Tag Archives: Patagonia

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!

Herbert The Hound and the Rock from Outerspace

After a bit of climbing on the local Esquel crag, La Palestra, we stocked the van and headed over to Piedra Parada. The drive took a bit longer than expected, but the excitement in the van was palpable. The only shortage we had was firewood, that was until we passed a small farmstead that had a big pile of logs. I stopped and went in looking for the farmer who was just returning from the fields, and when asked if we could buy some logs he just said to help ourselves. Actually he helped us select the best driest logs – he was interested in our van so I gave him a quick tour. He thought it was pretty cool, especially the stove. People in Argentina are the best! We said farewell and headed on now fully stocked with nice dry logs.

After a couple of wrong turns the enormous volcanic remnant that is Piedra Parada hoved in to view. It is quite awesome, basically a 200m high boulder sat singularly on the plain.

The Imposing Rock of Piedra Parada.
The Imposing Rock of Piedra Parada.

We stopped by the campsite to try and get a copy of the guidebook only to find it deserted, but we could see the farmer in the field. We drove back down the road to speak to him to be told that the campsite would be 25 pesos a night, but all the facilities were closed for winter and he had no copies of the guide to sell, just one to look at. We said didn’t need the campsite as we had the van, but we’d pop back to have a look at the guide later.

We went climbing, picking lines we liked the look of or some of the few lines given in the pdf from the Petzl website. The weather was perfect – about 20 degrees, sunny and dry. We had a really fun afternoon, it had been a good month or so since we last climbed. The sun started to set so we headed over to the farm to see if we could get a look and some photos of the full guide. The place was deserted again apart from a couple of dogs. We returned to the van and started on the evening van routine, setting the fire, making tea and getting dinner on the go.

Then we had a visitor, one of the farm dogs. He was quite a cute character, clearly desperate for company and maybe a little food! He whined and whimpered every time we shut the door for a while before settling down to guard us. His presence could be quite disruptive when trying to answer a call of nature however, usually requiring one of us to run interference – something of a performance in the middle of the night!

Barbara and our new friend Herbert the Hound.
Barbara and our new friend Herbert the Hound.

The night skies were incredible! We spent some time marveling at the Milky Way, perhaps the clearest we had ever seen it.

The Stunning Night Sky at Piedra Parada.
The Stunning Night Sky at Piedra Parada.

The next day we decided to tackle some routes on the Piedra accompanied by our new best friend, who we had decided to christen Herbert. He went off chasing hares and we picked the easiest bolted route we could find, which was still quite hard, too hard for Barbara to follow at least.

I started to look at some trad. climbing possibilities to get to the top, or rather the only one that looked reasonable. Then I spied a bolted belay. Awesome! I fetched Barbara and we started climbing.  The first anchor could be seen from the ground and it was guess work after that, but I just went with following the line of least resistance and occasionally some bolts. When Barbara left the ground poor Herbert was bereft at being abandoned, running back and forth crying – it was heartbreaking!

High up on Piedra Parada. Nice Beard!
High up on Piedra Parada. Nice Beard!

After 5 pitches the line of least resistance was an overhanging chimney full of loose rock, so I took a walk round the terrace,there were a couple of cairns and a possible way to continue, but it looked like a couple more pitches of climbing and the clock was against us. I thought retreating back down was probably the best option rather than try and get off in the dark. As it was it was dark for the last abseil to the ground, but no real dramas. Herbert was not awaiting us:-(

We headed back to the van only to find Herbert lying prostrate in the middle of the road not wanting to move. He needed quite a bit of fussing before he felt a little better and decided he might join us back at the van.

The third and final day we ticked off some sport pitches in the canyon and had a welcome wash in the stream, as we would be heading for Bariloche early the next day.

It was very sad saying goodbye to Herbert the faithful hound, but we did, he didn’t understand why he was being abandoned again. However we had to return to our ski based objectives, this is difficult to explain to a lonely dog.

La Hoya

A friend in Santiago had recommended La Hoya as a good place to ski as it is cheap and there is good access to off piste terrain. La Hoya is just outside Esquel, and a days drive from El Chalten with the forecast looking good for the next few days we headed there. Esquel turns out to be a relatively unremarkable town, but nestled in amongst mountains and near the Los Alerces national park it is a pleasant place to stay with a good variety of restaurants and bars. The only thing it seems to lack is unofficial money changers the town only has two who offer a pretty poor rate in fact if your heading south of Barlioche you should stock up on pesos there to get acceptable rates. However we did manage to find an local guy keen to exchange so dollars in the queue at a takeaway Parilla (BBQ) place. He was a nice guy and we went with him to his house to do the deal it worked well for both of us as we both got a better rate without a middleman.

The skiing at La Hoya did not disappoint even though the snow cover was pretty poor. It really is a great little resort with lots of hikable off piste to go at although the low snow restricted us to the top bowl that can be dropped into from a plateau which is just a 5 minute hike above the top lift.

Barbara booting the last bit up to the plateau above La Hoya
Barbara booting the last bit up to the plateau above La Hoya

The bowl had collected a good amount of wind blown snow and had a corniced entry, basically lots of fun. Out the back of the resort there is access to a ridge line stretching over a few small peaks and giving access to more remote bowls.

Tom dropping off the top of the plateau.
Tom dropping off the top of the plateau.
The ridgeline out the back o La Hoya lots of options for fun skiing in those bowls.
The ridgeline out the back o La Hoya lots of options for fun skiing in those bowls.

So if your skiing in Bariloche and you have time La Hoya is worth a visit if you’ve got backcountry gear, it was only 240 pesos a day at the time of writing and mucho fun!

Yet again the weather turned, but this time we got summer! It was forecast to be 12 degrees at the base of the resort and 6 at the top. However all was not lost there was climbing nearby, a small crag at the edge of town and more interestingly Piedra Parada about 120km away. Piedra Parada had been host to the 2012 Petzl Roctrip so had lots of newly bolted lines and the forecast was for winter sun, yay!

Patagonian Skiing

The weather once again defeated our plans to ski in the hills round Torres. They looked like they had awesome terrain and a convenient road heading right up into them, but the weather gods frowned on this plan and brought us some strong Patagonian winds that were not forecast to stop for a week or so.

So the decision was made to head north again and ski in some of the mountains we’d spotted on the way down to Puerto Natales. We’d just need to hop back into Argentina – or not, as the Argentinean border staff were having a strike. So we had one more day in Puerto Natales and one more delicious meal in El Bot, a nice local restaurant.

Flamingos at the end of the world.
Flamingos at the end of the world.

We headed for the border early the next day, ooh it was snowing! It had put down a few inches on wet roads, would we even get to the border without the help of snow chains? It was up hill all the way and lots of squiggly lines left by the few vehicles that had already passed through. We made it with some careful driving, but coming down the other side of the pass might be fun. I was feeling quite pleased with the tyre selection, it had been worth dragging Barbara round all those tyre shops in Bolivia and Peru She now knows lots about tyres, I’m sure she valued the experience. (Maxxis Bravo 771 for any tyre geeks out there, so far working well on gravel, mud, snow and other frozen stuff.)

The border was very straight forward thanks to the helpful Argentinean staff. It turned out there was a small ski area right at the border, maybe they had just gone skiing the day before – I’d be going on strike every time it snowed if I were them. We thought about breaking out the skis but the hill wasn’t very steep and the snow was deep, so didn’t look like we’d have much fun if we could even get the skis to run at all. We decided to head on north to bigger and better objectives… This video captures our perhaps misplaced excitement!

First we thought we’d have a look at some hills in the Los Glaciers National Park,  so we headed for El Calafate to get a map and supplies. El Calafate is a pretty quiet place in the winter, even more so if you arrive during siesta time as we did! However we got what we needed once the town woke up and headed for a good potential spot in the park just north of town, again a nice little road seemed to head directly into the park up to about 600m. We turned onto said road full of hope and optimism. New snow, fully stocked van, psyched occupants and some big hills, what could possibly go wrong!

The first few km went by uneventfully with just the odd little slide on the muddy surface and some tyre tracks from people that had turned around. We continued on merrily, the mud patches getting deeper and bigger, but still manageable, if you kept momentum. We were discussing turning round when the road became just mud and there was nothing to do but plough on and hope, if we stopped we’d definitely be stuck. We made it maybe 1 km before we ended up bogged down at a standstill. Not good.

I opened the door to have a look see at how bad the mud was – it was deep and it looked like we would be going nowhere before the encroaching darkness came. I tried getting out, but gave up once my first foot had sunk well into the mud.

Crap!

We had a discussion about options, none seemed that good given we were about 15kms from a very quiet highway in deep mud. The drinking wine option came high up the list, but it was after the trying to reverse out that I realised that we could get the van to move a little bit. Maybe we could rock the van out? We repeated a forward and then reverse manoeuvre until we ploughed ourselves a longish furrow. Then it was forward then reverse as fast as possible and don’t stop. It worked for a while at least then we had to try again, there’s a short video here. Eventually we reached solid enough ground to turn around, this seemed a long way but happily we made it! We turned tail and ran away thankful we had avoided a real epic.

Steve after his escape from horrific Patagonian mud. Very sticky mud at that.
Steve after his escape from horrific Patagonian mud. Very sticky mud at that.

El Chalten was the next place one on the list on our great South American ski adventure! We might even get to tour around the base of Fitzroy!

Mount Fitzroy massive from the road into El Chalten.
Mount Fitzroy massive from the road into El Chalten.

After a stormy night in the van we headed to a cafe for coffee, cake and internet in El Chalten. The internet said the weather wouldn’t be great, scuppering any multi-day plans. A day tour didn’t seem out of the question though, just a case of finding an objective. We headed through town and out on the gravel road in search of skiable terrain. A few kms out I noticed Arroyo (river) Mosquito on the map, this clicked with something I had seen on the internet about touring on Mosquito peak. We parked by the river and decided to follow the faint path through the woods up to the snowline, there had been some fresh snow the night before so we might be in luck. After an hour of boot packing we got the skis on and continued skinning through the trees.

Barbara starting the approach to Mosquito peak.
Barbara starting the approach to Mosquito Peak.

The snowpack was not great, a 12-18inches of slushy faceted snow, a melt crust and then a foot of fresh. We decided to stay in the trees and not head to the open slopes above. We did a few laps which were pretty fun although Barbara was struggling as the snow was pretty heavy. I decided I liked mash potatoes. We headed back to the van for the now traditional hot chocolate, but we had now had to substitute dolce de leche liqueur for Bailey’s. The forecast said more of the same the next day, but the snowpack stabilised enough to head up to the ridge line and we got fresh lines all day, yay!

Finally getting some skiing done!
Finally getting some skiing done!
A happy Tom on the way back down after a successful days backcountry skiing!
A happy Tom on the way back down after a successful days backcountry skiing!

The following day the weather decided we had had enough fun, although it was teasing us cos it was fairly calm in the valley, but the spin drift on the hill above said go away!

So it seems we aren't going skiing...
So it seems we aren’t going skiing…

The optimist in me said go on it’ll be fine  but Barbara said otherwise! We took the sensible option and headed back to town to consult the internet once more. The internet said it will be stormy here for a week and then mega for a day or two.

We really felt like hobos, always being moved on. Oh and really in need of a wash!

Gorgeous Torres

Tom had wanted to hike Torres in winter after reading a Guardian article about doing just that. The writers had stayed in an eco village in the park and enjoyed numerous other luxuries – we planned on roughing it a bit more, but a night in the eco-village had to be worked in!  That is, until we found out it was not open  – the Guardian may have been using some editorial licence in the definition of the term ‘winter’. However, the fact of the park being fairly quiet at this time of year was probably not going to be to far off the mark, and as it turned out we passed a total of ten other people over the four days.  This is unlike the summer when the park is full to bursting! The other supposed advantage of visiting in winter is that the infamous Patagonian winds are less prevalent at this time of year, although it can be bloody cold… We had mostly blue skies and no wind for the duration and it wasn’t even that cold – well, cold enough so that mud on the trail was frozen, but that definitely has it’s advantages.

We planned to hike the “W” route at Torres as the good weather should last long enough for us to complete it, and the full 10 day hike is not open in winter.  We eventually got to the base camp after a few false starts (the Parks board only accept cash payment, imagine that?  And they don’t have an ATM to hand – I thought this was a civilised country?!!!) but it did give us time to realise we didn’t need to pitch a tent every night and could cheat and use Steve for one – the “W” route is so named as the trail follows roughly that shape, and it was possible to go up and down one leg in a day.  A wood burning stove and comfy mattress over roughing it in a tent?  Don’t mind if I do… Who needs an eco-village eh?

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En route to Torres, take 1

 

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The towers are in there somewhere

 

The first leg of the trail took us up to view the Torres themselves, which is a hit or miss affair as they are often cloaked in cloud.  One of the major benefits of doing this walk in the winter is you avoid all the crowds which can also get in the way of the view, so when we arrived at the lookout point and were the only people there just as the clouds started lifting we felt very lucky indeed.

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Tom at the top of Torres just as the clouds were lifting!

 

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Torres Del P at sunset

 

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Our room with a view

 

Day two had us setting out with full gear with an aim to get to Glacier Grey.  This was the furthest point of the route, and logically we had decided to get the longest hike over as early as possible as aches were already setting in.  Reading this back it doesn’t really make logical sense but it did then, thankfully Tom remembered that he had a knee brace in his sack this time!

What can I say about Torres?  Quite simply, it’s one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. We were so very lucky to be blessed with perfect weather just for those few days.

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Torres Del Paine National Park
Looking out over a misty Lago Grey
Looking out over a misty Lago Grey
Pygmy owl in Torres Del Paine
Pygmy owl in Torres Del Paine

 

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Glacier Grey

 

We elected to skip the middle leg of the W as we were a bit slower than we would’ve like to be, and could view the impressive glaciers from the path – they had been crashing down over the days we were there and make a pretty incredible sound!  It was great to get back to Steve though, knowing we were only about an hour away from a much needed hot shower and a slap up meal.  We threw all our kit in the back and jumped in the front, turned the key and…nothing.  I cannot describe how awful the sound of an engine failing to start is, particularly when you are miles away from civilisation and have no way to call for assistance!  This was where we got the full value of Tom’s stint as a mechanic’s apprentice.  On advice we carried a spare fuel filter with us, and Tom just hoped that the only problem was that it needed changing after probably slight dubious Bolivian fuel – and thankfully knew how to do this.  Even more thankfully, this seemed to do the trick and we were able to head off to Puerto Natales and probably the best shower I have ever had.