This post was written in my sleeping bag at the end of a long day. Please excuse any errors.
The Huemul Circuit may be the best short hike I’ve ever done. Featuring zip line river crossings, a glacial traverse, high passes and a commanding view of the southern Patagonia ice field, it’s just challenging enough to be fun.
One of the hardest parts of the Huemel circuit is getting the permit. The paperwork itself is easy- free and you just walk into the ranger station when you are ready to head out. But the required gear is difficult to find. Everyone needs two caribeaners, a safety line and a harness, and we need a 30ft cord per group. There are three gear shops in town and we have to trek back and forth until we have pieced everything together. One gear shop owner takes an instant dislike to Shake’nBake and is very rude to all of us, making things infinitely more difficult. She almost refuses to rent him a harness since she doesn’t believe he knows how to use it. Finally, we have everything and can head out. Two condors circle over head as we leave the ranger station. I’m not sure if this is an omen or not. But the sun is out, the wind is light, and massive Fitz Roy towers over everything. We turn a corner, where we get an impressive view of Mt Huemul, the peak we’ll be walking around for the next four days, and the valley we’ll camp in tonight. Tucked behind our campsite is the glacier we will have to cross the next day. We dawdle, taking photos and enjoying the majestic snow capped peaks all around. Our campsite for the night is in a grove of trees with the other hikers on this circuit. It’s only mostly out of the wind. We knew before heading out that we were going to have one bad weather day, and it just so happens that that day is the one featuring a zip line river crossing, glacier traverse and the highest pass on the circuit. We’re the first ones out of camp in the morning and the wind howls at us as we circumnavigate a glacial lake. We lose the trail a little and have to scramble up towards our river crossing. The boys make fun of my climbing a little, but I don’t mind. The river crossing is terrifying. A steel wire with a pulley hangs over the river just as it starts to fall into a canyon. 20ft up, we have to trust our gear completely. A French couple, George and Camille, come up just as we’re putting on our harnesses. Tom zips across, making it look easy. George and Camille have obviously never used their harnesses before, and I suddenly become responsible for checking everyone’s gear, adding to my nerves. Camille goes, then George and then it’s my turn. Hand over hand up the wire and then I’m on the other side, clipped into a wire while I scramble up to safety, only shaking a little. Shake’nBake follows and then we are all ready to go, as the storm builds momentum on the peaks above. We slip and slide through scree, onto the rock glacier, and then onto the glacier itself. Tiny rocks are embedded in the ice, making it easy to grip. We hop between rock glacier and glacier, trying to stay off the slippy, steeply angled surfaces. Then we are off, scrambling by a river that is sucked straight under the glacier. We pass another lake and the trail climbs steeply. I’ve had an ice cream headache half the morning, from the wind and the icy rain that it throws in my face. Now, snow is mixed in with the rain. Half a kilometer before the pass, it turns to all snow, coating the trail, my jacket, and everything else. The wind throws it so hard it stings my cheeks. My hands are completely numb as I lead everyone up to the pass. I yell out Christmas carol lyrics and hear Shake’nBake sing back from the back of the group. Everything is snow on the other side. The snow and wind stings my eyes. I can’t see any cairns. We dither for a moment, but it’s too cold for decision by committee, so Shake’nBake and I take the lead, walking until a cairn appears out of the blizzard. We drop down rapidly, out of the clouds, below the snowline. Everything as far as the eye can see is white. But not from the storm. This is the Southern Patagonia Icefield, and I’ve never seen anything on this scale before. It stretches as far as I can see in every direction. Massive peaks loom, white as the glacier below. We drop down, through sun patches and snow squall to the refugio. Other hikers trickle in, as we alternate between hiding in the refugio from the snow and drying our stuff in the sun. It snows on and off during the night. I have to pee and I stand outside in my bare feet, looking at the stars, until it gets too cold and I run back to my warm sleeping bag. I listen to the quiet rustle of snowflakes on silnylon. In the morning, the snowline has crept down but the path is clear. We pick our way along the side of the icefield. The path is cut into the side of a steep hill: it feels like the PCT but with added ice field. We climb up and over Huemul pass. The wind buffets us, but condors soar and dive above. We say goodbye to the ice fields and head down to Lake Viedma below. The way down starts out challenging but fun. It’s steep, but we slide from tree to tree, skidding down the loose dirt. Then, an hour from the bottom, I am no longer having fun. I slip and fall on a trekking pole. Nothing is hurt but my pride, but as the path gets even steeper, I trust my feet even less, sliding on my butt over gravel and rock. One section, I have to turn around and downclimb, gripping rope, rock and roots. Finally, I am down. We find our campspot on the shore of the lake. At this point, I have slept outside for more than 364 nights. I’ve camped on ridges and peaks and at the bottom of canyons. And this might be the most beautiful place I’ve ever slept. Glacier Viedma calves into the lake, and the wind has pushed these icebergs up to shore. They roll and break, and the glacier fills the background. I sit on the rocks, wrapped in my sleeping bag, watching everything. The walking is easy in the morning and we spread out a little more for the first time. I’m lost in my thoughts, hiking fast the way I did on the CDT, approaching a blind corner, when a heard of horses appears right in front of me. All that pops into my head are the aggressive wild horses of the Wyoming basin. I raise my arms and shout and the horses slow. But then they keep coming. I hear Shake’nBake yelling from the distance and wonder if he’s about to witness me being trampled. I scramble up the bank, the horses come forward, and I see the Gaucho behind them. Oh. Oh well. They pass without incident, but I wait for the others, a little shaken. We cross our second zip line without too much incident. I get a little tangled in the pulley line and have to fix it mid river, but I’m only a few feet above the much more mellow river. Then I’m safe across. A few more kilometers and we’ve officially finished the circuit, although we still have to get back to town. There’s supposed to be a mountain bike trail that goes to a hostel on the road, but it is mostly cow tracks now. It’s hot and there’s no shade or water. I think of the CDT as we follow the meandering tracks. At the hostel there’s no trespassing signs. We follow the cow tracks. I think it will pop us out on a trail by the ranger station, but there’s a tangle of spikey brush. We get a little lost before finding a path, but not before finding the most spectacular view of Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. In town, we find beer and cheeseburgers. Tom gets a room in the hostel, but there’s a free campground on the way up to Fitz Roy at Laguna Capri. I persuade Shake’nBake to head out. An hour of passing returning day hikers and we are sitting by the lake drinking a beer as we watch the light fade on Fitz Roy. We are slow in the morning, drinking coffee in bed. It’s almost ten when we start hiking, although the trail is still quiet. I have somehow become faster than Shake’nBake on hills, although he can still lose me on downhill, so I tuck myself behind him as we huff and puff our way up to Lago De Los Tres. We crest the hill and Fitz Roy is all we can see. I’ve felt magnetically drawn to this mountain for the last few days, and I can’t take my eyes off of it as we sit and eat lunch. Then, back down, with frequent breaks to let the hordes of hikers on the suddenly busy trail go past. We cut over to the trail to Cerro Torre for a view of those sharp, needlelike peaks, before running back to town to find Tom and round two of cheeseburgers and beer.