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At the Crossroads in Chaltén

El Chaltén—a little village in the Argentinean Andes that sits at the gateway to that country's Parque Nacional Los Glaciares—is surrounded by such delicate beauty, such a vast and varied ecosystem of pine forests and rushing rivers, granite spires and tumbling glaciers, that when I came upon it at the end of a long dusty drive down the spine of the Andean Cordillera, I took one step onto the sagebrush desert by the side of the road and felt impelled to get back in my car.

This conflict bears mentioning because El Chaltén appears to be in a similar bind: uncertain whether to exploit its spectacular location or keep its head down, hoping that visitors just pass on by. In fact, all of Patagonia—which comprises the bottom third of Argentina and Chile, yet contains only 5 percent of those countries' citizens—is perched precariously between its past isolation and the onrush of development, while the specter of environmental peril literally looms from the azure skies above.

And yet how could I resist stepping toward that small cluster of buildings sitting just beneath the Fitz Roy range?In any setting, these peaks would impress, but rising as they do from the surrounding steppe, and mantled by the snowy tongues of the vast Patagonian ice cap dripping down through breaks in the mountain chain, they looked like a child's fairy-tale drawing of an enchanted land.

Until 1985, El Chaltén did not exist, and only four or five lonely homesteaders lived in this remote and rugged region, largely because the glacial torrent of the Fitz Roy River blocked most travel and trespass. At that time, however, Argentina was engaged in angry border disputes with its cheek-by-jowl neighbor, Chile, that verged at times on war—so the Argentinean government decided to create a town from scratch and implant it with public employees in order to strengthen its territorial claims. Up went 12 houses, one provincial government building, and enough flapping Argentineflags to power the settlement with wind. In the end, war was avoided, and El Chaltén was awarded to Argentina. During the next few years, new businesses opened, private citizens moved in, and the town grew to 350 year-round residents, some of them urban expats looking for an alternative, outdoorsy lifestyle, others looking to make money from alter-native, outdoorsy urban expats—each group warily eyeing the other.

I could feel El Chaltén's split identity on my first walk through town. It's still a half-finished place. Internationally known to climbers and trekkers seeking access to some of the most beautiful and dangerous peaks in the Andes, it has more than a dozen inns, a surprising number of good restaurants, mountain guides, and stores that sell smoked trout. In some ways, the town is following on the heels of El Calafate, site of the nearest airport and a tourist trap—one long strip of souvenir shops, "indigenous" jewelry boutiques, and tour operators selling overpriced bus-window views of the famed Moreno Glacier.

At the same time, El Chaltén remains uncorrupted, a lonely outpost with all its end-of-the-road, frontier rawness still intact: treeless vacant lots, dust storms in the streets, a center meridian with empty wicker baskets waiting expectantly for plants. It has the slapped-together look of an Arctic village without all the trash; at night and from a distance, with just a few phosphorescent streetlights piercing the darkness, it could be a landing strip in the Alaskan bush.

This part-Telluride, part-Nome identity has its advantages. One evening, after El Chaltén failed to receive deliveries of food and gas, my girl-friend and I sat down to dinner at Ruca Mahuida, a lovely restaurant of broad-planked tables and sheepskin-covered benches set around a barrel stove. Suddenly, the town lost its power, and everything went still. Candles began to flicker in windows up and down the street, and in the unencumbered darkness, the outlines of the mountains emerged like a developing photograph out of a deep blue, star-speckled sky.

For the next 10 days, we made El Chaltén our base, trekking each day into the surrounding national park. The south continental ice field, or Hielo Sur, is 5,500 square miles of ancient ice that runs north to south atop the high-altitude Andes straddling Argentina and Chile; after Greenland and the polar regions, it holds more freshwater than anywhere else on earth. From El Chaltén, and even at higher altitudes along the trail, we couldn't actually see the ice field; besides the visible glaciers that drain its outermost edges, it is, as the climber Gregory Crouch has put it, "one of the least knowable landscapes on earth." Still, like the poles themselves, this remarkable force of nature makes its presence felt.

One product of the ice field is the katabatic winds, high-velocity pressure systems that ramp up the Chilean Andes and come screaming through the passes, finally dispersing their energy across the Patagonian steppe. Another of the ice field's creations is the Andes' multi-tiered water system—ice field pouring into glaciers, glaciers calving into silty emerald lakes, icebergs melting and flowing into rivers rushing headlong toward the sea.

Each day, on one of a dozen different trails, we would hike up these tiers in reverse, starting in the desert, with bleached cow skulls at our feet and the occasional black-winged condor floating kitelike on updrafts overhead. Upriver, we'd pass through lush valleys reminiscent of Italian apple groves and on into windblown fields of scattered, twisted tree trunks.

On one of our favorite hikes, two trails converged where a tree had fallen and cracked in half; we made our way through the split trunk and onto a driftwood footbridge over a stream that followed towering walls of reddish, striated rock. Finally we passed above treeline and scrambled up boulders to a glacial lake where icebergs floated like dinghies, pushed this way and that by the ceaseless wind. Here the trail ended, and from the lake's shore we could see the clouds upwelling over the entire Fitz Roy range and the summit overhead, lost in smoking mists.

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