From El Chaltén there are a couple of day hikes to Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre viewpoints which you can also combine through campsites, then there’s a huge circuit over glaciers going even into Chile, and then there’s the Huemul Circuit around the Huemul mountain, a 4 day hike which became increasingly popular over the last years. I was a bit scared if I can do it as you are warned about a number of things and have to do a river crossing over a zipline using a harness. Plus you are not allowed to go on your own.
In El Calafate I meet by chance Luciano from Buenos Aires who heads to El Chaltén the same day as me to do the Huemul Circuit. We decide to go together, I have more hiking experience, he speaks Spanish to organise our gear. In El Chaltén we pick up another guy, Leandro, from Mendoza to come with us. With two Argentinians on my side I hope to learn some Spanish finally and have a good time!
Day 1. El Chaltén to Laguna Toro
The weather forecast was not good for the morning so we decided to meet at 10am only. I am up at 8am for a last shower, buy bread, have breakfast and pack my gear. I brought so much food as I heard how expensive El Chaltén is that I still have a huge bag to leave in the hostel. With the harness, rope, carabiners my pack is anyway heavier now than usually so I didn’t want to take too much food (I already know I will regret it ;-)).
I am ready at 9.45am to go and meet Leandro but Luciano is not yet… I wait at the reception of Rancho Grande hostel, soon joined by Leandro. It’s 10.40am when we can finally leave – I have to get used to Argentinian timings. It was just difficult as the sun is shining already!
We head to the ranger station to register for the trail. We have to show our harness and other equipment such as the stove and sign a form. If we don’t show up after the trail they will initiate search and rescue after 48h of the due date. But otherwise they are not helpful, they told Luciano yesterday they will show us how to use the equipment for the tirolesa (zipline) but then just say we should already know how to use it. I think I can manage with my little climbing and via ferrata experience but still…
Anyway, we start the trail at 11.30am. The first day is the easiest. We walk uphill and enjoy the views back over El Chaltén but the mountains are unfortunately still partly cloud covered. As we left so late I cannot do the detour to another lookout (but with the clouds it’s not a good day for it anyway). Atumn is beautiful again, the trees colourful but it’s pretty cold. As we are out of the forest with view of the Viedma lake, we take our lunch break with a French girl.
We walk through wetland and another short forest section and then we can see on our left the Huemul and on the right the valley with the river, Laguna Toro and the glacier Río Túnel. Wow, it’s breathtaking, so many colours and the river sparkling. Just the weather is getting worse, more and more clouds and we can see it’s raining at the glacier.
We hike now down to the river and all the way up to just before the lake where our campsite is. I am reliefed to see its a well sheltered place as it’s quite windy. The camping is free of charge and better than some of the Torres del Paine paid ones! We set up the tents in the separate sheltered lots, have a soup and soon are six people enjoying a nice evening together. It’s very, very cold but the six of us sit together, chat, cook, laugh, celebrate a birthday with some whisky and Stéphanie the French girl shares her last 2 desserts, freeze dried chocolate cake and rice pudding, with all of us as she is on her last camping before flying back home. Yummy! As it seriously starts to rain at 8.30pm we all run for our tents. I am pretty scared I will be freezing the next nights…
Day 2. Laguna Toro to camping Paso del Viento
The night was not too bad, it took a while to heat up in my sleeping bag but then I was relatively warm, still waking up every hour feeling uncomfortable on my wobbly sleeping pad. I finally get up at 8am as agreed and start cooking breakfast, joined by the others. We share our pots as not everyone brought cups and it works out fine. It’s freezing cold, my feet are cold, my hands are cold… I am of course all set long before my two hiking companions who are not yet used to packing up camping gear. But at least the sun is out and I can sit in the warm(er) sunshine while waiting. We finally leave at 10.30am. Today it might be the most difficult day, passing the zipline and hiking over the Paso del Viento. The wind was blowing very strongly last night but it seems to calm down a bit now so that the pass might not be too bad.
The beginning to the Laguna Toro and further up to the zipline is an easy walk, it’s just freezing cold in the shadow. The zipline is a lot of fun, situated at the most dangerous part of the river above the gorge. The water level is actually quite low so we also could have crossed by foot, but we have the gear and don’t want to miss out on the fun! Luckily I still know how to put on the harness and secure ourselves and I have the guys go first so I can ensure they are securely attached. When it’s my turn I realise how much a backpack can actually weigh when you hang on a zipline and have to pull yourself upwards. Nice training for my arms which I don’t use much except for my hiking poles.
It was fun though and soon followed by more fun as we walk up to the glacier Río Túnel. The rangers told us we shouldn’t be walking on the steep side with the stones but can walk on the glacier instead! It’s so cool to be just walking easily on the border of the glacier, seeing those crevasses and further up the white and blue shining “clean” part of the glacier. The sun is shining and finally I am warm.
As we get off the glacier it’s already 1.30pm and I am so hungry I need a lunch break before the steep and long ascent to Paso del Viento. Gravel, rocks, just up, up, up. Soon I am far ahead of the guys, as I wait I get too cold so I continue.
At the pass at 1500m altitude I really have to wait for them and make sure they are OK. Luciano arrives first and we take some jumping pictures before finally Leandro arrives as well. We are now so cold that we have to continue.
And now we can see the enormous Viedma glacier spreading out in front of us. I already know on my second day that this circuit is better than the Torres del Paine. Plus by far less crowded (but not a secret anylonger neither) and it doesn’t cost anything. Just some resistance to the very cold weather, but no wonder, it’s April now! I might be done with camping after this trail, at least down south where I am now.
It’s another 5km descent to the campsite, a beautiful hike but it starts getting late. I arrive at 6.30pm at the campsite and set up my tent and then help the others. We are cold and hungry, and I think Luciano and Leandro are exhausted while the slow hiking was not too difficult for me today. After 9 months of hiking that’s no wonder.
This time we can cook inside a small hut which is a bit warmer than outside. There’s no wind and I hope it’s gonna stay like this. We are at 900m elevation, much higher than last night and I hope I will survive the cold night which would be much worse if the wind picks up.
Day 3. Camping Paso del Viento – Bahia de los Témpanos.
I couldn’t sleep much at all last night, I was too busy feeling cold. It was th most horrible night so far on my journey. The frozen ground was worst, as my mattress isn’t insulated enough and I could feel the cold creeping inside me from the ground. That’s it then for camping, my gear is ultralight 3 season gear and not for winter temperatures. I decide to do the other trails from El Chaltén and spend money on a hostel rather than continuing to freeze. I will probably also skip a few other planned hikes in Patagonia and move further up north.
Breakfast in the little hut is alright and warms me up a bit, but when we start hiking at 10am my feet and hands are still really cold and it takes quite some time until they will get warm again… The beginning today is easy, just slightly up and down and always about straight ahead. The sky is covered in clouds and snow is drizzling on us as we enjoy the hike and more views of the Viedma glacier.
At one river crossing, Luciano slips on a rock and his feet get completely wet – with this very cold weather we feel bad with him. I can’t get quite warm today and for lunch we take a nice rest having a hot coffee.
It doesn’t help much but the following ascent to Paso Huemul is getting me a bit warmer before cooling down again at the pass. The view on the top is just great again, on the one side glacier Viedma and the other side lake Viedma and autumn trees.
The campsite is pretty close now in terms of kilometers but that’s just when the trail gets tricky. The descent is extremely steep on sometimes very slippery ground, so we have to be extra careful. It takes a long time to descend and I have to wait often for the guys but the good thing is, it’s getting warmer and warmer the more we descend.
We are quite excited about some icebergs and the Blue colours of the end of Glacier Viedma though. Finally we made it and after seeing one campsite to follow a trail further down to the bay. Success, well hidden camping spots but just 2m away the beach with glacier view. Luckily, Jéhanne and Oliver find us as well but no one else, so we have the campsite all to ourselves! We enjoy the best (and warmest) evening on this circuit, sitting at the beach, watching the glacier, having dinner, laughing, screaming as a first mouse tries to steal our food as it gets dark. We see more mice and a rat and tonight I also hang my food! Tonight I cannot sleep because I can hear the mice and am afraid they will make a hole in my tent.
Day 4. Bahia de los Témpanos – El Chaltén.
The mice got some of our hanging food, made holes in backpacks and camel bags… I really don’t know how else to secure our stuff as we used very thin ropes to hang everything and probably they just jumped. For some reason all my gear survived luckily. We take our time in the morning, watching the sunrise as it colours the mountains and makes the clouds disappear.
It’s 16km to the end of the trail at the small harbour where boats leave for glacier Viedma and hopefully a bus or car to El Chaltén. Like the first day, it’s much easier walking as Luciano, Leandro and I make our way along Lake Viedma, watching from the distance some other hikers go for a swim in the freezing water. We continue up the hills as the weather is getting better and better until we are walking under blue sky and for the first time on this trail I am really warm!
On the other side of the hill it’s all the way down to the lake and we cross the last river again on a tirolesa. More fun before the final 3km to the little harbour.
We don’t see any cars or busses and the boats didn’t leave the harbour at all. At the harbour, only a guy with a bike who told us that some workers just left and otherwise he didn’t see anyone for one hour.
Unmotivated we start to hike for further 8km to El Chaltén. Then I can see a car coming and we run back to the road and the harbour. Luciano asks very politely and the Argentinian couple agrees to take us back to El Chaltén. The guys sitting back in the open trunk, freezing, while I try to speak Spanish again inside, quite unsuccessful. They are very nice and give us plenty of advice after dropping us off, kissing us goodbye. We bring back our rented gear and walk in the panaderia next door for empanadas and sweet stuff, smiling like crazy about the wonderful food. We stop in two other panaderias before making it to the hostel and a well necessary hot shower! In the evening we meet up again with Oliver and Jéhanne for dinner in a restaurant (REAL food: trout with vegetables!) followed by a drink in the only bar still open. It turns out on the Friday night the girls of El Chaltén came together here for some midnight zumba party, it’s fun to watch them but only Luciano is brave (and talented) enough to dance with them! A great end of a wonderful hike with wonderful people.