Patagonian summer with Rob: ice, snow and wind

Perfectly on time we arrive to watch the hundreds of faces come through the arrival gate at El Calafate’s little airport. For a moment we even start thinking something must have gone wrong, when finally we see that one familiar face: Rob! Rob is a friend of us both since we were kids and he’s here to join us for 10 days. It turns out it wasn’t a joke after all when he told us on our goodbye party, he really is here. Together we’ll visit some of Patagonia’s most famous sights in El Calafate and El Chalten, Argentina’s trekking capital.

We want to get the most from his time with us so the schedule is pretty packed. First up is Perito Moreno Glacier, 80 km outside of Calafate. We’ll definitely go and watch the glacier from the platforms, but with a tour you could also hike on it or kayak next to it. If you thought we are already bad at making a decision, you surely don’t know Rob. In the end, after reconsidering a few times, we decide on the kayaking. To save time in the morning we sleep roadside close to the park entrance so we can enter when it opens. This means that Rob will cosily have to join us in the van tonight. Not sure if this was the level of comfort he expected, but luckily we can have a laugh about it the next morning while having breakfast on the ticket office parking lot. We’re here before all the tourbuses arrive so we get to enjoy this gigantic wall of ice practically in solitude. As if its sheer size isn’t enough, the glaciar is particularly interesting because it moves forward on average 2 m per day. The rumbling sounds of the ice crackling and crunching over the bedrock, and at times the calving of an iceberg, is truly magnificent. Upon each sound we peer at the blue surface hoping to spot some tumbling ice, but most of the times we’re already too late and just see the ripples in the lake below. Time flies and we have to go kayaking already. Before heading out on the frigid water we need to put on some – well, a lot of – extra protection. All wrapped up in fleece, rubber and Goretex we sit in our kayaks, sweating lightly as it’s quite warm outside today. We’re not allowed very close to the glacier because ice calving could be dangerous. But even then the view from the water and navigating the icebergs is impressive and fun. Feeling the temperature of the water we’re also glad that practising the eskimo roll was just one of the guides showing off and not part of our technique training! After having our Calafate liquor with glacier ice, a hallmark ending to every tour here, we go back to the lookout platforms once more for a final view on Perito Moreno, which looks very different now in the afternoon sun. A few falling chunks of ice later we drive back to town and start our next decision making marathon on which hikes we will be doing in El Chalten.

It’s already late when we see El Chalten on the horizon. We approach on the perfect moment though: the setting sun covers Mt. Fitz Roy and the peaks in a warm glow shifting from orange to red and purple as we come closer and the sun sinks deeper. We really want to see this mountain up close at sunrise but only Fitz Roy will not keep us occupied for a week. We head out for two days and that means we have enough time left for another multi-day trek. Rob proposes the Huemultrek – often referred to by ourselves as ‘Huhmmel’ in our nice Flemish accents. This trek takes you around the Huemul mountain and to the edge of the Southern Patagonian ice field in 4 days. It looks like a gorgeous but a tough one so we definitely want to be well informed by the park rangers. But first things first, we start our two days with an easy 8 km hike to the campsite where we leave our stuff before we continue to Laguna Sucia, a gem lake hidden away between high craggy peaks. We clamber back over the morene to the campsite and don’t hesitate to jump in our down sleeping bags after cooking our pasta: temperatures drop rapidly here and we have to start at 4.30 in the morning if we want to see the sunrise from Laguna de los Tres, the postcard view on Mt. Fitz Roy. With the ground still slippery from frost and the flanks covered with some lost snowflakes along the steep climb we rush to the top. You’re never alone for this kind of view, but it was more than worth the effort. We warm ourselves with a cup of tea, the water scooped from the laguna below, and when the sun has shown its most glorious colors we start the descent. Via Laguna Madre and Laguna Hija, mother and daughter, we loop back to El Chalten with a side trip to Laguna Torre, the other landmark view. Only the boys take this little detour while Stefanie watches the packs. She thinks 25 km might be overdoing it a bit if she also wants to continue the 4 days after this. We walked back into town right in time to hurry by the outdoor shop to rent the equipment for the river crossings – which wasn’t really appreciated by the arrogant shop keeper as she thought we weren’t taking it seriously – and to make it to the rangers office before they close at 5 pm. That night we choose to sleep in a hostel for a hot shower and good night sleep before we start the Huemul trek in the morning.

We’re all registered, compulsory for this trek, and ready to go. The rangers also show us a presentation about the dangers of the hike and how to cross a river with harness and pulley. Doubt rises again with Stefanie, who already needed some convincing to start the trek. We could always come back if it would turn out to be too hard but signing a paper in which you acknowledge to know the risks and that sending help is difficult isn’t much of a comfort of course… The 3 of us start anyway, it would be a shame to miss out on a gorgeous trek because of some online stories of how horrible it was. The first day is a walk in the park: not too long or hard and already stunning views. The next morning, however, we wake up to the sound of blazing wind. Patagonian wind is not to be underestimated and this is exactly what the rangers warned us for. Today we only have to do 12 km but this includes a steep mountain pass which should not be attempted on very windy days. While we break up camp we chat with some other hikers and apparently some already came back. We decide to wait it out for a bit, doubting whether or not we would be able to finish the trek. After an hour it seems that the gale calmed down and we agree to give it a shot. We can always turn back. Pretty soon we have crossed the river in our harnesses and we’re already walking on the glacier that we have to cross – yes, on the glacier, we told you it was a great trek, right?! We then have to conquer the Paso del Viento. What’s in a name… This steep and windy pass throws another challenge at us on the top: we have to traverse several patches of snow to reach the other side. But the view is amazing when we are on top and get a glimpse of the Southern Patagonian ice field for the first time. The rain somewhat blurs the panorama, but still… magical! The rain persists and the last stretch feels therefore a bit longer than we would like. When we see some tents in the distance we pick up the pace and in the end shake off the drops from our backpacks before using them as a comfortable couch. Hannes suddenly digs up a surprise from his pack: wine! Red wine in a plastic bottle has never before looked so tasty. We surely had deserved this, making it passed the point of no return. Little did we know that the worst was yet to come…

 

Day 3 and we were very enthusiastic again to get started – if only because that meant we struggled our disgusting breakfast down our throats. The worst ascent was done so from now on it should be easier, right? Also for this stretch there is a warning for windy days, as you climb Paso Huemul, but the weather is much better today and we set out cheerfully along the Viedma Glacier. Soon the wind picks up again and by the time we’re ascending on the pass we get blown away even more so than yesterday on Paso del Viento. The danger here is that you’re walking a very narrow trail on a steep mountain flank. The turbulent wind regularly smacks us onto the mountainside or away from it. Luckily we have our hiking poles to brace ourselves, but still Stefanie is at times having a hard time to stay on her feet when the wind catches her backpack. The last meters of the climb we get a real treat though: as the path goes straight up we just have to lean back and we simply sail ourselves up and over the pass. Superb! Once up there we’re not done yet for the day. As we have mainly been going uphill for 3 days we are now awaited by a steep descent of about 800 m over the next 3 km distance. “Straight down” would be the way to put it… But in the end we see again why we went through this ordeal as we arrive to our campsite in Bahia de los Tempanos, literally iceberg bay, where the wind carries all the chunks of ice from Glacier Viedma to. And there is no one. The other hikers apparently chose to walk on to the next site 2 km ahead. We think this one is more spectacular and that is rightfully so when we get up the next morning to admire the sunrise over the bay. Tucked away in our sleeping bags we watch how the sun gives us another intense color festival on the floating ice and surrounding mountains. The only difficulty today is the second river crossing and all goes great until Hannes is forced into the river to recover the recovery cord – haha, don’t even ask… other than that we can smoothly walk to the end of the trail where a dose of luck awaits us: the trek ends a while outside El Chalten, a 12 km stretch that we would still have to walk or hitchhike. As we sit down with a bag of peanuts to mentally prepare for the first 7 km to the main road, miraculously a car comes driving down the dead-end trail. 2 Porteños step out to enjoy the view before driving to El Chalten and they happily drive us there, sharing their maté along the way. After the 60 km trail, our feet will be forever grateful.

In time for Happy Hour we get back to El Chalten and we think we have deserved that after 100 km in 6 days. We underestimate slightly how exhausted we are so before we know it we are quite tipsy already. Finally we go for a nice meal again, not having to cook on our tiny stove this time, and soon after we end up dreaming in our soft beds, proud to have conquered the Huemul Circuit. It wasn’t the easiest one and the El Chalten catchline of “Viento… mucho viento!” was more than true, but we sure had a blast! We’ll have the bruises and sore feet healed again soon…

 


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