With three Dutchies we'd met 12 hours previously we set off on what was to be five days of ‘the unprepared in the unknown’. We took on 100+ km/h winds over mountain passes, zip lined over rapids, took shelter for 36 hours in a little mountain Refugio and had our minds blown by the indescribable beauty and solitude of the Patagonian Icefield.
As anyone who has had the pleasure of hiking with us will know, we're meticulous planners and anal about appropriate preparation. So when Scott announced, only half an hour after arriving back from three days hiking around Mount Fitz Roy, that there was a weather window and we were heading off on the Huemul Circuit the next morning, I think you know what our answer was.
A quick squiz on the internet gave us utter confidence for our next endeavour:
So with that knowledge, we scavenged some harnesses and rope, bought a few kilos of rice, pasta, vegetables and cookies, and went to meet the three Dutch girls who'd have the privilege of taking our inaugural Vagabond Patagonia Tour™.
Much like the calm before the storm, our first day was relatively uneventful but filled with anticipation. We quickly climbed away from the small mountain town of El Chaltén and began weaving our way up the valley towards the Glacier Rio Túnel Inferior, which we'd be walking on the next day up to Paso del Viento. Arriving at the campsite late after a side trip to summit Loma del Pligue Tombado, we shared mulled wine with the dozen other hikers in the camp and gleaned some information about the oncoming weather.
We discovered that our ‘weather window', which we'd been so quick to exploit, was less favourable than we thought. Since checking it, it'd been updated to include 100+ km/h winds for the afternoon were planning to tackle Paso del Viento. Now is possibly a good time to mention that Paso del Viento translates to The Windy Pass, and it has a reputation for being dicey at the best of times.
With updated knowledge of the wind conditions, it was only the multinational Dutch-Aussie team that decided to continue on with the hike. With perseverance, or possibly stubbornness, we broke camp early on day two and were immediately battered by winds that knocked us to our knees. Three hours later with less than 1 km covered things weren't looking any better. We implemented the well-known ‘She'll be right' tactic and pushed on anyway.
Miraculously, after tackling the first of two zip lines across rapids, we started skirting Glacier Rio Túnel Inferior on the way up to Paso del Viento and the winds subsided slightly. To say we were relieved is an understatement. Despite our consistent use of the ‘She'll be right' tactic over the past few months and it's generally favourable results, we'd begun to doubt our chances of making it over the pass.
Making up for lost time, we raced around the glacier and up to the Paso del Viento, only to find a distinct lack of wind. We were ecstatic. Now, all we had to do was pop over the other side, check out the panoramic views of the icefield and start making our way to our second campsite, Refugio Paso del Viento. As it turns out, our celebration was somewhat premature, a bit like some other things hey Scott?
Crossing the pass to the other side, we got a full onslaught of Patagonia winds. Winds that can throw you flat on the ground or make you stumble like your grandma on absinth come as a packaged deal with views of the Patagonian Icefield.
As we tumbled our way down to the icefield, the wind started to win the battle. I don't know about the others, but for me, the last few hours walking consisted of alternating between chanting ‘just keep swimming, just keep swimming' and looking up in awe of the third biggest icefield in the world. These moments don't come by too often.
Cresting the last hill and seeing Refugio Paso del Viento, we were swept with an amazing sense of relief and relaxation. This set the tone for the next 36 hours. When we woke up at 6 am the next morning to get an early start on the next mountain pass, the whole Refugio (little more than a tin shed) was shaking in the wind. This confirmed the forecasts, which had indicated even stronger winds than the day before. With the howling winds outside and the cosiness of our sleeping bags inside, it only took a few seconds for all six of us to come to the conclusion that we had enough food to wait out the wind in the Refugio for a day and go back to sleep.
At times throughout the morning, the wind would subside and we'd feel the temptation to make a dash for the next pass. However, those thoughts quickly passed and we soon embraced the downtime. How often do you get the chance to stay in a tin shed, perched between the expansive Patagonian Icefield and a mountain range, two days walk and a mountain pass in either direction from any form of civilisation? The forced isolation and sense of freedom were seen as a rare blessing. Hours were passed with our Dutch friends playing card games, listening to podcasts, reading and sharing stories of home and travels.
We started our penultimate day well rested and raring to go, flying up over Paso Huemul and down the 700m descent in record time. This left us with ample time to make the final few kilometres to camp, and luckily, the perfect way to spend it. At the bottom of the decent is Bahia de los Témpanos, a glacial lake strewn with icebergs the size of houses.
Within seconds of reaching the shore, clothes were hastily discarded and six pasty figures danced their way into the icy water. Whether it was the amazing location or just our bodies reacting to the water with copious amounts of adrenalin, we felt alive. This is living.
The slow start on our final day was emblematic of our reluctance to leave this place. The Huemul Circuit has shown us a different side of Patagonia. The mountains, glaciers, rivers and icefields are beautiful but more important than what we saw was what we felt and experienced. Until now, we had been blessed with easy weather but struggled to truly feel the isolation that we knew Patagonia offered. We left El Chaltén with three people we'd never met, and five days later, through shared experiences, shared highs and lows, and of course, shared food, we returned like six friends from childhood. The connections that you make with others when working hard together towards a common goal can't be found elsewhere.
Shaking off our reluctance to leave, we hit the trail and strode back to El Chaltén with lighter packs and fuller hearts. This year is about amazing places, incredible experiences and beautiful people. The Huemul Circuit checked all three. It's the adventure of a lifetime and I've got an inkling that it isn't going to be the last one we have this year.