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TRAIL RUNNING THROUGH THE LAND OF PEAKS AND LAKES

Written by Peter Wieninger

Towards the back-end of 2019, Secret Compass teammate Peter Wieninger gave us a shout with a unique request. Having previously joined our DRC expedition into the Virunga national park, he was shaping up his next adventure. He wanted to explore the Patagonia National Park, but he didn’t want to trek it. Instead, with a short timeframe he wanted to run the trails and squeeze in as much as he could into a tighter window.

He had a vague idea of what he wanted to do – but not a huge amount of time to arrange it, and on such a tight schedule, arranging it needed. There were some specific circuits he had in mind and he knew he could cover the distance and he was comfortable doing it solo. What he needed was some connections, logistics and permits hooking up – so he gave us a shout.

In early January 2020, Peter arrived in Coyhaique northern Chilean Patagonia. Below, is his account of the trip.

If you’re looking for a little help in shaping up your adventure of a lifetime get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.

Having picked up all my supplies in the town in the morning, I drove an hour and a half to Villa Castillo, a small village with very limited amenities. I was eager to get out on the trails so warmed up with an easy run south of the town past some pretty cool climbing spots. The next morning I’d take on the first proper planed circuit of the trip.

Las Horquetas Circuit

The trail opens at 7:00 am and requires a permit. The first 13km was a scenic run through grazing lands, some swampy patches and two creek crossings which meant taking off my trainers and socks.

The trail then followed a river valley until the turn off to Laguna El Turbio – a 1.6 km boulder hop to a nice glacier lake. Coming back out of the boulder fields of Laguna El Turbio was a bit tricky, cairns weren’t that prevalent – so finding the exit took a bit of time. Once on the main trail, it’s pretty straight forward up to Paso Penon.

It is a steady steep climb up to the pass which had some light snow cover at the top. The other side of the pass, there are some great views of Cerro Penon.

After a few more kilometres, the trail takes you to the base of Cerro Castillo.  Along the way there are many creeks to draw water from, I never needed to treat the water – as it was straight from the glaciers it was so clean, I didn’t need to worry.

With the waterfall coming down from the rock face, I couldn’t resist the temptation to scramble up the to the scree ridge to have a look and it was well worth it for a glimpse of the small glacier fed lake and Laguna Cerro Castillo in the distance.

The trail continued for a kilometre or so, leading to the front of Laguna Cerro Castillo and up diagonally to Morro Negro Pass with unbelievable views the whole way.

The rangers informed me that the winds at the top of Morro Negro are typically very strong and getting up and over the pass can be pretty dangerous. The wind was pretty minimal and it was sunny and warm – a rare thing out there – so I was pretty fortunate, it takes a couple of hours to get over the pass and down.

Descending the three kilometres of switchbacks I came to the Porteadores campground, a good option to stay the night if I’d needed it at that time, but because of my good fortune with weather and progress, I continued another 3.6km to the Neozelandes campground. It took me about 11 hours in total to get to that point so I was glad of a hot meal when I arrived. So I set up my stove for my dehydrated ration pack and took the chance to chat a bit with my neighbouring campers.

The next morning I was up at approx 07:30 am knowing it wasn’t so far to cover that day. I shuffled up to Laguna Duff – about 2.6km and a mix of good dirt trail, boulder hoping and gentle sloped scree scrambling all fairly well marked.  The weather was great, clear, sunny and relatively warm and there was absolutely no one around.

I then made my way back down the same trail, through Camp Neozelandes and further on back to camp Porteadores. The trail then follows down the ridge of a canyon, through a forested area and onto the ranger station to check out. 

After the ranger station I carried on through some grazing lands to intersect with the gravel road which leads to Villa Cerro Castillo. This 7 km gravel shuffle was really challenging mentally and hard on the feet, but knowing it wasn’t far to the end keeps you going.

Patagonia National Park (PNP)

It was pretty convenient to have a rental car to drive from Villa Cerro Castillo to Patagonia National Park. it’s about 90% gravel with many sections under construction so it took 5 hours to travel approximately 235 km but the landscapes along the way were epic, a few of the following photos are during this drive.

I rolled into the Patagonia National Park and toured the front information / museum and found some interesting tidbits of the area, history and emphasis on environmental sustainability.  I acquired my park pass and two nights at the Westwind campsite.

To shake out the legs there is a 4 to 5 km circuit called The Vega Loop around the campground and the administration building.  There are a few small hills you can scramble up to get a nice overview of the area. PNP is not as mountainous as Los Glaciares National Park, but it has a unique charm of its own.

Lagunas Atlas Loop – 23km

The trailhead for this 23km trail run is very close to the Westwind campground; it takes you up to the top of the overlooking ridge and then along the top past a number of lakes. The run starts off with a gentle diagonal climb up the mountainside for approximately 4km before the trail gets steeper with switchbacks the whole way. Even though it was summer, I did get a light dusting of snow on my way up. The last 1.5 km was very steep, but cresting the top, there is a great view of the first lake and the valley with the campsite below. There is a small peak I recommend off to the right worth scrambling up that will provide a very panoramic, 360o view of the area. Stunning.

After scrambling back down to the main trail, there’s a nice flowy trail that takes you past a few lakes and awesome forested areas, a very runnable trail.  The trail eventually passes the backside of the ridge and back around to the administration buildings; with only a 2km run on the Vega Loop trail to the Westwind campground. After the Laguna Loop, I drove into Cochrane for a great lunch at Lago Brown.

With restrictions on rental cars crossing the Chile / Argentina border, arrangements were made for a private driver from Balmaceda to El Chalten. Along the route, there are some amazing spots to check out the rivers, firstly where the Baker and the Chacabuco merge and then further downstream where the Baker and Neff rivers merge.

I travelled back to Coyhaique which would typically take 6.5 or 7 hours, but unfortunately I had a double flat tire along the way. Thankful I had a Garmin InReach which provided satellite communication – handy as there was no cell coverage in the region. It was great having Secret Compass supporting the trip, particularly when stuff like this happened. They were able to make arrangements with the rental car company and have two tires delivered to me  in a relatively remote area within 12 hours. This enabled me to keep to the original schedule as I arrived in Coyhaique at about 1:30am.

Up early the next mornin, I grabbed a few groceries and filled up the rental car. Then about 15 km from the airport the traffic came to a standstill. I found out later that day the kindergarten teachers were protesting working conditions and pay by burning tires in one lane on the highway.  Unfortunately that meant I arrived at the airport about an hour late to drop off the rental car and meet up with my private driver – but it all worked out.

Chile to Argentina

The private drivers were super helpful in getting me to and through the Chilean and Argentinian borders – both crossings were very low key and straight forward. The northern border crossing from Chile Chico to Los Antiguos there’s about 20km over a pass between the actual border crossing offices – not sure who controls the land between there. It took 2 hours to get from Balmaceda to the Argentinian border, then another 7.5 or 8 hours to El Chalten. 80% of Patagonia is semi-arid desert, so it’s pretty desolate. It wasn’t until the last 75km when you start to get views of the mountains. As we drove into El Chalten near sunset, we were fortunate the skies were clear, it made for some great initial pictures of Fitz Roy at a lookout a couple of km out of town.

The next morning I ventured to the rangers station to obtain my permit for the next fast-pack. Now, with the permit in hand I had the rest of the day to prepare. I decided to find the trailhead and hike up to the lookout point and adjacent campground as the weather forecast was best for that day – the forecast was for clouds and potential rain in the coming days. The total trip, hostel – through town – lookout – loop past the lake and campground and back to the hostel was well worth it. It was about 15km in total but clouds covered the top of Fitz Roy the next morning.

Huemul Circuit Loop

I set off  from the hostel at 6:40 am, shuffled through town and got to the trailhead at 7:00 am. I made my way up the same trail as the day before and continued on to the Torre Valley junction following through to the Poincenot campground before the final 1km steep hike up to Laguna de Los Tres for a brilliant view of the lake and El Chalten valley.

Windswept mist and frequent rainbows over the lake added to the magical ambiance. I continued to venture along the left side of the lake for amazing views of multiple waterfalls feeding a second turquoise pool.

With all this initial scenery embedded in my mind, I gingerly made my way down the steep descent, back through camp and on to the Torre Valley junction. This was a nice run on a tight trail weaving through dense trees above the Mother and Daughter alpine lakes. After about 8km, the trial intersected the more frequently used Laguna Torre trail coming up from El Chalten to Laguna Torre. A relatively flat 4 or 5km into Laguna Torre provided more great views of a glacier fed lake.

Through the course of the day I’d been tracking my time and pace to determine if I would have sufficient time to make it up Viento Pass and down to Camp Paso del Viento; and at this point of the run, it was going to be tight.

Leaving Laguna Torre, I was in search of the first tyrolean traverse across Rio Fitz Roy. On the map I had, it indicated the zip line was near the campground but it took me about 30 minutes walking along the river bank until I found it. As I donned my harness, I noticed the pulley was latched on the other side with no retrieval cord. No problem, I latched my harness with a carabiner directly onto the cable, secured my pack on another carabiner and pulled myself across – what a blast!

Once on the other side, I was buzzing and full of energy – ready to take on the Agacronas Pass. If only there was a definitive trail to follow.

I started on a fairly well worn trail but within 200m I could feel I was heading in the wrong direction. I went back to the Tyrolean traverse and followed what I would call more of a game trail but it was, at least, heading in the right direction. Within a couple hundred meters the trail ended, no cairns or any sign of previous hikers. My strategy at this point was to bushwhack more or less in the right direction for an hour, if I didn’t find the trail I would head back to the previous campsite and regroup. Fortunately within about 15 minutes I came upon a decent trail. It continued up steeply in the right direction – confidence restored! I cleared the tree line for more incredible views.

As I was nearing the top of the pass I caught up to two hikers and we made our way up to the top. We exchanged pleasantries, took pictures for each other and briefly discussed the decent down with no marked trail or cairns. The wind was strong and col so I continued down in short order. Based on the maps we had, the strategy was to make our way down the scree slope until we intersected the Huemul Circuit trail. From there it was approximately a 4 or 5km straight shuffle to Camp Laguna Toro including a couple of river crossings. 

Here, I camped for the night as it would take at least 5 hours to get over the next pass and onto the next campsite.  I enjoyed a nice hot meal, reviewed the map to ensure I had a good idea on the route of travel the next day and settled in for the night. 

Up at 5:30am the next morning to get a jump on the day, I ate, packed up and hit the trail by 7:00 am. It was a bit chilly when I started out but it didn’t take long to warm up as I shuffled by Laguna Toro, Laguna Turquesa and up to the 2nd tyrolean traverse. I had caught up to another hiker and was able to watch him make his way across the zip line first.

Once across the zip line, I made my way up to Viento Pass. Initially it’s a fairly steep diagonal trek up scree and boulders on a well marked trail. From here the trail gets even steeper as you scramble your way up and through a rock wall before the final ascent up a well worn trail in the mountain scree.

Cresting the saddle, I made my way to the other side for my breath to be taken away by the jaw dropping view of the largest glacier in the Patagonia Icefield – Glaciar Viedma. I was in such awe by the size and beauty of this glacier that I spent at least a few minutes just staring at its splendour. Ice fields as far as the eye can see with distant mountains in the skyline bordering this phenomenal landscape.

The ascent up to Huemul pass is a gradual, diagonal climb along a ridge leading to the saddle, but getting close, the wind really picks up and it becomes a very steep grind to the top. The wind was howling, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such strong wind. Even with trekking poles I had a difficult time walking in a straight line.

Starting the descent down the backside of Huemul Pass it was suddenly pretty sheltered from the wind and the terrain quickly changed. The view Lago Viedma, the lake which Glaciar Viedma feeds into are striking and the trail quickly transitions from rocks and scree to dense forest.

It was a steep descent and I was glad to have the trekking poles at that point. A little further down there’s a fixed rope to help the descent. The trail leads past a bay littered with pieces of glacier accumulating in the bay.  Magnificent colours of blue and white radiated from all the pieces of ice. It was so impressive. 

 

Once you get to the boat launch, many hikers and trail runners try to hitch hike or ask people for a ride back into town. I was fortunate to catch the last person leaving the area who was more than willing to give me a lift back to El Chalten. If I’d have arrived at the boat launch after 5:00 pm, I think there’s a good chance there’d have been no one around which would have meant another 8km cross country back to town.

The Day After

After the 90+ km fast pack I wanted something fairly low key to shake out the legs and complete a couple more of the trails in the area. I ventured to the Ranger station the following morning to hand in my permit and confirm my safe arrival back. There was a short 5 km hike out the back way that takes you to a couple of lookouts, both were very well marked and travelled trail.  Along the way I gave into temptation and scrambled off trail to a higher vantage point overlooking the town and valley. I built a cairn there and someday I want to come back to see if it remains standing.

I still had the better part of the day ahead of me as I returned to the hostel. After picking up a few items from the hostel, I walked through town, grabbed up a beer and sandwich and made my way to Chorrillo del Salto Waterfall.

The next morning I was picked up from my hotel and we made our way to Calafate, stopping about half way at La Leona – an unassuming old building that has an interesting history – a proclaimed pitstop by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Before flying back out, I took a bus to see Glaciar Perito Moreno. Even though it was very busy it is well worth seeing. This stunning glacier is 70m thick in the middle and 50m thick on the outsides, spanning about approximately 25km long and 5km wide at its furthest points. On average it moves 2 m per day and as you walk along the boardwalks you hear the continuous shifting and “cracking” with periodic calving of various sheets of ice. What a way to end such a memorable trip.

The next morning I was back on the plane, flying out of Calafate. What an epic trip!

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