Tag Archives: backcountry skiing

Refugio Frey

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 Top of Cerro Catedrale, not much snow on the wind scoured and sun affected South aspect!
The Top of Cerro Catedrale, not much snow on the wind scoured and sun affected South aspect!

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.

Theres a small hut, Refugio Petricek, in the woods below Frey, its got a stove and room for a few people.
Theres a small hut in the woods below Frey, its got a stove and room for a few people.

We arrived just in time for lunch and as the weather closed in, at least it was snowing.

A tired Barbara arriving at Refugio Frey.
A tired Barbara arriving at Refugio Frey.
Barbara happy to have arrived at Refugio Frey.
Barbara happy to have arrived at Refugio Frey.

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.

Me at the top of Principal, the cloud starting to come back in.
Me at the top of Principal, the cloud starting to come back in.

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.

Kev styling it in the lower part of Principal.
Kev styling it in the lower part of Principal.

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!

Relaxing in Refugio Frey and having some lap time with Emilio.
Relaxing in Refugio Frey and having some lap time with Emilio.

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.

Refugio Frey in the early morning sun, Principal is the couloir between the two main peak behind the hut. There are many more lines to the left and right.
Refugio Frey in the early morning sun, Principal is the couloir between the two main peak behind the hut. There are many more lines to the left and right.

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.

Barbara and me at the top of Inclinada before dropping to enjoy the first fun run of the day.
Barbara and me at the top of Inclinada before dropping to enjoy the first fun run of the day.

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.

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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.

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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!

South American Pow… or not!

At last we hit the snow, first stop was El Colorado which is part of the Tres Valles (El Colorado, La Parva and Valle Nevado). We were quite excited about the prospect of getting those skis on to the South American snow, sadly this was somewhat tempered by the general lack of it. There was a dusting forecast, but we weren’t holding out much hope. When we arrived the dusting was in progress and the mountain was shrouded in cloud, so we bailed on actually going skiing. It’s no fun if you can’t see more than 10m!

We amused ourselves for a short while watching all the people driving round with snow chains on, it was quite bizarre given there was basically no snow on the roads. A small industry has developed on the road into the ski areas in Chile hiring out snow chains to meet the legal requirement to carry them, however it seems they insist on putting them on if it is looking like it might snow, whether there is snow on the roads or not. This results in people who don’t know any better nervously driving round with chains on, ruining their tyres and the road for no reason. This is compounded by ski area staff also encouraging people to put chains on even though there is no need, all very strange. Maybe it is to make the skiing experience seem more extreme?!

We ended up having a not so extreme day being van hobos, collecting waste wood and then parking up in the carpark to eat some of the best apple kuchen we’ve ever had and drink Bailey’s hot chocolate,  all in the warming company of Cyrill. This was the first proper cold test for the van and with Cyrill all fired up it was toasty, although there were small icicles forming on the screws securing the ceiling panels, as they are screwed into the van body work so remain at pretty much external temperature.

We got our first view of the ski area the following morning. It didn’t look that exciting, there was very little snow cover off piste and the majority of the pistes were just straight down the side of the conical mountain which made them all more or less identical. We headed out round the back of the resort where, as it turns out, there’s better terrain and were rewarded with some fresh tracks on wind blown snow. The back of the resort actually connects to Valle Nevado and La Parva, which opens up even more fun terrain, if you can afford multiple ski passes! Lord knows why they haven’t sorted out a single lift ticket where you can ski in all the resorts.

Where was the deep El Niño pow we’d been promised???? Not this far North that was for sure. We consulted the internet which told us not to bother going to Portillo (chile), Las Leñas (Argentina) or Penetenties (Argentina) either. We’d also spoken to someone who had said there was almost no snow on the Argentinian side of the Andes in the north at least. This some what scuppered the plan to head in that direction. However all was not lost the forecast was for big dumps in Chillan, Villarica and maybe Barriloche. We made a quick decision not to stay any longer at El Colorado. Even though Baileys hot chocolate and wine were calling, we instead hurriedly packed the van and hit the road heading south to the legendary resort of Nevados de Chillàn. We arrived in Chillàn late the following evening and there was a nice covering of snow in the carpark at least. It looked on for the next day to either tour to the top of the volcano or head over into the next valley to enjoy the natural hot springs.

Van living is awesome for beating everyone to the ski hill in the morning cos your already there, however it makes you lazy and we always seemed to actually make it on to the hill after everyone else?! At least by being tardy we got some info from some others heading out for a tour. They didn’t mention that everyone in Nevados de Chillan seems to be ski touring Nazis. We found this out ourselves when we were told we could not skin past the hot springs next to the resort, then found we couldn’t go through the resort either as they don’t allow it.  The summer trail up the hill was too icy even with ski crampons on, but eventually we found a way through into a valley next to the resort.  This was not the ideal place to skin up the hill as you’re at the bottom of a terrain trap with avalanche slope above you on both sides. We continued on as the avalanche conditions didn’t seem too bad.

We watched a couple of skiers ski down into the valley so I decided that heading up their tracks would be a good way out as they had kindly tested the slope for us! It was a pretty steep slope and we met the other skiers on their second lap at the top, they had got a lift pass. They were also in Chile for the season and had some good info on other good places to ski. We were all waiting for the big dump forecast hoping we would get an epic pow day on the Tuesday. They skied on and we were going to continue on, but I didn’t like the look of the slope we needed to cross to get out the valley. We decided to just turnround instead, a bit of a shame, but better than risk being buried in an avalanche. Anyhow there’s a storm a comin’!

The storm came, but it was a bit warmer than forecast and it was raining at the bottom lift.  Still, it would be dumping at the top – I hadn’t seen so much rain in a long time and it was forecast to rain 250mm in the following 2 days in the valley. That would be a lot of snow higher up, so we waited it out in the van in front of the fire with the obligatory bottles of wine. Eventually the storm ended and the skies cleared, this is where we realised that Chillan is a pretty poorly managed resort. The only lifts open were serving the lower beginner slopes that had remained below snow line during the storm, all the lifts providing access to the top of the resort and the fresh snow were closed. I wasn’t keen on going into the backcountry cos the avalanche risk couldn’t be anything more than high given the 60-100cm of new snow that had just fallen. And did. I mention they don’t let you ski tour in their resort?!

We reviewed our options, there was no point staying as it was turning stormy again, further south looked like the storms might be less severe, or there was a good weather window for Torres Del Paine. We decided to head for Torres as good weather there can be a rare occurrence.  So with only a 2500km drive down the road then, we headed for the Argentinean border.