Hiking the Huemul Circuit

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Editors Note: The following article is from Issue 17. Subscribe to read the entire issue here.
 
By Stephanie Stefanski
 
 
In the small town of El Chalten, Argentina, most backpackers strap on their packs and take the main road north toward the iconic Mount Fitz Roy in Los Glaciares National Park. But heading out of town in the other direction, past the National Parks Service (APN) ranger station, there is an inconspicuous - but just as captivating - trail that also heads to the mountains. Spanning 40 miles (64 km), the Huemul Circuit takes adventurers through lush meadows, stark glacial terrain, past the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, and to Lake Viedma with a view of the terminus of the Viedma Glacier.
 
Day 1: El Chalten to Laguna Toro
After leaving town and getting onto the trail, hikers will cross through six hours of green meadows with minimum elevation change. Stoic wild cattle watch as backpackers trudge through a mess of mud and manure, searching for any small piece of wood or rock to serve as a stepping stone. This section of the road is one of the busiest, leading to the Laguna Toro Campground. The campsite, located by a lake, offers plenty of potable water, sheltered sites for pitching tents, and a primitive toilet (read: covered hole in the ground). This is the furthest most travelers can get without a guide or advanced skills, and makes for a great out-and-back overnight trip for those who want views of glacial meadows and Cerro Torre.
 
Day 2: Laguna Toro to Paso del Viento Refuge
On the second day of the circuit, backpackers must cross the first Tyrolean traverse. APN recommends bringing a local guide to assist with these traverses, which can be challenging for solo or inexperienced backpackers. The traverse is a steel cable, stretching upwards from one end of a ravine to another. A freezing, raging river threatens to take anyone, or anything, that falls below.
 
When backpackers stop at the APN station, they must demonstrate the skills and equipment necessary to cross both Tyrolean traverses. While there is the option to cross both rivers on foot, the water level may be dangerously high depending on the season and recent rainfall. Required gear includes sufficient rope (at least 98 feet [30 meters]) to recover the pulley if necessary, harnesses, a steel carabiner to clip into the pulley or onto the steel cable, a safety line, and an aluminum carabiner for the safety. Prior to departing, our team rehearsed safety and procedure for clipping into and out of the steel cable, and how to bring a backpack along if necessary. Due to our large group size, we decided the safest procedure would be to cross part of our team over first. This group would then assist with bringing everyone’s 65L backpacks across. We used our extra rope to pull the gear, securely clipped into the pulley, across the traverse. Finally, the rest of the team crossed. For our group of 14, the entire procedure took a few hours.
 

The first Tyrolean traverse. Photo: Stephanie StefanskiThe first Tyrolean traverse. Photo: Stephanie Stefanski

 
Despite the long morning, this was only the start to the day. Our goal was the Paso del Viento refuge, approximately 8-10 hours away and with a steep elevation gain of 3,280 feet (1,000 meters). At 5,085 feet (1,550 meters) above sea level, hikers arrive at the first panoramic view of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field and the highest peak of the entire trek.
 
The ice field to our right, we scramble over boulders and icy terrain, even trekking through a gentle snowfall, before finally starting the 2,952-foot (900 meters) descent into camp. At this point in the trail, strategically placed but often hidden, cairns and our satellite device are our only navigation tools.
 
As we descend, the stark, gray landscape gives way to rolling, green fields. The refuge sits next to a small lagoon and is surrounded by running streams and rivers, ensuring a fresh supply of water. Small rock walls surround and shelter the various sites for pitching tents. There is even a small shelter for cooking and staying warm against the blowing winds which give the site its name: The Windy Pass.
 
 
Cerro Huemul. Photo: Stephanie StefanskiCerro Huemul. Photo: Stephanie Stefanski
 
 
Day 3: Paso del Viento Refuge to Lake Viedma
The following morning, clouds give way to clear blue skies. Our view of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field stretches far into the horizon, revealing white, snow-covered mountains that were obscured beneath clouds and rain on the previous day. The trail starts off gentle and rolling, but soon leads to a steep, 3,238-foot (987 meters) ascent up Paso Huemul. As we reach the peak, scrambling up slippery rock and gravel, we give one last, long look to the ice field and look down upon the valley and blue glacial Lake Viedma below.
 
Small white flecks in the water are our focus point during the nearly three-hour, 984-foot (300 meters) descent. On the map, the trail is labeled as “damaged.” The steepness of the decline often forces us to grip onto tree roots or scoot on our bottoms to prevent us from falling over. At one point, we must climb and rappel down a 9 foot (3 meter) rock wall, using a rope set up by the APN. Yet at each rest stop, we can see the small white flecks slowly grow into massive icebergs.
 
Finally, as our knees feel like they are about to give way to the weight of our backpacks and the gradient of the mountainside, the trail flattens out and leads us to the lakefront. There are several campsites here, but we must seek out the trails to find them. We are still relying on cairns as our trail markers, though we can see colorful trail markers signaling the start of our last leg. We are in luck. The lakefront campsite, with a panoramic view of Viedma Glacier and all her icebergs, is completely vacant.
 
 
Tent with a view. Photo: Stephanie StefanskiTent with a view. Photo: Stephanie Stefanski
 
 
Lake Viedma and icebergs from Glacier Viedma. Photo: Stephanie StefanskiLake Viedma and icebergs from Glacier Viedma. Photo: Stephanie Stefanski
 
 
Day 4: Zero Day at Lake Viedma
The entire Huemul Circuit can be completed in four days, averaging six to ten hours of hiking per day depending on your group size and skill level. However, backpackers should schedule an extra day to account for weather (high winds can make passing the Paso del Viento or the Tyrolean traverses treacherous). Fortunately, winds were manageable during each day of our journey, so we opted to spend our extra day at Lake Viedma to enjoy the view and explore the area.
 
Day 5: Lake Viedma to El Chalten
We wake up to clear skies and pack up our tents, a bittersweet feeling of leaving the trail and returning to civilization (and baths) overhanging us. The undulating path follows the Lago Viedma shore and brightly colored trail markers staked into the ground lead the way. There is just one more Tyrolean traverse between us and the end of the trail.
 
We arrive right around lunch time. However, we notice that the pulley and pulley string system is missing! Only a steel cable stretches across the river. We search for other crossing points, but the water level is too high. Fortunately, another set of backpackers arrives with extra rope. We fashion a pulley system out of two sets of rope and the steel carabiner, which we use to successfully cross part of our team before sending other travelers and our backpacks across. After a few hours, our entire team successfully crosses the river and packs up our gear to continue onward.
 
 
Lake Viedma. Photo: Sebastian ArreseLake Viedma. Photo: Sebastian Arrese
 
 
The end of the trail presents little fanfare. An empty port signals the departure point for boat tours of Viedma Glacier. No signage congratulates trail-weary backpackers for completing the journey, nor marks the start of the trail. We take a small break before deciding to continue onward to La Quinta Estancia, where we have reservations. The hotel is on a ranch which maintains cattle trails that lead to Los Glaciares National Park. Although the entire property is fenced, we find a trail and follow it parallel to the road. After passing several docile cattle, we finally see the red roof of our destination, surrounded by trees, standing out against the barren landscape.
 
I will note that there is a 5 p.m. bus which can drop travelers off in town, or even at the estancia. However, being unconvinced such a bus existed, we opted for another two hours of trail. Imagine our disbelief, while half stuck in cow manure and mud, when we saw the bus punctually driving past at 4:30 p.m. and heading toward the port! Future adventurers take note!
 
We arrive to La Quinta Estancia, bruised and muddy, just in time for showers and dinner. Our comically different appearance from other hotel guests warranted more than a few looks and laughs, but was well worth it for the hot showers and locro soup – a dinner of champions after five days on the trail with nothing but granola, Mountain House dinners, and oatmeal!
 
While at times challenging, the Huemul Circuit is an incredibly rewarding experience for seasoned backpackers. Despite potentially dangerous and difficult trail and weather conditions, the constantly changing terrain, iconic Patagonian views, relatively empty paths, and well-established campsites make this adventure well worth it.
 
 
 

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