Backpacking Argentine Patagonia’s Huemul Circuit

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!

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cows!  and fitz roy!  beginning of day 1

The hike starts right in the town of El Chalten, the “trekking capital” of Patagonia, and the itinerary is as such:

  1. El Chalten to Laguna Toro campsite
  2. Laguna Toro Campsite to the Paso del Viento (windy pass) to the Paso del Viento campsite
  3. Optional extra day: Hike on Viedma glacier!
  4. Paso del Viento campsite to Paso Huemul to Lago Viedma campsite
  5. 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:

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image via walkpatagonia.com

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.

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day 1: view of cerro huemul, descending towards the camp site

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 🙂

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some rocky terrain pre-glacier on day 2

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.

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weeeeeee! zipline on day 2 to cross the river.  PC: Mike

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?).

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much glacier, so walking (day 2)

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!

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hiking towards paso del viento with some glacier action on the right (day 2, PC: David)

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top of paso del viento.  i am so cool (PC: David)

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.

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descending down the other side of the pass with a view of the ice field (day 2)

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!).

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day 3 starts out innocent enough… (PC: David)

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.

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heading towards paso huemul (day 3)

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pictured: final stretch up paso huemul.  not pictured: wind pelting you in the face

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!).

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the descent towards campsite #3 is uhh.. pretty steep

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maximum icebergs at lago viedma camp

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 🙂

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last zipline to freedom on day 4.  mike got his feet wet. #tallpeopleproblems

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.
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the finish line

 

 

 

 

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7 thoughts on “Backpacking Argentine Patagonia’s Huemul Circuit

  1. sudobringbeer says:

    We did it on our own (2 people) in 3 days in December with no people around at all, so it seems to be the more quiet season. 3 days is rather though but doable if you are a little bit more fit than the average hiker. Day 1 El Chalten till the intersection to Loma del Pliegue Tumbado. Leave your heavy backpacks there and climb the mountain for stunning views of Fitz Roy and the Lake. Go back grab your bags and hike to Laguna Torres. Day Two climb passo del viento, pass the campsite and carry on till the passo huemul. From the top of the pass descent about 100 meters and make camp close to the river and the low trees (gives you shelter from the winds) This is a though day, but in December you have light till 11pm so no worries. Day 3 starts with the though descent and ends with an easy hike out.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rahul says:

    This trail is epic. Best hike you can do in Patagonia. That view of the Southern Patagonian Ice Fields is unlike anything you’ll ever see (unless one goes to Antarctica or something similar). My hiking buddy and I crossed the first river by foot rather than use the zipline. That ascent up to Paso del Viento is challenging too! But man, the wind on the way to Paso Huemul. Sometimes the trail gets so narrow, and you see the Patagonian Ice Fields at the bottom of a steep drop off. You have to concentrate so hard on that part given the wind and the narrow trail! We saw 5 other people on the part to Paso del Viento camp. And then in one day, we went from that campsite back to El Chalten (almost 22 miles–it was ridiculous!). We left slightly earlier than the other 5 ppl but never saw them on the way to the campsite near Lago Viedma (we rested a good bit on the way; they should have passed us at some point). We weren’t sure if they got stuck when the wind picked up substantially (was already 50 mph when we did it. It was forecasted to get to 70 mph). There was also so much wind near that campsite near Lago Viedma–it wouldn’t have been safe to camp there. It was a reminder of just how important the weather is for this trek. If this trail were anymore accessible, it would be swarming with tourists. Awesome that you got to experience it!

    If you don’t mind me asking, how much did you pay for your guide for 4 days?

    Like

    • yeehaw, our trip sounds downright luxurious and lazy in comparison to yours! i think we paid about $600 pp, which I would definitely consider expensive, but everything around el chalten seems to be pretty expensive, eh?

      Like

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