Richard Hartley: It is a magical place that makes you realise that your own place in the whole scheme of things is totally insignificant. This is a magical and fearsome place and I hope to return again and again
Twice I have been privileged to stand in awe, beneath one of the most natural cathedrals our mountain environments can provide. This is the Circo de los Altares in southern Patagonia.
The Circo is to be found on the western side of the Cerro Torre massif, at the eastern edge of the great southern icecap which stretches 300 miles long and 50 miles wide between Argentina and Chile. In fact this is the largest piece of ice outside the Polar Regions.
A huge line of seemingly impenetrable mountains separates the Circo from civilisation. The Circo itself is surrounded by a ring of jagged peaks that would be on many mountaineers “wish-lists”, including such mountain legends as Cerro Standhart, Torre Egger and of course the star, the magnificent, Cerro Torre.
For those of us not blessed with the necessary skills to climb over them we have to walk round them. It’s is a three day journey from either the north (via Paso Marconi) or south (via Paso del Viento) just to reach this “Shangri-La” and it is not without its own hazards. It’s a tough trek and the outcome is never certain. Raging rivers, complex moraines, huge glaciers and of course the constant battering from the prevailing westerly winds provide the main obstacles.
The first time I ventured there was in 2006. Our GPS announced our arrival as we arrived at the Circo in thick mist. We made a mistake of heading too far into the Circo seeking comforting shelter and set up camp on a dodgy, crevasse ridden lateral moraine. The feeling of isolation was almost overwhelming. Next morning the mists started clearing and we were treated to the magical sight of the ring of peaks appearing out of the gloom. Awe inspiring. The Circo de los Altares is indeed a fitting name.
My next venture to the Circo was in 2011. This time we were better prepared as we sat below the Marconi Glacier awaiting a suitable weather window to climb up through the seracs to the icecap. This time we arrived at the Circo in perfect weather, clear skies and light winds. Now the full extent of the “altar” was revealed in all its glory.
This time we camped correctly at the entrance to the Circo. As the sun set over the great icecap we watched the changing light dancing across the huge granite faces. That night, by the light of my head torch I remember reading about Walter Bonatti and Carlo Mauri’s exploits here in 1958 on Cerro Torre’s unclimbed west face and their subsequent incredibly long traverse from Cerro Adela to Cerro Grande and Punta Luca. An amazing feat.
I returned in 2014 and again 2016. Both times we had our sights on another of Bonatti’s summits, Cerro Mariano Moreno in the center of the icecap. On both attempts either bad weather or poor snow conditions made us retreat to the relative safety of the Circo to sit out storms. That is Patagonia for you and you have to show the utmost respect for its stormy nature.
It is a magical place that makes you realise that your own place in the whole scheme of things is totally insignificant. This is a magical and fearsome place and I hope to return again and again.
Words and Photos: Richard Hartley
About the author: Richard Hartley started walking in the UK hills in the mid-1970s. In the 1980s and 90s he spent many seasons walking and mountaineering in the Alps. Since then he has led six expeditions to the Patagonian Icecap and joined a Berghaus sponsored expedition in 2013 to ski volcanoes in Kamchatka. In 1998 he quit his job as an accountant in search of a better life and found it in Spain’s Sierra Nevada, where he has lived since 2002 just outside the spa town of Lanjarón in the Alpujarras. He is the owner of local tour and guiding company called Spanish Highs, Sierra Nevada (www.spanishhighs.co.uk), providing walking, trekking, mountaineering, snowshoeing and ski touring trips.