Cerro Catedral-San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina
LAT 41° 11′ 53.7’’ S LONG 71° 29′ 9.9” W
Words and Photos | Sean Zimmerman-Wall
The most famous hut in the Western Hemisphere is none other than Refugio Frey. Situated below a massive cirque punctuated by towering granite spires, Frey captures the imagination of many mountaineers. Winter or summer, this is a destination for top-tier alpinists looking to test their mettle on snow and rock. Inaugurated in 1957 by the Club Andino Bariloche (CAB), the refugio is a testament to the enduring mountain culture of the Patagonian Andes.
Engineered by Emilio Frey, one of the founders of CAB, the hut is built of stone and wood with all the accoutrements of a well-worn masterpiece. Similar to the structures found in the Alps, Frey features sleeping quarters for up to thirty people, a common dining area, kitchen, gear room, and several small outbuildings that serve as caretaker housing and restrooms. It is arguably the most visited hut in this part of the world and has undergone several upgrades to accommodate the amount of traffic it sees, mostly in the summer months. Staffed by local mountain folk- refugieros – working under a concession from the CAB, visitors are greeted with warm food, cold beer, and authentic Southern hospitality.
Visiting this iconic structure during the winter requires significant effort and careful packing. Several routes exist from the ski resort base of Cerro Catedral-Alta Patagonia. The 12 km trail from the parking lot’s bus stop is generally preferred during periods of extreme avalanche danger, or by those who enjoy a casual stroll through bamboo and Lenga forests with 50+ pounds of gear strapped to their backs. The hut is located at 1,700m, so during a typical winter this means only the last few hundred meters are skiable. True adventurers will prefer the alpine route that takes you from the top of the Nubes chair at the resort into the Valle Van Titter. Reaching a max altitude of just over 2100 meters, this route combines all the best parts of ski mountaineering. Ridge scrambles, steep skiing, and some healthy bushwhacking if you elect to drop all the way to the valley floor. No matter how you arrive at the refugio, it is hidden from view for nearly your entire journey, so it is a magnificent sight once you lay eyes upon it. The red shutters pop against the gray exterior of the stone edifice, and the orange granite pinnacles rising above the landscape offer a picturesque backdrop for your ski outing. Walking through the hand-planed wooden door for the first time is something you’ll never forget. The aroma of fresh baked pizza dough mingles with the wood smoke from the cast-iron stove to form a perfume that lets you know you are somewhere special. Large hanging racks adorned with skins and gloves loom overhead as you continue into the dining area and kitchen. Double-paned glass windows look out over Laguna Toncek and you can spot nearly two-dozen skiable lines over breakfast and maté. Plenty of maps and guidebooks fill the shelves, as well as vintage climbing gear from a bygone era of Andinism. Classic lines like Torre Principal, Piramidal, and Caneleta Tres Marias beckon you from the table as a cacophony of languages and dialects fills the room; a truly international destination that draws world-class athletes from every corner of the globe.
During a clear night at Refugio Frey it is possible to see the entirety of the galaxy, and the libations after a day of travel will have you feeling “celestial”. If there is a full moon, this is one of the most otherworldly places to night ski and it will be an experience that resonates deep within. Settling in your bunk upstairs after a hearty meal and a glass of regional Malbec wine, you are lulled to sleep by the wind that always seems to come up after midnight.
It behooves travelers to wake up before six in the morning and head out for a sunrise tour. The long glide across the frozen lake to the base of the towers will warm you up quickly and prepare you for the steep skin track ahead. Rising several hundred meters in every direction are myriad chutes and ramps that meander throughout the spire-strewn landscape. Topping out by 8am, the sun will just be filing the eastern sky and casting its golden light across the wondrous terrain lain out before you. To the west, stratovolcanoes like Cerro Tronodor and Puntiagudo dominate the skyline and catch the first rays of sunlight. There are also several additional refugios in the distance that make up a circuit for those looking for a multi-day outing. Jakob (demolished by fire as of this publication), Laguna Negra, and Lopez are more popular during the summer and are not manned during the winter unless specified by the CAB. The Cuatro-Refugios traverse takes expert navigation, meticulous planning, and a prolonged weather window to complete safely.
Dropping back towards Frey from the main ridge under Torre Principal in perfect powder is the best one can hope for. Schmoll Bowl offers loads of lower angle south facing glacial ramps and longer run outs if the avalanche danger is higher. Campanile is the next sub-drainage of the massif of Cerro Catedral and has more chutes and towers to explore.
When you’ve exhausted your legs and your skiing partners, trip on back to the refugio for maté and relax in the abundant sunshine as you gaze upon your lines from a full day of skiing. Perhaps you will even see a condor or two circling the faces above and all will be right with the Universe.