Huemul Loop

 Many years ago (9 to be precise), I did my first backpacking trip with a friend (also her first backpacking trip) I made in my internship in Chile at Cerro Tololo. We decided the W circuit at Torres Del Paine looked amazing and we researched what we needed (i.e. a tent, a backpack), how to pack food, etc. Good to go! 

We were anything BUT good to go. Long story short, Patagonia is some of the world’s most challenging trekking because you have (truly) 4 seasons in a day. The wind hits 70 km/hr regularly, it will snow, it will be sunny, it will rain, it will downpour and rain, etc. She and I were astounded by how beautiful the route was, but, oh, we suffered (no stove, so no hot water, etc.) 


The preamble is necessary to know that when we were on the boat out of (look up the glacier with the wind), I knew I would be back to try this again and be much better prepared this time.

Cue a montage of many, many backpacking and bikepacking trips from over the years. Learning the value of warm water, a rain jacket, how to pack, how to endure in 35F and rainy for hours, having every item you own be soaked, etc.  Cue quitting my job and finding myself in late December/January and asking where in the world should I go and what should I do. Cue Argentine Patagonia, I’m coming for you

El Chalten, trekking capitol (self-proclaimed?) of Argentina

I knew I wanted to do another backpack, and fortunately, Maggie provided a timely and amazing suggestion - the Huemel Loop (Huemel = Deer). It’s a ~41 mile loop out of El Chalten that you cross several mountain passes, walk on glaciers, hike in desert, etc. When I initially looked, I considered whether I should do it alone - I had the gear, I know how to use a map, etc. But ultimately, I made the much smarter decision of hiring a guide to go with me - between not being fluent in spanish and that most of the trail is unmarked (or nonexistent at times), it was absolutely the right call for me (as Rafael joked later, I should get a tattoo on my wrist that says “be careful” with tally marks for all the times I’ve almost died, lol). 

After a lot of day hikes, bike adventures, etc. in Argentina, I felt very ready and prepared when I showed up to “la officina” January 5th with my bag. Of course, Rafael, being a guide who definitely erred on ultra light backpacking, ripped it apart (“No, you don’t need 3 shirts, no vest, ok you can have 2 underwear”). We had a little bit of a stand off over an extra pair of socks - he said 2, I said the 3rd was my “luxury item” and he relented. “Luxury” item in backpacking-speak is “I know I am carrying extra weight and am willing to suffer that burden for this item”. 

And then the next day… we started! It was immediately uphill and in the desert, but this is the type of hiking I’d say I’m “strong” at, so we flew. Rafael quickly realized he was with, in the words of John Weller, a mutant. I think before then, he was worried he was with a non-spanish speaking, hairbow wearing solo female traveler on a eat-pray-love type of journey who had confused glamping with backpacking. But after we finished the climbing in under 2 hours (when it typically takes 5+), he was simultaneously like “omg this is going to be great” and “how am I going to keep her entertained?” 

Trail for most of day 1, stunning! 

Never fear Rafael, I wasn’t trying to set the record for the loop (it’s about 16 hours total time, fyi). Instead when we made it to our first campsite about 10 miles in, I was totally content to bask in the sun on a phenomenally warm day and take a nap. This really set the tone early that I was on this trip to see things but also to relax, to disconnect. Being without cell service and wifi was fantastic, and it really forced me, for the first time in a long time, to really let go of a lot of the “need” to check in on messages and people.

Free socks! 

We set up our tents and I found my rental tent had some previously owned socks. I was super stoked to have another pair of socks (“free socks!!”) and there was a snafu with the tent zipper that Rafael fixed – I have never seen someone fix a zipper before with a pair of pliers, but wow, it worked. Rafael made dinner (hey, I’m not above letting my guide totally spoil me), we explored the near by glacier lake, saw a fox as the sun set, ate dinner and talked a bit in 90% english 10% spanish. 


Glacial Lake 

After a shockingly good night of sleep, I woke up to what sounded like rain. Ugh. As I laid there dreading getting up in the wet cold, Rafael came to wake me up with hot water for morning coffee (ok, this was way beyond expectations. I just wanted someone to help me not get lost and die – this was a level of luxury I was unaccustomed to!). As I opened the tent, I realized it wasn’t raining… at all.. The “raindrops” were FLIES. 

if you zoom in, you can see a cloud around my head ahahaha

Note, as you might expect from extreme weather conditions, the flies in Patagonia are massive. They’d fly into my inner ear canal and actually block all sound in that ear because they were that big. So our tent packup was in record time and we were on the trail by 8 AM (Rafael: “oh no, you’re fast at packing too, we’re going to get to the second campsite soooo early”)

Zipline to the other side

We did and didn’t. After a bit of hiking, we had to cross a river via zip line. I knew this was coming - we had to bring harnesses and gear for the zip line. In person, it seemed extremely dangerous, like a 20 ft fall into class V rapids and then down a waterfall if something went wrong. Wheeee. Rafael went first with the bags and then came back for me, and I was excited to cross. He went to attach a guide rope to me “in case I needed help pulling myself across”. I gave him a look, he kind of paused, and then was like “you’re right, you don’t need help”. Haha. 

Hiking on the glacier

After that crossing, a little more hiking (we took a detour up through a canyon) and then we starting hiking on the glacier. This was wild - the rocks embedded in the surface seemed suspended in place, and we navigated crevasses, internal rivers (you could hear them but not see them), etc. I have never done a traverse on a glacier, so this was exhilarating for me but I moved … glacially. Rafael noticed our change in pace and had a comment like “oh good, we won’t get to camp in 4 hours today”. 

Moment #100 I was glad I had a guide and didn't wander this glacier endlessly

From there, it was a steep climb to windy pass. At this point, it unfortunately started to rain (“THIS IS PATAGONIA” was a mantra I stole from my guide on kayaking trip the week before). So we summit windy pass in a spectacular cloud full of rain and wind. The full experience! But we also got our first look at Viedma glacier and … WOW! 

Windy Pass

From there, we dropped down through a valley to campo #2 by a small lake with a hut. The hut was a great shelter from the rain, and we (well, I use ‘we’ loosely, more Rafael because the conversation was in Spanish and I could like understand what the conversation themes were but not actually keep up or contribute) made a friend who was part of a couple from Buenas Aires (fun fact: the lady in the couple is a Physics teacher :D). 

Campsite 2

After a while, I went back to my tent intending to read but again, napped. Rafael woke me up figuring I was bored (another joke we had was I was either walking (caminando), sleeping (dormiendo), or eating (comiendo), there were only 3 states of being for me haha). 

We drank tea and cooked in his tent, which again, is something I would never do in the US because of wildlife (apparently a non-issue in Patagonia). I became a big fan of drinking tea pretty much at every stop on this trip - Rafael drank Mate (of course) and I was less of a Mate fan so I had whatever tea we had available. 

This night was cold, so I had a little trouble falling asleep, but I put on my Michigan winter gloves (again, excessive but I knew that if I brought these gloves, I’d literally always be able to get warm) and it worked. 

Perfect day for hiking

Day 3 we started off quickly again, I actually packed up before Rafael (him: “well, this doesn’t happen often”) and our weather was perfect. We traversed rolling hills with these epic views overlooking viedma glacier. And we just had fun, at one point running up a pass without our packs (“you always want to run Lou, let’s run!”). 

See how it looks like a cliff to the icebergs? it was, and we went down it 

But then came “the descent”. Apparently it was in awful shape, but I really struggled. The trail basically just goes down a cliff with a lot of scree and not a lot of traction. I’m not a fan of hiking poles, but oh boy did I become a fan. I basically had to use the trekking pole how you might use an ice axe – stick it laterally into the side of the cliff and use it to support your weight as you move down. Rafael could have really flown in this section without me - he was like a mountain goat here. But, we made it in good time to our last campsite by a lake with icebergs floating in it. 

Campsite 3

We hung out for a while with the Argentinian couple, basking in sunshine by the lake and drinking tea, alternating the conversation in English and Spanish (never have I wished I had taken more spanish classes than this trip). My Spanish improved massively on this 4 day backpack but I’d need another few weeks to actually converse! 

From these conversations, I got a good sense of Argentinian culture/lifestyle. The Argentinos work very hard - long hours, usually multiple jobs (even for university professors) and from what I saw, very tough people (bias because it is the outdoor crowd but…). Patagonia is a really challenging trekking environment between trail condition and weather, and that didn’t seem to deter the Argentinians even when they couldn’t afford the gear (i.e. a pair of gore-tex pants was like $500 USD). 

We got to watch several of these crack and fall while hanging out in the sun

Rafael and I then went and made dinner in his tent again, drank tea, and talked. At this point, it just felt like we were friends, and we covered a lot of topics - like that he makes up-cycled bird houses from garbage in his free time (that are legit amazing), jobs we’ve worked, great experiences we’ve had, etc. 

Another great day 

Then, it was our last day. We did a slightly later start and some side trips throughout the last day, but it was mostly straightforward rolling hills in the desert in pretty much perfect weather. We had another zipline (wheeee) this one much less dangerous. We made it back in good time and had our last tea time as we waited for the car to pick up us (apparently you can hike the last 8 km to El Chalten but they aren’t pleasant). 

Zipline 2 was all fun 

Overall, an amazing trip, even when the weather wasn’t great or my backpack cut into my hip bones, etc. I really wish I could do another 20 backpacks like that right now - I just came out of it in such a relaxed and happy state of mind - my heart is full and my legs are strong. Rafael gave me such a great compliment at the end too, he told me: “that wasn’t work, that was just fun”. May all your trips be like this one then Rafael!

Unfortunately (lol), I picked up food poisoning somewhere between the last day and going to Ushuaia, so I was sick the following day with a 24 hour bug of sorts. But… that’s all part of the experience (and fortunately/unfortunately, I’ve had enough experience with international food poisoning to know what to do). 

Would definitely recommend!

Oh and gear packing list: Clothes:
2 wool t shirts, one slightly warmer for night sleeping
1 pair of quick dry prana pants (you absolutely need pants for this)
1 heavy wool weight base layer leggings for night sleeping
1 warm down jacket (mountain hardware ghost whisperer)
1 arcteryx kyanite hoodie (I had never used this before for hiking but it was perfect)
1 heavy weight rain jacket (eddie bauer, not gore tex but definitely waterproof)
2 pairs of wool underwear
3 pairs of wool socks
1 fleece buff (warm!)
1 smart wool hat
1 patagonia fleece (warm for sleeping at night)
1 pair of winter gloves (these are the ones that cost like $150 and they are waterproof and good for like -20C)
I stored everything in plastic garbage bags + electronics and sleeping bags in two sea to summit rugged waterproof bags

1 summer down sleeping bag (compresses small) + 1 wool liner (adds 7F of warmth)
1 sea to summit inflatable pillow (freaking love this thing)
1 cheap ass sleeping pad
1 headlamp (not really necessary but ok) + 4 triple A batteries
1 tent (rented - 2 person, it was ok)
1 nalgene water bottle (1L, Rafael carried a 250 ml bottle and that was fine with all the water available)
1 pair of sunglasses
1 microfiber towel (to quick dry like my hair if things get bad)
1 hair tie
1 tooth brush + tooth paste
allergy meds
about 30 squares of TP in a plastic bag (pack it in, pack it out)
1 climbing harness + caribiner (Rafael had the rope)
1 pair of camp sandals (tevas)

Food - which was given to me (spoiled!) but it was the perfect amount. Lot of tea, oatmeal, cheese + avocado sandwiches, candy etc.

luxury items:
power bank
that extra pair of socks (making my total 3)
2 hairbows (snuck those past Rafael)

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