Obligatory Fitz Roy photo, with beautiful Fagus all around.
Our next Patagonian adventure took us just up the tourist trail from Puerto Natales to El Chalten. Chalten is most famous for the nearby peaks of Cerro Torre and Monte Fitz Roy, and deservedly so, but what most interested us here was the Huemul Circuit. A 4-day circuit around Cerro Huemul (a Huemul being a type of small deer), the circuit gets a rep in some corners as being remote, undiscovered, “the hardest walk in Patagonia!!!” etc. etc. As with most walks that attract similar attention, it wasn’t really very difficult, and full of people. But what it definitely was is beautiful!
Where the Huemul does differ from other Patagonian walks is in the nature of its river crossings. Specifically, there are two “zip-lines” which can be used to cross a couple of the glacial rivers on the route, and which add to the logistical challenge in that you require a harness, carabiners and safety line of some description to use them safely. It turned out to be very simple to organise all the necessities in Chalten, as all of the outdoor stores will gladly rent you out the required bits and pieces. We found that there really wasn’t any variation in price between the few different stores, with the whole kit typically costing 130 ARS/day for harness and personal carabiners, and another 65 ARS for the single steel carabiner and length of cord required for each group. When you register for your walk at the local national park center, they expect you to show that you have all the necessary gear, and also ask you to sit and watch a short briefing slideshow.
After a couple of days getting to know Chalten and making our obligatory obeisance to Fitz Roy we lucked into a decent weather window. We had found our American friend Kyle from Los Dientes in Chalten, and he was along to supervise us once again. With gear hired and food purchased, we headed off into a light drizzle and plenty of cloud on day 1. The weather slowly broke up over the course of a day that saw us ascending up and over a wooded ridge to access the Rio Tunel valley, which was filled with some of the most amazing fagus you’ll ever see. The turning had certainly arrived in full force!
Looking back toward town from the first hill. We were soon to enter some lovely forest.
Cerro Huemul hiding under the clouds.
A small guided group we met coming out from the Tunel Valley catching some last epic photos.
After a pleasant day of walking with a couple of small river crossings, we arrived to camp 1 and started to get to know the group who would be with us for the next few days. Because of the aforementioned weather window, and the crappy weather either side, there were around 30 or so setting off on the same day. We all settled in to a sheltered spot in the lee of some large cliffs, and each group worked out their own strategy for avoiding the infamous rats of the camp. It turns out we were lucky to have Kyle, a veteran of the PCT and very adept with bear hangs, along with us to swing our food from a nearby tree. We woke to find it untouched the next morning, but unfortunately others nearby were less lucky!
River crossing - too lazy at this one to get the shoes off! Fagus out in full force.
A lone Fagus tree near camp 1.
After enjoying our rat-free breakfast, we made our way along Laguna Tunel to the first of the 2 significant river crossings, where we were excited to maybe put our equipment to use… Except that we decided to just walk across instead. We had heard from some recently returned walkers in Chalten that the rivers could be fairly easily waded, and that it was perhaps easier and safer than using the zip lines, so when we found an easy looking spot, the shoes came off and across we went. It was a relatively quick and easy crossing on small, occasionally slippery stones, but the lasting impression is just how COLD it was! Like, get in it for 5 seconds and come out with red, burning feet… Guess it makes sense, considering how the river emerges from a glacier a few hundred metres around the corner and all.
Laguna Tunel with Glaciar Rio Tunel Inferior and Paso del Viento visible on the right-hand side.
The first river crossing was also where we picked up our newest amigo, a Spanish guy by the name of Xavi, whom had also chosen to wade the river. Sticking with my standard role of “guy who talks to everybody, wanted or not” I waded back across the river and invited him to join us, as he seemed somewhat hesitant about crossing the reasonably fast flowing river. Apparently unfazed (or at least only mildly fazed) by a strange bearded (and now wet) Australian shouting at him from the middle of the river, he did indeed join us, and stuck with us for the rest of the walk too.
After all sitting around complaining of how cold our feet were for a few minutes, boots were re-donned and progress resumed. We found the alternative method of crossing a few hundred metres around the corner, crossing over a nice little gorge with the raging river underneath, and the pulley to which one needs to attach themselves hanging in the middle of the wire. All agreed that we had made the better choice. After that it was up and on to the Glaciar Rio Tunel Inferior for some slipping and sliding on the blue ice, followed by a steep and occasionally loose ascent to Paso del Viento. Thankfully, it failed to live up to its name (literally Pass of the Wind) and provided a pleasant spot for lunch, and then after walking across, amazing views of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. Needless to say, as the 3rd largest collection of frozen water on the planet, it was an impressive sight.
A view back down the climb to Paso del Viento, with Glaciar Rio Tunel Inferior very obvious, and the Laguna Tunel down in the valley.
Lunch-time views across Paso del Viento towards the ice field.
That's a lot of ice! at about 12 000 square kilometres, the Southern Patagonian Ice Field is roughly 20% of the size of Tassie, and clearly not all represented in this photo!
Deciding to make a bit of a break from the crowd, we elected to turn right at the bottom of the hill, rather than left, which left us camping near to Laguna Ferrari. This was to be both a good and a bad thing. Though the pass itself had not been particularly windy, the laguna seemed to want to do its best to make up for it. After sitting and deliberating by a couple of campsites with small rock walls, the wind died off enough for us to feel comfortable putting the tents up and calling it a day. The good bit then ensued, with a pretty calm evening and a beautiful sunset over the ice field, which was of course followed by the bad bit – freight-train winds all night. Because of the gravelly nature of the campsite, getting pegs in was a chore and I was in and out of the tent several times overnight to rescue runaways, as well as to reinforce the rocks we had holding down the tent. Unfortunately, it turns out some of these were sitting against the lines on the corners of our Scarp 2, and with all the movement of the wind overnight, they actually wore completely through a couple of the cords, snapping them completely. But we survived!
Sunset over Laguna Ferrari. The cloud formations were fantastic, and in hindsight probably a warning of the winds to come!
Last light over the ice field.
Our new friend Xavi described a first night of horror the previous night, shaking and shivering in his inadequate sleeping bag, resorting to wrapping himself in his emergency blanket and then waking up soaked, then of course freezing again. Needless to say, it didn’t sound like he had had much sleep, and he was also not confident that his tent could handle the winds, which made it all the more fortunate that the ever-accommodating Kyle kindly agreed to share his tent with Xavi. This agreement went swimmingly, with all surviving intact and relatively warm, until it came time to pack up in the morning. While getting everything sorted in the tent, he placed his foam mat outside the tent ready to pack, only to inevitably see it picked up and carried off by the wind. Despite a mad scramble to retrieve it, it was indeed lost. If you happen to have the misfortune to find yourself at the bottom of a crevasse on the ice field and survive only because of the poor planning of one poor Spaniard… Well, I’ll be happy to pass on your thanks!
Headed towards the campsite normally used as camp 2.
Given the wind overnight, we were up and about pretty early, wandering along to the campsite where most had spent the second night. With enquiries about the wind met with mostly blank looks, we wondered whether we ought to have camped there too, but with some equally blank looks when mentioning the beautiful sunset of the previous night, we figured we had made the right decision.
After passing through the camp, we made our way up and down over hillsides and across some lovely open moorland to Paso Huemul, with fantastic views of the ice field more or less the whole way through. Following a reasonably stiff climb to the top of the pass, it was time for lunch amongst the flaming orange Fagus, with views over the extensive Lago Viedma, complete with many icebergs calved from the nearby Glaciar Viedma. Not a terrible spot to eat by any means.
The patterns of the ice seemed to make the fact that this was a moving mass of water obvious.
Lunch was followed by the descent from Paso Huemul to the shore of Lago Viedma. If you believed some of the blogs you read, you would think this descent lay somewhere in the realm of mountaineering, with near certain death waiting around every corner and every step crucial. The reality is, of course, quite different. Whilst it is undoubtedly quite a precipitous descent on some fairly loose dirt and gravel at times, we found that there were generally plenty of trees to hang on to, and the steepest bits had ropes attached to aid you. It certainly isn’t somewhere where I would like to fall, but for the most part I imagine the consequences wouldn’t be quite so disastrous as some bloggers make out.
Lovely colours on the way from lunch to the descent. Shores of Lago Viedma visible on the right.
Lago Viedma from above. The most frequently used camp 3 is apparently down by the beach in the bottom left, with presumably fantastic views of all the icebergs in the bay.
With the descent successfully negotiated by all, we stopped by the turnoff to the normal campsites to consider our choices. It was still relatively early in the day, and the solitude of the alternative campsites a little further along the trail was alluring, but Xavi, hampered by nasty blisters from poor fitting boots, wasn’t quite so sure. He eventually decided to continue on with us, though he was clearly suffering, and liberally cursing his previously comfortable boots. Xavi told us he hadn’t done much walking before this, but I think it’s safe to say he learned a few lessons on this walk! It was actually awesome to know that his experiences didn’t deter him either – we met up with him later in the trip, and he was still doing plenty of overnight walking, and loving it too!
After an uneventful night we were treated to a beautiful sunrise over Lago Viedma, followed by a pleasant walk out over rolling hills to the next river crossing and a queue. When we arrived at the Tyrolean there were around 10 other walkers in front of us. It was an interesting experience to see the variety of ways in which one could attach oneself to a pulley, but nobody died, and in the end everybody made it across safely. The river certainly looked quite a bit more dangerous to ford here, being quite fast and appearing to be deeper, but we made only very cursory explanations up and down the banks. I imagine that looking downriver, towards the lake would likely be more profitable, but you would then also miss out on the chance to go zooming across on the zipline, so I’m not sure I’d bother!
Enjoying a lovely (albeit blowy) morning by Lago Viedma.
After making it across without trouble, we continued on to the lakeside ferry stop, where rumour had it a bus could be had, depending on the timetable of the tourist ferry. Confusion reigned here, it seemed, with regards to when the bus would arrive, and whether it would or not, or whether a taxi could be organised for a return to town. In the end, we elected to skip it all and just walk instead. Just as we were finishing a pleasant lunch in the sun, the first few spots of rain urged us on from our lethargy, and only proceeded to become heavier with time. It was a bedraggled group that signed out at the ranger station a few hours later, but spirits were high and only further buoyed by showers, pizzas and waffles.
Beautiful sights, new friends and new experiences make for a great walk, and the Huemul Circuit had them all. It was a fantastic 4 days, and comes highly recommended from us! As before, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to share them.
Last edited by biggbird
on Mon 03 Sep, 2018 5:20 pm, edited 1 time in total.