The Huemul Circuit

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As we headed further south through Argentinian Patagonia we didn’t really know where we would end up or what was in store for us. We knew we’d look for some good hikes, and we also knew that many people talk about El Chaltén as being a nice place. We figured it was as good a destination as any, so that’s where we headed!

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Before we even arrived we were impressed. The flat desert steppe suddenly gives way to epic snow-caped mountains, with the iconic Mount Fitz Roy dominating the skyline. As soon as we got into the park we chatted with some of the park rangers about which hikes were possible, and they recommended the Huemul Circuit as a must-do. A quick google later and it turns out that the Circuit is often touted as being one of the most difficult and beautiful hikes in Patagonia (counting those that are accessible and established, at least), so it sounded like a good idea to us! And the best part? Hiking in the northern part of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares is absolutely free!

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After postponing the hike for one day due to high wind forecasts and renting some gear we would need on days 2 and 4 (more on that later), we eventually strapped on our packs and set off without knowing what exactly we were getting ourselves into. We had read about stream crossings, glacier crossings, two Tyrolean traverses (kind-of like a zip line), extreme winds, dangerous descents, and lots of tough hiking… and if the weather cooperates, a chance to view the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the second largest ice field in the world outside of the North and South Poles.

Day one was a nice trek up into the mountains up and away from Fitz Roy and instead up and around Mount Huemul (the Huemul being the endangered Andean deer which we were lucky enough to see while hiking Cerro Castillo). Stream crossing? Check… and cold! High winds? Luckily not, but the fortifications built up around camp are evidence that it can certainly get nasty there!

The next morning we set off for day two, the highlight of the trip, and including the first Tyrolean traverse, the glacier crossing, Paso del Viento (“Windy Pass”), which can literally stop hikers in their tracks or blow them off their feet, and our chance to glimpse the ice field. The weather looked good, and early in the morning we were the second pair of hikers hitting the trail for what would be an incredible day.

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The first part of the day was the Tyrolean traverse, which meant crossing this:

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Like this:

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We had never done a traverse like this before, but with our rental harness, a bit of googling, and some knowledge Elliott had from dabbling in little bits of climbing in the past, we were fine! Even Lisa, who doesn’t love heights conquered it like a pro. Turns out it was actually a lot of fun!

Next up: the glacier crossing. Many glaciers require special skills and equipment to cross and can be quite dangerous, but we were told this one had enough rock and dirt from the nearby moraine to be safe for just normal hikers with hiking boots. After climbing up from the river traverse, and down, we stepped foot onto the glacier, and it was fine!

We continued heading across the glacier, following the instructions to keep close to the moraine for grip. We expected it to be similar to walking on other types of snow or ice, but it was far more solid than we expected.

The odd crevasse opened up, but the rocks and gravel gave plenty of grip to keep clear of any danger. Crystal clear water and blue ice flowed and glowed beneath us.

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The further we went, however, the less rocks and dirt there were, while the crevasses started getting more numerous and deeper. We were having so much fun exploring the glacier that we didn’t realize that we were probably getting a little further from the moraine than we should have been. Eventually, the rocks and dirt stopped almost altogether, along with any form of grip we had.

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Check out that elevation gain!

That’s when we realized we were in a dangerous situation, and that’s where the photos stop. We were too focused on making our way back to safe ground to take any pictures, and moving just a few meters took several minutes and very careful steps, including a couple of minor falls, scrapes, and bums full of ice water. We learned an important lesson though: don’t underestimate glaciers, and always bring proper gear (e.g. crampons) when possible!

Eventually we made it safely off of the glacier and gave ourselves a short break for our hearts to calm down and our legs to regain their strength before starting the arduous climb up Paso del Viento.

Up we climbed, and up, and up, and yes, it was as steep as it looks. We got lucky with the wind, and only a few times were the gusts strong enough to push us over, thankfully towards the slope rather than away from it. We looked down on glaciers as we went, including the one that we crossed, and then finally we got our first glimpse of the ice field.

We only saw a tiny fraction of the entire ice field, but it was breathtaking nonetheless.

As we were one of the first groups to start that morning, we had the views of the ice field all to ourselves, and we decided to sit down for over half an hour simply gazing out over the ice and the snowy peaks beyond to take it all in in near complete silence.

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Alas, we couldn’t spend all day there, and by the time we decided to start heading down to that night’s camp other groups of hikers started arriving anyway. Down we went, eventually into a small valley formed between a mountain on our left and a giant moraine of huge boulders pushed up by the ice field on our right. It was a slow, steady, and silent hike out, with a few sips of clear, clean water along the way, until we reached a camp nestled in beside the moraine wall. Interestingly there was no outhouse or designated bathroom area, so when we had to we climbed the moraine wall, move a few rocks, did our business, and packed out our toilet paper, rather than using rocks for the job as suggested by a group of Canadian hikers that wrote their helpful suggestion in the shelter.

The next morning we hiked out for day three of our trek, again earlier than most other hikers, and we had another spectacular view of the ice field and the Viedma glacier that feeds from it. What was particularly interesting were the broad lines of rock and debris flowing along with all the ice. Although it moves at a literal glacial pace, it is certainly not inactive!

Eventually we reached the top of the pass, this one not quite as difficult as the one from the previous day, saw what we think might have been a super tiny burrowing owl… and then it was time to go down again!

The descent was about 600m over only a couple of kilometres, and we were warned in advance that the trail was deteriorated and quite treacherous. We were already 3 days into the hike and there wasn’t any turning back now, so down we went!

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Quite the descent from the top of Huemel pass to the iceberg-studded waters of the lake below.

They weren’t lying! The trail was indeed full of loose rocks that would tumble down as you stepped on them, mixed with loose dust and gravel. Sticks were essential (which we carried with us for several days, given that we knew we wouldn’t find any in the alpine areas), and aside from that the best strategy was to search with every step for some little rock or root or anything that might be able to support some body weight without giving way. That, of course, combined with the ‘ol slid-a-roo which Lisa employed unfailingly, albeit with a few holes in the bottom her pants by the end of it.

The sketchiest spots included a rock wall with nothing but a sketchy rope tied to a tree and no footholds to help you down, and a 45 degree smooth rocky slope that involved scooting/climbing/praying your way across without thinking of what would happen if you were to fall.

But in the end we made it to the sweet, sweet feeling of almost level ground beneath our feet, not much worse for wear, and proud of having accomplished the worst that the Huemul Circuit could throw at us. As we walked to the third and final camp of the Circuit, we looked back at the rock wall we had just descended and wondered how in hell we or anybody else ever managed to get down there.

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We’re not exactly sure what route we took, but somehow we made it down that!

From there it was only a short hike to the shores of the lake where we took a look at the Viedma glacier from the lake and spent the rest of the day relaxing in a beautiful meadow with some of the local cows.

After a good night’s sleep the last and final day was essentially a walk in the park. Although we had a bit of rain, it was a pleasant walk through rolling hills and grasslands.

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The final challenge was a Tyrolean traverse over the same river we had crossed two days earlier, but this time much further downstream. By this time we already felt like pros, so it was no issue, and lots of fun.

And that was it!… or almost. The hike ends at a seldom-used parking lot, but there is the option of continuing another 8km on unofficial trails to exactly where we started. We missed a national parks truck that would have given us a lift by about 2 minutes, so we were stuck in the parking lot with no other options. By this time we were feeling a bit lazy, so Lisa headed down a side road to the main highway, certain that should get picked up hitchhiking faster than Elliott and would be able to bring the beetle back in no time at all. Unfortunately the road was more deserted than she thought, and it took quite some time to get to the highway, let alone to get picked up and taken back to where the beetle was waiting.

Meanwhile, Elliott took a nap in the hot sun while other hikers slowly trickled in to the trailhead and had their own discussions about what to do. Knowing that Lisa and the beetle would be coming at some point, Elliott offered some rides for those patient enough to wait, and once Lisa and the beetle finally did arrive we managed to fit five tall hikers and five big hiking backpacks inside and on top of our little car.

With more weight in cargo than the car weighs itself, Poncho the funny Beetle managed to make its way back to where we all started no problem at all, chugging 40km/h down the windy Patagonian highway and full of happy hikers crammed in like sardines and celebrating the finale of an absolutely marvelous hike and one of our highlights in Argentinian Patagonia.

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