Vuelta al Cerró Huemul (El Chaltén, Argentina)

(AKA: The Huemul Circuit)
(Originally posted here)
Party: Mum, Dad and I



I first heard about this trek from a hitchhiker (Tom Souillure) I picked up in the Northwest Territories, just outside of Inuvik whilst on the Dempster up to Tuktoyuctuc. He described it succinctly  as a “4 days walk along glacier (2 river crossings needing harness)”. I put it in the back of my mind, and finding myself in Patagonia a little earlier than expected (to meet my parents), put it into our trekking itinerary.

Travelling through Chile (especially once we dropped into Patagonia) we met more and more people who had completed the circuit. Apparently it wasn’t as much of a secret as I’d initially thought… After walking across the border from Villa O’Higgins I entered Argentina officially for the first time. Finally making it to the fabled El Chaltén. The weather wasn’t cooperating and we postponed the trip for several days. After a rest day we ventured up for some spectacular views of the Fitz Roy range, the weather consistently better than forecast.

With Namaste soon arriving, we tossed around a number of plans, weather-wise the best option seemed to visit part of the classic Laguna del los Tres – Laguna Torré loop. The problem was: this was exactly what we wanted to do with Nam. In the end we finally settled on just starting Vuelta al Cerró Huemul… and including a couple of hut days in the middle. Whilst I did some last minute planning, Mum and Dad handled the food. The next morning we’d check in a bag and head off.

Day 1 (Sun): El Chaltén to Laguna Túnel (aka Toro)

We slept in a little later than intended, but in a way it was planned… We wanted to check a bag in and the building only opened at 8am. The weather was also to improve as the afternoon progressed. I put my phone on charge whilst we packed, waited around whilst my parents brewed up some coffee and finally we were off… to the bakery (Simple). We grabbed some bread and a few breakfast pastries which were heated in the complimentary microwave. We passed through town, a hopeful dog quickly returning to the bakery.
Crossing the bridge out of town there were lots of hitchhikers, too many. Someone driving out of town might not stop in fear of being swarmed. Two americanas recognised us: We’d met them on the popular section of the Cerró Castillo traverse. We chatted for a while but it was already around 11am so we wanted to get a move on. Having registered online we continued past the national parks office and mingled with the day hikers who seemed to mostly be heading up for Lobo.
It was uphill but the track was in great condition and we made good time. I was sweating in the afternoon sun and wished I’d worn shorts. We passed through some forested areas occasionally passing small herds of cows in the meadows. Veering off from the main track at an obvious junction, the trail turned a bit marshy and I quickly got a damp foot.

We walked with a British sounding Swede for a time, the track remaining fairly bland. An open meadow offered views over Lago Viedma, a single monolithic iceburg visible in the distance.

An open meadow offered views over Lago Viedma

Dropping down into the Túnel valley, the weather was clear enough to see both lakes as well as Paso del Viento in the distance at the head of the valley. Lunching at the bottom of the hill, we soon continued through the scrubby landscape, the impressive glacial face of Cerro Solo looming impressively above.

The impressive glacial face of Cerro Solo

Pausing in a warm clearing, we practised tying the tape harnesses we planned to use for the tyrolean. Meanwhile, I joined our tent guy lines together to create a ‘recovery rope’ and then went over the general process we planned to use. The current plan was to push on a bit further, cross the river and toe of the Glacier Inferior to use the marked emergency camp between Inferior and Superior…
To our surprise, we were basically at Campamento de Torro (Túnel), but as we rounded the corner, we entered a torrent of wind strong enough to make keeping balance difficult. Dropping our packs, we went to get water and by the time we got back had decided to retreat to the sheltered camp and start early the next day. Very early. For, the forecast predicted the afternoon weather to become fierce.
Whilst my parents set up camp I couldn’t help but go check out the tyrolean. Would our mallións fit over the cable? That was the big question, as we didn’t have a steel crab. Heading off at a clip, I rounded the lake fighting with the wind the whole way. Despite the lakes small size, it was sporting some fairly large waves. A few ducks were hanging out, perhaps trying to catch one, they dipped in and out of sight on the swells.
Climbing up beside a spraying waterfall I negotiated the rocks rounded from a now receded glacier. Soon the tyrolean came into sight. It was much shorter, lower and overall much less impressive than I’d expected. There were two small cables and our mallións fit over them easily. It was going to be a piece of cake, I didn’t understand why everyone made it sound so difficult? But I need to remember that many walkers likely don’t have a canyoning/caving background.
There was a pulley on the cables, but because of the rope attaching it to the other end, gravity wasn’t quite strong enough to take it across.Just upstream of the gorge were open alluvial flats and it looked like here too would make an easy place to cross (traditionally people cross at the delta).
I zipped back to report the good news, enjoying the dinner Jimmy whipped up.
The weather looking a bit dubious, I squished into my parents tent.

Day 2 (Mon): Laguna Túnel (aka Toro) to Refugio Paso del Viento

I woke fairly early and was surprised that it was already quite bright. What happened to mum’s alarm? It was calm; the violent wind from the previous afternoon nonexistent. I poked the others awake. They didn’t seem overly interested. “We need to get moving” I stressed. We all knew that there would be some bad weather blowing in early in the afternoon. We needed to get over the pass as early as possible (and had planned a hut day the following day). I lay back down mentioning that the inclement weather wouldn’t bother me too much, but hinting at the penalty for leaving late. It worked! Mum sat up, in turn questioning why her alarm had failed. I shook Jimmy and we were up. An hour or so late, but up. We packed quickly, and skipping breakfast we were on our way.
We quickly rounded the corner to Laguna Túnel and instead of being blasted by a strong wind, it remained calm. Rounding the glacial lake we climbed up beside the waterfall: it wasn’t sprayed like the day before. Negotiating the rocks rounded by a melted glacier we quickly made it to the tyrolean.
I was lucky! The wind had blown the pulley along a little further along and I just managed to hook it with my stick! and happily secured it to the anchor with a carabiner. Jimmy and I put on our makeshift tape (webbing) harnesses and we attached our combined clothes-line and guy lines; one end to the pulley, the other to the anchor. Having purposely tied my water knot with a long tail, I attached the trail to the twin cables with a mallión and clipping into the pulley, pulled myself to the other end, unfortunately the side plates around the sheaves allowed the recovery rope to slip out. It wasn’t the end-of-the-world and gave me an excuse to zip back across with the help of gravity.

The recovery cord now attached, we ferried all the packs across, Jimmy and then Mum following. Whilst Mum put on her harness, a couple of guys arrived looking like they were planning to ford the river. There looked like a great spot just upstream, but they headed back and as we climbed higher, we saw them inspecting the delta where the river enters the lake. I believe this is traditionally where people cross and the previous week a couple of groups retorted it being less than knee deep. A few days later, some people we met said it only reached their ankles! 

Traversing the lateral moraine we soon dropped down to cross Glacier Túnel Inferior. Lots of rocks had fallen into it, and over time embedded themselves into the rock making it a simple matter to walk across in our shoes.

Quickly, we again regained the lateral moraine. Climbing up a ways we sheltered below a large rock next to stream for lunch. I was hoping Mum would trigger the stop, she needed a rest. By the time we stopped, she was already grumpy and low on energy. I was glad I hadn’t waited longer.
We wolfed down some flavoured water and some pan de pascua before quickly continuing past the bivy spot we’d almost pushed to the previous day. Here the track veered steeply up, giving the impression the pass was closer than it actually was.

Wind increased as we pressed on. Light snow fluttered around us at times but often jetted past on gusts at mark one, sometimes stinging the eyes.Strong gusts occasionally forced us to pause, sometimes getting close to pushing us off balance. Another false summit disheartened my parents but we were very close. Some more persistent patches of snow from a few days prior and we reached the surprisingly calm pass. Taking advantage of the calmness we hurried past some large pools and reaching the far side. We could see further than expected, the clouds racing by creating periodic windows of relative clarity. Then we entered the mêlée. As we started down the other side the wind was ferocious. We were lucky it wasn’t any warmer. Somewhere just below zero, the snow blew right off mum and my puffys… Dad however put on his wet weather gear in the process losing us for a time and at some point his pack cover.
Pressing on ahead, I sheltered periodically to let the others catch up. At one point I couldn’t even turn around to look for them, without goggles the wind and show was simply too fierce.
The gradient soon lessened making the waking a little less taxing. Ground vegetation appeared as we began crossing small streams… We also passed a lifeless (but alive) grasshopper and a even more lifeless (aka dead) bird resembling a ptarmigan but was probably a baby goose.
After a couple of hours I reached the refuge disturbing some canquén geese (AKA Aplan?). It wasn’t too bad in this natural depression. Dumping my pack I scouted the camp sites surprised to find one submerged in water: apparently the lake was high. When the others arrived we set up our tent – we were expecting another 6 to join us from Laguna Túnel – there wasn’t really enough room in the shelter, and we’d heard you weren’t supposed too…

Crossing through the pass
An opening in the weather allowed us to glimpse the icefield

We set the tent up efficiently and with lots of rocks weighing the 4 additional guy lines we attached on top of the regular two. We even constructed small some walls for both annexes to limit the wind blowing in from underneath. Retreating to the hut we were heating up a drink when Juan burst in. He was with two others he told me, they’d just finished traversing the ice from Paso Marconi. I later learnt he’d done the traverse over 30 times and correctly guessed he was a guide. His two clients (Dave y Tyler) were from Michigan and only had around 2 weeks escape from the job working with medicine.

Some canquén geese near the hut

They decided that they would sleep in the refuge giving us enough incentive to quickly dismantle our tent and join them. We hoped the other six wouldn’t be joining us. And to my surprise no one did. As the wind picked up and shook the hut, we were pleased with our decision. Like us, the others two were thinking to have a rest day. Merlín (their weather forecaster) was predicting a horrible tomorrow. Much worse than what I was expecting.

Day 3 (Tue): Refugio Paso del Viento

Woke late. Read. The weather relatively calm. Even sun as the day progressed.

The Americans looked like they wanted to keep moving but the guide didn’t look enthused. He’d stayed up watching movies/tv-shows until well after midnight and spent much of the morning napping.

The Americans installed some steps.

Learnt that the line in the hut about a meter of the floor was from earlier in the season when the lake swelled due to the spring melt. Crazy!

Day 4 (Wed): Refugio Paso del Viento

Waking relatively early we packed a day pack and headed out just before the others. For the most part retracing our steps from the previous day, we headed back to Paso del Viento. This time staying low we continued on to Laguna Ferrari, skirting the lake to find some good camp sites at the far end. There was even a small bivy spot under a boulder where you could squeeze two or maybe three people. Jimmy, inspecting another camp with its horseshoe rock wall, found a couple of fuel cylinders. They’d been there a while. One was very rusted, the other looked like it would function. We were running a little low and decided to carry them out.

Laguna Ferrari

We continued along the moraine, sliding down a steep scree slope to the small tarn above Lagunas de los Esquíes. I admired the view through the gap out across the glacier.
Dropping down to the lake, I was surprised that it barely existed. Perhaps it was actually a jökulhaup? Or maybe the water had finally carved a faster way down to the lake? Whatever the case, what was a lake on the map was now two separate pools with a significant climb between the two. We walked around some very big chucks of ice exploring a little, but the ice wall which was the edge of the glacier put me on edge so I didn’t stray close. We ventured over to the other disjointed lake and wondered a little way into the large mouth of a glacier cave, a river disappearing into the darkness. Quickly exiting under the arch or ice we walked up into the glacier exploring the cracks, moulins, noises and crevasses. A large boulder marked our turnaround point.

(Note my mum in the right of the photo)

The way back was much the same. The only things that come to mind is sinking into some mud, and locating a commercial groups emergency cache. We did a small detour to a lookout just before paso del Viento admiring our surroundings for a time before continuing onto the now crowded camp area. There were something like 9 tents! Everyone was using the same obvious weather window. With no spots left, but our stuff still in the refugio. We decided my parents could sleep inside for another night. I set up my bivy on the other side of the stream away from the crowd (in turn finding my spoon that had been lost for over a month!). We were planning an early start in the morning, trying to avoid the crowds as much as possible.

Day 5 (Thur): Refugio Paso del Viento to Bahia de los Témpanos

The sky flared briefly in a brilliant display of pink and orange. But like a match that snuffs out as soon as its lit, it was gone. Mum had already left, waking me up as she strided out of camp. Apparently she managed to catch the alpenglow across the icefield: a spectacular sight (I can only imagine).
The track was very defined and for the most part flat undulating terrain.
The views were spectacular. The mountains now unencumbered by their halos of cloud. We paused regularly to take it all in. The walk is generally conducted in a counter clockwise direction, but with the persistent wind now nonexistent I figured clockwise would actually over better views.

We stopped just before Paso Huemul to top up on water and then dumping our packs headed off to the Mirador del Cóndor. Jimmy quickly bailed at the first rise; he never seems interested in these short side trips. Mum and I however were very pleased when we reached the cerró. Panoramic views greeted us, from the lake past the retreating toe to the sweeping striated glacier. An amazing place to enjoy our banana chocolate cake, and in my opinion, the highlight of the trip. I could have spent the night there.
Chilled by the wind we eventually headed back to the now crowded pass. Jimmy happily talking to the various groups. Indeed most found it impressive that people in their mid 60s wound be on such a trip – and I felt it was one of our easier treks!

Mum going first, we crested the pass and dropped down into the lenga. At the dogleg we explored the cliffs to find the cóndor nest we’d been told about. Maybe we found it. There were some white splotches, but it was difficult to tell. There were some more good views of the toe so we were content.

The downhill section that followed was by far the worst. The heavily eroded track went almost straight down. All the topsoil and anything providing footing now gone. Hanging onto the trees, shrubs, basically whatever… it was easiest to move a little quicker to avoid slipping. I went off ahead passing a number of people struggling down. For me, in its own way it was fun, like a kind of dance.
I made it to the popular campamento at Bahia de los Témpanos. It was very crowded, but living up to its name there were a bunch of témpanos floating about. I’d claimed a spot for my parents, leaving my pack at the junction so they’d know I’d wondered down. I sat on the rocky shore for a time soon deciding that if I was going to go for a swim, I’d better do so quick. It wouldn’t be long before the sun disappeared behind the mountain. I handed someone my camera, stripped off and plunged in. It actually wasn’t that bad! I climbed up onto one of the smaller, closer iceburgs, stood there for a moment and then jumped off the back (bottoming out) to compete a lap.

I returned to shore to chat and shiver. Where were they? The sun vanished and eventually someone tipped me off that my folks were waiting at the junction. Why hadn’t they come down for a look? I raced up. We talked about moving on, but with a spot saved, we headed down to set up. I found a small spot, sufficient to sleep under the stars.
Dad made dinner.
We sat on the rocks for a time. But soon retired for the night.

Day 6 (Fri): Camp. Bahia de los Témpanos to El Chaltén

We were the first to break camp and set out. But having left one by one as we got ready, we quickly got separated on the crisscrossing cow trails. The problem was that the clearest option went out onto the península where we didn’t want to go. I walked to where the península jutted out and then cut across to a beach to follow the shore around. Ahead at the river crossing I spotted mum. No Jimmy in sight. She admitted to being a bit disorientation, expressing her dissatisfaction. It seemed unlikely Jimmy would have snuck past so we waited. And waited a little more. I put on the fluro pink fleece I’d found the previous afternoon and headed back to find him. It worked and after half an hour or so we were back with mum. Me, now with a wet foot.We cut through the scrub, followed the beach around and were soon on a well defined track. It was hot, and whilst not difficult we had a long way to go. We set a fast pace, soldiered on trying to get back as quick as we could.

Resting at a pitiful stream for lunch, we paused again at a much better river just before the tyrolean.
We crossed the tyrolean easily (there were pull cords available on both ends) and soon were at the end of the road to the muelle that takes people for tours on the lake. A small group clustered in a patch of shade to snack, but soon we were again off. Mum much further ahead. Jimmy and I took the road from the estancia to the highway and playing the ‘dad tired’ card managed to get us a ride into town in the back of a loaded pickup. We passed mum just before the bridge. I waved. She swore. We were dropped off at the bridge were she joined us. 
A stop at the bathrooms at the terminal and we soon jumped on the free WiFi to check if there were any updates from Sis. We were expecting a note to say were she was staying, but instead found she’d gone off to do the walk we’d been putting off so we could do it with her! It felt a little like betrayal. We wouldn’t be seeing her after all. Neither Jimmy or I had won the Rocklet bet!
Tired, we decided to stick with El Relincho. Entering a random tent with the codes Nam had messaged I got some of the presents I’d got get to bring for me. It was much better than Christmas!
I decided to crash in the tent (my new one wasn’t there – Nam must have been breaking it in).
We washed and quickly ate before heading of to the first night of the Festival de Montaña de Él Chaltén.

I was thinking about heading up to climb Cerró Solo in the morning, but I realised I was also too tired to head out on another trip.
With Nam on a trip and Jimmy’s time running out, we decided the best option was to continue quickly south. We went to check the buses again (after Jimmy and I did a morning visit). The 2 for 1 deal seemed a bit of a scam (though there was a spot the following day). When we got back my things were sprawled out across the lawn in front of the tent. What was going on?! Then I spotted Nam! She was back early!

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