Two cold nights and an amazing sunrise below Cerro Torre, Patagonia
Fall Cerro Torre Sunrise
During our three weeks in El Chalten we stayed in small A-frame cabin at the climbers hostel (you know the cheap one without a website or advertising of any kind). While climbing season was over and most of the climbers were gone, the few who remained were the diehards who were trying to stretch their season as long as possible. One night while sharing photos with a couple of climbers we got to talking about locations beyond those typically accessed by the local trails. As I talked about wanting to shoot photos in locations most photographers never visit, and they started showing me photos on their phones from locations they thought could make unique landscape images that only an experienced climber like myself could reach. As we looked over the map and I started to formulate a few ideas, one climber was even kind enough to loan me a harness and a set of crampons.
While in Bariloche a few weeks prior, I had met a German photographer named Peter, who was now also in El Chalten and we had been teaming up with for some sunrise hikes/shoots. So, when a weather window came that looked good for a possible Cerro Torre sunrise shot, I invited Peter to join me. As it turns out his sister was also visiting El Chalten, so they were very keen to camp at Laguna Torre for a night. After a leisurely breakfast I hefted my horribly overloaded day pack with two nights worth of gear, and the three of us headed into the mountains. After a late lunch at Laguna Torre, using the harness I had borrowed I left Peter and his sister behind and crossed the river using a Tyrolean traverse (a rope stretched between two boulders across the river).
I spent the next few hours exploring along the cliffs above Laguna Torre looking for a sunrise location that would combine a clear view of Cerro Torre with a photogenic tree with peak fall colors. After exploring many possible options and retracing my steps several times, I finally settled on a small group of trees in a clearing that seemed to offer a few different options depending on what the light and clouds decided to do the following morning. As darkness was falling, I hiked all the way back to the river and recrossed the Tyrolean traverse . In camp I ate a quick dinner as it was quite cold, and my friends were already snug in their warm sleeping bags headed off to sleep.
As I learned in El Chalten, typically good weather comes from the south and brings with it very cold temperatures. By the time I finished my dinner and climbed into the one person tent I had found a few days earlier floating in a pond (a story for another day), frost was forming on everything around me. Having been unable to bring any of my own camping gear to El Chalten due to the size limits of our backpacks on our round the world trip, I spent a very cold night in a cheap rented sleeping bag on a nearly non-existent foam sleeping pad. After shivering through most of the night, I was up early and headed back across the Tyrolean to my sunrise location while the stars were still high in the sky.
Knowing my location was quite a distance, and seeing the stars start to disappear as daylight was approaching, I hiked and scrambled as fast as I could. Because South America is so narrow in Patagonia, and the weather comes in fast off the Southern Ocean; Cerro Torre is notorious for bad weather and cloud cover. Much to the frustration of photographers and climbers alike, often even when the weather forecast is good and nearby Fitzroy is clear at sunrise Cerro Torre remains shrouded in clouds. Several of my earlier sunrise photo attempts of Cerro Torre had been skunked right at the last moment as mountain suddenly disappeared into the clouds at sunrise.
This morning was no different, as I hiked toward my sunrise location there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and I had an amazing view of the stars, but as it started getting light and I could see the beginnings of clouds forming to the east over the lake. By the time I reached my spot and started looking for my final composition the few small clouds had continued to grow and were moving west over the glacier and beginning to obscure Cerro Torre. Worried I would again be shut down right at sunrise I focused on finding the strongest composition and trying to get my tripod into position. Seeing that the clouds were more wisps than a thick bank, my hope was that the mountain would peak out of the clouds at sunrise making for an even more dramatic shot.
I was completely wrapped in the moment as I spent the next two hours standing among the frost covered trees watching the clouds swirl, and the light change. When Cerro Torre peaked from the clouds, I shot tight compositions of the summit, and when it cleared more I shot wide shots that included the fall colors in the foreground. With no wind, slowly moving clouds, great light, and peak fall colors the conditions couldn’t have more perfect. I had hit the jackpot! When the show finally ended, I wasn’t ready to hike back so I scrambled downhill to a flat rock and pulled out some snack and soaked in the view for at least another hour.
Finally knowing Peter and his sister were planning on hiking back to town that morning and thinking they would be worried if I didn’t return before they left, I packed my gear and started the trek back to the river crossing. I arrived back in camp just as they were finishing packing their bags and after a quick cup of tea, we parted ways. I had planned on camping for two nights in case my first sunrise was a bust, so I had time to kill so I climbed back into my sleeping bag for a nap in my sun warmed tent.
Part of the plan of my spending two nights camping at Laguna Torre was that Jen and the kids would day hike up to the lake to meet me for lunch and to explore the lake. Normally a hard-core camper, without a good tent or warm sleeping bag Jen had wisely opted to skip camping and stayed in the warm A-frame back in El Chalten. After a wonderful and well-deserved nap, I was hanging out in the campground with a cup of tea when Jen and the kids arrived around lunch time.
We spent the next few hours exploring around the lake, playing with icebergs on the shore, and checking out the Tyrolean traverse. We ate our lunch on a hill overlooking over the lake and watched hikers playing with the ice. I was a bit melancholy when Jen and the kids headed back to town and their warm beds, and I started thinking of the cold night I had coming and how perhaps I should have joined them on the hike back. I soaked up every last bit of warm sun from a big rock above camp until the shade drove me into my sleeping bag. Wanting to photograph the stars over Cerro Torre I was up again at 9pm and shivered by my tripod for nearly two hours as the stars reflected in the lake. (This was one of the few times I wished I had brought a lens faster than f4 on our round the world trip).
When I couldn’t feel my feet anymore, I decided it was wise to head back to camp and warm up. Using the stove I had borrowed from Peter, I boiled two pots of water and filled my water bottle. Wearing all my clothes and with a hot water bottle in the bottom of my sleeping I started to warm up. After heating the water, a second time in the middle of the night I was up before sunrise and searching for compositions along the shores of Laguna Torre. This time I was not alone as several other photographers who had camped or hiked up before sunrise jockeyed for position as the clouds put on a similar show as the previous morning. As Cerro Torre occasionally peaked from the clouds, I shot dozens of photos of the icebergs stuck in the frozen lake. All to the sound of some clueless tourists who were throwing rocks on the ice trying to break it. Not exactly the peaceful solo sunrise as the previous morning.
As the sunrise ended and the sun reached camp, I quickly packed up my gear and ate my remaining food. Knowing I had a 3hr hike back to town for lunch I didn’t linger and was on my way before anyone else in camp was even finished with breakfast. As I walked in the warm early morning sunshine I couldn’t help looking back over my shoulder, thinking… how lucky am I to get to shoot Cerro Torre in perfect conditions from a location no one else shoots. Sure, it only took staying in El Chalten for three weeks to have the weather window and fall colors come together, but it sure made those couple of frigid nights in the rental sleeping bag well worth it. As I went to bed early that night in our warm A-frame, I thought the only thing I would have changed would have been to bring my own sleeping bag next time.