Trekking Patagonia: Seeking adventures at the end of the earth
Patagonia is a Mecca for climbers and trekkers. Whatever guidebook you read, this South American region most certainly is on the to-do list of any mountain-oriented or outdoorsy person. It was also on the bucket list of Arthur Kudelka, director of the service department for outdoor footwear brand LOWA. So he and a companion decided there was no time like the present and headed there in January 2017. Kudelka, based in Germany, brought home incredible memories and a lot of inspiring photos, too. He shared his tale and images with HI Travel Tales in this short journal — Trekking Patagonia – making us quite jealous of his adventure!
The idea of a trip there had been swirling around in our heads for a long time: At some point, we wanted to head to Patagonia and, with packs and a tent, to head out – without set plans, without bookings, simply set out and see what happens. But when? We did not want to put it off forever, so we decided to simply make it happen. On Jan. 13, 2017, we were ready to head out with our two packs that each weighed in at 33 pounds. We headed out to El Calafate, a city on the edge of the Patagonian Ice Field, via Madrid and Buenos Aires. There, we were greeted by the Patagonia summer with warm temperatures and sunshine instead of the wind and rain we expected.
We were totally euphoric. After a short stop at the famous (and still advancing) Perito Moreno Glacier in the Las Glaciares National Park, we traveled farther to El Chaltén. This small village in the south of Argentina is the Mecca for mountaineering in Patagonia and known as a “trekking capital.” Back in the ‘50s, the first expeditions started out from here to notch a first ascent of the big summits of Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. We selected this village as our base for the next few days for a few short hikes before we planned to head out on the Huemul Circuit to southern Patagonia’s inland ice fields. We already could imagine just from a short detour to the view point of Cerro Torre what we would find over the next few days: a truly impressive and still wild outdoor region.
Trekking Patagonia’s Huemul Circuit
Two days later, and after a rather exacting check of our gear by the ranger, we headed out on the Huemul Circuit. The route started directly at the ranger station. It wound through light beech forests, swampy meadows and finally into the big valley of Rio Túnel.
Strong, stormy winds challenged our balance here. After about six hours we reached the first camp. Protected by a small wooded area, we set up our tent.
Our route to Camp No. 2 started with a Tyrolean Traverse – a steel cable over a small gorge that had to be crossed with your climbing harness and pack. For alpinists like us, not normally a huge challenge. With a 33-pound pack on your back, however, certainly a lot harder than we thought.
Our route traveled over scree along the Túnel Glacier in the direction of Paso del Viento. At this point, orienting ourselves became increasingly more difficult and the rain was heavier too. Nevertheless, we managed to stay on course along the route to the pass, and we then crossed up and over it.
Paso del Viento takes our breath away
Arriving up top, our breath was taken away: From Paso del Viento, without nearly any wind or rain, we could see all the way across the seeming endless expanse of the Patagonian Ice Field – the third-largest expanse of ice in the world. This is a sight that, once you see it, you will never forget for the rest of your life. After a whole lot of photos, we made our way toward what would be our camp.
Two days later, with the sun on our backs, we headed out on our third stage. This took us along the ice field toward Huemel Pass. On the left were the mountains; on the right were endless masses of ice. The path snaked unobtrusively through the impressive outdoor scenery. After a total of four hours hiking, we were standing on Paso Huemul.
There, we had a totally different landscape lying before us – before, just rock and ice with whipping winds, and now it was green and summer like. From up top, we could already recognize the bay at the terminus of Viedma Glacier, which is where we set up our third camp for this trek. We pitched our tent above the lagoon and wandered that evening down to the bay.
Sunrise photography over the glacier
We started out our last day of the Huemul Circuit in total darkness. We wanted to climb up one of the hills nearby and, from there, photograph the sunrise over the glacier. Our climb was rewarded with the morning sun and the way it transformed the landscape into colors playing across the red granite and blue ice. We were silenced in awe – although the click of the camera shutters did break the utter stillness!
The last stage of our trek again took us over somewhat flatter terrain along Lago Viedma back toward civilization. The harbor at the end of the lake got closer and closer, and we made out the first cars after our backcountry adventure. After about five days and a total of about 57 km, we had reached our goal of completing the circuit.
After a short wait, a bus arrived to carry us back to El Chaltén. Once arriving there, we of course checked back in at the ranger station, to be sure they had us noted as healthy and in one piece. Extremely happy too!
Trekking Patagonia Recommended Gear
Basic gear list
Arthur Kudelka has shared a gear list of basics needed for this backpacking adventure, with an additional short list of additional recommended gear if you were wanting to take on the Huemul Circuit. Remember, that the weather in this area can be whimsical so be prepared and rely on layering apparel.
- Waterproof tent that can withstand winds
- Warm sleeping bag (comfort range to about 20°F, depending on your tolerance and the time of year)
- Sleeping pad
- Lightweight, stable camp stove
- Lightweight set of pots and cooking utensils, depending on your meal plan
- Sturdy hiking poles (consider foldable for easier transport, like these Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Z poles HI Travel Tales has used and tested)
- Warm, waterproof clothing you can layer (lightweight down jacket, waterproof pants, cap, gloves, fleece, etc.)
- Dry sacks for gear, camera, etc. (waterproof bag with roll tops or other weather-proof closures)
- First-aid kit
- Water bottle (to save packing space, consider the new Katadyn bottles with filter). To see our review of the smallest Katadyn filter, click here.
- Backpack with rain cover (50-60L, depending on how far you are going)
- Small compact daypack for day hikes or shopping in town
- Sun protection – sunglasses with UV protection, sunscreen, hat, etc.
Huemul Circuit Trek — add-on equipment
If you do the Huemul Circuit you will need additional gear. There is a precise gear list available in the El Chalten ranger station:
- climbing harness
- climbing runners/slings
- carabiners/HMS carabiners
- long rope
Footwear — sturdy and waterproof
In addition, for trekking Patagonia, Kudelka suggests sturdy hiking footwear with good soles for the changing terrain – although many hikers in this area do select more athletically oriented, lighterweight shoes instead of true trekking boots. The choice is of course yours. Since Kudulka works for Lowa footwear, a well-respected international outdoor brand with distribution in the United States, he course recommends Lowa product!
- Lowa Ticam II GTX – A model in the brand’s backpacking segment.
- Lowa Mauria GTX Ws – In the brand’s trekking segment and thus slightly lighterweight.
Sandals are of course necessary for allowing your feet to breathe in camp, when lounging or for any water crossings. His suggestions:
MAP OF ARGENTINA
Juan José Castelli
El Impenetrable National Park
Amerian Hotel - Resistencia
Hotel Portal Del Impenetrable
Misión Nueva Pompeya
Finca Valentina Hotel
Owned by Socompa Adventure Travel, Finca Valentina is the base hotel from which most adventures begin in the Puna. Read our story on the Puna here.
Hosteria el Penon
Hosteria el Penon is a surprising oasis in the middle of the rugged Puna and where most Socompa Adventure Travel tours spend a night or two. Read our story on the Puna here.
Tolar Grande is a mining town located at an elevation of 11,509 feet and typically a place where Puna adventurers spend a night. Read our story on the Puna here.