Project Patagonia #2: Taking on the Huemul
We laid down, eyes wide open, in the dark of our hostel in El Chalten, listening intently to the howling wind outside our window. The time was 1:59am and in one minute, our alarm would ring and signify the start of our record attempt of the Huemul Circuit. 10 hours earlier, we had arrived into the mountain town having completed a 1600km cycle, little did we know that weather would dictate our fate and force us to take on the challenge so soon. With no sleep, we sat up and dressed ourselves, ate a freeze dried meal, and packed our running packs.
Ahead of us in the freezing darkness lay Patagonia’s toughest trekking route, a 65km trail over glaciers and mountain passes, with winds reaching 100kph and a weather system that changes by the minute. We left the safety of our hostel with packs loaded with Tribe bars, hydration tablets, a sleeping bag (in case shit hit the fan)and a rope and harness. We were packing light, mobility and speed were key if we were to become the first people in history to complete the circuit in under 24 hours. The vast majority of trekkers who take on this route are experienced and fit, and take four days to complete it.
We walked through the deserted town and towards the start of the trail, a simple five minute stroll. The only sign of life other than our own was the thumping music of a small bar that was having a lock-in. We joked about popping in for a quick one, but knew it would end up being 10 and we would then have to take on the circuit with a hangover, so we passed. At just after 3am, we stood at the start of the modest trail, illuminated ahead by our head-torches. A quick-fist bump, and we were underway, running away from civilisation and onto the pitch black mountain that loomed over the town.
Our strategy was fairly simple, we would run wherever possible to make up time, and take it steady during treacherous sections. The last thing we wanted was an injury, as that can escalate into something serious. The mountains in Patagonia are not like the French alps, and there is no army of mountain rescue with helicopters and dogs, you are pretty much on your own until a handful of rangers may come looking for you. We would avoid any lengthy breaks, and would fuel ourselves as we travelled, with one 10 minute break for lunch at the midway point.
We had split the entire circuit into three rough sections. The first was a 25km wooded run, uphill from the towns edge, but nothing too drastic. We hoped to complete this within a few hours, and arrive into section two as the sun came up. We left feeling confident that we could run the vast majority of this, but it soon became apparent we were wrong. Given the terrible weather the region in general was facing, the woodland path we were trying to follow was sat under six inches of rain-water. Pair this boggy terrain with some sideways snow, and zero visibility, it didn’t take long before the inevitable happened and we became lost. Within an hour of setting off, we were walking in circles through a mangled forest, ankle deep in snow, water and mud, with no idea where the path was. Our phones had a dotted line on our maps.me app, which we used to re-locate the path on half-a-dozen occasions. When we look back now at our route, we essentially walked in circles for two hours, and were saved only when the pink glow of the sun materialised and the visibility went from none, to manageable. That first 20km took us over five hours, and we were drastically behind schedule. More worrying, was that was the easy bit.
Section two began with a river crossing via an ancient steel rope and pulley. 10 metres below this contraption lay the pounding white-water of a glacial river, funnelled through this 12 metre wide canyon. When we had consulted the rangers the day before leaving, they warned us to take extreme caution on this traverse, as a fall would mean certain death (good news). We pulled out the harnesses and carabiner’s and suited up. An intense game of rock, paper, scissors saw TC victorious, who chose to sacrifice himself and head across first. We both made it across in one-piece, but to say we did it without a twang of nerves would be a lie. Health & safety has yet to reach the Huemul Circuit, and we hope it never does.
Our next challenge was laid out in front of us as we re-packed our bags, took on some liquids and gazed upwards. Ahead lay the intimidating mass of the Lower Tunel Glacier, and beyond it, Paso Del Viento, the peak we needed to summit to bring us around the other-side of the mountain. We set off at a decent pace, as in the distance on other peaks, dark clouds were gathering with menace, and we knew being caught by these in the wrong area would be a catastrophic mistake. We had 1200m of elevation to cover to reach the peak, which became increasingly difficult on the broken ice of the glacier. Each step over a crevasse was another 5bmp onto our already escalating heart-rates, and we soon began to tire. By this point, there was no path remaining, and we resorted to scrambling up the steep rocky moraine (the rocky deposits lying parallel to a glacier) to try and gain altitude. This was physically challenging, but also precarious. Each time a loose rock would tumble behind us, it gave us a glimpse into our own fate if we made the wrong-step, an endless tumble down the rocky verge and an eery echoing crack as it slammed into the glacier below. We moved quickly but carefully, and soon found ourselves above the snow line. When taking on a trek such as this, the standard footwear is a pair of supported hiking boots. We were here for a speed record, so instead laced up with a pair of Nike trail shoes. Light, agile and durable, but not built for snow and ice. The next hour was spent edging across steep banks of snow and ice, trying not to look down at the sheer drop to our right. Amazingly, they held strong and we eased our way up to the Paso Del Viento. Those with an understanding of Spanish can probably guess the conditions on this peak, for those who aren’t blessed with a bi-lingual vocabulary, the direct translation is ‘The Windy Pass’. Now, in Patagonia, if the locals say something is windy, they aren’t messing about. As we trudged up to the summit, we were hit with a wind so strong it knocked us both to our feet, and sliding back down the ice. Winds that have travelled thousands of miles across the Pacific, slam into the Andes mountains with a force so strong, only Antarctica can claim to be more fierce.
We pushed on into the screaming gale, but with huge smiles across our faces. Around us lay the unforgettable vista of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, a seemingly endless mass of ice that extends hundreds of km’s and feeds the mighty glaciers of Patagonia. To be alone on the mountain, in one of the most remote places on the planet, was an incredibly empowering experience. Not daunting or scary, but immensely profound. This is why we do it, this is what makes the pain and bullshit worth it, for moments like that.
After a few minutes of reflection (selfies), it was back to business. We were now on the other-side of the mountain, and every step we took brought us closer to the finish line, rather than further away. We slowly descended the snowy cone at the top of the peak, and found ourselves now edging our way down a steep slope of crystal clear ice. Due to the wind hitting this side of the mountain, all snow had been blasted away and in its place lay a polished sheet of ice. It didn’t take long for us to push our luck, and we both ended up horizontal in mid-air, legs above our head and sliding down a verge at an alarming pace. We lay side-by-side flying down the ice, until we managed to grab onto a passing rock to abruptly halt our unwanted descent. Although we had picked up a few cuts and bruises from the fall, we saw the positives and realised we had probably just covered more distance in 10 seconds than in the past 90 minutes.
As we descended the path became more apparent, and our pace increased with vigour. The snow and ice was long gone, and we dashed across lush green marsh, hopping over rivers and streams (filling our bottles up as we did so, the coldest, purest water you could wish for). We now had around 15km of flat running until we would reach the second and final ascent over Paso Huemul. We managed this in good time, and began climbing. The final uphill stretch was brutal, and we skirted the tiny trail (one foot wide), with an almost sheer drop to our right. With a hurricane force tail-wind slamming into us, there were some incredibly sketchy moments, paired with one of humour as JW’s beanie was stripped from his head and blown about 1000kms out onto the ice field. His screams were lost to the wind, but the tears of pure enjoyment and howling laugh from TC could be heard for miles.
The final scramble over Paso Huemul was where we hit our physical limit. Our legs were blown, our bodies screamed for rest, and the wind kept us pinned to the floor and forced us to crawl. All that was left now was to descend and we were off the mountain. All mountaineers and hikers will understand, that most accidents occur on the descent. Many would believe that walking uphill is harder than downhill, this is not the case, the summit is often the goal for most, so mentally, people tend to switch off on the descent, and errors creep in. What lay ahead of us, was a forest of mangled 6 foot tall trees and shrubs, and a dangerously steep path that meandered through it. 3 km’s below, was Lake Viedma, filled with wandering ice-bergs. By this point, we were exhausted, and the descent was the final straw. We slid, stumbled and rolled downwards through the trees (which felt as though they were made from iron), hanging from branches to safely lower ourselves down drops and rock-faces. At one point, we were faced with a four metre vertical wall, and had to lower ourselves by holding onto a tarzan-style vine. No ropes or footholds, and a drop that would have broken most the bones in our body.
We completed the descent in just over two hours and stumbled to the edge of Lake Viedma. The hard part was complete, we had conquered the mountain and were filled with elation and self-achievement. In our haste, we had forgotten about section three, a 20km path alongside Lake Viedma, a 12m traverse over a river, and then the finish-line at the boat terminal of the lake. When we remembered this, we fell into a state of complete desperation. We were mentally and physically broken, we had already reached our limits and pushed through them 10 times. Simply put, we had absolutely nothing more to give.
The next four hours, were some of the darkest we have ever experienced. We limped up and over rolling hills, gasping for water and wincing with pain from our blistered feet and torn leg muscles. We walked in complete isolation, not speaking, not smiling, just trying to dig deep and keep going. The conversations inside our heads were toxic, and we both battled with our unconscious, trying to justify why we were doing this, what was the point? We have read a number of amazing books about people that climb Everest, and the unlucky ones who are lost on the mountain. Many accounts say that there is a moment of acceptance, when you simply lie down and welcome defeat. For the first time in our lives, we could completely understand how those brave people felt, we were ready to give-in, to lie down. Every 20 minutes or so, one of us would muster up the energy to shout a word of encouragement, to try and crack a joke, but this soon ran out also, and darkness fell around us. We had hoped to reach the final river traverse before dark for safety reasons, and we had failed.
When we finally reached the river, we knew that beyond it lay only 5km before the finish, and then we would be in a taxi heading back to El Chalten, and the warmth and safety of our beds. This realisation gave us our final boost, the one strand of strength hidden away in the depths for moments like these, the last roll of the dice. We clumsily fiddled around in the dark, climbed up a totem pole and attached ourselves one-at-a-time to the wire, suspended two metres off-the ground. An arm-burning pull across the expanse of water, and we were on the home-stretch, touching distance from success.
We crawled towards the boat terminal and collapsed on the floor. 17hr22 mins, a new record. We laid there in disbelief of what we had achieved, and what we had to go through to sit where we sat now. We gingerly stood and embraced, and then went about sourcing our lift home. The boat terminal was in total darkness, and after banging on the door and screaming in Spanish for 10 minutes, the shuddering realisation dawned on us, there was no lift home, we were still alone, how the f*ck could we have been so stupid to expect a taxi to just be sat here.
What this meant was pretty black and white, we now faced a 17 km walk back to El Chalten, along a straight and deserted road. This was a crushing blow when we were at our very weakest. Our phones and cameras had died a few hours before, and we have never felt so isolated in our entire lives. We did the only thing we could do, sucked it up and cracked on into the night. Our shoes were full of blood, the soles of our feet had become a giant blister, and our legs cramped every few steps. We walked at a snails pace, like two wounded soldiers decked out in Nike. As the 20 hour mark crept up, we started seeing things. Stars on the horizon were headlights, and we frantically waved and shouted at the ‘car’ until screaming in frustration when we realised it was a bloody star. Speed limit signs were mistaken for pay phones, and due to the darkness our perception of uphill and downhill became warped (we realised the next day, that road is in fact windy, and dips from steep incline to descent, for us, it felt like a straight uphill climb), it was as if we were walking on a treadmill. Throughout the ordeal, we were with it enough to keep eating, a handful of nuts, a bite of an energy bar, something to keep the fire burning.
Five hours later, we appeared from the darkness and into the deserted streets of El Chalten. We passed the same bar, which true to form was still playing thumping music, but we could barely register that an entire day had passed in between songs. Outside were a group of smokers, who waved and cheered at us, we raised a hand in reply, if only they knew. We fell against the hostel door, before realising we had left the key behind reception, and now at 4am, the door was locked. We slammed our fists against the windows and screamed through the letter box, nothing. Accepting our fate, we removed our sleeping bags and passed out on the porch. At 6:30am we were awoken by the lovely hostel owner, who was appalled that we had to endure a night outside. She frantically pointed at the door-bell, “Porque no llamaste al timbre?” (why didn’t you ring the bell?). Bollocks.
The next 24 hours are a blur, as we lay in bed having weird dreams and waking up in agony to muscle cramp. We eventually came round, and sat in amazement of what had just happened. We are not runners, in fact we avoid it at all costs. Until that point, neither of us had ever ran more than 20km, and yet we were now record holders. Not two whippets from Chamonix, but two mates from the UK who hate running.
The Huemul had shown us what it feels like to have nothing left, truly nothing, beyond anything we had ever experienced. We look back on it now as our greatest achievement to date, not because of the distances or dangers, but because we overcame our own boundaries and pushed through them together. That record would be smashed by a seasoned trail-runner, but we don’t care. We were the first, and will always be the first, and that is something we will never forget (or shut up about).
After such an ordeal, we would normally look forward to chilling out and heading home. Instead, we packed our bags, prepped ourselves, and left El Chalten to take on a world-first SUP. Stage three was upon us….