Note: If you are considering to do this hike, you can read my extensive hiking guide here. The following post is descriptive–it tells quite the story!
Before traveling to Patagonia, my research led me to the Huemul Circuit, a 4 day / 70km trek in El Chalten, Argentina. It was the most beautiful trek in Patagonia, largely unknown, and ridiculously difficult. Half the trail is unmarked, you travel across a glacier on foot, and you must rent equipment to cross two rivers by zipline. It was also a rare opportunity to see the Southern Patagonian Ice Fields, which sounded super awesome. In the end, it turned out to be the most amazing experience of my life.
What makes it arguably one of the top 5 treks in the world is that it enables you to see the South Patagonian Ice Fields, the 3rd largest reserve of fresh water in the world behind Antarctica and Greenland. While you may see glaciers in Patagonia, all these glaciers come from the Ice Field–literally the tip of the iceberg. You usually can’t see the ice fields since they’re hidden by mountain peaks like Fitz Roy and Huemul.
I eventually met an experienced Canadian backpacker who agreed to do it with me. But when we went to the park rangers office at 5 pm one day, we heard some grim news: if we started tomorrow as planned, the wind on the ice fields was forecasted to reach 100km/h, making it virtually suicidal to attempt the hike. However, if we started today (again, it was 5 pm!!), we could avoid the peak of the wind on the ice fields. We then made the decision to start the hike that same day.
So yes, we actually started the first leg–a 16km trek–at 6:30pm! After frantically buying food and renting gear, we both embarked. Since we were so far down south in the Southern Hemisphere during summer, there was plenty of daylight until 11pm. We got to the first campsite at Lago Toro before midnight.
On Day #2, you have to cross a river, but there’s no bridge. Instead, there’s a Tyrolean traverse (zipline) that necessitates a carabiner and harness to cross. We had rented the necessary equipment, but we were wary of the traverse. I had watched a few Youtube videos of people going across it, but it had its drawbacks. We actually saw a British couple accidentally drop one of their bags into the raging river while trying to send it across (the person receiving the bag wasn’t able to grip the bag well b/c she was awkwardly positioned on a steep slope). Thankfully they got it back and eventually made it across!
We opted to take off our socks and ford the river slightly upstream with our shoes instead. The river is fed by a glacier, and OMG it was FREAKING COLD! Our feet were numb at the end, but we got across! Then, we warmed up for a bit.
To advance towards the mountain pass, one has to next walk on a glacier. However, there are crevasses throughout, and you have to be careful b/c you don’t want to fall into one out there alone. We carefully navigated it and eventually exited the glacier onto rocky moraine. That was a cool experience (literally and figuratively!).
Check out the type of terrain as you exit the glacier and get back onto the mountain pass trail. Oftentimes there’s not always a marked trail; you just make judgment calls about where to go and also use the GPS on your phone with a downloaded map of the trail from the maps.me app.
Next, we ascended nearly up the mighty mountain pass (almost 1000m vertical elevation gain). It was quite steep, and the terrain was rocky. Keep in mind, you have to carry EVERYTHING with you on this trek (tent, sleeping bag, food; it was about 15kg). As if climbing wasn’t difficult enough without a backpack.
But what made this ascent awesome was that you could see the two titanic legs of the Glacier Tunel as you ascended. It was absolutely epic.
We then arrived at our destination: El Paso del Viento (Windy Pass). HOLY MOTHER OF PEARL, it was ridiculously windy up there: at least 70 km/h!! But what I saw on the other side was nothing short of life changing: the Southern Patagonian Ice Fields, the world’s 3rd largest reserve of fresh water outside Antarctica and Greenland. It was the most awe-inspiring view I’ve ever seen in my life. And I still don’t think pictures can ever do it justice. This is the video I took when I first got up there:
Nature is beautiful, no doubt. But for me, mountains are the most beautiful things among nature’s spectacles: namely, the vast open spaces it displays give one a unique sense of freedom that liberates us from the clutter in our daily lives.
I had never seen anything like this before. Glaciers and ice, yes, but an entire ice field?! It was humbling, and made me realize how small we can be to what planet Earth is. She is truly gorgeous. I also found it a very transcendental experience—almost as if the distance between me and the universe was now less than it was before seeing it. It made me cultivate a deeper, spiritual connection to Earth–and something even bigger.
Indeed, getting to Paso del Viento with no one else there, I almost felt like an adventurer exploring until the edge of the world–feeling the thrill of exploring uncharted territory, and sharing the difficulty and reward of exploration.
We then traveled to reach the next campsite (Paso del Viento Refugio, a shelter built incase the wind gets high). At that campsite, we were later joined by just 5 other people, including one Frenchman who did Days 1+2 of the hike in one day.
The next day would be one of my most memorable ever, and easily the most difficult of my life. We woke up at 7 am and were the first to leave the campsite. This day, we also didn’t see anyone else on the trail over the next 36km, which made it the most magical experience of my life.
But the next part was absolutely unreal. We had to ascend our 2nd mountain pass, Paso Huemul. The trail became too narrow for comfort. And the colossal wind speeds were throwing us off balance. We knew from the rangers that tomorrow was “supposed” to be 100 km/h. But it seemed like we were dealing with far more than 100 km/h now. The forecast had changed. We needed to ascend fast. Lingering on the mountain wall was not an option.
I was concentrating HARD and bending my knees to maintain balance as we ascended up the mountain because navigation here was critical to avoid getting blown off a cliff. With the narrow trail and colossal winds, one false step could mean falling into the Patagonian Ice Fields. I was speechless.
We eventually reached the Paso Huemul. The wind was higher here than on the trail, so we then proceeded to have some fun where we were literally leaning into the 120 km/h winds. But we never saw any of the 5 people from the previous campsite catch up to us. They should have passed us at some point. My hiking buddy and I wondered if they had to turn back and got stuck when the winds eventually reached a titanic 120 km/h. But when I talked to the park rangers a couple of days later, they told me there were no unaccounted people from the trek 🙂
The video below shows my friend leaning into the colossal wind from the ice fields:
After spending some time trying to find the trail, we ventured into one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done: a 700m vertical descent over 1200m horizontally.
It was an absolutely monstrous decline that took nearly 3 hours. Sometimes I had to slide down on my backpack to safely descend. Other times, I was grabbing onto every tree and branch I could, not giving any consideration to my $5 gloves that were literally being shredded apart in the process. At one point, there’s a part where you have to use a rope put in by the rangers to descend 20m. Wasn’t going down supposed to be fun?
When we finally got to the bottom, we were adjacent to the Lago Viedma, being fed by the Viedma Glacier. Here, there were no other humans for miles, and the nature here was nothing short of idyllic. We could see the Viedma Glacier in the distance and were humbled by powerful mountains overseeing us. The colors were also so vibrant as we watched hundreds of ice bergs in the lake. I’ve never been so consumed by blissful happiness in my life before.
My friend and I spent 30 minutes relaxing on this glacial-beach. Although we were peacefully living in the present, we knew this would be a magical moment we would treasure the rest of our lives. I couldn’t believe how big of a difference it was having that glacial lagoon to ourselves. At times, you want the presence of other humans as a safeguard. But in that moment, seeing no trace of other humans made us feel like we were exploring that magical region for the first time, maybe even hundreds of years ago. It was otherworldly—almost supernatural. This was a video I took while on the beach where I comment on the still-hostile winds.
At this point, we had hiked 18 km (11 miles) or so (and those were 18 HARD km). I had no idea about the distance, but if you had told me we had another 18km to go, I would have been taken aback (we did Days 3+4 in one day).
We trekked through some incredible scenery; the meadows and plants were so vibrant since it was summer.
At times I could see hiking stick marks in the dirt. With no other humans in sight, it was always reassuring to know other humans had at least passed by the same place. And that we were on the trail.
When we got to the second river crossing and Tyrolian zipline, the pulley was broken. We then had to go downstream and ford it by foot AGAIN. Only this time, the water level was deeper since more ice had melted later in the day, and we had to cross 3 separate parts of the rivers. It was almost 8 pm. And this was after 34km (20 miles).
At this point, I reflected on the types of sacrifices and ordeals one has to sometimes go through in order to have life-defining experiences. Was it worth it? Absolutely, but in that moment, shivering and recovering after fording the massive, ice-cold river by foot, the comfort of a hostel or my home seemed so far away. How did I end up here?
After 9 pm, we got to the boat terminal. This was the beginning of the end–our way back to civilization. We had been hiking 14 consecutive hours. It was time to go home.
When we got there, we saw an Austrian couple parked there with their campervan, preparing to spend the night there before the morning boat cruise. They were very gracious to drive us 14km back to town. I remember telling them they were like guardian angels. We were extremely tired after hiking 36km/22 miles, but also extremely lucky. Normally everyone leaves the terminal by 3-4 pm. This was a Godsend that we needed.
Getting back to my hostel at 10 pm, I remember getting asked by some curious backpackers where I had been. I looked like I was in a daze of sorts–still in awe of the most amazing and beautiful experience of my life, but also reeling from the shock of a level of uncertainty that I was not used to (read: wow I can’t believe I’m alive =P).
But looking back, I see that you learn to accept some risk on the journey, and also embrace a healthy level of uncertainty that is important in an increasingly predictable world where most of our actions are calculated. I would do the trek in a heartbeat, and certainly it carries the same level of “technical risk,” but I later come to see that the risk isn’t quite what I initially perceived it to be.
It was more mental. The same risks exist for someone like me and an experienced mountaineer, for instance, but as you get more experience, you become more comfortable, and are more aware of your true limits.
It was the most amazing experience of my life, and also a defining moment in taking leaps of faith and embracing where an adventurous spirit takes you. For some, it’s just another fun and challenging hike. For me, it was a lifetime experience and challenge.
To quote Yvon Chouinard:
“Real adventure is best defined as a journey from which you may not come back alive, and certainly not as the same person”
I encourage anyone to do the hike if you’re physically fit, find the right person to go with, and have a craving to explore the best that planet Earth has to offer 🙂
Note: And if you plan on doing this hike, you can read my Huemul Circuit hiking Guide here
Note: My post uses a combination of my own pictures as well as pictures from other travelers/blog posts. Sometimes I wasn’t always able to take pictures when it wasn’t practical (and still want to communicate the story and scenery). Other times their pics were better quality and convey the beauty better (I just had a Samsung smartphone) Credit for select photos goes to: Backpacker Steve, FromCanyonstoClouds, 2driftingcoconuts, hello-mountains, and crazyguyonabike.