Having left Iguazu Falls behind, I’m now sitting just beneath Cerro Torre in Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina. The park is home to stunning mountain ranges, incredible tundra scenes, rich beech forests, and two of our Wild 10 species – pumas and condors. Alongside these two charismatic beasts, the park is also home to guanacos (a wild ancestor of the llama), huemuls (an endangered deer), as well as foxes and hares.
Observing the jagged peaks of the mountain, it seems to be a sculpture protruding from the earth composed by nature. I look out at the dramatic ridges flanking the mountain, the glistening snow caps, and the slowly, groaning glaciers. Waves lap on the lake before me and the river rages behind me. I must say it’s quite difficult to make a decision to leave this place at all. Los Glaciares is a wonder of the earth, something to marvel at as a pure, inspiring, natural beauty.
I can honestly think of nothing better to do with my life than try to protect places like this!
Upping The Challenge
Having had two practice runs it’s time for us to ramp up the intensity. For Los Glaciares, my objective is to find condor and puma, which is fairly ambitious. Pumas are seldom seen due to the high numbers of visitors. As well as the harsh, mountainous environment which supports less guanaco (their favourite prey), than other places in Patagonia. As a result, this is a real challenge.
In theory, condor should be very achievable. People often see them soaring high above the peaks of the Andes mountains. However, what we really want is a close encounter. So I can get you guys some photos and tips on how to get a good look at these ugly but impressive birds.
The chosen approach to tracking down these two fantastic beasts is by trekking the Huemul Circuit. Having done our research online and talking to other hikers, it’s fair to say that the 4-day, 70-kilometre circuit is a serious challenge. Often described as the hardest trek in Patagonia, it requires the would-be hiker to tackle a kilometre long vertical descent. It runs directly across a glacier (including crevasses). And it features two Tyrolean traverses, essentially steel ropes across gorges under which raging rivers cascade. If you fall you would almost certainly perish.
The circuit is well regarded as providing some of the most beautiful and spectacular views in Patagonia. Including the unique sight of the Southern Patagonia Ice Field. Excluding the polar ice caps, this is the second largest body of ice in the world. Thankfully, my travel companions, Rob and Mark, are still with me so I’m not taking this on alone.
The HuEmUL Circuit
I won’t go into granular detail about the hike because this is a wildlife blog rather than a travel blog. Suffice to say that it was one of the toughest tests of my life, but certainly equally rewarding!
Along the first day of the route, the circuit offers beautiful beech forests, upland dwarf forests, ice-capped mountains, stunning glaciers, and generally incredible scenery. By the morning of the second day, the scenery becomes even more dramatic. Culminating in an ascent of near vertical cliffs until you reach a ravine. Into that ravine plunges a raging river, which later becomes the relatively large Rio Tunel.
Now, when you reach this river you might think that you should head upstream and cross by at a calmer point. But, no, that would be wrong. Instead, you should head directly for the deepest part of the ravine. Where the river is at its most powerful. Where a fall would be from the highest point. And there you should cross the river. At that place, there is a steel wire and a pulley system, which I can only describe as ‘adequate’.
When we arrived there were two groups preparing to cross the traverse and we had to wait for around half an hour until the backlog cleared. For that entire period, the sun was shining and the temperature was around 17°C, notwithstanding a little wind chill. I crossed the ravine and conditions remained favourable.
When I reached the far side I began to attach an additional line to the pulley so that when I sent it back my companions would be able to attach the bags. I diligently got to work, electing to also unclip one of my two carabiners (but, the wrong one) whilst in a moment of madness taking my hand off the pulley. This combination of actions resulted in me retaining my group’s harness and the additional line with which I was supposed to retrieve the pulley and bags. The pulley system gracefully slid back toward Rob and Mark, with nothing attached. The net result was that my companions were, until further notice, trapped on the other side of the ravine.
It was possible to send the harness and safety line back, but in the 20 minutes of faff which ensued cloud rolled in and snowflakes began to gently drift to the ground. By the time Mark was in the harness, it was snowing with some enthusiasm and the wind had picked up. In the meantime, my bag, with my clothes and other warm gear, remained on the other side. Nonetheless, Mark successfully, if a little precariously, made his way across the traverse.
Touching the void
By the time it came to me crossing back to collect the bags (someone had to, and it was my mistake that got us here) snow was falling horizontally and the wind was pushing 100km/h. We were in a full-on blizzard. Unfortunately, I was wearing a single base layer of merino wool. Clipping onto the pulley, I had accumulated a snowdrift on my torso and was absolutely freezing. I pulled myself over the ravine fully aware that hypothermia had potentially become the word of the day.
Clearly this was not ideal, but having watched Bear Grylls I knew to strip off my freezing layers and replace them with warm clothing and waterproofs. Within a few minutes, I was running around doing star jumps like a madman.
In order to avoid bias and exaggeration, which you may be concerned have played a part in my narrative, a quote from Mark follows:
“Shit, that was like something from touching the void”
I avoided hypothermia, we made it across, and no lasting injuries were sustained. However, this episode was the clearest reminder I have ever received from nature that she is a power far greater than ourselves, and not something we should presume we can control. In the mountains, conditions can change so quickly that one seemingly insignificant error can endanger your life.
The incredible might and beauty of nature were reinforced later that day when we reached the top of our long ascent of Paso del Viento. There we saw a sight that will remain with us until the day we die. The Southern Patagonia Ice Field is a vast body of ice, which stretches as far as the eye can see. It is the type of sight that can change a person the first time they lay eyes upon it.
Now to our wildlife chasing. In order to give us a fighting chance of laying eyes on a puma I had brought a camera trap. The intention being to place this near to our camp to see if any wildlife was passing through while we slept.
On our first day, we had seen large birds in the distance but had not been able to I.D. them. Nor had we seen any mammals. That night I set the camera trap in the hope of improving our wildlife showing, and we were not disappointed when we checked the footage in the morning!
Overnight we had been visited by a culpeo (a native Andean fox) and a hare, each investigating our cooking area. It was fantastic to see these animals had passed so close to us, even if we hadn’t seen them in the flesh. It just goes to show how close wildlife can be while not showing itself!
Watching The Skies
By the third day, we were still at high risk of failing to see either a puma or a condor.
That day, we were to ascend the harder mountain pass of the circuit. And, more importantly, we were to descend what’s been colloquially named as ‘the cliff’. A kilometre of vertical descent along a distance of only a few hundred metres. Making it a somewhat insane gradient to clamber down.
Of course, it was whilst we were perched on this cliff that a condor decided to majestically glide over Passo Huemul above us, and slowly make its way down into the valley below.
From a somewhat precarious position, I was able to root through my pack, get hold of my telephoto lens and catch some photos. Americas’ Wild 10, 1 down, 9 to go!
That night as we walked into camp we identified a trail that ran close to the shore of Lago Viedma. We left the camera trap lying in wait. Sadly no puma, but here is the footage we did get!
Top Tips for Wildlife in Los Glaciers
You can see the WildSide page for Los Glaciares here, from what I learned, here are my top tips for wildlife watching in this incredible place:
- Condor – Most places in the park are good places to look for condor. To get a closer look, ascend one of the steeper trails and you may well find them circling below you, or even at your level, making for some great photos.
- Guanaco – We saw guanaco not far outside of El Chalten and at several points along the access road from El Calafate (the nearest city).
- Huemul Circuit – If you are interested in hiking the Huemul Circuit, there is a lot of information available online to help you prepare. Speak to the rangers before the day you want to hike, they have invaluable knowledge (this is mandatory anyway). There are probably more efficient ways to seek out the park’s wildlife, though.