El Chalten: Huemul Circuit

Campsites 1, 2, & 3 and our route.

Having missed out on the opportunity to hike the famous O and W treks in Torres del Paine, we consoled ourselves with the idea of going on the adventurous Huemul Circuit. We read about it in Steve Hänisch’s guide to Argentina and after Kay saw Steve’s video of the trek on Youtube with zip-lining, he was sold. This was actually our first time hiking for more than 2 days and carrying all the food on our pack the whole time, which made me a little nervous. We had enough food and snacks for 4 days and 3 nights. Plus the ever important wine and whiskey, which Kay had dreams of drinking on over glacier ice… (Hey, Steve recommended booze!) 😉We had brought some dehydrated camping food with us from Switzerland that we had around home before the movers packed us up, and we saved it specifically for this trek, and managed to find one place in El Chalten that sold extremely expensive dehydrated bag food so that we wouldn’t be eating polenta the whole time, and so our pack was a little lighter than trying to piece together lightweight GF meals for me in the groceries in El Chalten.

We also had packed some extra running fuel gels and sports drink powders that we had at home to supplement and give ourselves extra energy during the tough parts.

DAY ONE: After stopping at the tourist office in El Chalten to register our trek and prove that we were carrying a harness per person, personal anchor, one aluminum and one steel carabiner, map, and 20m length of rope, it was time to get started. We had known we would need the harnesses and anchors, so we brought our own ones we had from sport climbing at home specifically to do this trek, and I liked knowing that our gear was solid and fit us perfectly. We didn’t know we would be required to have a steel carabiner and 20m of rope (very thin will do) so we did have to run around El Chalten a bit on our first day and gather these things along with our food supplies.

The weather was a bit so-so getting started, and I was skeptical. It’s actually snowing, and this is January in summertime down there.Kay was hoping for awhile that we would finally “get out there” in the wilderness and experience some solitude, which we did enjoy for a bit… but this was high season in Patagonia. We definitely ran into several hikers later on in the day. This trek is also increasingly popular, so don’t expect to be alone.It rained off and on, but hiking keeps you warm enough. The wind around here was pretty cold though. When we set up camp at Lago Toro (campsite #1 on the map), the wind picked up and started cutting in. I was barely warm enough to set up camp and I needed a hot tea before we even started making dinner. Even with all my layers on: shirt, pullover, down jacket, gortex shell, hat, and gloves, I was shivering nonstop.

The bathroom situation in camp was that they had a “toilet” which if we’re comparing to the toilets in Tierra del Fuego (those had running water, toilet paper and soap!) and the ones in Torres del Paine which had even HOT water, these ones were pretty crap. It was basically a shoddy tin box with a hole in the ground. And the rope used to close it was done in a stupid way that wouldn’t close the door much unless you completely re-did it if you didn’t want people to be able to peek at you in this stinking shithole.

So. After a brief bathroom stop and brushing our teeth, we went to bed around 19:30 to cuddle and try and get warm before sleeping. Brrrrrrrr!

DAY TWO:Day two was both the best day and the worst day. We got up extra early because there was a bit of a crowd at the campsite and Kay didn’t want to get stuck freezing and waiting around for people to cross the zip line. Everybody else kind of had the same idea though, but in the end, a large group of Israelis went to cross in the river in the shallow part which isn’t always possible if it rises too high, so the zip line was free for us.It was a little scary looking. Kay decided we should go over separately from our packs, so he went first and then had me send both the backpacks over individually before getting on myself.Next it was my turn. Eeep! It wasn’t as bad as I thought, but I definitely had a moment of panic where I was all alone on the other side from Kay and the packs and thought, “Crap… I have to do this.”After this came the hard part. A slippery, rocky slope with no real path, where rocks crumbled and slid under your feet and down the slope onto a glacier. These photos below are the “good” part, where I was feeling confident enough to take my iPhone out.We couldn’t really see any marked path on this part (did I mention this trek is pretty poorly marked? They mean it.) So after awhile we thought we should follow those ahead of us who were walking on the edge of the glacier below.We walked on there for about 5 minutes before I got too freaked out that we are going to slip into some unknown crevice and die, and we didn’t really think the path was going down this way, so we scrambled back up onto the rocky path where we thought maybe we saw some of the rock markers… It turned out we were right… but that didn’t make it easier. Kay had to coach me through some parts because I don’t really like walking on the side of a mountain when every step you take spurs the side of the mountain to shake and roll down beneath my feet. That’s FREAKY.When we got up a bit further, we saw that a group below us walking on the glacier had gotten off track and couldn’t tell at all where to go next until they spotted us up high. It would not have been fun to scramble up from below at that point, so I did not envy them.

When we finally reached the top of paso del viento, we were rewarded with the magnificent view of the Viedma glacier ice field, which stretches out as far as the eye can see. (Blue star on the map)From another side, we could look back and see the smaller glaciers emptying into the side of the mountain we had just walked up…. and it was pretty breathtaking.This is the sort of stuff we came for! And the view made the whole hike worth it!Kay was pretty chuffed himself.
Also, if I haven’t mentioned… it was pretty freezing up at the top, even in the bright sun. We could only stay for so long before we needed to start moving our bodies again.
The ice field was so massive… it looked like a snowy highway from far away. It was incredible to think that this is all glacial ice in constant motion.At the top we had a snack before heading on to our campsite for the night.We were pretty disappointed in our fellow hikers when we got to the next campsite. After a long day hiking, three of the Israelis took their clothes off and got into the pristine pond to go for a swim, something we all specifically verbally agreed to the park ranger not to do: contaminate the glacial water sources.

It put us in a particularly sour mood because before they went swimming, they asked us if we thought they could swim and we said no, don’t swim. And when they went still, we said directly, NO, don’t get into the water and contaminate it, but they tried to brush it off that it was both not a big deal and that they somehow earned the right to contaminate the water with their ball sweat because they’d hiked up this hill. Knowing that we were pumping our drinking and cooking water from the glacial water made us even more angry. One of them even tried to come over and calm us down that what they were doing was fine, and it made me even more angry how they just did whatever they wanted.

At that point, we decided to get up really early the next day again just to limit our contact with these selfish individuals.

DAY THREE:The bonus of getting up early at 5:30am again was that we saw a really nice sunrise before leaving camp. (Campsite #2 on the map)Meanwhile it was back to hiking along the side of the glacial field again before we left it behind. The path was still tryingly hard to find. Sometimes Kay could find it, sometimes I could find it… sometimes we would just stare around for awhile and wonder where to walk. Below you can see one of the better marked path visuals, a little pile of rocks. Although in this particular spot, I don’t think the pile of rocks was that easy to spot from way down below… around here I just sort of walked what looked the most like it could be a path or steps or footprints, while Kay took the approach of “let’s just go up here, higher and higher.”Next up was the shitty, shitty part that almost made me hate this hike. After crossing the Paso Huemul, it was time to descend an incredibly steep slope to the next campsite. Only we veered off to the right at Kay’s guidance, over a poorly marked sign that meant “not the path” and dropped further and further into thicker trees that had us both saying, “No, this CAN’T be the path…” like, it had us on our knees ducking under trees with 15kg packs on our backs. Not fun.Eventually we made it back up and started the REAL path down, which I can only describe as awful…. and it wasn’t raining. If it would have been raining, I’m sure I would have just fallen/slid down the whole mountain. It was so steep it was hard not to slide… in fact, I spent most of the time on my butt or grabbing at plants and trees on the side of the trail to stop me from slipping dangerously forward.

Kay poked a hole in his pack’s main bag on a sharp broken tree and somewhere along the route, I lost my lipbalm, which was lucky considering my sunglasses case and hiking poles, which I stored away, fell out during the awful climb below the trees on the non-path mishap earlier.

By the time we got to camp below (campsite #3 on the map), Kay was disappointed to find that the camp was not at the beach, but in a sheltered area. His dreams of whiskey on ice, which he’d been saving for this night, started dissipating. We thought about moving camp, but didn’t know if there would be a spot to camp at the actual lake and if that was a smart idea with the wind situation in Patagonia… we didn’t want to find out.

What Kay did do was hike down himself to the lake… I decided the non-path he took was too much for me after such an awful climb down, so I explored around camp before putting things for dinner together… and just as I was folding our cups up, look who showed up at camp carrying a big chunk of glacier ice in his hat! (You can see where he went down in blue next to campsite #3 on the map.)Yaaay… dreams do come true. Kay was able to break off a little piece from a chunk floating near the shore of lake viedma. We enjoyed a nice big glass of cold whiskey… so well deserved after a climb down like that.DAY FOUR:Our night around lake Viedma actually ended up being the warmest of all the nights on the trail, possibly because it was such a sheltered campsite. We decided to get up again because the campsite was small and overcrowded and we again wanted to spend most of the day hiking just the two of us.We actually got up early enough that even though several through hikers had passed our campsite the night before and gone on to camp in unofficial areas, we overtook them all.We were also rushing a bit again because we knew there was another zip line coming up that we didn’t want to get “stuck in traffic” for, and we had heard from the weather forecast that it would rain later that day, so we were trying to avoid bad weather.

Once again, Kay went ahead with the zip lining first, although this one was set much lower and closer to the water. At first, Kay wanted to set his backpack on the same level as himself, until he just set off and I said “NO, that will be waaay too low, attach the carabiner directly to the hook and not to the anchor”. And as you can see… with the weight of it all, Kay sank right in and flooded his boots and pants.Also, we realized that the rope got stuck on the bigger rocks in the river, and there wasn’t enough of it to let him get all the way across, so he was kind of stuck. I had to help him sling the rope over the rock so that he could wheel himself to safety. Can we all just imagine how wet his pack would be if it were on the same level as his butt?? He didn’t even put his iPhone in his watertight bag because the last zip line was so safe and dry!! Meanwhile, while Kay was struggling, I was quickly pulling off my boots and socks and pant legs and putting on my tevas. We also decided to send my pack over by itself because the weight was dipping everything too far together.When I went, I was pretty carefree and more concerned about Kay taking photos of me than remembering that the stupid rope was going to get stuck on the rock again… which it did! And this time, there was no one on the other side to help sling it over.Kay spent some time shouting instructions to me that I couldn’t hear and getting annoyed with me that I wasn’t slinging the rope from where I was… but the problem was that when the rope had too much slack, you couldn’t get it to lift out of the rushing water, yet if you pulled it too tight, it was stuck on the rock. This was too hard to convey to Kay from the middle of the river, so he continued angrily pointing while I tried to wheel myself closer back to the rock to get a different angle and rope length to sling it over.Eventually I got it, although not without scraping Kay’s hands up in the process on the steel cable (oops!).

I would like to say that this was the end of our Huemul Circuit, but when we arrived at the ferry pickup nice and early, a bus had just left literally seconds before we arrived, and we had no idea when the next one would come, so after waiting an hour and having a snack, Kay decided we should walk the “extra unmarked route” back to town, which ended up being pretty damn unmarked. (See map, where we trail off any marked path…)

I would say it was fun… but I was pretty tired of walking through swampy cow area and there was literally NO path. At the end, we didn’t really know where the town was and it was starting to thunderstorm. Eventually, we were just walking through spiky, painful bush across and up hills, with spooked cows nearby as the skies threatened us.

We ended making it back to town alright, although not before I cried out of fear and frustration, and eventually started walking on my own to again, what I thought looked like it could maybe be a path. And later that night it stormed pretty badly El Chalten, so I am very happy that we finished the trek when we did! This was definitely an extremely challenging trek, between the tricky/slippery path on the second day, the zip lining extras, and the awful steep descent and bonus cow shit scavenger hunt at the end.

I do not recommend it for the faint of heart.

3 thoughts on “El Chalten: Huemul Circuit”

  1. I did the trek maybe a week or two before you did. I’ve been reading practically every blog post I can find on it online. Awesome story! And yea, that rocky terrain on Day #2 is unreal. And I had the same concerns on the glacier as well.

    That is really frustrating to hear about those three Israelis contaminating the Ferrari Lake. That particular part of the trek is so pristine as well :/ . I think people will have to try and get water from the small river upstream of the lake from now on. Better to get it from moving water than a pristine lake now contaminated. I also read other posts about people leaving toilet paper around as well. It’s quite unfortunate.

    We saw a French guy who left from Chalten at 7 AM and got to the paso del viengo hut in one day. We also left from the hut and went back to Chalten in one single day (about 22 miles)–on this day we were the only ones on the hike. Sometimes you’ll see no one on the hike, and other times it’ll be really crowded. It’s hit or miss.

    You can read my account here.

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