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Patagonian Peaks: Climbing in the El Chalten Region

We speak to the accomplished climber, mountain rescue leader and doctor Carolina Codo about Argentina’s number one climbing destination and how to stay safe while you’re there.

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Known among the world’s climbing enthusiasts as Argentina’s trekking capital, El Chalten in Southern Patagonia attracts a stream of tourists each year throughout the summer months for its challenging climbing routes and spectacular scenery. Named after the cloud-enshrouded Mount FitzRoy, Chaltén is the nomadic word for smoking mountain, as it’s at the foot of Mount FitzRoy that the rural village sits, with a backdrop of the Cerro Torre peaks and the Rio de las Vueltas flowing by. As a region with so much potential for exploration, climbers can choose the route that best suits their experience and motivation, as well as the season’s conditions.

“When you climb you share a lot, in a very intense way, with both your partner and nature.”

It’s in the village of El Chalten that Dr Carolina Codo practices medicine, directs the Southern Patagonia mountain rescue team, and climbs whenever she can. Hailing from Cordoba, Carolina made the move to El Chalten after graduating to escape city life and practice medicine in the Patagonian countryside, but even before relocating Carolina’s passion for climbing had been ignited by joining her father and brother on climbing expeditions. “I have a lot of great memories of climbing with my father and brother when I was young,” Carolina tells us.

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Carolina finds her inspiration from Patagonia’s pioneering climbers. “I have a lot of respect for the first climbers that arrived in Patagonia,” she says, “there was no village here, there were no topos [climbing route maps] or technology for weather forecasts, and there were no lights or safety equipment. The mountains here are so difficult to climb, even now with all our technology and equipment.”

“When you climb you share a lot, in a very intense way, with both your partner and nature,” Carolina explains, “The simplicity of life in the mountains shows you what’s really important, and the risk sometimes makes you enjoy life in a different way. There’s something special about admiring a sunset from a mountain, with the silence, the sky and the incredible view. You always want to return.”

“I have a lot of respect for the first climbers that arrived in Patagonia.”

It was after feeling that each time an accident happened, it could have just as easily been her or a friend, that Carolina established the mountain rescue team. “Being a doctor in a climbing area gave me the chance to organise a voluntary rescue team that works really hard,” Carolina explains, “It’s really impressive to see such great energy during each rescue, especially the challenge of undertaking a rescue without the aid of a helicopter.”

For Carolina, the beauty of the mountains and the area’s wilderness, with such great expanses of isolated land, are what make the El Chalten region and Southern Patagonia so special, and while she has taken on impressive climbs, with the south face of Aconcagua among her biggest achievements, Carolina still hopes to summit the challenging peaks of FitzRoy, Aguja Saint Exupery and Cerro Piergiorgio.

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Mountain safety

Before embarking on climbing excursions, travellers need to plan ahead to ensure their own safety. “You need to be a climber with experience and common sense to come to Patagonia,” Carolina tells us, “but beginners can climb a little by going with a guide.” Each season, the mountain rescue team is called out to four or five accidents. Whether this is due to falling rocks or ice, or human error, most accidents happen during the descent.

Carolina advises climbers first and foremost to plan their route well: “You have to know exactly where you are going, as well as the difficulty of the route and how long will it take,” she says.

“Consider what equipment you will need – don’t forget to take a radio, as well as your own common sense.”

Aside from planning where to go, climbers need to keep up-to-date with the current conditions. “Find out what the conditions are like at that time, as well as what the weather will be like during your climb,” Carolina advises, before adding, “When descending a rock face, consider which part is best to climb down and how many people are above you, and importantly consider what equipment you will need – don’t forget to take a radio, as well as your own common sense.”

With such challenging climbing routes – encompassing rock faces, ice caps and snow fields – El Chalten is ideal for accomplished climbers, while those who are less experienced need to take more care. “If you’re a beginner, try to climb with somebody that has experience and be sure to listen to any advice they have to give.”

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Day trips and multi-day excursions can be taken from El Chalten. November to February is the most popular time to visit due to the longer days and higher temperatures. Visiting in November means there’ll be more snow and ice, while late January to February offers the best climbing conditions.