El Chaltén Dream

Fitz Roy Range, El Chaltén, Argentina
Fitz Roy Range, El Chaltén, Argentina

We’ve just returned to civilization after 8 days camped out in the mighty Fitz Roy range near El Chaltén in Argentine Patagonia. One of my main goals of this return trip to El Chaltén was to capture a photo that I have been dreaming about since my last trip to Patagonia four years ago. I was prepared to spend a week or more waiting for the perfect opportunity to accomplish this photo, and to repeat the efforts with stubborn determination until I did it. I want to talk a bit more about my experience behind this “dream shot” since it epitomizes everything I love about mountain photography!

Back in 2007, I spent two weeks in the Fitz Roy range with my 4×5 camera, hiking around to all kinds of obscure viewpoints every morning like a madman. One morning, I hiked up to the still-partially-frozen Laguna de los Tres for sunrise, and scored one of my favorite Patagonian photos. I was stoked. After the sunrise it was still early, with very calm weather, so I decided to go for the summit of nearby Cerro Madsen. I had no info whatsoever about any route up Madsen, or if it was even possible without climbing gear, but I had scoped it out from different perspectives the previous days and thought that I had figured out a route that would go. The route turned out to be a very fun and challenging scramble, with numerous little obstacles and puzzles along the way, even including a pretty long knife-edge section with gaping abysses on both sides. I made it to the summit, took a photo, and got back down just in time before the Patagonian winds started howling again. It felt great to climb this mountain using only my own reconnaissance and instincts – for all I knew I was the first person to ever climb it… Of course that’s not true, but it felt that way to me!

I wondered about how amazing it would be to get up on that summit for a sunrise, but at the time it seemed like quite an accomplishment for me to have gotten there at all – getting up there for sunrise would be a bit much. But the seed was planted in my head. In the run up to our trip to Patagonia this year the idea starting growing again. My memories of the climb had faded a bit, and now it didn’t seem to me like it would be so impossible. It would be my holy grail grand finale photo of our three month trip down the Andes. So I decided to give it a serious effort. I had my challenge. The hike itself is not what concerned me since that was the only part squarely in my control. Given enough time, along with the long period of dawn light in the summer here, the hike would be strenuous but straightforward. What worried me was the unlikeliness of the convergence of good light, decent clouds but not so much to cover the peak of Fitz Roy (as is very often the case), and most importantly not having the usual ferocious winds that could fling me off that knife edge scramble. We were stocked up with enough food for a week at the base camp area, and as I mentioned before, I was prepared to stubbornly repeat my efforts every morning until I hopefully scored the perfect conditions.

Fitz Roy, El Chaltén, Argentina, Patagonia, sunrise
Fitz Roy Sunrise #2 : Prints Available

Sunrise light on Monte Fitz Roy – December

Well, very fortunately, I scored my “dream shot” on the very first morning! I timed it just right with the 2:00am start. The scramble was just as tricky and fun and challenging as I remembered it, and I arrived at the summit just in time to take some dawn shots and then wait for the real sunrise light. I was troubled by a thick cloud on the eastern horizon that I was sure was going to block the sunrise light; I was sure I would have to repeat the hike again for better light. But the cloud dispersed right before sunrise and when the tip of Fitz Roy started glowing faintly reddish pink with the very first rays of sunlight, I knew I was in for a good show! As the sun rose fully above the horizon, the light got more and more intense, finally descending onto the glaciers below the rock faces at the peak of pinkish-orange intensity. I was shooting the photos as if in a dream and I started to wonder if maybe it was actually one of those awful photography dreams where you always lose your photos once you wake up. But no, it was real and I was photographing perhaps the most amazing sunrise scene I’ve ever witnessed in my life. If my photos from that morning convey even one quarter of the glory of that scene, I will be a happy photographer.

(See a series of panos of the morning light unfolding from dawn to sunrise here).

Cerro Torre, reflection, El Chaltén, Argentina, Patagonia

Cerro Torre Reflection #4 : Prints Available

The piercing spire of Cerro Torre reflects in Lago Torre at sunrise - December. 

After spending three more days camped below Fitz Roy in poorer weather, we headed over to Lago Torre, below the jagged spire of Cerro Torre. Again, the first morning there I had good luck with gorgeous sunrise light and decently calm reflection conditions. In a stark contrast with my “dream shot” of Fitz Roy that I just described, getting to Lago Torre at sunrise involves merely a sleepy 5 or 10 minute stroll from the campsite to the lake.

The contrast between these two photo scenarios illustrates why I believe that the experiences behind the photos matter so much. With landscape photos like these, much of the creative spark lies within that experience behind the photo – the process of discovering unique locations and perspectives and photo ideas, and then the physical challenge of accomplishing the task. There are those who will look at the two photos objectively and may prefer one or the other for purely visual reasons, with no concept or care of the story behind them. But for me – and for those who can understand and appreciate the challenges behind the photos – the experience shines through bright and clear.

Claudia stuck in a tree

Meanwhile, Claudia got stuck in a tree.

45 thoughts on “El Chaltén Dream

  1. Even if it was only virtually, thanks for dragging me along, Jack. You scored big times there and my hat’s off (virtually again, of course) for putting in those efforts. Seems like I don’t have to wish you a Merry Christmas cuz it doesn’t get any better than this for Christmas photos (and I am not referring to that last one! 🙂 )

    1. Thanks David! Yeah I’m totally stoked to have gotten my dream shot. It was a great Christmas present indeed! I’m looking forward to getting home and processing some of the panos of the same sunrise scene.

  2. Congratulations on getting the dreamshot. That is one of the best mountainshots i`ve ever seen…

    And i totally agree with you when you say “the experiences behind the photos matter so much”. I live in a corner of the world where great scenery is available everywhere. But i still seek out the more “difficult” places, especially when it comes to the auroraphotography…

    Thanks for a great story!

  3. No landscape photo is good enough without a good story behind it. That’s why I love Gallen Rowell’s work so much- each photo is an illustration to a great adventure.
    Congrats on your dream shot, it does have all that a dream shot must have- light, atmosphere, form, one of the most beautiful peaks on earth and a good story behind.

    1. Thanks Nicolas! Yes, when I think of Galen’s work, and his adventures, my own adventures seem pretty small indeed! But the relative challenges in the mountains are fun and fulfilling in any case.

  4. Absolutely amazing Jack! I loved your story leading up to the capture and your dedication to getting those dream shots we all long for. Glad you accomplished it safely!

  5. Not many can do what you do Jack, and it’s showcased in the dream shot. Congrats on bringing all of the elements together with vision, persistance, and a masterful touch… and the Claudia image is hilarious!

  6. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year Jack! Beautiful photo’s and the story behind it put me right smack dab along side of that mountain with ya. I enjoy traveling with you, it’s so en inexpensive and beautiful…

  7. Jack,

    First of all, congrats on accomplishing this shot of a lifetime! What an intensely special and rewarding experience and great job putting the whole experience into such eloquent and expressive words. I think you’re spot on when you say that the experience of getting a shot is as telling and important as the image itself. While the lot of us reading your write up of this shot can only be amazed at what you have captured, we (and I’m probably speaking for too many people) thank you for sharing this truly special moment in a way that helps us get a glimpse of what you’ve done. Really, really inspiring, Jack.

  8. Such determination!
    And you were rewarded by getting it right on the 1st attempt!
    Thanks for sharing the story(:
    The harder it is to get the shot the more you appreciate it afterwards!
    Time to dream up your next “dream shot”!

  9. I was supposed to climb Torre Eiger in 1975. To put Pategonia in perspective, our only map was a hand drawn map from a French expedition in 73-74. The Fitzroy basin gets a lot of traffic these days. Your images are superb.

    1. Thanks Vincent! Yes, I can imagine how wild it must have been back then. The town of El Chaltén wasn’t even founded until the mid-80’s, I think, right? And it has changed so much even in the 10 years since my first visit back in 2002, when all the roads were dirt, even the one to get there.

      Well, even if Fitz Roy and Torres del Paine are getting totally overrun these days, it still seems that there are a LOT of wild mountains around here if people go anywhere besides those two places.

  10. The “dream shot” works on so many levels. Offhand it may be the best shot I have seen from you and I have seen some really nice ones. Thanks for sharing the story too because the really great photographs always have a story behind them and it’s neat to have heard yours. Be safe and get your marketing plan going!

  11. Ditto on the marketing plan! Your images are so much more unique and beautiful than a lot of the big names, more people need to know about your work! These two are over the top, definitively envious of your talent and passion!

  12. Thank you so much for writing the stories behind the shots, it makes the picture mean so much more. I agree, the experiences while shooting my pictures are all part of that picture when I look at it later. And these Patagonia pictures are the best I’ve seen…really! Thanks for sharing. I spent the day in the San Juans, beautiful, but not nearly as breathtaking!

  13. Awesome stuff Jack. I can only imagine the anticipation of waiting for the light in that position. It didn’t dissapoint! That has to be in the top 5 most beautiful mountains in the world, your shot shows why.

  14. Jack, these are superb. I can relate to your getting a shot of a lifetime; we’ve all tried one way or another. The fact that you thought about it for such a long time and then went so far and with such effort to get it makes it all the more special. Your statement about the experience behind the photo really hit home with me. I’ve argued this point on one of the online photo groups until I was blue in the face, yet still some argue that the only thing that matters is the photo itself, even if it was largely fabricated via photoshop and didn’t represent an experience at all. IMO, the whole point of photography is the experience; the photograph derives from that experience. Your photos are beautiful and inspiring. Some day, maybe…..

    1. Hi Stephen, thanks for the comment!

      I can see both sides of the coin… for most people and for the general public and certainly for the “art critic”, probably yes the only thing that matters is the image itself. But for ME and for the audience who I most value (people who love the mountains) the experiences DO matter and do come through in the images, I think.

  15. Fantastic work Jack and a great story. I was lucky to listen to Galen Rowell’s lecture at Brooks in ’93 or so. A great inspirational mountaineer and photographer. If you ever decide to come to Iceland then feel free to contact me.

    Best of luck on your future trips.

    Jon Pall – http://www.rawiceland.com.

  16. i’m speechless! the quality of the work you present here is just beyond believe!!

    congrats on all those amazing images and trips! i’m looking forward to following your future travels and truly inspirational work!

    all the best,

    p.s. i had a hard time deciding which article i would comment – in the fitz roy and cerro torre won…

  17. Hi.
    I am about to return to Patagonia, this time to visit Parque Nacional Los Glaciares.
    I intend to take a picture of both Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre at dawn.
    Could you tell me how do you scheduled time to go up to Laguna de los Tres and where did you spent the night before? Was it in Poincenot camping area?
    I am afraid to loose the alpenglow time…
    Thank you in advance.

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