Hike the Huemul Circuit

Huemul Circuit Trailhead - Search Nearby - Added by Jeff Young

This ain't no W trek. Escape the crowds of Torres del Paine and test your mettle on a frozen stretch of Patagonian backcountry. Ancient forests, expansive ice fields, raging torrents, and iceberg filled lakes await you.

If you're reading this article you've probably contemplated escaping the daily grind to walk the W or O trek around Torres del Paine. Do it. You won't regret it. But you'll be cheating yourself if you don't head north to Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina. 

No crowds, no fees, and no online reservation system. There are plenty of trekking options, but the Huemul is an all you can eat buffet of rime-coated freedom. I suggest you dig in. 

Please practice leave no trace. This trek is pristine, but it could easily turn into a tissue-paper coated wasteland if enough yahoos treat the trail like a toilet. Respect nature and respect the Argentine public for giving you the chance to have this awesome experience. 

Before you consider going, several important notes.

This circuit is slightly technical. There are two Tyrolean traverses. The alternative is to ford icy rivers on foot. The traverses will keep you dry and are a great part of the overall experience. The trail is frequently unmarked, unmaintained, and steep. You have the opportunity to cross a glacier and it does not require crampons or an ice axe. If you have limited backpacking experience I highly suggest you do not attempt this trek without a guide. 

If you proceed guide-less, please research everything thoroughly. This trek is totally doable for any reasonably fit person, but no one is going to sell you hot chocolate halfway through. If you are traveling alone, find a partner in town. A GPS or a phone app like Wikilocs are recommended. 

Preparation

The first step is to check the forecast. This is Patagonia. I guarantee exciting weather at some point in your four day window. If you are planning your trip in advance, give yourself a few days of flexibility. The hike includes two steep mountain passes. You will want clear weather for both days. You may find forecasts on the internet but the safest bet is to consult the park rangers. A few speak English, but it wouldn't hurt to brush up on your Spanish skills. 

There are grocery stores in town where you can buy trail food. El Chalten is expensive, but a few packs of ramen won't break the bank. Other options are available at a higher price for the more discerning trail chef. If you don't mind the extra weight, I recommend buying as many empanadas as you can carry from Que Rika for glorious consumption on the first day.

The park rangers require several things: a wilderness permit (free and available morning of the trek), 1 climbing harness per person, 1 aluminum carabiner and 1 steel carabiner per person, 20m of cord (to retrieve gear), a topographic map of the area (available in town), and a safety sling. The rangers will have you watch a short video/slideshow (not a bad idea to take pictures of the slides with your phone) and demonstrate your ability to use the equipment. 

You can rent or purchase most equipment in town. It will be expensive. Pack what you can beforehand. You may be doing this trek in the summer, but a 4 season tent is recommended. I have seen folks complete the trek using ultra-light gear, but it involved a certain amount of luck and strategic planning. There will be wind. 

The ranger office opens at 9am. Once you have fulfilled the requirements, proceed to the trail. The first of many sweet trek perks lands in your lap as soon you step out of the ranger station--no bus, you are at the trailhead already. 

Day 1: Ascent to Campemiento Rio Tunel (check mileage on WikiLocs for all days) 

The first day lets you meander through ancient beech forests. Keep an eye out for Magellanic woodpeckers, condors, and austral parakeets. You might even see a tiny armadillo known locally as pichis. Throughout the trek you will encounter three different types of edible berries. The most well-known being the blackened blue calafate of legend. There are several shallow streams; icy-cold but easily fordable. The campsite is well shielded from the wind and near a water source. It is probably safe to drink, but if one maxim holds true throughout South America it is this: there is always a higher cow. You may think yourself a mountaineer until you see a 1,500 lb moo moo sending a class-3 scramble. Cows poop in water sources. Giardia lives in cow poop; don't let it live in you. The campsite is quite comfortable and provides shelter from the wind.  

Day 2: Ascent to Paso del Viento

Now you get to attempt the much anticipated (dreaded?) Tyrolean traverse. If you have never done one before take the time to watch a few instructional videos or go with someone who has. It is very similar to zip-lining. If you are dead set on skipping the traverse, make sure you are fit enough to ford the river safely. If you fail the crossing you will likely experience some unplanned white water sections. 

Once you have Tyrole'd (this is a word right?) the ol' river you can approach the glacier via loose shale on your left or a slot canyon on your right. When you reach the glacier you may either cross the ice proper or skirt it via the moraine. It my opinion this is the most dangerous section of the entire trek. Be alert at all times. The glacier seems to be fairly stable, but everyone and their uncle will tell you there aren't crevices. They are wrong. There are crevices. They are avoidable as the glacier is flat and coated in gravel, but be careful. The moraine is much sketchier. I observed it shifting several times, and could see hollow ice caves below the sediment. Precarious boulders linger in the field above. Move carefully and confidently through this section and keep your wits about you. 

The trail bears to the left through a talus section that will continue through switchbacks until you reach the Paso Viento. Make a weather assessment and head for the pass. This section is steep but enjoyable and the trail is more clearly delineated here. Enjoy the views of the valley behind you until you reach the summit, where you will get your first taste of the Southern Icefield. This mass of frozen fresh water is the second largest extrapolar block of ice on earth. If you've gotten the chance to scope any of Patagonia's glaciers, you were only getting a taste of this primordial behemoth. Jagged black peaks float like islands in a frozen sea. Clouds and ice become one white infinity. Don't take my word for it, you have to see it for yourself. 

Scout a safe path to the left down the opposite side of the pass. Keep the mountain on your left and the moraine on your right and you will soon reach a wind shelter with several rings of rock to camp behind. 

Day 3: Paso Huemul and Lago Viedma

The third day will give you near constant views of the ice field. After breaking camp you will ascend toward the next pass with Cerro Huemul on your left and the ice field on your right. The trail is not clearly marked but you should be able to eyeball it or reference a map. The ice field will eventually give way to the Viedma Glacier. As you approach the pass, the trail will become more discernible, but it also narrows and gets very exposed for a few small sections before you reach the top. Be careful of loose rocks and high winds. 

Once you reach the summit, enjoy the icefield views as they will be your last of the trek. The ranger slideshow presentation is very hard to follow for this section, but bear left toward Cerro Huemul as you climb and you'll eventually see the trail. The trail from here to your Day 3 campsite is physically demanding. It is steep, washed out, and overgrown. You might grumble about a few slaps to the face from beech branches, but the dense foliage is often the only thing preventing you from exposure. Be careful of knee and ankle joints. There is only one short exposed section and as of summer 2017-2018 there was a fixed rope allowing you to repel. 

You will get a few glimpses of Lago Viedma on the way down. The view of a this crystal blue, iceberg dotted, expanse is one of the highlights of the trek. Once you complete the descent you can start scouting for a campsite. While following the trail there are multiple hidden sites in the woods to your left, on the shore to your right, and plenty of cool areas along the peninsula that will stretch out before you. Ideally you will want a spot that gives you sunset and sunrise views of the Viedma glacier while also granting some wind protection. Pitch a tent wherever it feels right, but again, be cognizant of leave no trace guidelines. 

Day 4: Welcome to the suck

Hopefully you started the day off with a glacial sunrise because that's the last time you'll be smiling for the next 5 hours. Just kidding. Well. It depends on your sense of humor. Dark? Perfect. This is type 2 fun. It will be a great time to have a GPS or phone app. The local topographic maps really don't cover this section accurately. The trail will not be evident whatsoever during a few sections. You may find yourself going up against knee deep swamps and blood thirsty calafate thorns. The berries were cute on the first day weren't they? 

If you wake up early enough you can catch a shuttle at the Lake Viedma ferry terminal. Check the ferry schedule, but the last shuttle seems to leave around 3pm. If you miss the shuttle you can try to hitchhike back, call a taxi if you have service, or walk an additional 8km back to town. 

The last day can be a mellow jaunt or a brutal slog depending on which route you pick, so do your research. I would lay it all out here for you, but I took the swampiest thorn ridden route possible. Search wikiLocs for a strong route and follow it. The water on the last day is stagnant dankness (in a bad way) so pack some glacier juice in the beginning or bring a good filter. Eventually you will reach the final Tyrolean traverse, but you're an expert now! When things get tough just keep imagining the 6 Que Rika epanadas you're going to house when you get back to El Chalten. For some this trek may be a life changing experience or your first glimpse into more technical outdoors. Savor every rugged minute and enjoy those icy views before they're gone. Above all, be safe, and for Pete's sake leave no trace. Return your trail permit ASAP otherwise the rangers will send a search and rescue party. 

Distance

36 Miles RT

Elevation Gain

6500 ft Gain

Type

Loop

Activities

Camping, Photography, Backpacking, Hiking

Beach
Forest
Lake
Scenic
Wildflowers
Wildlife

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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