From my good friend Grant Gary I learned that in the mountains behind Bariloche there exists a refugio, or mountain hut, open to all and surrounded by epic backcountry ski terrain. A quick Google search confirmed its existence and awesomeness. Called Refugio Frey, the hut is operated by Bariloche’s Club Andino and it even has it’s own Facebook page (check out here). Even more incredible, I learned that the hut is open year round and operated with a fully stocked kitchen where the refugieros will make you breakfast lunch and dinner and even serve beer and wine, all for a very reasonable price. Of course you can also bring your own food and just pay a small fee for use of the kitchen, or even just camp outside the hut and pay absolutely. The hut is extremely popular in the summer for trekkers and rock climbers but is also increasingly very popular in the winter as off piste skiing grows in popularity. At any rate, this sounded like heaven on Earth to me and I knew I would surely pay Refugio Frey a visit while in the Bariloche area.
Originally the plan was for Donna to come along as well. She was fully prepared with backpack, touring skis and sleeping bag, but, as revealed in her previous post, she made a last minute decision to go to China for intensive, full-immersion Chinese school in order to ensure acing INSEAD’s foreign language requirement exam. Donna was very disappointed to miss out on a trip to the Frey as her backcountry skills were enhanced and love for ski touring fostered during an adventure last May to the West Fjords of Iceland (see this post for a sneak peak trailer of an eventually-going-be produced video that adventure!) It would have been awesome to share the experience with her, but rest assured she is having a great time in Shanghai!
After Donna left I did two more days at Cerro Catedral on my own. The weather forecast kept calling for rain which resulted in me hesitating on hiking into Frey. The first day at Cerro there were gorgeous clouds both covering Lake Nahuel Huapi below and whisping above the resort. It was clear to me why they named the crown jewel chairlift of Cerro Catedral Nubes, which means clouds in Spanish! The second day the upper part of the resort, the only part with skiable terrain, was completely enveloped in the cloud and there was basically no visibility; I just did 6 groomer laps on the Nubes chair with my friend Miles and called it day.
After getting skunked with no visibilty on Friday and having been tricked by the weather forecast again, I decided to hike to the Frey rain or shine the next day. I packed up my backpack with the “essentials”, which for me is way too much stuff as I still haven’t effectively learned the minimalist approach. My back paid the price due to an overly heavy pack! I walked from my hosteleria to the hitchhike spot and got a ride from a local to the ski resort. I found the trailhead behind the main parking lot and began the 4 hour hike in. The hike was beautiful and I greatly enjoyed the solitude and being surrounded by nature.
(remember you can click on a photo on the gallery and then browse through the photos in full res!)
I arrived to a hut that was bustling with activity. First I met the refugiero, Vasco, who told me to pick my bunk by throwing my sleeping bag on it. I took a short siesta and came down to socialize. There was a group of 3 Argentinian men that I shared cheese with who had trekked in and toured the area on snowshoes. Then I met Luke, a 30-year old American from Atlanta who has been living in San Rafael, Argentina for the last 8 months as he is working to produce a film based on an adaptation of a Daniel Fermani novel. Luke had hiked in with Vincenz, a 24-year old German who is spending the summer snowboarding in South America before he starts a masters program in Stuttgart, Germany. The two young guys had met each other at a popular Bariloche hostel, although Vincenz would just hang out at the hostel to socialize since he was couch surfing (which means staying for free on a local’s couch! … www.couchsurfing.org enables this was the genesis of the hugely successful AirBnB company!) Vincenz and Luke were speaking Spanish to each other, but once I entered the scene the language naturally switched to English. I wasn’t really happy about this as I should’ve been practicing my Spanish, but my discipline in forcing myself to speak Spanish at all times is rather weak. It seems English is always the common denominator in mixed groups, which can make it that much harder to learn a foreign language whenever hanging with other foreigners. After drinking some mate in walksKevin, a 37-year old avalanche forecaster hailing from Jackson Hole who I had met the previous day through I sign I put up at Club Andino in order to find backcountry ski partners. Kevin had chosen to get to the Frey via the shorter route, which entails going up to the top of the Nubes chair at Cerro Catedral and hiking along the ridges in order to come in the back way. I had heard this was possible, but you have to be kind of a badass to do it without a guide for your first time; Kevin fit that bill! That evening I had a huge pizza prepared by Vasco and slept like a baby.
The next morning was foggy and we were supposed to have some weather. By about noon it was lightly snowing! Since it was Sunday and the next day was a work day, most of the Argentinians cleared out. Vasco mentioned that we were lucky that there would only be about 6 people in the Frey that night because lately it has been very crowded, including almost 40 people just 2 weeks prior! By 11am Vincenz, Luke, Kevin and I ventured out to go exploring. We made it pretty high up, exploring the higher Laguna Schmoll area and had a decent run down. Visibility was bad so there wasn’t much “getting after it” to be done, but the whole time spirits were high as we saw snow accumulate.
Back at the hut by mid afternoon, I chilled out. The snow stopped falling and we had a few new arrivals. First a British couple in late thirties, Thomas and Barbara, arrived. They have been in South America since about April chasing good rock for climbing and skiing. They showed me pictures of a Sprinter van they bought a few months back in Santiago and had converted into a camper, complete with a wood burning stove! They’d been living in the van for the past few months while they traveled around; super cool! You can check their blog out here. The other arrival was Tsungsu, a 33-year old Taiwanese guy whose been living and working in Germany for the past decade. I had also run into him a couple of days back at Club Andino in Bairloche and thought he might show up. We had quiet the eclectic international crew staying in the Frey that evening!
Around 4pm the weather cleared a bit and Kevin, Luke and Thomas decided to climb the Principal chute and then skit down. The rest of us watched as they slowly made their way up the ~1000 foot slope but we couldn’t see the decent as clouds moved back in! Spirits were good though as we had about 4 inches of new snow and bluebird skies expected the next day.
We were not disappointed. The next day I skied 2 couloirs and did a few more runs in the La Piedra Inclinida area, laying down fresh tracks on every run. I was out all day and came back to the hut around 4pm exhausted. The photos speak for themselves, but the one bit worth mentioning is that the dust-over-crust snow conditions made for difficult skinning and somehwat treacherous boot-packing. The skinning conditions were as difficult as the crust just below the soft powder wasn’t conducive to edging so bootpacking was really the only way to get up the 30+ degree couloirs. I didn’t have crampons so I took my time and followed already laid-down bootpack trails. Slipping in some areas would’ve been disastrious as the slopes were steep and I had no way to arrest making impact with rocks likely in many areas. Next time I go into conditions like that I will have crampons and an ice axe for sure!
By the end of the afternoon a bunch of more people showed up, probably because of the good conditions for trekking and the allure of some freshies. Thankfully we had done our best to track the couloirs out! Our tight knit group of 7 was suddenly sharing the same space with 20 more people! The entire operation was run amazingly efficiently as Vasco and another refugiero whipped up enough pizzas and pasta to feed everyone. Those guys are incredible! One of the groups that arrived was a guided tour of 6 Americans and Canadians who were accompanied by two pro skiers: Eric Hjorleifson and Chris Rubens. It was cool hanging out with the two pros, they were very down to earth and I didn’t even realize who they were for awhile as we talked about Argentina, skiing and surfing. I also played a few games of chess and won my first two, which made me el champeon until the point that Vasco caught wind of my success and challenged me. He handidly beat me within about 25 moves. Later in the evening Vincenz had the cool idea of taking some long exposure photos to capture the images of the stars and Milky Way. During the 30 second exposure one person would run out in front of the camera and pose while someone else would quickly shine a light on them for a few seconds, which made for some cool shots.
The next day it was time to go. I probably would’ve stayed an extra night or two, except I had only brought 1000 pesos (or about $75) with me and I was close to that limit on my tab, so I had to leave. Everyone else in our group had the same vibe, having scored great conditions the previous day and being somewhat put off by the newly arrived crowds. Luke, Kevin, an Tsungsu decided to exit the “short” way along the ridge but I didn’t want feel like scaring myself with such a heavy back on gnarly Andes ridgelines, so I walked out with Vincenz and a Singaporean girl named Athena who had walked in the previous afternoon. The hike was actually kind of gnarly with so much ice on the walkway and I again wished for crampons, but managed to navegate with falling.
All in the experience was awesome. Refugio Frey is an amazing place and it is great to know that places like this exist in the world. To the refugieros who run the hut I send my most sincere respect and good tidings!