Huemul Circuit: Our favorite hike in South America!
Clipping the climbing harness to the Tyrolian-zipline , we all became quiet, trying not to notice the knots rising from our stomachs into our throats – all that was separating us from the raging waters of the Rio Tunel 20 meters below was a stainless steel carabiner.
We were hiking the Huemul Circuit in Los Glaciares National Park, an infrequently traveled path (almost half of the trail is unmarked) in Argentine Patagonia. Before starting the trek, the park rangers had verified our qualifications, basically having a pulse, a climbing harness, safety line and 2 steel carabiners.
Hanging upside down over the Rio Tunel, we remembered the box on the hiker registration form asking us to list the details of our helicopter rescue insurance. Why we entertain thoughts like this is a mystery. Really we’re not afraid of heights, it’s falling that scares us. Staring into the foamy torrent below, we knew a fall was sudden death.
Focusing on the cable, we continued on, pulling one hand after the other. Fixated now on the cable, the sturdiness of the anchoring bolts came into question. Before we could find another target for our doubts or fears, we had made it across.
We had started out the day before from the ranger station in El Chalten, steadily climbing uphill through a dry beech forest. The imposing and iconic peaks of Mont Fitz Roy, Poincenot, and Cerro Torre filled the northern horizon. On our left, the turquoise-green expanse of Lago Viedma glowed like a gemstone in the afternoon light. Nearing the Rio Tunel valley, Mount Huemel (2221 meters) loomed larger and larger. Our trek would take us around this mountain, traversing the turbulent waters of Rio Tunel twice, an ice march across one glacier, and skirting past the third largest ice sheet on the planet.
After crossing the zipline, the tangle of nerves stuck in our throats had disappeared. A rush of adrenaline coursed through our veins. Buzzing and confident we stood in the sunlight, grinning from ear to ear. The morning was warming up and the skies were clearing. Today was going to be a good day.
Advancing up the river-carved gorge, we reached the terminus of the Inferior Rio Tunel Glacier. This was the source of the wild waters we had crossed an hour before. Sitting here watching the ice melt, we loaded up on salami and crackers.
Our attempts at walking up the steep, gravel covered ice were comical – we slipped, crawled on all fours and eventually abandoned the route altogether. Option B was the steep and unstable boulder-strewn slope facing the glacier. Pretending to be surefooted mountain goats with 20-kilogram backpacks we hopped from boulder to boulder wondering which was more dangerous, a landslide here or slipping into a crevasse on the glacier.
Finally reconnecting with a recognizable path, we pushed on up the rocky scree slope toward Paso del Viento (Windy Pass). Magnificent views of seldom seen glaciers spread out like a sea of white behind us.
Paso del Viento (1550 meters) was nothing more than a rocky ridgeline with a patch of snow. The view however, is amazing. Below us, spread out like a never-ending ribbon of vanilla ice cream sprinkled with Oreo cookies lies the Great Southern Ice Sheet, the third largest chunk of ice on the planet.
Having just knocked out the most technical day of the journey we admired the surreal river of ice and rock, thinking to ourselves, it doesn’t get much better than this.
The third day we would climb the Huemul Pass (987m) and descend to a campsite on Bahia Tempanos on the glacially fed Lake Viedma. The challenge here was not the all day uphill, exposed in the scorching Patagonia sunshine, it was the descent. The precipitous path was a knee twister, and hanging on to every available branch and tree root was a necessity. We were almost perpendicular to the mountain face for what seemed to be an eternity. Wasn’t descending supposed to be quicker and easier part of hiking?
The campsite on Bahia Tempanos was the most beautiful of the entire trek. With the sun dipping below the mountains, crimson and maroon hues reflected off the Patagonian sky. Watching the light shine through icebergs left an impression we will never forget. If only we’d brought some mini-bar bottles of whiskey to pour over the glacial ice stranded on the cobblestone beach.
The last morning we began the long, flat trudge along Lake Viedma to the parking lot at Estancia Rio Tunel. The highlight is a final zipline across a much mellower portion of the Rio Tunel. Hitchhiking from the estancia to El Chalten, we ate our celebratory dinner of warm, fluffy waffles topped with sugary fruit and copious whipped cream at the WaffleHouse.
In all honesty we’d never heard of this hike until a few days before we arrived in El Chalten. Stuck in Chile Chico we met a traveler who had just completed this technical trek (mid-February, 2016) and raved about it, even spending two days stuck in the tent with windy, inclement conditions. She claimed it was more rugged and isolated than the entire W-circuit in Torres Del Paine.
We were convinced and decided to give it a go, weather permitting. The conditions during our trek were absolutely perfect (March 1-4). We rented the harnesses and gear from one of the shops in town. If you have rock climbing and/or zipline experience it’s not that difficult to figure out, only your life depends on it.
Watch our video of Huemul Circuit Trek.