Huemul Circuit: Our Best Trek in South America!!!

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.

 

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The Tyrolian zipline crossing the Rio Tunel, early on day 2 of the Huemul Circuit Trek.

 

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.

 

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Leaving park headquarters, the views are majestic.

 

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.

 

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A weathered signpost for the Lago Toro campsite, the glacially-fed Lake Viedma in the distance

 

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.

 

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The hike across the Inferior Rio Tunel Glacier was supposed to last one hour. After finding the route too slippery, we hopped across the steep boulder strewn slope just opposite. The massive form of Cerro Grande standing in the background.

 

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.

 

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The steep rocky scree from the Inferior Rio Tunel Glacier to Paso del Viento. The elevation gain from the Lago Toro campsite (seen below) to the pass is 900 meters.

 

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.

 

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The stunning vista of the Southern Patagonian Ice Sheet from Paso del Viento.

 

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.

 

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Staring out over Hielo Sur, we felt we were really experiencing Patagonia

 

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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?

 

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Sunrise on Lake Viedma.

 

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One last look at Glacier Viedma.

 

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.

 

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Trekking under the Patagonian sky.

 

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.

 

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It was one last zipline, then off to El Chalten for the celebratory dinner.

 

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.

 

 

 

10 Comments on “Huemul Circuit: Our Best Trek in South America!!!

  1. Pingback: Huemul Circuit Trek – 2 Drifting Coconuts

  2. Hi! I was wondering how you managed to navigate the Huemal since much of it is unmarked? Also, is it okay to make this home alone ? Thanks for your advice

    • Hi Alfy, the Huemel circuit certainly is quite a technical trek. Day 1 straightforward. Day 2 quickly gets confusing looking for the tyrolian zipline, then follow the river up to the glacier. The route description calls for crossing the edge of the Inferior Rio Tunel
      Glacier which we found too dangerous (slippery ice with gravel was like walking on marbles). Instead we traversed the steep boulder strewn slope just opposite (also very dangerous) then we connected with a good path to Paso del Viento and down to our next camp. Day 3 also good path up to Huemel Pass and a steep but well worn trail to Lago Viedma camp. Day 4 hiking along Lago Viedma the trail comes and goes, there are rock cairns and occasional poles/sticks upright. Along with map we used Maps.me App a GPS based navigation system to verify we were going the right direction. We had great weather, little wind and no rain, which could definitely make navigation more difficult. This is not a trek to do alone. There are two Ziplines over raging rivers and you need two persons to get the rope back and to be on the safe side. Please check the blog post and YouTube video for more details. It’s a beautiful hike and potentially very dangerous. Don’t know if the park rangers would let you go at it alone either, they were very meticulous making sure we had the right equipment before giving us permits. We also met two rangers who checked our permits right as we crossed the first zipline. Hope this rather lengthy reply is helpful. Good luck and be safe.

      • Reading that we are required to have a 20m rope as a safety line? Any specific diameter/type of rope required?

        • The 20m of rope recommendation is for the pulleys on the Tyrolian ziplines. When we arrived at the first zipline crossing, the pulley was actually right in the middle of the zipline itself. One of the trekkers we were with pulled herself hand over hand on the zipline and retrieved the pulley. The 20m of rope is to be used as a retrieval line for bringing the pulley back to one side of the river. Each pulley therefore needs two retrieval lines. Your safety line is the second carabiner.

          It’s actually quite weird that the park service only had one retrieval line on each of the two ziplines we crossed and both times they were for the opposite side of the river. We brought along some heavy duty string purchased in El Chalten and combined in with shorter lengths of paracord that we were already carrying. This worked for us. Ideally 20m of paracord would be the best if you have it, if you could find it in El Chalten. The climbing shops had similar but very expensive cordage that we opted not to buy. Hope this helps explain, good luck with the trek and be safe!

  3. We did the Trek in Dec. 2016 on our own. You need a harness two 60cm slings and two carabiners for the tyrolia. The rangers will let you watch a video that explains the dangers of the trek and you’ll need to register there. The Trek is very easily to be found in good weather (like a good trekking path in Europe) but can get difficult in fog or bad weather, so a GPS might get handy. You should be really fit, have good orientation skills and a lot of outdoor and preferable some scrambling/mountaineering experience. You should know how to cross rivers, move in loose terrain and not be afraid of heights because some parts of the trek are really exposed. We met not a single person on the whole trek! Mobile reception was mostly not existent -> so if you break a leg you are on your own. So it is absolutely fine to do it on your own (I would highly recommend to do it with another person together!), but you should know what you are doing.

    • We agree, this trek is certainly not easy and not for the uninitiated. The remoteness, lack of traffic, danger and the technical aspects all add to the appeal. You’re so right, it’s not a place to get hurt or trek alone. For us the worst was the glacier crossing. It was too slippery to negotiate and we opted for the steep, boulder strewn slope that seemed like a landslide waiting to happen. Probably why not many people attempt this hike, we certainly pushed our limits.

  4. This hike was a blast! The first river crossing my friend and I actually didn’t use the zipline; it was early in the morning and the water level was low, so we went upstream and crossed a shallow portion of the river by foot [taking off our socks and crossing with our shoes; not fun but we witnessed someone else on the zipline accidentally drop their bag into the raging river. Luckily they got it back]. I think you can also cross that river with some sturdy sandals; we also saw some other people bring a spare pair of shoes which they had on the side of their bags.

    Yea, the ascent up to the Paso del Viento was treacherous with all the loose rocks and all. It’s hard to know where to get off from the glacier, and sometimes you don’t even go on the glacier at all. It’s tough! And yea that part on the 3rd day where you come down, apparently you come down 500m over the course of 1200m (or 42% decline on average). When we got to the 2nd river crossing the pulley was broken so we had to again find a downstream portion to cross by foot :/ . It’s an absolute beast of a hike but so worth it if you can find the right people to go with. Thanks for sharing your experience with this post! I wish more people knew about it, but maybe it’s good that the park people keep it relatively low key since there’s so much that can go wrong and then they’d have to do a bunch of search and rescues for beginner hikers who may not know what they’re getting themselves into.

    • Love your trip report. The Paso Del Viento hike is tough but so worth it. We were fortunate to hear about it from a German traveler who was stuck in our hostel during some bad weather. She had done the complete circuit in Torres Del Paine and thought PDV was even better, that got us hooked. We also heard about people fording the river rather than ziplining, but it was too swift during our hike. That first crossing of the Rio Tunel is something we’ll never forget.