Going The Extra Mile

We listened to the park rangers and waited for a great forecast to start the Huemul Circuit in El Chalten. It is 40 miles and climbs up into the South Patagonian ice fields, crosses rivers, 2 passes and then comes sharply back down running alongside Viedma Lake with the most dramatic days being the middle two. When renting the climbing gear the day before, a man came into the store to tell the owner that the whole pack he’d rented for the trip had gotten blown off a cliff in a strong wind gust and he was unable to retrieve it so he was going to have to pay for everything that was lost. We all raised our eyebrows and rented our gear. Because we knew the weather forecast was crap the past few days, we delayed leaving but were aware that others had left anyway. Being on a time crunch is a bad thing and we are glad to not have that pressure.

The trail starts right across from the visitor center in town where we’d been parked for over 2 weeks already doing major amounts of great hiking & biking. This would be the finale. For day 1 we hiked 10 miles through open fields & lenga forest with great views of Cerro Huemul.

After a few hours, we reached the campground at Lago Toro. It is prone to wind so there are many campsites with wood piled up to give some protection. It was quite windy even that day, so we couldn’t walk out to to the lake to enjoy it. Instead, we hung out talking to other people and relaxing in the chairs that we’d carried up. Over the rest of the afternoon and into the night, more and more hikers flowed into the campground so this “wave” doing the circuit in a great weather window was pushing 70 hikers. Wow!

Day 2 started out calm and we could enjoy hiking alongside Laguna Toro on our way to the river crossing above it. It felt great to be moving again and we were excited for the day. This would be the first of 2 zip lines to cross which is why we needed to rent the climbing harnesses. When we arrived to the tirolesa (zipline) there was a long line of hikers waiting to cross and everyone was going painfully slow. After a few minutes, we, along with others decided to ford the Rio Tunel instead rather than stand there waiting. We had 2 sections to cross in just over the knee freezing cold water but we got across without falling into it and soaking ourselves and our packs. It took a few minutes for the pain to go away in our lower extremities but then we were back hiking again leaving the line behind.

Continuing to climb up from the lake, we started getting views of the Tunel Glacier. What a sight! Then there’s a section of trail where you can walk onto the glacier for a bit. Easier said than done, it isn’t easy getting on and off of it with crevasses and moulins to stay away from. It felt crazy to be walking on blue ice but it was slippery and we wished we’d had crampons. After that, we started the climb up the Paso Del Viento or Windy Pass on a nearly wind free sunny day. It was such a beautiful view with the glacier, the greenish hillsides, the rocks and scree and the colors of the hikers making the climb. Along the way, we came to a cliff and spotted the backpack of the guy who had taken it off to do something and then it got picked up by the wind and blown over the side. It didn’t look too hard to retrieve but he was probably in shock and he couldn’t see from his angle that it wasn’t totally lost. But we were laden with our own backpacks so nothing to do. We stopped mid way for lunch with a full on view. This backpack truly had some of the coolest views we’ve ever seen.

Coming over the crest at the top of the pass, first we saw several blue ponds and then the magical ice field stretching out before us. Feeling just the right amount of hot from the climb up, I couldn’t stand it not to get in the water and neither could another hiker so we got in first and then one by one, other people got in too including Ivan and Jon! Then we were all refreshed to take in the incredible views of the ice field. It goes on and on. The trail would parallel this the whole next day which was great. We stayed up there at the pass for quite a while just staring and taking pics before continuing down the other side to Paso Del Viento campground.

We arrived to a calm little lake and got a spot right on the grass near the shore. I was high as a kite. I just love this scenery. There were a lot of tents but it was a good vibe and everyone just sat there enjoying the windless evening eating and talking about the fantastic day we’d had. The night before, we’d met 2 British couples and we would continue to hang out over the course of the trek.

Since the Huemul circuit doesn’t offer any pit toilets, one thing that crosses people’s minds while gazing out across the expanse of wilderness is where they are going to do their business with 69 other friendly folks around. While we’re used to carrying our shovel and have no problem doing this task, it is a bit of a shocker to realize that EVERYONE else will need to do this too! Good grief. It all works out but it isn’t sustainable this way. And as this trail is clearly popular in a good weather window, change will have to happen soon. The whole of the El Chalten part of Glacier NP is free. It is a wonderful gift, but at the same time it’s worth paying for to keep it pristine.

It was great sharing yet another experience with Ivan. We’ve done so many cool things together.

Day 3 dawned gorgeous and wind free and after a nice bowl of oatmeal ( Jon is not fond of the stuff but it works well for backpacking) we started a slow, rolling descent to nearly level with the ice field. It is just incredible to see all of the swirls of ice, the different turquoise hues, not to mention the lovely cliffs and low plants that cling to them. After another lunch with an awesome view, we started the climb up Huemul Pass. It isn’t a particularly long one and well, the views are killer. Then at the top, you can drop your pack and hike up even higher to another view!! This one takes in the toe of the glacier, the Viedma lake with its ice bergs and beautiful orange mountains with little blue pools.

With slightly wobbly legs, it was time for a 2,300 foot descent on a steep “trail” which is only really done as a controlled slide. There was one rope but could have been many more. You use tree roots, branches and your hands to guide yourself down. It was a fun challenge and none of us got hurt doing it. We arrived to a beachside campsite on Lago Viedma after another long but oh so fantastic day. It was calm and peaceful and we dunked in the lake to get some of the trail dust off, set up our camp and started a long continuous meal of packages of this & that. One of the British couples we’d been hanging with- Vanessa & Huen, came over to hang out with us again too. It felt so novel to have the waves lapping when we went to sleep and to have had such a wonderful evening in yet another picturesque campsite. But then the wind picked up and started blowing like a jetliner landing. No more sounds of waves lapping. Fortunuately, because we were on the shore, we had a bluff protecting us from most of it but we could hear a lot more. Neither of us slept well and then we awoke to rain. It was enough that we made coffee but decided against the oatmeal breakfast (boo hoo) and just had a bar. But just before we got the tent taken down, a big wind gust flattened our tent, busted a pole and put a hole in the rainfly. Geez! At least it was the last day anyway. We donned our packs and got moving.

I predicted that we would walk out of this crap weather just as we had on the O Trek and indeed we did. It wasn’t as stable a day but we didn’t get much more rain and the sun came out. The scenery was more desert like, running along powder blue Lake Viedma with some car sized distant ice bergs in the distance. Beautiful really, but not the same as being up high. We arrived to the tirolesa at lunchtime and there was another line of hikers but we weren’t interested in fording this river because it was big and were happy to eat lunch while we waited. And then we waited and waited some more. When it was our turn, the three of us zipped across like nothing.

Jon zipping across the river
Vanessa & Huen. Hungry Hikers!!!

After 14 miles, we arrived back to the truck ready to put down our packs and do a good scrub. Usually, Jon and I shower on our backpack trips. We always find a way. But on this trip, there just wasn’t a way to pull it off. So a shower felt great. Then, we put our sneakers back on and walked to town to replenish some calories!!! El Chalten has some cute restaurants and we’d found one we liked. First we each had a personal pizza and some much deserved beer, and then we moved to another restaurant to meet up with Vanessa & Huen to have a steak dinner. We left finally full and really elated that our hike had gone so well, none of us had run into any issues, we were going to be in our own beds that night and in the morning we knew right where we were going to do our business.

The next day was my birthday and it was to be a repositioning day because we were headed to another park- Perito Moreno NP. My birthday wish had been to go backpacking and it was fulfilled with the Huemul hike. I had reservations to do another backpack trip there but it wasn’t looking good because the guys weren’t into it. Either way though, we’d be hiking. Since it would be a long day, I stopped at a bakery and got some cake to make things easier for my birthday celebration. When we stopped for lunch though, Jon noticed oil leaking from the rear differential. Given how remote the area was and the fact that we were going to be heading 100km out a dirt road to get to the park, we turned back and headed to El Calafate to have better options for getting this taken care of. There goes the backpacking reservation at the park! But this worked out well for Ivan because he could get all of his laundry done in El Calafate. You see, the town we were headed to- Gobernor Gregores, had laundry services but all but one of them doesn’t do underwear. I don’t know why they don’t wash underwear but they don’t. We have a washing machine on board which we didn’t have on our boat. We will love it until the day it breaks. And we wash all our underwear in it.

I had already gotten what I wanted for my birthday!

We got to El Calafate, went to the store, and Ivan & Jon made my paella birthday dinner and we had ice cream & cake. The following day, we went to a mechanic and got the seal ordered, which wouldn’t arrive till the following afternoon. So Jon picked out a really cool restaurant for lunch in a residential area, not on the main tourist strip. It was the kind where the waiter comes and sits down at your table to describe the 3 options you have for lunch that day. The chef is in the open kitchen preparing things that smell so good. We had homemade ravioli and fresh bread, delicious. Then we explored the town and got some exercise and camped beside a blue lake.

The mechanic replaced the seal the following day but the real problem was just that the breather hose was clogged causing pressure to build inside the gearbox. Jon had the hose so that was replaced but the seals available here are single lipped seals rather than double so once again, we have these projects to revisit when we can get the correct parts ordered from Germany. You can’t get what you want here because it isn’t available.

With the new seal on we were free to roll on toward Perito Moreno Park by way of Gobernor Gregores for a quiet night camped by a stream. We aired down for the 100km drive down a decent dirt road to the park. This is yet another park that Doug & Kris Tomkins helped to broaden (they have created many too) to preserve more of Patagonia’s precious landscape. And when they do something, it is first class. I am very moved by all of these places and the sense of immense space with hardly anyone around. You come here to hike and enjoy what is just here to be wild now. A moving story of conservation. That first day, we got up to the viewpoint of Cerro Leon and sat up there as the sun became more slanted. Glacial lakes of brilliant blue seem unreal.

The following day was perfect weather wise and what started out as a long day hike up the Rio Lacteo valley to the Doug Tomkins Hut (they have free fancy huts that you can camp in) ended up being a 23 mile hike for Jon & I to the San Lorenzo glacier because it was just another 10km and we couldn’t turn around with weather so perfect to see it. San Lorenzo sits on the border between Chile & Argentina and is one of the biggest mountains in Patagonia. It was a great day even if our feet were sore by the end of the day. I pondered the fact that it took us most of the day to hike that 23 miles and my best marathon was just short of 3.5hrs. What a time saver running is. We should do it to get everywhere! We also considered that had we gotten into 100 mile ultrarunning, we would’ve only had 77 miles left to go!

The view from Tucuquere Hut

We’ve spent a few more days exploring many miles of park trails and enjoying the solitude & space of this beautiful place. We looked and looked for pumas but still not a one. How can this be when we step over piles of puma poop all the time? Now, with the summer marching on, it is time to head in to Chile to explore the famous Carretera Austral. We are really excited for this road and have heard wonderful things about it. For now we will give our legs a break and let the truck make some miles for us.

Thanks Ivan for sharing some of your pics with us.

Desert plants grow low to hide from the wind

4 Replies to “Going The Extra Mile”

  1. So, so beautiful and so nicely written, as always. Thank you for taking time to share such wonderful adventures in a part of the world most of us will never see.

  2. We just missed you in El chaltén! We were there around Febr 19 for a few days. Just enyoied Torres del Paine with 4 days of tropic weather. Different from 12 years ago when we had hurricane force winds, lots of clouds and half the park burned down. We will go south first before heading north. Still hope to run into you one day Say hello to Ivan. Many greetings David and Yvonne.

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