A trip to Refugio Frey (a mountain hut behind the Cerro Catedrale ski resort near Barilioche) was definitely on the bucket list, so after a days fairly average skiing in poor visibility at Catedrale we decided to try the ski route over to the Frey. We got our kit together and waited at the the bottom of the resort for the clouds to hopefully clear. We had had a ski guide show us round the ski resort the day before (a free service the resort provides and a good option when there is no visibility), who had pointed out, or rather into the white out, where you leave the piste about 500m below the top of the Nubes ski lift.
The cloud lifted at about 1.30pm, which would make it a bit tight to get up to the top of the lift over the ridge and ski to the hut before dark, but we thought we’d give it a shot. We bought the backcountry ski pass and headed for the lifts. They were basically horrific, as there was no snow cover for the first lift. Trying to get on a lift carrying a heavy sack, skis and poles is not easy, especially when they shove two such laden people on a small 2 person chair! We couldn’t get the bar down over all our kit so the lifties stopped the lift and unhelpfully yelled at us. We had to organise ourselves and get the bar down, while not dropping anything or falling off the chair which was now suspended well above the ground, scary!
The trip to the top of the Nubes chair takes about an hour as you have negotiate three slow lifts complete with queues to get there. Without cloud the start of the route to the hut was easy enough to spot – we hiked to the ridge line to find no snow on the far side, but the trail to the notch where you drop into the next valley was clear enough to follow.
Once in the notch I spent some time looking at the route down, it looked steep and threaded its way between boulders. There was a less steep more open line to the left, but it was in full sun and covered in avalanche debris. I decided it was probably a bad idea, while Barbara could always opt to walk down with crampons the hut was a fair way and I didn’t want to be tramping round in the dark looking for it. We decided to head back down, and as we did so we passed a guy called Kevin heading the other way. We had a quick chat and he headed on despite having no head torch. This caused us to have a bit of a dither about whether we should give it a go after all… and then headed back to the notch. I arrived to see Kev starting his descent, he was a very good skier and was taking it very carefully. I could hear why, it was VERY icy. Decision made, there was no way I was taking Barbara on a slope where one mistake would likely result in death. Frankly I was scared just watching, never mind trying to ski it with a big pack. We turned tail and headed for the lift to catch a download back to the bottom before it shut.
Never one to give up, I proposed that we hike to the Frey via the summer hiking route which is a 4 hour hike. Barbara agreed – maybe she is indeed the best girlfriend in the world! We made an early start as it was set to rain in the afternoon. The walk in is not that bad as there’s only 700m of height gain over the 12kms and a fairly steady gradient for the first 10km. Still hard work though with big packs with skis and boots attached.
We arrived just in time for lunch and as the weather closed in, at least it was snowing.
There were already a few other keen skiers in the hut who had just returned from out of the cloud having skied this morning, Kev wasn’t amongst them so I enquired with Vaso, one of the hut staff, if Kev arrived the night before. It wasn’t clear if the had or not, but apparently there were still some others out there somewhere. Happily he arrived back to the hut with the remaining people from out on the hill. There were a few of us keen to ski some lines after lunch if the cloud cleared a little!
We were in luck – the cloud did clear, sadly only having deposited 4 or 5 cms of fresh. However, this was better than nothing. I was keen so catalysed some action from some of the others, and we headed out across the frozen lake and decided to head on up Principal, the easiest of the couloirs. We skinned a few hundred metres up the couloir before deciding to boot pack the rest, as the thin snow cover over basically ice wasn’t exactly giving the best grip. A good forty minutes of booting later we made it to a col at the top of the couloir, but the cloud was rolling back in. Still, always time for a few pics before starting the descent.
I dropped in first, slightly apprehensive as I hadn’t actually got any couloir skiing done to date on the trip! Still the top pitch was wide and not that steep. Given there was just a small amount on snow on ice it was still pretty good fun. We pitched it to the bottom, I generally selected the less steep less narrow options on the way down to get my head and legs back in.
We felt pretty stoked by the time we got back to the lake with cloud and darkness starting to close in. Jees this place is pretty awesome – you can have a lazy lunch in a nice warm hut, head out ski a couloir and be back before dark, then settle down with a bottle of wine before eating a hearty dinner served up by the great guys the work in the hut. This was going to be a good few days!
Next day started sunny, people teamed up over breakfast with various objectives in mind, although there was no great hurry as the sun needed to soften things a bit before getting on any of those steep lines.
I headed out with Barbara to find some nice mellow lines to ski, I have to say I was pretty envious of the others with more serious objectives in mind. Still, maybe I could get something done in the afternoon.
Vaso had headed out a bit before Barbara and I and had headed up to Inclinada (the slope above the upper lac), I took a stupid traversing line up to meet Vaso’s skin track. This resulted in much swearing, a bit of falling over and a lot of stamping to try and get the skis to stick to the hard icy surface that had not softened as it was in shade. Some lessons learned there! Even once we had joined Vaso’s track the skinning could be described as being steep and technical with enough kick turns on an icy surface to sort out the men from the boys. It turns out Barbara is a man, despite a few scary slides she made it to top lake. The slope above the lake looked a really fun ski as it was wide and not too steep and the skin up was not too bad, just a few bare icy patches to focus the mind.
I could see the other having lots of fun skiing steep lines of the opposite side of the cirque, jealous! Still we got our skis into downhill mode and dropped. Oooh fun! It was wide enough you could really open up the skis and go fast enough to get a bit of float on the thin cover of new and now soft snow, just a little taste of the pow, what a tease. We did a few laps before heading back for lunch. I decided to try one of the steeper couloirs after lunch, but it had turned icy in the afternoon shade so I didn’t get far before deciding to head back to the refugio.
The hut was busy the second night with a big group that had arrived for a backcountry skiing course. Kev and I decided we would try Pyrimidal in the morning, but we would need to make an early start to get first tracks. We also found out there was an alternate way back to the top of the ski resort following a ridge line which sounded like it could be a fun option to get back.
We headed to bed early to find Emilio the hut cat waiting for us, he was quick to make friends with Barbara. It wasn’t long before he was getting very friendly indeed and biting her neck. It was getting a bit much so she passed him to me, it wasn’t long before he got a little over excited on my sleeping bag! He was quickly sent on his way.
Kev and I were lucky enough to be the first to the top of Pyrimidal so we got first tracks.
We then went and found the others to set off back to the resort. We found the trail out without too much bother, although I was struggling for grip and soon gave up skinning in favour of boot packing to the top of the ridge.
The hike back along the ridge took much longer than expected, in fact it was pretty laborious and we were pretty tight on time to make the final lift to get back down. We gave the others a lift back into town, and on the way Kev and I finalised the plan for our next little adventure! Although that would wait for a mega feast at Albertos in Bariloche, the best steak restaurant in town. Probably the best steaks anyone had ever had, ever!