Twice I have been privileged to stand in awe, beneath one of the most natural cathedrals our mountain environments can provide. This is the Cirque de las Altares in southern Patagonia.
The Cirque 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 and jagged mountains separates civilisation from the cirque. For those of us not blessed with the necessary skills to climb over them we have to walk round them. This three day journey from either the north (via Paso Marconi) or south (via Paso del Viento) is not without it’s 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 cirque in thick mist. We made a mistake of heading too far into the cirque 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 Cirque de las Altares is a fitting name.
My next venture to the cirque 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 cirque in perfect weather, clear skies and light winds. Now the full extent of the “altar” was revealed. The list of peaks sounds like a who’s who of mountain legends, including Cerro Standhart, Torre Egger and the magnificent, Cerro Torre.
This time we camped correctly at the entrance to the cirque. As the sun set over the great icecap we watched the changing light dancing across the granite faces.
By the light of my headtorch I read about Walter Bonatti and Carlo Mauri’s exploits here in 1958 on Cerro Torre’s unclimbed west face and their incredibly long traverse from Cerro Adela to Cerro Grande and Punta Luca. This is a magical and fearsome place and one day I will return again.