Towering peaks, vast valleys, crossing a tumbling glacier, a sweeping view of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, rugged alpine passes, an iceberg filled lagoon, and...low crowds? It would be very difficult to name a trek in Patagonia that has all these things and is also accessible to accomplish without complicated transportation, but you’ll find it in the Huemul (pronounced WAY-mool) Circuit in Los Glaciares National Park. Starting in El Chalten like many of Argentina’s most iconic Patagonian treks, this 56-kilometer hike around the Cerro Huemul (2,677 meters) just south of El Chalten provides a remote and rugged experience that somehow has not attracted the crowds of the more heavily trafficked Laguna des los Tres and Laguna Torre corridors. The peak is also named for the rare and endangered South Andean Deer, the huemul; if you’re lucky enough to spot this species in the wild, it is requested that you report the sighting to a ranger for study.
Before attempting this trek, you need to decide if going with a guide company is for you or not. If your navigation skills are not excellent with a great deal of confidence in route finding, get a guide. If you don’t have experience fording rivers or zip-lining across them and using a harness, get a guide. If you don’t have confidence in dealing with notoriously bad Patagonian weather along the ice field, get a guide. If you really want to do this without a guide, it is certainly possible, but more preparation and research is required than is typical for a four-day three-night trek in the mountains, and it is required to visit the ranger station to demonstrate your knowledge and equipment before you are allowed to do this trek without a guide.
If this trek is still of interest, ensure that it has a rightful place in any itinerary that involves travel to the Argentinian mountain town of El Chalten, because an unforgettable experience is all but guaranteed. Starting at the ranger station on the south side of El Chalten, either yourself or the guide will give the ranger your itinerary and demonstrate that your group is prepared for the circuit. This is quite different than backpacking to Laguna Torre, where anyone can just drag a tent there through the woods.
The first day involves climbing 610 meters over the shoulder of Loma del Pliegue Tumbado through a dense forest to access the Tunel Valley, where you can stay at the established Campamento Rio Tunel. You'll have great views to one of the more dramatic faces of Cerro Huemul to let you know what you’ll be walking around for the next few days. There is nothing very tricky about this part, and just involves following signs to Laguna Toro.
The following morning is when the trek becomes noticeably more rugged. Quite soon after walking around the lake you will have to either ford the river or use the harness you may be carrying to zipline across the river at pre-setup anchors and cable. First make your way across the river, and then proceed either over the scree on the left or through the dry canyon on the right. In either case the glacier crossing is next. No crampons are generally needed here unless it is early in the season and there is still snow. Keep close to the edge of the glacier to use the dirt and small rocks as traction and to avoid any crevices. A trail will reveal itself at the far end of the glacier and the big climb to Paso del Viento, which is long, steep, and translates to “windy pass,” so be prepared for very strong gusts. On the far side of the pass the Southern Patagonian Ice Field stretches as far as you can see, with mountains poking above it in all directions. It is a truly incredible sight that you’ll get to enjoy until you cross Paso Huemul the next day. Follow the trail down and to the left to eventually arrive at Refugio Ihcp which has a couple of emergency beds but mostly just indoor space for cooking and a grassy area outside for camping.
The next day is mostly on a balcony trail with superb views of the ice fields and Viedma Glacier, which terminates in an iceberg-filled lagoon that will be your camping area after crossing Paso Huemul. The trail is fairly straightforward with ups and downs, a couple stream crossings, and a steep section leading to the Paso Huemul. Despite the wind, you’ll want to stay here for some time to admire the ice field and glaciated peaks in the distance before returning to the real world. That return is rather uncomfortable; the descent drops 490 meters in 2 kilometers and requires lowering yourself on a rope, some bushwhacking, and careful navigation of the steep slippery rock that makes for an agonizingly slow end of the day. At the end, several secluded campsites near the lagoon make up for it, and hopefully the lagoon will be full of icebergs calving off Viedma Glacier not too far away.
The last day is a straightforward hike without much climbing that crosses the grassy steppe along Viedma Lake and another river ford or zip-line before reaching a parking area at Puerto Bahía Túnel. Arranged transport here can make all the difference since the only way back to town is hitchhiking or walking another 5 miles. In either case, the incredible variety of scenery and remote Patagonian experience will be an adventure that leaves you with stories you’ll never forget.