a similar fashion as I have written about below.

January 23, 2013 — The cool moist of the dawn greets me as I slide into my flip flops in the cramped vestibule.  The hot sun still hovers behind the occluded horizon, keeping the heat at bay.  I shuffle across the dry, dusty and dead grass covered ground, en route to the bathroom.  No breeze stirs the trees at this hour but the blue sky is streaked with high stretched out cotton balls indicating elsewhere, it is not so calm.  No one is in sight as I make my way back to the tent that I share with Matt.  As per usual he is sleeping and I envy this ability.  I kick my flip flops off and lie flat on my sleeping bag.  I dig around and pull out my  Kindle and engage myself in a game of Scrabble.  Matt mutters something, pulls his hat over his eyes, rolls over and goes back to sleep.  Later, with the game done, I once again pull myself out of la carpa and make my way to the refugio.

The rough hewn, three sided shelter of El Refugio, one of El Chalten’s private campgrounds

The three sided, tin roof shelter is constructed of rough hewn timbers for structure and milled planks for walls.  The old dry logs bear the marks of axes and the burns of saw blades.  At each end a bare bulb dangles from the ceiling and a sink with gravity fed running water drains into the bushes beyond.  An old barrel stove and homemade benches and tables are spread throughout the length of the shelter.  All manners of trash litter the floor and two ramshackled fogones, or fire pits, with grates for asados guard the open side.  I find JB, Leo and Nacho at a table and join in their discussion.  Galletas, dulce de leche, mate and crackers get passed around.  Soon Alesandro joins the fray and then Mateo who boils up a mug of coffee.  The chatter is in Spanish and I listen in, getting the gist of what is said as the conversation revolves around climbing and mountains.  I don’t offer much but listen and happily partake as Leo passes me the mate again and again.  Nacho and JB make off to pack for an excursion to El Mocho’s north face.  Mateo and I chat with Alesandro and then talk about our plans for the following few days.  We will hike to Piedra Negra and then make an attempt on Mermoz via the Argentina route.

Later, as I stand at the white wash basin scrubbing my dirty socks and underwear with a bar of soap Roberto Morales stops by to say que tal.  We swap congrats on recent ascents, his being much more impressive than mine and then share plans for the future.  We promise to meet up for celebratory beers and meat when the weather finally craps out.  “Be safe out there” I say as we clasp hands and he takes off for El Corazon on Fitz Roy’s imposing east face.

Grocery shopping and a blog post are on my list of “to dos” today, so presently I grab my day-pack and amble down town to the locutorio.  The walk into town is always easier as the wind is at my back, propelling me onward and this morning is no different.  My strides carry me forward though not as fast as the grass, paper, and dust that race me to the south. I make a few stops at various supermercados to procure the necessary food for our few days out.  Obtaining our food usually requires a stop at all of the various small supermarkets that dot the town.  Avena, galletas, marmalada, ayuda, cereal, pasas de uvas, salame, queso, etc.  After criss-crossing the paved and gravel roads of El Chalten I have mostly acquired what I need.  I settle into a seat at one of Chalten Travel’s internet machines.  Time flies by as I peck at the keyboard of the old computers, typing a blog post.

Later, I fight the stiff wind as I walk the sidewalks and roads back to El Refugio.  After a quick stop at the reggae kiosco to procure a few libations, I stroll down the dusty, dirty driveway to a smile, a hello, and a wave.  In my usual fasten, I squint in order to recognize our friend Gosia.  It seems her climbing partners are out for the coming window of potentially good weather and she was hoping to join Mateo and I.  We discuss plans and I promise to run it by Matt.


A late lunch is quite common on these days in town, so sometime around 1500 or so I grab a broom and sweep off the rickety plywood table, depositing crumbs and trash into one of the various five-gallon buckets that serve as trash cans.  I slice up some bread and build a salami sandwich, then sit and write.  Various people wander in and out of the beech trees that dot the zona de campemento.  People cooking, strumming guitars and chatting filter in and out of my awareness.  Domingo, the guacho proprietor wanders in and out, talking trash, collecting money and chatting with campers.

From around the corner Matt appears.  “Hey, lets go talk with Gosia.”  I join him and we hop the back fence and stroll throughout the neighboring campground.  “Hola mi amiga” I say as we walk up to her tent site.

“Hey guys” she responds with a smile.

“If you want to climb with us, you have to carry this rope up the hill” Matt says dropping a thin blue cord on downed log.  She affectionately hems and haws, then agrees to his terms.  Jules and Hector wander up and offer us cups of wine.  We acquiesce, then sit and chat with our South African friends as they make dinner.

Later, back at El Refugio sleep comes early despite the light that lingers till 1030 or later.  Fitz has taken its toll and I am paying in shut eye and caloric consumption.  I drift off to sleep anticipating one last sojourn into the mountains with two friends, one old and one new.