Photographing the Mountain Icons of Patagonia

by | January 4, 2010

© Jon CornforthPatagonia is located in the southern Andes mountain range along the border of Argentina and Chile. The area was made famous in the 1930s and 1950s by pioneering climbers like Jacques Poincenot, Lionel Terray, Cesare Maestri, and Toni Egger, who came to test themselves on the regions’ granite spires. In modern times, climbers from all over the world still scale the summits of Mt Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre, and the Torres del Paine; however, more and more people now enjoy the area for trekking and photography. As the only land located at 50° south, Argentina and Chile are constantly bombarded by storms that help bury the area in some of the largest non-polar icecaps in the world. For this reason, photographing the famous mountains can be just as difficult as trying to climb them. Nevertheless, a great day in Patagonia can be the highlight of a photographer’s career.

I have found it easiest to begin my Patagonia trips by flying to Buenos Aires. I then take a domestic flight to the thriving tourist mecca of El Calafate. Most international flights arrive in the morning, allowing time for a motivated traveler to take a shuttle bus or taxi to the domestic airport and catch a flight to El Calafate in the afternoon. El Calafate is a great place to recover from the long trip, buy provisions, rent a car, make a bus reservation, or go sight-seeing before heading out to the parks.

Most photographers will want to spend a minimum of one week in Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina and one week in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. Both parks are located a half day journey from El Calafate, Los Glaciares to the north and Torres del Paine to the south. Therefore, you will probably pass back through town during your trip, and be able to resupply.

Los Glaciares National Park © Jon Cornforth

Los Glaciares National Park extends from El Calafate north to the summits of Mt Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, located near the town of El Chalten. Over the last decade, Chalten has grown as a base for exploring and trekking near the mountains. It now offers luxurious B&Bs and inns, as well as backpacker hostels and camping. But don’t plan on spending a lot of time sleeping! In order to photograph either Mt Fitz Roy or Cerro Torre at sunrise, photographers must backpack into the mountains’ base camps, both located over 10km from town. The best views of Mt Fitz Roy can be found by backpacking to Campamento Poincenot. Hardier photographers may choose to hike up to Laguna de los Tres at least one hour before sunrise to capture Mt Fitz Roy bathed in alpenglow. There are also many possible reflection ponds to explore near camp. However, this area is famous for non-stop wind, so taking reflection shots here requires patience. Cerro Torre is located at the back of Laguna Torre, and is surrounded by taller mountains. Cerro Torre is easily photographed from Campamento Bridwell. This peak is usually photographed with a medium telephoto lens. The lake is rarely calm enough for a reflection picture, but bring a wide-angle lens just in case.

Torres del Paine © Jon Cornforth

Torres del Paine National Park offers a gentler experience for those not interested in or capable of backpacking. While hardier photographers will take on the challenge of what is popularly called the “W” trek or the full Torres Circuit, the most famous scenery is easily photographed from the road that crosses the southern edge of the park. Several sleeping options are available in this area. Accommodations range from Camping Pehoé (with covered camping shelters, showers, and a restaurant) to the Hosteria Lago Pehoé or the 5-star Hotel Explora. Many famous photographers have placed their tripods along Lago Pehoé’s southern shore and photographed the spectacular Cuernos del Paine above. The Los Torres can be viewed at a distance from the southeastern edge of the park. In this region of the park you will also be able to view native guanacos and other wildlife. Photographers who aspire to view the Torres up close will have to backpack 12 km to Campamento Torres. Photographing the famous spires from Mirador Torres requires a one hour pre-sunrise hike. For anyone not wanting to camp, Refugio Chileno is located one hour from the base camp, but keep in mind that staying at the Refugio puts you that much farther away from the sunrise vantage point.

Patagonia © Jon Cornforth

Patagonia’s terrible weather is its biggest challenge, but also its greatest reward. Lenticular clouds hovering above the peaks make for dramatic photos, but they also indicate that the weather is about to deteriorate. Some days the wind blows so hard that you can’t set up a camera and tripod. Bring plenty of books, videos, or whatever else you do to pass the time, because there will be days when you won’t take even a single picture. However, with luck and patience you too can create spectacular Patagonia photographs.

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