With the Fitz Roy massif as a stunning backdrop, contouring the most iconic mountain skyline in Patagonia, El Chaltén is a ‘must-see’ for travelers coming to these remote lands. Hailed as Argentina’s ‘capital of trekking’, this fast-growing mountain village in the South of the Andes Mountains is wide known for hiking, mountaineering, and first-class rock climbing.
El Chaltén may not be the first place that springs to mind when you think of skiing in Patagonia. And that’s part of its charm. Despite its lack of infrastructure (or precisely because of that), El Chaltén offers the rare experience of skiing in real wilderness, with almost no crowds, and in extraordinary scenic landscapes.
At Explore-Share we love helping you plan amazing mountain adventures off-the-beaten-tracks. So we contacted Merlin Lipshitz, an IFMGA mountain guide who lives there since 1998 and has been leading ski touring, mountaineering, rock climbing, and hiking tours there for the past 20 years.
Merlin knows the town and its mountains like the back of his hand and has helped us create this guide so you can start planning your next ski touring adventure in El Chaltén & other incredible spots in Patagonia.
But first, take a look at this amazing video of some of Merlin’s ski touring trips in Patagonia:
Backcountry skiing in El Chaltén is not for beginners. Skiers need to have previous off-piste experience and be very well-trained. Given that there are no elevation means, it usually takes 1 or 2 hours of hiking ―while carrying your skis and equipment on your back― till you reach the snow.
When skiing in the mountains of El Chaltén you’ll reach an elevation of up to 2100 m high, with vertical descents of between 1200 to 1500 meters.
“Clients should be able to ski in black piste and be competent on off-piste skiing in all types of terrain and slopes”, says Merlin.
El Chaltén offers many options for those who want to go backcountry skiing for the day. The mountains on the way to Lago del Desierto, 37 km distant from El Chaltén, provide some of the best runs. Some of the classic spots are Loma del Diablo, Cerro Crestón, Cerro Vespignani, and Cerro Eléctrico.
For those who want to get as close as possible to the Fitz Roy massif, the two classic ski touring spots are De Los Tres Glacier and Cerro Madsen.
If you are feeling adventurous, all these 1-day ski tours can be combined with one night of camping in the mountains.
This is one of the favorite spots, featuring a whopping 1,500 m vertical drop and breathtaking views of the Fitz Roy massif and the Continental Ice Field. Starting from El Chaltén, you’ll drive to Lago del Desierto and walk for one hour to the foothills of the Huemul Glacier. From there, you’ll still have up to 4 hours to reach the summit of Cerro Vespignani. Yes, you need to be in excellent physical conditions for this trip and preferably, have a ski touring background.
Every summer, hikers flock to Laguna de Los Tres, one of the most popular hiking trails in El Chaltén, that leads you right to the foot of the majestic Fitz Roy. During winter, the famous lagoon at the end of the trail freezes and it’s possible to cross to the other side and go up the glacier for some first-class ski touring! (Being able to actually cross will depend on the ice conditions).
This trip is a totally different experience than the one you can have during summer: you get to enjoy this emblematic landscape in solitude and covered in white snow.
3. Cerro Madsen & De Los Tres Glacier
Backcountry skiing fans and experts will love this 2-day experience in that combines ski touring in Cerro Madsen and De Los Tres Glacier. Cerro Madsen (1,806 m) lies to the east of De Los Tres Lagoon. The summit offers outstanding views of Fitz Roy and Piedras Blancas glacier! If the snow conditions are good, we can enjoy a ski descent all the way down to the Río Blanco river.
At night, we’ll stay at Poincenot Camp, very close to Laguna De Los Tres, our destination for the second day of this trip. After breakfast, we’ll start our way to the glacier, cross the frozen lagoon and reach the saddle between ‘Punta Velluda’ and ‘Cerro Madsen’. From there, we’ll ski down to Río Blanco.
For skiers willing to enjoy the ultimate ski touring trip in El Chaltén, Merlin offers a 1-week guided ski tour which combines the best of all these spots: Loma del Diablo, Cerro Vespignani, Fitz Roy Base Camp & De Los Tres Glacier, and Cerro Madsen.
“There are no rental shops for ski equipment in El Chaltén”, warns Merlin. The best advice then, is that you bring your own equipment. Eventually, the guide may provide some of the equipment, but you should talk to him about this before the trip.
Merlin and his team provide technical equipment (crampons, harness, rope) and camping equipment for all their trips. They also take care of the logistics (going out and returning to El Chaltén, for example). Depending on the trip, they may hire a porter to help carrying the group equipment.
The best time to go skiing in El Chaltén is between August and September. In August, the temperatures are colder, with possible snowfall and tons of fresh snow. However, the weather conditions may not be good every day.
In September, there are better weather conditions: the days are longer, there are spring temperatures and the chances of good weather improve considerably. This is a great time to ski because there’s spring snow!
The beginning of October can also allow a few good days of skiing as well.
Weather in Patagonia can be quite unpredictable, specially during the winter season. That’s why all the programs are flexible and can be adapted depending on the weather, snow conditions and risk of avalanche. “We always prioritize safety over a fixed itinerary, and look where are the best snow conditions”, says Merlin. Experienced guides are always ready to propose alternative programs if the idea that you had in mind is not feasible.
The closest airport to El Chaltén is 220 km away, in El Calafate. You can fly to El Calafate from Buenos Aires, Córdoba, Bariloche or Ushuaia. From there, the best way of reaching El Chaltén is taking a bus, shuttle, cab or rent a car.
It’s also possible to reach El Chaltén by bus from Bariloche, Río Gallegos and even from Chile, but the distances are long.
So, we covered all the options for ski touring in El Chaltén. But if you are staying for a few weeks in Patagonia, you may want to add some other destinations to your ski trip. The Argentinian side provides amazing ski experiences in Ushuaia and Bariloche; while Chile offers exciting ski descents on its (many) volcanoes.
Cerro Catedral Ski Resort, in Bariloche, is one of the most famous in North Patagonia. For off-piste skiers, it provides great runs in spots like Punta Princesa and La Lagunita. “We usually take you there on the first day of our ski tour in Bariloche, so you can warm up after a few months without skiing and to test your skill level”.
One of the highlights of backcountry skiing in Bariloche is going to Refugio Frey (1,700 m), a mountain hut with access to some of the best ski runs in the area. It’s easy to get there from Cerro Catedral, using the elevation means of the ski resort. “Refugio Frey is one of the few mountain huts in Bariloche that is open during the winter season”, says Merlin. To go there, you need to take your own sleeping bags. The hut provides shared rooms to host up to 30 people and all the meals throughout the day.
“From Refugio Frey, we can access to a frozen lagoon and an ice circus with granite spires of up to 300 m high”, explains Merlin. “This place guarantees excellent skiing and great slopes in all orientations: there are endless possibilities for all levels”.
If you’d like to ski the best of El Chaltén and Bariloche on the same trip, take a look at this 2-week guided ski tour.
You can combine skiing in El Chaltén and Cerro Castillo, a less-traveled and stunning spot in the Chilean Andes. Cerro Castillo is half-way between El Chaltén and Bariloche, close to the charming little village of Villa Cerro Castillo. Even though there are no ski resorts here, access to the snow is quite easy from the side of the road. Though it has a lot of potential, tourism has not been developed very much on this place yet. This makes it quite attractive from a cultural side, as you may see how people live in this remote corner of the Andes.
“I love this trip”, says Merlin. “Chile has so many volcanoes and the landscape is rather unique, with araucaria forests, superb views and thermal baths to relax after a day of skiing”. He proposes an itinerary that begins in Malalcahuello, from where you get to ski Lonquimay and Llaima volcanoes. Then, it continues in Pucón, a very touristy town with active Villarrica Volcano as the undisputed star. “Skiing an active volcano is not something that you achieve every day”, the guide says. Finally, the itinerary takes skiers to the South, where they get to ski Osorno Volcano, the most technically difficult ascent.
Most of these volcanoes have a ski resort at its base, so access is pretty easy.
Backcountry skiing in Patagonia has it all to be an incredible experience: from scenic mountain landscapes to high-quality snow in remote places where it can be hard to find other people. El Chaltén, in the Argentine province of Santa Cruz, is one of the spots you can’t miss if you love ski touring!
Interested on some of the experiences listed above? Contact Merlin and set out on a unique ski touring trip in Patagonia! Also, you can browse through all the ski touring options in El Chaltén available at Explore-Share.
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