The Light of Patagonia

[Note: This will be a longer form “travelouge” style blog post featuring a lot of images. Here, I want to share a bit of my recent adventures down south and talk about the incredible light we found on several occasions.]

Last month, in April 2024, I co-lead a workshop for Visionary Wild with their founder Justin Black. This was my seventh trip to Patagonia. It is one of those magical places that evokes a sense of wonder and awe like few places on this planet. Hence, the reason I have gone back there so many times. On most of my prior trips, I was covering the Patagonia Expedition Race or traversing the Patagonia ice cap–so there was little time to create landscape photographs of the iconic mountains and glaciers. This trip, set up by Justin and his incredible team was focused on landscape photography with a little bit of wildlife photography here and there as well.

The trip started out in Punta Arenas, where we all met up after the long flights. From there we moved to Torres del Paine, a location that Justin knew incredibly well. [Note: I too have been to Torres del Paine several times but mostly hiking in the mountains, not in the surrounding areas farther afield.] As a result of Justin’s deep knowledge of the park we were setting up at phenomenal spots every day for landscape photography. Justin had enough experience to judge the wind and the weather as well so that we could shift to other locations and still get images even in the worst conditions. The wind was a continuous battle in terms of keeping cameras steady–but for anyone that has traveled to Patagonia that is no surprise. The wild weather and extreme winds helped us create some epic images. Images we would not have had if the weather had been perfectly nice and calm.

The first few days in Torres del Paine, the wind really limited what we could do but that didn’t deter us from going out and producing a variety of images of shrouded peaks and barely visible mountains. Luckily, this trip was also fairly luxurious–at least compared to all my prior trips where I mostly camped in tents. We stayed at three different hotels in Torres del Paine as we moved around the park over the course of eight days. I remember hearing the wind roar outside my hotel room at Hotel Lago Grey (where the photos above were created) and thinking about all those prior trips in a tent with similar winds whipping the fabric of the tent so loudly that sleep was a rare experience. Being in a nice hotel, and having dinner cooked for you each night was a far cry from trying to light a camp stove in similar wind and rain in the vestibule of my tent.

As can be seen in the image below of the Cuernos del Paine as seen from Lake Pehoe (pronounced pay-way) we got really, really lucky with absolutely stunning light and interesting stormy weather. The evening before this image was created, myself and a few of the other crew went up to the lookout point on this tiny island and we were literally blown down and forced onto our knees by a wind gust well in excess of 80 mph (128 kph). On this morning at Lake Pehoe we hoped for good light and low winds and what we got was something I have very rarely seen before. The thin wispy clouds surrounding the Cuernos (literally the bull’s horns) captured the morning light and wrapped it all the way around the Cuernos so that both sides of the landscape were illuminated with alpenglow. Add in the crashing waves spraying us with glacial silt and the rocky foreground and it was landscape magic.

We certainly had other days where the weather wasn’t as cooperative but that just made the good light that much more incredible. Regardless of the weather, there were always a variety of moods–and wildlife–to photograph and observe. Torres del Paine is a goldmine for epic landscape photography. And you don’t really even have to hike that far off the beaten path to get something spectacular. Whether you ar hiking the “W” trail or go further away from the mountains (as we were on this trip) there are endless variations of epic mountain landscapes.

The Guanacos were a constant companion everywhere we went in Patagonia. They are related to Camels and are even more closely related to Llamas. They generally travel and live in groups for protection from mountain lions–of which there are a quite a few in and around Torres del Paine. During the daytime, we would often go looking for wildlife and invariably find Guanacos to photograph along with condors and the occasional Puma (aka Mountain Lion).

On one of our days on the east side of the park a few of us hiked up to the Torres, which was a ten hour hike round-trip (with time at the Torres) from the hotel at the base of the valley. We left at 4 AM and were pretty much immediately in a blizzard of sorts hiking in full Gore-Tex. The higher we went the deeper the snow got and the denser the clouds. I was thinking this might be a long hike for nothing much to see, but I had done this hike a few times in bad weather and had then somehow seen first light on the peaks as the weather cleared. Luckily the clouds parted just as the first rays of light hit the upper part of the Torres.

The peaks and the entire valley was bathed in about a foot (30 cm) of fresh snow–something I had never seen up there before. The snow certainly made for unique images. We also froze our buns off after hiking uphill for three and a half hours and arriving with wet layers underneath our Gore-tex outerwear. I took off my Arc’teryx jacket and put on a giant puffy and my shell froze solid in a matter of minutes. The descent was quite slippery and I was really wishing I had brought the mini-crampons. It was an epic hike–especially with the snow–and we got a few decent images to go with it.

From Torres del Paine we stopped in at El Calafate for a few days. Just around the corner from town are some incredible mountains and the giant Perito Moreno glacier. Having never been to the Perito Moreno glacier it was exciting to see something new on this trip. I have seen many, many glaciers all over the world and have traversed a section of the Patagonia ice cap on my last trip but it was wild to see the toe of the Perito Moreno glacier from a few different perspectives. This was also one of the places where we saw rampant selfie photography, which I always find comical–and occasionally I feel the need to photograph the folks taking selfies (as below).

After a few days in El Calafate we headed up to El Chalten, which I consider to be the “Throne Room of the Mountain Gods.” For me, the mountains above El Chalten–Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitzroy–are two of the most iconic and extraordinary peaks anywhere. Fewer climbers have summited anything in this range than have summited Everest. These peaks require incredible skill, speed and judgement like few other mountains–save for the similar stunning granite spires in Pakistan (the Trango Towers on the Baltoro Glacier) and perhaps a few of the giant cliffs in the Ruth Gorge in Alaska (like Mt. Barrille and Mt. Dickey).

As a climber, Cerro Torre and Fitzroy (whose indigenous name is El Chalten, meaning “smoking mountain”) are the epicenter of extreme climbing. If I am being honest, I have never had the skill to climb either one — very few climbers do. I could have possibly followed a stronger climber up one of these but even that requires a strong mind to solo over technical terrain with mind-boggling exposure below. Long runouts on sketchy gear is the norm here, and you have to be solid enough to deal with the exposure, the climbing, the loose rock, mixed rock and ice climbing and everything else while still moving upwards at breakneck speed to outrun any oncoming weather. Hence, all of this climbing history has built El Chalten and the surrounding massif into a cathedral in my mind. Just being there to photograph landscapes feels like going to church for me.

Luckily for us, we were gifted with some of the most mind-bending light I have ever seen. With our group we went to a few locations in and around the town of El Chalten several times to get those iconic views of the range. The main pullout just before you get into town offers a wide variety of options and epic views.

For me as a climber, Cerro Torre is the cat’s meow of the El Chalten massif. Both Fitzroy and Cerro Torre are obviously glorious, but the climbing challenge of Cerro Torre and the topsy-turvy, controversial climbing history of the peak lends to its acclaim. The East face of Cerro Torre (shown below) is a giant, extremely difficult rock climb while the West Face (not seen here) is essentially a huge ice climb with a few bits of mixed climbing on rock and ice. Either side is serious business. Torre Egger, Punta Herron and Aguja Standhart, the three smaller peaks just to the right of Cerro Torre (from the perspective shown below) are similarly challenging if not more so. Hence, on a few occasions I pulled out the FUJIFILM GF500mm f/5.6 lens and concentrated specifically on Cerro Torre as shown below.

On a few occasions when we went out chasing golden-hour light sometimes the most interesting light was behind us and not over the massif. This epic landscape (shown below) was in the exact opposite direction of Cerro Torre and El Chalten. Even without the iconic peaks, the river valley arcing through the pampas with wild clouds makes for a very different landscape image from Patagonia.

On a few different days, mostly when the sky was overcast, we also visited the Chorillo del Salto waterfall just up the road from El Chalten. The Chorillo del Salto is an easy one kilometer hike from the parking area and in April offers up fall foliage just below the waterfall. There are endless vantage points to photograph the waterfall from–and the trees themselves are just as interesting as the wider panorama shown above.

In El Chalten, if you aren’t willing or able to hike then a lot of the more famous landscape images are inaccessible. We weren’t in El Chalten that long on this trip so most of our landscape images were created at relatively accessible areas in and around town. Of course, on prior trips I have done a ton of hiking–all the way around the massif. Hence, it was nice to really concentrate on a few different easily accessible locations. The most obvious shot as you drive into town is on the road itself as shown below. As we drove into town that first evening we stopped and created a few images of the mountain range since you never know if you will ever see it again for the rest of the trip–that is just how the weather works down there. This image was severely backlit but due to the incredible dynamic range on the FUJIFILM GFX100 II I was able to pull out details in the foreground without losing the magical light breaking through the peaks in the distance. It isn’t the most epic image from the trip, but yet another solid perspective.

For this adventure, I took with me two FUJIFILM GFX camera bodies–the GFX100 II and the GFX100S. I also took along five GFX lenses including the GF20-35, GF32-64, GF80mm, GF100-200 and a pre-production version of the new GF500mm f/5.6. I also had with me the GF1.4x teleconverter as well to extend the reach of the GF500 for possible encounters with wildlife. You can read all about my experiences with the new GF500mm lens in my previous blog post. I also brought a medium weight Gitzo tripod not knowing how much hiking we would be doing. If I had it to do over again I would have taken my heavyweight top-end Gitzo GT5541LS tripod to help battle the wind. For those heading down, I recommend taking the heaviest tripod you have as lightweight tripods just vibrate in the hurricane force winds and are practically worthless.

My thanks to Justin for bringing me in to help lead this photography tour. Additionally, a huge thanks to our support staff and guides Ruth, Scott, Jocelyn, Zaira, Manuel and Carlos for all your expertise, help and care. Their support truly made this trip exceptional as they were always looking out for everyone and could literally (or so it seemed) make just about anything happen. Last but certainly not least, thanks to the participants that made this trip possible. We had a grand adventure not only photographing the epic landscapes but also getting to know each other and traveling together over eighteen days. For those looking for high-end photography tours to remote locations Visionary Wild is as good as it gets. I highly recommend them and Justin is an incredible photographer with deep knowledge of the locations he visits on his tours.

There are hundreds of other images I could share but alas, this post already probably contains more images than most want to plow through. Patagonia never disappoints and this was a phenomenal trip that well exceeded my imagination. On three or four occasions we witnessed light that was utterly breathtaking. From soft pastel hues to deeply intense purple pre-dawn light we were very lucky to be able to photograph the entire spectrum of possibilities. It was also a pleasure to travel with so many talented photographers in our group. Each day we would share our images and speaking for myself it was hard to not be jealous. Sometimes an iPhone image would blow you away. Other times it was David Chew with his incredible technique using a Phase One back and an Alpa technical camera rig producing jaw dropping panoramas. More often than not it was Justin creating one masterpiece after another even in imperfect conditions. That is all just part of the fun traveling with other photographers and geeking about gear, technique and photography in general.

Every time I go to Patagonia I am itching to go back and this time is no different. There are always new places to go to and different adventures to be had. I’d love to go back and actually climb one of the smaller sub-peaks in the El Chalten massif. I’d also love to fly over the range and do a bigger adventure project down there with some world-class athletes. It is truly one of the epic playgrounds. Until next time…hasta luego.

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