Ski Touring in Alta Patagonia: Refugio Frey
Time Round Trip: 3-4hrs in. 2-3hrs out.
Total Ascent: 2300ft
Difficulty: Easy- is a bit long of an approach, with terrain choices for any skier once you arrive
Elevation: 5754 ft
Season: August- September
GPS: 41.20407°S / 71.50403°W
Pro tips: Expect to pay $60 a day for all food, beverages and lodging. It can be done way cheaper but we recommend going for the full deal. Try to avoid the summer trail unless it is high avalanche danger
Getting there: Just outside the town of Bariloche. We parked at the Cerro Catedral resort; a few miles behind the resort lies Refugio Frey.
Summary: Refugio Frey is a small hut nestled amongst giant orange granite towers in the northern reaches of Patagonia just outside the city of Bariloche. Gary had been frothing over lines since his trip there last year and desperately wanted to get back, but waiting for a weather window was proving difficult again. We elected for an extra day in a very rainy Bariloche as spending multiple days cooped up in a high alpine hut while snow and wind raged outside did not sound too appealing.
The following day we made it to the mountain, and to our dismay, in even more rain. We donned our most waterproof clothing options and started up the Frey trail, a 10km long slog through bamboo and forest that circumvents a massive ridge separating the Frey basin from the Cerro Catedral resort. This trail is truly heinous and should be avoided at all costs. There is a separate approach that we used for our egress that involves skiing out from the top of the mountain. Although $80 for a lift ticket is steep for South America it would be well worth it to avoid the lower reaches of the trail. However, during a storm with high avalanche danger this would be inadvisable. The drudgery of this trail was surely exaggerated by the soft yet consistent rain that soaked us through and slowly beat us down during the 4 hour approach. Even as the rain gave way to wet snowfall a few hand pits on the skin track showed that the snowpack was highly reactive and seemingly almost unskiable.
Doug & Brian picking their way through the bamboo forest and over sketchy log bridges
As we approached the basin the clouds and precipitation gave way to sunshine and brief glimpses at the cirque and massive towers that loomed far above. Spirits were lifted despite blasting wind- we had finally reached Refugio Frey. Entering the hut soaked to the bone and praying that our sleeping bags weren’t as well, we were met by an equally sodden crowd. The few that remained in the hut through the storm hadn't seen a legit ski turn or tour in days. Groups kept to themselves and spoke barely above a whisper but our enthusiasm for beer, wine, and finally being dry could not be contained.
Refugio Frey welcomes us as the surrounding spires are revealed
Although I have been to many huts, Frey is truly unique. A bit like the Opus hut in Colorado, Frey is fully staffed with refugieros, or hut wardens, beer, wine and food. For just $680 pesos roughly $37 USD you get the dia completo, breakfast, dinner and a warm place to stay. Even going all out every night on drinks and extra snacks, we still averaged under 1000 pesos or $60 a day! In the 4 days and three nights we stayed, there was never a fire in the stove. A hydroelectric generator was installed down stream where the water is never frozen. Electricity is abundant and is the hut's only source of heat. This creates a war for drying space around the electric radiators, particularly during storm cycles. There is a truly foul and horrifying space under the stairs where an electric radiator and a series of hooks and wires form a boot drying closet that holds a dozen or more pairs of rank liners, and providing the entire hut with a "unique" smell.
Drying space is a hot commodity at Frey
The long approach and lack of any road or snowmobile access means everything must be carried to the hut. This forces the refugieros to be very resourceful. Bread for breakfast and pizza crust for dinner are made from scratch every day and even more special and impressive to any ski mountaineer, much of the beer is brewed on premise. Although they can’t quite keep up with the consistent demand of having the occasional chocolate stout or red ale as you gaze out at 360 degree views of towers and couloirs, it is truly an incredible experience. The Argentinian swill beer Isenbeck accounts for the difference.
We surrendered to the storm and crawled up stairs into an almost entirely unheated barracks style bunk room. The bed platforms stretch the entirety of both walls and are doubledeckers with no separation between spots. The hut is amazing but not for the faint of heart or for someone who heavily values their personal space. Waking up to the Cerro Catedral cirque blanketed in a fresh coat of Patagonian powder makes it paradise in the mountains.
After some negotiation we moved breakfast up to the uncivilized gringo time of 8:30 am, we hungerily stared out windows while stuffing down the bread, butter, jam and mate. The snow had blown in cold and sucked the unbearable level of moisture out of the snowpack. Although maritime in nature, over a meter of snow had fallen in this cycle with massive winds and there is very little skiing out of the hut that doesn't expose you to considerable avalanche terrain. We left the hut and immediately dug a pit and found the snow to be surprisingly non reactive although several layers existed in the recent snowfall. We cautiously tested this hypothesis on a short and protected, if even a little wind loaded, couloir. As the day progressed we pushed higher and deeper into the towers. The snow was powder and the density made for fast surfy turns. It was an incredible day one of skiing, but it would take the full 3 days to truly appreciate the scale of the zone.
Doug samples the goods on our first day, almost 2,000' vert from the base of Torre Principal
The word was out and there was powder to be had at Frey! During the day our numbers were reduced to a Swiss couple and the 3 of us, but by night there were 25 plus skiers from 9 different nationalities crowded into the common area, with more skiers digging in to put up tents in the surrounding safe zones. As group after group showed up it was easy to feel protective of a hut and ski lines that were almost entirely our own, but sitting at a an Argentinian table while taking dinner with skiers from Spain, Switzerland, New Zealand and Japan gives a new perspective to traveling to ski tour. A testament to the zone and rising awareness of Frey, this international experience was one of the greatest parts of our time in Frey. I found it super interesting that a large percentage were actually splitboarders and that the majority of them were on Jones boards, the brand we prefer and sell the most of at the shop. After another couple beers, bottles of wine, and a huge steak dinner we were off to bed ready to skip breakfast to get an early start to the day.
Doug takes in the morning view from Cerro Catedral. Frey is at the end of the lake below.
We had gained a great deal of confidence in the snow's stability the prior day and it was time to push into the steeper lines. Gary had been eyeing a tight couloir that opened up into a massive apron called Central, appropriately named for its position in the cirque. Our predawn skin across the lake brought us to the climb just as the morning alpenglow began to hit our destination. We cruised up the apron and veered right up the Vecinial chute in order to enter the couloir from the backside. Standing on top of the line it peeled away below our ski tips hundreds of meters to the frozen lake below, perfectly untouched and filled in from the recent storm. Adrenaline and nerves almost overtook me as I held my breath for the first few turns Gary slashed on the pure white canvas. Everything held in place and Brian and I skied the line one at a time after him. It would be rare in Colorado to ever have a steep and tight line in conditions like we had- Alaskan ski movie like supportive powder top to bottom.
Gary looks down the Central line- 600 meters of direct, steep, and fast powder
We paused briefly for breakfast at the bottom of the debree path while watching other skiers and split boards slowly stream out of the refugio in the distance. As we started back up our hard earned skin track, we got our first real taste of the chaos that can result from a slightly overcrowded South American backcountry zone. Where we had proceeded an hour ago with extreme caution bordering on trepidation, was now being attacked by another group, head down, stacked on top of each other and charging up to the fresh turns. Gary and I hammered to get to the next safe zone while Brian pleaded with them to proceed one at time through the hazard zone. It seems the culture of the place is to just go for it so I scouted both Brian and Gary dropping into their respective second lines while trying to keep an eye on the newcomers who could be dropping in on top of them.
Unfortunately as we dropped into our second line of the day an incredibly low cloud ceiling had settled in. Gary went for the super narrow choice skiers left from the saddle and Brian and I took the wider ramp past our skin track and back down the lake into the main shot. These were some of the best and deepest turns of the trip, but due to poor visibility we retreated back to the hut. As the cervesa keg rotated to a red ale the clouds fully rolled in and the chance for a third big line slipped away. With an ale in the system and a tall boy of Isenbeck in the pack, we took back off to a small low angle small saddle into the next drainage and took turns switching equipment to give Gary and I the chance to try split boarding and Brian a shot at the skiing thing. I managed to pick up my old snowboarding roots after a few flailing turns while Brian and Gary, well, it was ugly. It is amazing the amount of fun that can be had just meters from the hut, especially with more giant flakes pounding down.
We got a full nights sleep after gorging on pizza, steak, and red wine which set us up for a late breakfast before our final tour out from the hut. After the epic steep skiing the previous day we settled for a wide open basin hanging above the refugio on our way out. These pitches were far more moderate and we were able to simul-ski a couple high-speed laps and break out the go-pro/gimble combo and pretend that we were legit videographers. When the battery ran out on me 4 seconds in, and then Gary smoked a rock at mach speed while manning the follow cam, it was decided that we were not quite ready for the movie big leagues. There is definitely something to be said for less fear of avalanches and more stoke for views and skiing low angle pow with your buddies.
Gary and Doug getting ready to drop into waist deep snow
After these laps we figured it was time to get back to the resort having no idea that maybe the best run of the entire trip awaited us. Just the traverse back into the resort was worth the price of pizza and wine and we skied a giant double fall line shot snaking over massive exposed cliffs. Now in heart of of the Cerro Catedral side country we had one final skin to sneak out the resort and avoid the bush wack out; although mud, ice, and the Argentinian human slalom on the large ski resort made for a harrowing decent.
About to drop in to another steep powder line leaving Frey, Cerro Tronador on the horizon
We may have missed the early days when Frey was a true hidden gem of Argentina, but this is a must do trip for any backcountry skier. Prepare for crowds, unhygienic hut shoes and sleeping arrangements, and a truly unique hut smell. But also be prepared for steep lines, great snow, a diverse skiing community all set to one of the most amazing backdrops you could ever encounter.
- Doug Stenclik