“I’m so thirsty,” Brian McKenna says as he sits on a boulder outside Refugio Frey, a backcountry hut in Argentina’s Patagonian Andes Mountains. I look up from unbuckling my ski boots and see him framed by toothy spires that surround Laguna Toncek. Torre Principal, the most iconic tower in Nahuel Huapi National Park, is barely caressed by fading, alpenglow light. McKenna takes off his pack, removes a bottle, and unscrews the wide-mouth top. But instead of drawing a deep, thirst-quenching drink of water, he pulls out a wig. Not just any wig. It’s a full-on mullet wig straight out of “Wayne’s World.” He puts the wig on, proudly stands upon his rock, and chugs a yellow can of Isenbeck cerveza with one hand while simultaneously crushing an empty in the other. It’s clear what kind of hut trip I’ve gotten myself into. The dude sacrificed water on a day-long approach to make room for a wig. Party on.
Refugio Frey is perhaps the most photographed hut in all of South America. At an elevation of 5,577 feet in Argentina’s Lake District, this tiny hut is nestled just outside the Catedral Alta Patagonia ski resort in Bariloche. The artful stonework walls, encircled by granite towers, is a drool-worthy backdrop that attracts rock climbers in the summer. But it’s the spaces between those towers that sing to skiers, where couloirs and snow fields spill down to the hut from all compass points. Refugio Frey is no ordinary backcountry hut – it’s more like a European-style shelter with a full kitchen, dining area, upstairs sleeping quarters, and a friendly, live-in host who cooks breakfast and dinner, plus serves all the local beer and wine you can ask for.
Our trip to “The Frey” begins at the ski resort, where we acclimate our weak summer legs by bombing laps on the upper mountain in the rain. An unseasonably warm winter has rendered the bottom half of the area unskiable, and the higher elevations are getting sloppy. Our crew numbers seven, with myself, McKenna, heliski guide Wes Wylie, Chad Burt, Adam Symonds, and our hosts, Justin Lozier and Sean Zimmerman-Wall. Sean is a Snowbird ski patroller, and Justin is the owner of Patagonia Ski Tours. Every summer, they chase snow to the southern hemisphere and guide backcountry trips out of Bariloche. With their last clients of the season on planes returning home, we meet them in Patagonia for a week-long friends tour to, as Justin says, “rip peak and eat meat.”
Argentina’s love affair with beef knows no bounds. With the world’s second-highest beef consumption rate in the world (and the highest per-capita,) a dripping, thick steak is daily, dinnertime fare. Lomo (beef tenderloin) cooked Asado-style is the national dish, making this country a vegetarian’s worst nightmare. Immediately off my 23-hour flight, Justin and Sean whisk me off to a Bariloche restaurant and immerse me in Argentinian food, complete with the largest cut of meat I’ve ever seen, paired with copious amounts of local Malbec wine. On the walk back to the hostel in town, I have so much beef and booze in my belly, I get lost. They eventually find me along the shores of Nahuel Huapi Lake, talking to the waves.
“Refugio. Refugio. Re-fugi-o. Refugio? Re-fu-gee-o?” Our waitress stares at Adam with a complete lack of understanding written on her face. He is trying to explain in a painfully American accent that we are on our way to Refugio Frey. We’re drinking beers in the mid-mountain lodge at Catedral Alta Patagonia, soaked to the bone thanks to a constant rain, laughing as Adam tries to pantomime the roof of a hut to our cute, yet dumbfounded server. “Refugio. You know, Re-fu-gee-o?” Still, the waitress does not comprende. Flustered, Adam tries a different tack. “You know, like a casa en las montañas?” The woman’s face immediately lights up. “Ah! Re-fu–hio,” she says correctly in Spanish, complete with a rolling “r” and a “g” that sounds like an “h.” “Refugio Frey, si!” With that, she leaves us for other customers. We also must go. After eating plenty of meat, it’s time for us to rip peak.
We ride a double chair to an upper ridge at the top of the resort. A stiff wind greets us along with fast-approaching clouds ahead of a cold front. While the standard way to reach the hut is from the mountain’s base via a steep, muddy trail, we decide instead to ski down from the backside of Cerro Catedral. To get there, we exit the resort boundary, strap skis to packs, and begin a rock-strewn traverse. The snow is shallow; a dusting on stone. With every step, rocks slide away beneath my ski boots. I see a faint bootpack that hugs dark rocks over dizzying exposure. Justin and Sean lead the way. I follow, hug rock, and scramble around boulders, where my gloved hands search for meager holds. Clouds seep in ahead of a rapidly lowering ceiling. Visibility becomes dangerously low and I can barely make out my friends ahead of me in the grey fog. After an hour of sketchy, touch-and-go hiking, we reach a place called The Notch – a small opening in a cliff band that allows entry to Valle Van Titter thousands of vertical feet below. From the bottom, a short skin should put us at the hut in time for dinner.
After a quick pit test, we find stable avalanche conditions. Bad visibility is the primary concern. Quickly, we step into our skis and snowboards. One by one, I watch my friends descend a steep headwall. Then it’s my turn. With a gear-filled heavy pack, I balance over my skis and find little purchase on wind-blown snow beneath my edges. I carefully make turns on chattery, hard snow that gives new meaning to sewing-machine-leg. We regroup above rollers and small cliff bands broken by openings large enough for us to make short turns through. As I ski, I find a good fall-line skier’s right that leads to a pitch of softer snow. I gain speed and confidence, able to edge turn by turn. Despite the mediocre snow conditions, I am enchanted by my surroundings. Cerro Catedral completely encases me with jagged stone towers. It’s as if I’m standing in the palm of a god hand below fingers curving skyward.
The weather clears as we descend to the bottom of Valle Van Titter. We reapply skins and make a short traverse along a stream swollen with melted, spring snow. Before us is a massive stand of trees Justin dubs “the Spooky Forest.” I can see where he gets the name. Gnarly trees of dark grey bark and barren limbs grow thick and tall, creating foreboding woods. Large curtains of bushy moss cover the trees like an old man’s beard, while bark knots scar trunks into shapes of evil faces. Silence falls on us as we cut switchbacks up to Refugio Frey, hidden somewhere in a hanging valley above.
Bushes and naked limbs tear at our shells and snag our poles as we wind up through the forest. Eventually it thins into a grove of shrubs. A bit of route-finding navigates us over snow bridges and through an occasional patch of bare ground. Here, we find an old skin track. Skinning on rapidly melting snow under the late-afternoon sun, we make short work of the climb, and before I know it, a corner of the hut’s roof appears around a small shoulder of snow. With renewed enthusiasm, I skin faster until Refugio Frey comes into full view – a storybook, stone cottage nestled beneath an impossibly jagged cauldron of sawtooth mountains.
Immediately, my camera comes out, despite the beer that surely waits for me inside. I spend at least an hour taking photos of the hut, providing the perfect foreground to the otherworldly granite spires beyond the frozen lake. Several of the group decide it’s best to relax and drink, but despite the late hour, Adam, Sean and I decide to go for a short tour. A quick skin halfway across Laguna Toncek and up a stone-littered face brings us to a saddle overlooking Campenile, the next valley over that houses even more thin towers. It’s no wonder why rock climbers converge here in the summer.
After more picture taking and soaking in the scenery, the three of us ski back to the lake on creamy corn snow and I savor every turn. Spent from the approach, challenging snow conditions, and scenic overstimulation, it’s nice to allow my body to take over and simply ski without thought. I slalom between exposed rock and send rooster tails of spring snow into the air. Back in the flats, I watch as Adam and Sean choose wildly different lines: one makes tight turns on a predictable fall line, while the other carves swooping crescents into the corn, jumps off rocks, and whoops along the way.
Back at the hut, we gather around a rough-hewn wood table for pasta dinner and bottles of Malbec. We are joined by ski parties from around the world. Argentinian guides and their California clients keep to themselves in a corner, while a boisterous clan of Canadian new-schoolers drink whiskey and play board games. We all entertain ourselves with pathetic attempts at one-armed pull-ups on a metal bar wrapped in climbing tape. But the real highlight is the setting sun as it casts alpenglow (or andeanglow?) on Torre Principal.
Enraptured, we don puffy jackets and go back under what we dub a Hoth sky, as southern hemisphere constellations look alien shimmering above. It truly feels like I am standing on another planet as I gaze upon an arm of the Milky Way, brighter than I have ever witnessed. McKenna wears his wig. We drink cans of beer. I take long-exposure photos of the hut and command everyone to “paint it” with their headlamps for an eerie effect of glowing hut against dark mountains.
The morning is cold. A thermometer nailed to the hut’s outer wall reads 20 degrees. I crunch on burnt toast with dulce de leche for breakfast. I need the carbs as the exit out of Valle Van Titter back to the ski resort promises to be the most challenging adventure of the trip. After getting our fill of Refugio Frey, we balk at the notion of hiking down via the standard, 8-mile trail route and instead conjure a plan to go out the hard way.
Exhausted from lack of sleep due to inhumane snoring in the hut’s upper bunk attic, I ski in a daze through soft snow. I stop and look back at Refugio Frey, cozy in its valley, and say my goodbyes before continuing to the bottom of Valle Van Titter. The morning air warms quickly, and the sun is very bright. But the overnight refreeze means any shadowed slope is frozen solid. As we assess our options, we see one ascent possibility in the sun. The north side of Catedral Norte appears intimidating, but at least has some solar exposure. We can approach on a low-angle ramp above a cliff band and boot the upper headwall to the summit.
Our trek starts out well enough as we easily skin into a cauldron of amber rock claws grappling with the southern sky. But once I reach the shadow line, my skins loose purchase on the ice. I remove my skis, unsheathe my whippet, and boot up a small chute that leads to the ramp we spied from across the valley.
As I wedge myself between the confining, stone walls, I discover a layer of blue ice beneath a thin sheet of snow. Without crampons on my boots, I have to kick steps to build a sketchy ladder. The ice is so firm it takes at least five kicks for every step – an exhausting and inefficient method. Already committed, I curse myself for leaving crampons in my pack, and have no choice but to keep going up. Sweaty, and convinced my toenails are turning black, I finally reach the ramp.
Everything is steeper than it looked from below. I continue to boot pack until the slope gets so steep I finally have to attach my crampons before climbing a large headwall. This is the final push, but temperatures are becoming dangerously warm and I suspect it will take a long time to climb this face. Two options are before us: ascend and risk a wet slide avalanche, or go back to the hut and hike out on the trail come morning. Undeterred, Wes goes into “Chuck Norris mode” (a term we give him due to his ripped physique and stubble beard.) He kicks steps and creates a route for us to follow that skirts the edge of the vertical walls. I follow. Breakable ice crust above pockets of soft snow threaten to sink me to my waist. I am hiking on egg shells. Everything is rapidly getting warm – too warm – and the top of Catedral Norte is still far away. Head down, I let all thoughts disappear and focus only on my steps. Any mistake could mean a slide-for-life over the cliff band below.
After what seems like hours, I make it to the summit cliffs where a class-five scramble through a narrow, rocky chute filled with loose stone and slick footholds puts me at the top. Elated but thirsty, I drink the rest of my water and take in the still-life view. Valle Van Titter spreads out far below, indifferent to our climb. Beyond, pyramid volcanoes of northern Patagonia cast long shadows over the lake country. Worried we will miss the last tram back to Bariloche, we hurriedly traverse to a point above La Laguna, a premiere sidecountry ski zone just outside the resort boundary. Sean drops in first and makes jittery turns down a wide bowl of Styrofoam snow beneath derelict lifts.
Wes drops in next. On the first turn, his telemark binding tears completely out of the right ski. Detached, the ski zips like a rocket down the steep face. I stare in shock as Sean, who is standing in the flats below, purposefully walks directly into the errant ski’s path. “Oh God. It’s going to kill him!” I yell, imagining the ski-turned-missile leaping up and impaling Sean through his face. But instead of trying to stop the ski, he waits, calm as a drunk monk, until the very last second. Just before the ski severs his legs at the knees, he slides out of its path and taps it with his ski pole, sending it airborne. The ski comes down on its tail and sticks into the snow like an arrow on a target. Sean skis down to recover the rogue board and, relieved, we all make turns (Wes on one ski) to the gondola station where dinner and Quilmes beers on the sun deck await.
Refugio Frey is every bit the fantasy ski-land I had hoped it would be. But as usual, the best memories aren’t found inside a hut, but in the coming, the going, and a wig in a water bottle.
GUIDE SERVICE: Patagonia Ski Tours offers multiday, guided skiing in northern Patagonia’s Lake District from $2,795 for seven days to $5,195 for the 14-day Patagonia Super Tour (patagoniaskitours.com).
GETTING THERE: Refugio Frey and Catedral Alta Patagonia are accessible from the city of Bariloche. Fly to Buenos Aires and catch a connecting flight to Bariloche on LAN Airlines, the local carrier of Argentina. Once there, stay at the Alaska Hostel, a large cabin with seven rooms and a massive barbeque where you can cook up some Argentinean asado (alaskahostelbariloche.com).
LODGING: Refugio Frey is the premiere backcountry hut in the area. It’s a daylong hike from the Catedral Alta Patagonia resort base. Nightly rates from $55 for full room and board or $15 for just a mattress (facebook.com/refugiofrey).
BEER: Drink at Cerveza Artesanal La Cruz in Bariloche (cervecerialacruz.com.ar).
This article features among other hearty soles my nephew Brian McKenna. Brian is today in University Hospital in Salt Lake City UT fighting his way back from the effects of a broken neck (C5) suffered this past Sunday in a summertime mountain biking accident. Yes, Brian McKenna can be found on a mountain somewhere all year round. He has a long road ahead, but he also has the strength of an extreme sports athlete and an iron will. We (his family) are hoping, praying, expecting a full recovery. We ask of your readership only that you speak to whatever God… Read more »
From the description of some of the climbs and traverses, it doesn’t sound like the guide advised you very well on equipment set ups, ie putting on crampons, and pushed it with timing and temps. Its sounded a little sketchy.
We had no “guide” on this trip. While, yes, there were professional guides in our group, we were all just friends out backcountry skiing together. That being said, yes, it was sketchy at times, but that’s backcountry skiing… and that’s part of what makes moving through mountains fun and exhilarating.