A few great mountain towns are scattered around the world. I don't mean towns among the mountains like Valdez or Crested Butte, but rather great towns in the presence of great mountains. Towns such as Zermatt, Namche Bazaar and Grindelwald. Alpinists who visit these places have felt their power. I first felt that power when I was nine and I glimpsed the Matterhorn in the clouds above Zermatt.
Six years ago Cathy and I met my parents in El Chalten, Argentina, to trek and to see the legendary towers. Mom saw El Chalten in a different way than Dad, Cathy or I. She saw the dreadlocked locals, the visiting pantheon of the world's hardest climbers, the gnarled gauchos, the towers and raw weather. She recognized El Chalten as one of the great mountain towns. Now my Mom and Dad spend six months a year in this micro duplex behind the Chocolateria in El Chalten. Living the retired dream like nobody else. That tower behind their house is Fitzroy. The climber high camp is a six-hour hike from their house.
Mom spends her time gardening and operating a gardening store called La Hoja Verde. Here she is with her employees Buyi and Val. Next door Mauricio serves fine coffee and cookies.
Dad gets out for regular trekking and mountaineering trips between house projects. Topping his mountain list this year was a 2766-meter peak visible from their house called Cerro Huemul. Late one morning Dad and I started walking from El Chalten with light mountaineering gear. Nine hours later we bivied under a rock, halfway to Huemul's summit. From our sleeping bags we watched the alpenglow fade and stars emerge around Cerro Torre.
On the summit of Cerro Huemul above the South Patagonian Icecap. We spent the rest of the day descending 2,000 meters back to its base, then we hiked until 1 am back to El Chalten.
A few days later my Dad showed me his favorite early-season ski mountaineering peak. The 2146-meter glaciated summit of Cerro Vespignani is located 36 kilometers up the Carraterra Austral from El Chalten.
We descended Vespignani, took the bus back to Chalten, had a beer and 15 minutes later Dad was out working on a new greenhouse next to Mom's store.
Cathy and I also visited my Mom and Dad in El Chalten three years ago. Cathy was bent on attempting a tower and talked me into it. High on the Fonrouge route on Guillaumet, a 12-pitch 5.10b, I felt that orange granite and the foggy abyss and that mountain lust began knocking again.
Some people become El Chalten tower addicts and return year after year. This is Mikey and Kate's fifth season in Chalten. They're strolling out after 29 hours of climbing and rappelling on Aguja Rafael. Kate later told me "...we had to run to make it to Senyera in time for food. It was getting quite dark and we saw a puma on the trail! Then these dogs were growling at us... Pretty classic 48 hrs..."
Cathy and I ventured up the Torre Valley for a couple nights at Niponino, a climber camp in the rubble below El Mochito, which is below El Mocho, which is below Cerro Torre. The summit of Cerro Torre is perhaps the most unattainable location on earth. This Argentine summer Cerro Torre further established itself as the most unattainable summit on earth when the Cesare Maestri bolts were chopped.
Niponino attracts the most hardened and talented climbers in the world.
Back in El Chalten, Cathy spotting Bishop strong-woman Lisa Bedient.
Hmmmm, I never get this much attention when I boulder...
Poincenot and Fitzroy from my parent's house,
where they live half the year...
...in one of the world's great mountain towns.