Back in January this year, Philippe and ExpediTom undertook a 4 days journey across the Patagonian wilderness on the Huemul Trek.
Day 1 Starting the Huemul Trek
The first day of our 4 days trekking lead us along a field of dead trees that overlooked the valley lying ahead of us. We knew when we left El Chalten that the first day would be rather moody weather and so it came as no surprise that we experienced rain, snow, strong winds and sunshine within a few hours. That’s Patagonian weather at its best. The hike was 16 km long and led to the “Toro” camp next to a mountain which protected us from the seriously strong wind gusts. The MSR – Mountain Safety Research Freelite 2 tent did a great Job in withstanding the winds that blew through the forest. The following day was going to be a tough one. A zip line, a glacier and the Paso del Viento awaited us.
Day 2 Paso del Viento
Day 2 of our trek lead us to the Paso del Viento, which means pass of wind and if they state wind in Patagonia you can be sure it is not about those small gusts. Yet, before we reached this point of the trek there were some more hurdles to overcome.
While filtering water from the river, which according to the rangers you don’t need to do, relentless wind chilled us down to the bone. Even though wearing several layers, the Patagonian wind is insanely good at entering every tiny opening. We sped up and started to hike to the first hurdle. A 10m zip line across a raging river in a gorge. I have to admit that this is not for the faint hearted and I never really liked heights. We tried to pull the slider back from the other side but somehow it was stuck. There was no way of retrieving it. Another group of 6 trekkers approached us and couldn’t help. Upstream I sighted a shallower area where the river runs over gravel with a little less speed.
Given my expertise as master fly fisher, I read the water like a book and choose the most suitable place to fjord the river by foot. Given the milky colour of the water I couldn’t see the ground and slowly crossed the river step by step. It was only knee-deep and I was pretty glad about this because it was freezing cold.
I released the slider of the zip line, so that Phil and the others could cross the river drier than me.
Where is the path?
We gained altitude and the views were magnificent. Walking along a glacier and partly on the glacier, we came closer to the pass. Leaving the moraine of the glacier was arduous and the huge boulders of several tons throning above us didn’t allow to take a break. Leaving the glacier, we made a stop and the trail hunger set in.
The Huemul trek isn’t just a hike. You absolutely need orientation skills because it is not marked at all at some places. Checking the map, we circled another hill that allowed us to see the Paso del Viento again. Strenuous hours went by, until we finally reached the top and the views were just mind shattering.
Before we reached the second camp at a remote mountain lake, we took a break at another lake that had colours like in the Caribbean.
Day 3 Paso de Huemul
I woke up with a big smile on my face. It was the third day of the Huemul track and we had – more or less- successfully managed to get across the zip line, walked along and on the glacier, and weren’t blown away on the Paso del Viento. What should go wrong now?
Moreover, we got up at a beautiful mountain lake and made friends with a French girl – Pauline – who trekked the Huemul trek by herself – respect!
We departed from our camping spot rather late with Pauline but after a few turns she hiked so fast that we fell back. The wind became stronger and eventually it began to rain. After lunch, I spotted the young female again how she walked to the right and shortly after left again. She must have lost the way. After we finished lunch, we soon met her again and showed her the way. The path climbed a steep slope to the Paso de Huemul. Thereby we were exposed to wind.
At some point there was a gap in the path where one had to take a large step to not fall down several hundred feet. Given the wind gusts, this was a nerve-racking step to take. At the top, we took a break and enjoyed the last views of the Southern Patagonian Icefield. What a view!
While eating some gummy bears to refill our sugar levels, we looked at the backs of our hands. They were red like a lobster because we did not put sunscreen on our hands the day before. The white stripe of our hiking poles was clearly visible.
Sometimes you are faster when you are slower
I had the glorious idea to mock on the famous insta model shot holding each others hand and our results look really promising:
While posing for the shot, another bunch of trekkers passed our way and continued downhill. Shortly after, we heard them again coming back. They had taken the wrong turn which lead nowhere. We learned from their mistakes and took the right direction. Sometimes you are faster when you are slower.
Sometimes you are faster when you are slower.
The hike down to lake Viedma was unbelievably steep. The trek lost 800 meters in height within 2 kilometers in distance. There is even rope to climb down the face of the rock in one part of the section. I have to admit that I was pretty scared at this point.
At the bottom of the mountain we reached the Lake Viedma. There are huge icebergs floating in the bay and eventually you will hear the deafening sound of glacier ice plummeting down into the lake. An impressive experience. The hardwired guys and gals went even for a swim in the ice-cold water. Philippe tried to convince me to have a bath too and improve the smells in our tent, but given that he did not have a shower before we left, I declined.
Walking around a corner to get away from the crowds, Pauline, Philippe and ExpediTom opened the small bottle of Amaretto we had carried all the way and cheered to the great Huemul trek. The only witnesses apart from the three of us, were the thousands of years old ice bergs floating by.
Unfortunately, the limited camping space directly at the bay forced us to head to the official camp ground. So for those of you who would like to stay at this bay, make sure you arrive early. Looking for the officially marked camp ground, we did not find it or probably just walked past it. Therefore, we just hiked on and on and on…
The most beautiful camping spot
At some point we knew we must have walked past it by far. The sun had already began to set, so we looked for an alternative camp ground. We found the best place ever. It was by far better than any previous place we had camped so far on the Huemul trek. Far away from the ‘crowds’ we enjoyed the solitude offered by the magnificent landscape. Moreover, our spot was at the lake too.
Sitting on the banks of the lake having some tea, Philippe and I immersed ourselves into this moment of feeling pure bliss and satisfaction:
We made it.
The only thing that worsened the moment was that we messed up the polenta. Although it should have been cooking for 3 minutes, the grain had soaked up the boiling water within seconds – yay!
After my usual blister fixing session, we went to bed at about 10 o’clock to get up early – really early.
Day 4 Back to Civilisation
The clock rang at 4 am.
I did not feel very fit at this moment to say the least. My knees hurt from the previous steep descent. My stomach still disliked the polenta. The feet still burnt from the blisters as did my hands from the sunburn. In a state of trance, I opened the zipper of the tent and gazed outside. All worries were washed away by the view of the night sky.
Unwillingly, I peeled out of my snug sleeping bag, but the views were just to incredible to miss out. After photographing the night sky, I set up a timelapse. Then I filtered and boiled some water to make tea. Before the sun rose above the horizon, I woke up Philippe who looked as indecisive to get up as I have been. Yet, the views even got a late riser as Philippe out of the tent. We enjoyed then one of the most fascinating sunrise I have ever witnessed in my life.
We packed our backpacks and continued the Huemul trek. Fifteen more kilometres lay ahead of us and the second zip line was still to overcome. This part of the trek drags on for hours until you finally arrive the river crossing.
The second zip line
This time, there was no chance of making it to the other side without the zip line. The water level was too high. We prepared ourselves again with the harnesses and carabiners. Moreover, the zip line sagged slightly, which meant that even 1 person of 80 kg almost touches the water. Therefore, the plan was that Philippe went across taking the 30m of line with him and then pull the backpacks to the other side which I would attach with the steel carabiner. As Philippe made its way to the other side, the line on my side became shorter and shorter and eventually I had to let go of the end – it was too short.
Philippe came back to my side and he felt some pain in his lower body due to the tight harness. But this was not our biggest problem at this point. We were not able to pull the backpacks to the other side, nor to carry them in person without getting soaked. The only option was to wait for other people with a longer rope but in this way we would definitely miss the bus taking us back to El Chalten.
It was at that moment, that I remembered to carry always some household line with me in my emergency kit. It is not a lot but a few metres.
We tied both lines together as good as possible (with a blood knot for you fishermen out there) and hoped it would hold. Given Philippe’s lower body pain, it was my turn. I made it to the other side without any issues. Philippe hung the backpacks to the zip line and I gently began to pull them to my side.
Then I went back to the initial side, where we did this one more time so that both of us could use the slider of the zip line to get across.
What an undertaking!
Getting back to El Chalten
The last section of the trail was not that spectacular anymore. The wilderness became a path, the path became a gravel road and eventually we felt asphalt under our feet for the very first time in 4 days. What a feeling!
Furthermore, we made it before the morning bus left the pier and for a little money, the bus driver agreed on driving us to El Chalten. After hiking 4 day on the Huemul trek, driving in a car felt never so fast before. Additionally, the kind bus driver showed us some Calafate berries on the way back and made even a stop so that we could gather some of them. They were delicious and a perfect way to end our trip.
(Do not forget to tell the ranger station that you returned safely – 48 hours later they will start a rescue search for you!)
Some Advice on the Huemul trek
– use good hiking poles, mine fell apart
– consume magnesium powder daily to avoid strains
– apply sunscreen to hands as well
– wear suitable hiking boots to avoid blisters
– check how to make Polenta