Finding Refugio Frey in June

imageRefugio Frey isn’t a person, it’s a place. Actually, it’s my Sundog hut! The mountain hut featured in the short film Sundog that inspired me to go there. A film portraying the strong relationship between a man and his dog in the mountains of Patagonia.

Getting to Vila Catedral

After exhausting every option to fly there at a reasonable price, I decided to bus there. South American airlines charge gringo taxes (by only allowing the purchase of flights with local credit cards or identification) and have the most non-sensical pricing systems. Often return flights cost less than one-way or multi-city journeys. From Calama, in the Atacama Desert, to Santiago I paid half the price by booking a return journey via some coastal town. Go figure.

Anyway, I was so tentative about the bus because it was a 23 hour ride vs 2 hours flying. The original price difference between flying and busing was $200, before gringo taxes, flight rises and discounts on the bus ride. In the end, I saved a lot of money on the bus ride by paying cash with Cruceros del Sur. Just AR1100 from Buenos Aires to Bariloche in semi-cama.The meals are bloody tiny, so pack food (I ate about 7 of them on the return journey).

The bus was empty most of the day but filled up between Bahía Blanca and Neuquen. Finally we arrived at 11am the next day. The hike was about 4 hours so I figured I had 3 hours to figure out how to get there, get skis and go in order to make it in daylight.

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Crossing the frozen tundra as the sun rose before reaching Bariloche

I decided to just walk the 3kms into town and check out the lake along the way. In town I found a Sube card (the same prepaid transport card from Buenos Aires) and the bus number #55 for Vila Catedral, the ski resort from which Refugio Frey is accessed.

I’m not sure if the bus I caught was the #55, but it said “Catedral” on a bus stop on Moreno St near Palacios St. It cost AR20 and I got to the resort around 12.45pm.

I found the Club Andino club house and got some info before optimistically hiring some skis in case it was possible to ski at Refugio Frey. I’d rather take the skis and be able to ski rather than miss out and for AR200/day it was pretty cheap anyway.

Hiking up to Refugio Frey

So I clipped my ski boots into my skis, lashed the skis to the side of my pack and headed off on the trail. The trail starts from the far corner of the carpark along a dirt road. It’s pretty well marked where it branches off.

The track continues around the feet of the mountains for the first 1.5 to 2 hours, undulating a bit but never really rising too much.

Along the track you get views of the surrounding ranges and lakes. It was still very early in the season, but I imagine later on you can get snow at the track level here.

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View along the lower half of the track back towards Vila Catedral

Despite there being no snow, everything was frozen! Most of the time what I was walking on was frozen mud and there were a few half frozen rivers to cross.

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Half frozen rivers encased in ice

It was quite obvious and well marked where the track headed up the valley. There were only a few points at the river crossings where it was a little unclear, but just keep crossing them and don’t think you have to walk up the river.

Shortly after the turn a huge pillar of rock could be seen up the valley. I’m not sure I actually saw it again after that, but it was a motivating taste of what was to come.

The walk up the valley was just as long as the first half, but much steeper. It crossed a river through some tranquil forest and up to a hut built into the rock.

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The Rock Hut

It was roughly an hour from this hut to Refugio Frey as the track got muddier and icier. The snow must have been quite old as it was all hard pack and frozen solid. It wasn’t really a problem until the last 100m before the hut. Then I wished I had crampons!

Unfortunately I made it too late for sun to still be hitting the lake, but I at least got there while there was still light. The lake was completely frozen and it was possible to ice skate. Sadly the there was not enough snow and not the right snow for any real skiing. Rocks were scattered about and the snow was also hard pack ice. I guess it must have been there a while.

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Twilight fading as the lights come on in Refugio Frey

The hut was manned by an Argentinian guy called Ian with scruffy red stubble. If he hadn’t spoken I’d have assumed he was a Canadian on a work away, but he only spoke a modest level of English. He was playing ping pong, with who I think was his girlfriend, on a table using chocolate bars and napkin holders as a net. He kicked all of our asses, including my half Asian one.

We all faced off against him one by one until finally he was defeated by an old chap I’d seen earlier hiking up the mountain with his son. He was a pretty chipper 62 year old. He said he ran everyday and used to be a trainer for the Argentinian ski team.

I hadn’t brought any food because I wouldn’t know how long I was staying until seeing the snow cover and depending on clear skies for photos. I wasn’t leaving without at least good photo opportunities! So Ian cooked me a feast and I was so full! Dessert included a local delicacy: peaches with some dulce de leche or as Ian preferred it, dulce de leche with some peaches.

The skies were very clear that night. To my luck, much clearer than the night before apparently. So I stumbled across the frozen snow, set up my tripod and left it to capture some star trails.

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Stars over Refugio Frey. If you look closely you can see the red light of moonrise on the mountain tops

I left my camera in the cold because I figured no one else would be out there, but when I went to retrieve it I ran into a French photographer. We talked a bit and it turned out he was also there because he’d seen the Sundog video.

There were only 7 of us in the hut that night including the staff. A chatty Belgian vagabond, called Baptist, shared some wine and his tri-lingual skills with us. This broke the ice quite nicely and warmed up the place. As usual, the English speaker (i.e. me) was the least language adept person in the room.

In the video there is a beautiful scene (there are a lot actually) where the red sunlight rakes down the mountains. Unfortunately, a thick cloud cover meant a pretty boring grey backdrop to the mountains, but luckily the gap in the clouds at the horizon at least allowed for these photos.

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The high cloud cover blocked the red light of sunrise from landing behind the mountains, but it was pretty spectacular in the other direction

Throughout the morning I contemplated how I might make the most of my time. I really wanted hike over the ridge and take an alternate route back to Vila Catedral in order to see something different, but the weather looked bleak and the wind was strong. I tried to hike up a bit higher as a test run, but with the conditions so icy and without crampons it was going to be a nightmare.

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Climbing around Refugio Frey

The weather looked like it was improving, but I decided not to risk it and it’s just as well I didn’t. The good weather window lasted little more than an hour and rain came. Carrying skis along the icy ridge in the rain would have been pretty miserable and surely dangerous.

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A bit of rest and a good book before heading down

On the way down I ran into Baptist again. I had been wondering where he had gone since his e-reader was still sitting on the table in the kitchen. He was acting as a sherpa, working for his board and carrying a 30kg gas cylinder up from the “Rock Hut”. He was a funny, but clever and resourceful guy.

I pushed on down the trail just wanting it to be over. My skis felt like they weighed as much as a gas cylinder. My camera pack probably wasn’t designed for this much weight despite being a mountaineering pack. The hip strap and structure of the bag didn’t hold the weight on my hips so my shoulders were killing me when I reached the bottom.

I returned the skis and paid a day’s hire (AR200) to be fair and went looking for the only thing that satisfies hunger after a long hike. It wasn’t the best, but I sort of found my ultimate Argentinian burger. It may not have qualified due to lack of ingredients, but it was almost the size of a dinner plate.

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Because "Ultimate Burger" is a necessary ritual after a hike

Afterwards I took the bus back down to Bariloche and wandered around in the rain looking for a hostel and a hot shower.

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