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.