El Chalten, Argentina, Patagonia. Spring 2017.
Let's start with the pronunciation: "Way-mule." It is a 4 day thru hike that starts in the tiny town of Chalten, Argentina. We only had heard about it from one other hiker. He told us, "No one really knows about it, you will see glaciers and you might get lost because there is no real trail, just cairns. Oh also you are going into winter so it should get below zero when you go." Oh right. Naturally. We were itching for some adventure so we thought we would give it a try. When I say we, it was my best friend Megan and I: amateur thru hikers but professional positive thinkers. We tried to research it but there was only one post about it online. It took a 6 hour bus from Calafate, Argentina and we ended up in the cutest town of Chalten. An Argentine climber's paradise.
We stumbled upon our hostel and happened to meet a German guy who had JUST returned from conquering Huemul. He lit up when we told him we were going to try it. He sat down with us in the kitchen with one flickering light above us and whipped out his map to show us how he did it. We learned quickly we were severely ill-equipped. We were going to need rope, harnesses and a something better than our print out map. Also warmer clothes. We spent a day prepping and watching the weather. Yes technically the season was going into winter but we happen to hit the most BEAUTIFUL fall I have ever seen. Fall in Patagonia only lasts about 2 weeks so we were lucky to be there during that time.
There are many different types of hikes in this world: some are just nature walks, some you break a sweat, and some you have give documentation so incase you don't come back they know to come looking for you. Huemul is one of those hikes. They made us watch an intro video just so we knew what we were getting into. The ranger was nervous for us with the weather, he said in order to make this worth it we need to have clear weather on the second and third day or we were going to miss the views and the trail. The forecast looked rainy all the way through but we didn't want the weather to stop us. After we signed our souls away on the registration docs, we were on our way.
What we were up against:
The trail goes through the Glacier National Park of Patagonia, as a result there really is no trail because the glaciers are always changing. Everything is pack in and pack out and you are not allowed to light fires. There are no emergency roads, so incase anything happens to you, you are kind of on your own. Kinda stressful, kinda fun.
Day 1 = El Chalten to Laguna Toro, 9 miles
Day 2 = Laguna Toro to Paso Viento Refuge, 7.5 miles
Day 3 = Refuge to Lago Viedme, 11 miles
Day 4 = Lago Viedma to Bahia Tunel, 11 miles
The trail is clear and you hike through a lot of pastures. It had been raining so our shoes were soaked instantly. The trail got really muddy and with cows every where it took 5 seconds to realize we weren't actually stepping in mud. Thank you ecosystem. We walked through this forest that had this eerie feeling, the colors and the fog were beautiful but it was scary because we had not seen anyone on the trail. We didn't know this at the time but we actually would not see a soul for 4 days. It felt like the perfect scene for Texas Chainsaw Massacre round 2.
Sleeping that night was a whole different ball game. It dropped to about 10 degrees that night and we were on rented sleeping mats. AKA thin. We wore every piece of clothing we had and we were also told the rats come out at night. If there was any crumb in our tent then the rats would eat right through it so the rangers said to hang our food and hope our backpacks don't get chewed on. In the middle of the night you can hear those little things scampering around and at one point there was one that climbed on top of our tent. Meg took quick action and punched it off. Girls- 1. Rats- 0.
I've had many moments in my life when I knew God was real. One was when I won a race with a broken foot and another was this next morning. With rain in the forecast, we were pretty discouraged but we woke up to clear skies and we had tears we were so excited. We put on our frozen stiff socks and shoes and set out. It was pure magic.
We were limping for the first hour because we could not feel our feet it was so cold. We came to our first river crossing and this was where our harnesses came into play. They call this a Tirolean Traverse where you have to use a pulley system to get across the river. We were confused at first but since no one was there to show us, we somehow figured it out.
This was one of the best hiking days of my life. Glaciers. Scrambling. Snow. It had it all and there was not another soul in sight. There is something to be said about hiking alone. I never realized how calming yet stimulating it can be to have it just be you and your thoughts. I think there is a sense of assurance when you see other people on the trail but it was interesting to feel so exposed, vulnerable and not know where the trail is going but yet so liberated of rules, trails and other people's conversations.
We found a bivouac to sleep in that night which we were grateful for because it was so windy. We cooked our food and started to set up camp inside this little hut until we found a tiny journal that read, "the rats take no prisoners". We thought it was a joke but as we kept reading we found more and more entires about how hikers tried to sleep inside until the rats ate all of their food and chewed holes in their clothes. We realized it had to be a decision of signing up for night infested with rats or we go for outside with windchill where it would drop below zero. We truly debated which was the lesser evil. Stay inside, have a chance of getting sleep, maybe getting holes in our gear, possibly needing a Salmonella shot when we get back to civilization. OR. Sleep outside, might not have our fingers in morning, count your breathes until the sun comes up. This should show how cold it really was out there because we OPTED FOR THE RATS. I think that's the best part in all of this, we sided with the rat kingdom because we thought it was the better decision. Low moments in low times. We got ready for bed and put our sleep gear on these rickety tables. We thought maybe we would do a watch, like Meg stays up reading while I sleep so she can fend off any rodents then we switch. Minutes after we laid down we heard a few rats run around and one was chewing on this plastic bottle. It. Was. So. Loud. So we would make some noise but no rat moved. It's like they were trained to be around humans. At one point we pointed our head lamp at the one chewing plastic and he STARED RIGHT BACK. He did not move. He looked right back at us with those glowy eyes. We even threw something at him and he did not move. I think this was when we realize we were in over our heads. We got lured in and now we were in for it. I thought we had a chance until a rat crawled over my face and we aborted. Packed up and went outside v quick and we just prayed our bodies would make it til morning. I think when we looked back at the temp it was 7 degrees that night. Rats- 1, girls- 1. I don't know how we made it through these nights.
We woke up not feeling anything in our body and immediately packed up and got moving to warm up. It was a clear day and we just went from one cairn to the next enjoying the views. We summited two passes then came to our descent which we heard was almost impossible to navigate. "Just head down the mountain," they told us. So we did. Despite the rough terrain and getting lost a few times, it was STUNNING.
We walked into the next camp which was by the lake, as we got closer we noticed the plants had frost on them. It was 7 pm and there was already frost. Again, we should have taken a hint. We set up camp, ate dinner and as we spooned into our freeze dried meals we heard what sounds like a huge avalanche. I don't know how we got so lucky but we witnessed one of nature's phenomenons. A huge piece of ice broke off causing the rest of it to tip over. I mean how many months or years had that glacier been sitting there and it just HAPPENED give us a show within minutes of us showing up. . Excuse all the commentary it was just SO AMAZING.