Hey y’all. Long time, no see. I’ve been in a bit of a blogging slump due to recent political events here in the US, along with trying to finish my PhD dissertation, but I just got back from Patagonia and gosh darn it, I’m gonna blog about it.
The Huemul Circuit Trek in Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park is a 4 or 5 day trek circumnavigating Cerro Huemul (Mt. Huemul). Along the way you’ll see snow-capped rugged mountains, glaciers, icebergs, cows, cow poop, AND MORE!
The hike starts right in the town of El Chalten, the “trekking capital” of Patagonia, and the itinerary is as such:
- El Chalten to Laguna Toro campsite
- Laguna Toro Campsite to the Paso del Viento (windy pass) to the Paso del Viento campsite
- Optional extra day: Hike on Viedma glacier!
- Paso del Viento campsite to Paso Huemul to Lago Viedma campsite
- Lago Viedma campsite to Bahia Tunel, arrange transport back to El Chalten
The trek is around ~40 miles total, with about ~6000 vertical feet of gain over the 4 days (not counting extra optional day).
To help visualize the route, here’s a lovely map from Walk Patagonia that’s color coded by day:
Myself and my travel companions (David and Mike) opted for the 4-day trek without the extra glacier day since I’ve walked on glaciers before, and whatever, #overit.
This trek is rated as “difficult” and I wouldn’t exactly call that designation an exaggeration. Day 1 and 4 are only 5 or 6 hours of walking with moderate elevation gain, but Day 2 and 3 are both 8 or so hours of walking with significant elevation gain/loss on steep trails with lots of wind! Plus you’re wearing a heavy backpacking pack… so… that sucks 🙂
This trek does not require a guide, but we used one because I have extra paranoia about becoming lost in the wilderness in foreign countries (we used El Chalten Mountain Guides). If you choose to go it alone, make sure you bring GPS tracks, as the trail is sometimes very obvious, and sometimes non-existent.
Day 1 begins in El Chalten and climbs gently over grassy hills towards the Laguna Toro campsite. At the beginning you’ll get fantastic views of Fitz Roy, and once you crest the grassy knolls and start to descend towards Laguna Toro, views of the massive Cerro Huemul. The trail descends fairly gently towards the campsite, following the river, with expansive views the whole way down. As you get closer to the campsite, you’ll get a peek of the glacier you’ll be walking over the next day. This day might sound easy, but don’t worry, you’ll be carrying a heavy pack with 4 days worth of food and sleeping equipment, and you’ll be wondering why you thought this was a good idea (what’s that you say, that was just me?).
Day 2 is the uphill challenge, with approximately 3000 feet of vertical gain (again, with a heavy pack, yayyyyy). Day 2 also has an exciting zip line that you can use to cross the river instead of fording it, because getting wet is for plebes. Remember to bring a harness and carabiner!
After crossing the river in style, you’ll ascend some rocky terrain until you reach the glacier, then traverse across it for about 20 minutes. No crampons are needed as the ice this far down on the glacier has lots of dirt and rock on it, so you can hop your way around without slipping… too much.
After the glacier comes the real climb up to the Paso del Viento. The trail was fairly steep, and to add to the ambiance, a decent wind was blowing us around (it is called the windy pass, after all). After reaching the pass, you descend down the other side and are greeted to views of the ginormous southern Patagonia ice field. The trail down to the Paso del Viento campsite mellows out fairly quickly and you’ll have a pleasant stroll into camp (JKKK… you’ll be tired from your climb up and you’re still wearing a heavy pack, sucker!).
Day 3 is the “sucker, you have another pass to climb up!” day, and also “sucker, you have a super steep descent after pass #2” day. Our trip up and over Paso Huemul was MUUUUCH windier than our Paso del Viento day, and David and I guesstimated that we were subjected to 60-70 mph winds with some bigger gusts (we were REALLY getting tossed around). Our guide was, naturally, completely unimpressed with the situation. Such is life in Patagonia.
The real kicker comes after the pass, with a super steep descent on crappy, slide-y sand. If you have bad joints, take it slow, and use those hiking polls, y’all! The trail is also not particularly obvious at first, and we saw people veering off course onto presumably even steeper terrain?!? I had a very slow and hobble-y descent to our last campsite, which luckily, was also the most awesome campsite. Icebergs were plentiful in the bay next to our site, and our guide said they were about 3x more plentiful than usual (thanks, global warming, for breaking up that glacier!).
Day 4 – freeedoooommmm! Some gentle ups and downs (oh, and another zipline) is all that keeps you from a shower and a fancy restaurant dinner! After some uphill in the morning, the rest of our ~5 hour hike out was spent slowly descending towards Bahia Tunel, the ultra-blue Lago Viedma always in view to our right. Our circuit trek ended at Bahia Tunel since the guide company had pre-arranged transport back into town, but it’s possible to walk straight back to El Chalten if you’re a sucker for punishment 🙂
Some helpful notes about this circuit:
- The weather in mid-January was mild during the day (may 50s or 60s) and only slightly chilly at night. I was glad I brought my warm down jacket for hanging around camp at night, but my -30 F sleeping bag was overdoing it a little and I’d often wake up in a pool of my own sweat….woops.
- We did not filter water, as the guide insisted it was unnecessary. For the first few hours of the trek on day 1 you’re walking through cow territory, so don’t refill until you’re closer to Laguna Toro camp. But after that, it’s ::supposedly:: all safe. I haven’t gotten Giardia… yet (will update if I do!).
- I think this trek used to be somewhat of a secret, but the secret is definitely out. We had fairly big groups at each tent site, and saw a few people on the trails during the day. Of course the crowds were nothing in comparison to the absolute highways that are the day hiking trails in El Chalten.
- Bring toilet paper, but pack it out. With the increasing popularity of the circuit comes increasing sanitation problems, and it was no fun to see yucky toilet paper everywhere from people too lazy to follow LNT.
- Be prepared for rain, snow, wind, heat, …. anything!!! It is Patagonia, after all.