Backcountry skiing Patagonia: Catedral Norte
After our time spent at Refugio Frey, we needed to decide how to return to civilization. We debated about going back the way we came in through Valle Van Titter and The Notch, but overnight temperatures that dropped to 20 degrees meant that particular slope would be frozen solid. Most people who visit the hut hike in and out on a trail that goes around the mountain range to the base of the ski resort, but that would mean eight miles of backpacking in ski boots. No, there had to be another way…
After skiing through somewhat soft snow back down to the Spooky Forest and the bottom of Valle Van Titter, we skinned up the drainage to take a look at our options. The Notch route definitely was in the shade, and therefore too icy for an ascent. But another option lay in the sun. The back side of Catedral Norte looked scary, but it had some solar exposure, could be approached by a low-angle ramp above a cliff band, then finished with a boot pack on the upper headwall to the summit.
It was decided. We would climb Catedral Norte. The trek started out well enough, as an easy skin to the bottom of the slope revealed slick snow that skins barely stuck to. But upon reaching the shadow line, it was clear there would be no skinning on the ice. So the majority of the group removed skis and splitboards, pulled out the axes and whippets, and started booting up small chutes that led to the ramp we spied across the valley.
I chose a chute directly above me and started up. But as soon as I wedged myself between two rock walls, a layer of blue ice revealed itself beneath a thin layer of snow. Without crampons on my feet, I had to kick steps to make a sort of ladder for myself. But the ice was so hard, it took a at least five kicks for every step – an exhausting and very inefficient way of climbing. But I was committed, and had no choice but to go up. Sweaty and footsore, I reach the ramp where Sean had put in a boot pack and I could relax my aching calves.
But the ramp was steeper than it looked from below – too steep for skins. So we continued to walk up until the slope got so steep we all took a break on some rocks and attached crampons to our ski boots. Then the real workout began. Wes Wylie, the “Chuck Norris” of the group, went first, creating a route for us to follow that skirted the edge of vertical walls, ice crust and pockets of soft snow around warm boulders that threatened to sink us to our waists. The snow was rapidly getting warm, too warm, and the top of Catedral Norte seemed impossibly far away. Head down, I let all thoughts disappear and focused only on my steps. Any mistake or imbalance risked a slide-for-life over boulders and that cliff band we negotiated earlier below.
Luckily, we made it to the top after a class-5 scramble through a narrow, rocky chute filled with loose rock and icy foot holds. Elated but thirsty, we drank the rest of our water and watched the unmoving view below us. A short traverse to the summit of Catedral Norte put us above La Laguna, a premiere backcountry ski area just outside the ski resort’s boundary where freeskiing competitions are held. We skied a wide bowl beneath a derelict lift on snow that resembled styrofoam, but damn it felt good to be skiing instead of climbing.
But when Wes dropped in, his Telemark binding tore right out of his ski, sending it flying down the mountain. Sean, who was watching this unfold from below, skied into the ski’s path despite our screams to get out of the way. But instead of trying to stop it, he tapped it with his pole, which sent it airborne. The ski landed just over a roller where it went out of view, and came down on its tail, sticking out from snow like an arrow on a target. Sean recovered the errant board and we all skied to the gondola station (while Wes picked his way down on one ski.)
Dying of thirst, we drank, like, 40 beers (between seven of us) in an hour at the lodge by the gondola. The place closed down around us as we gulped Stella Artois and Quilmes, then boarded the gondola for a ride down to the base.
As far as ski mountaineering adventures go, climbing Catedral Norte against the clock was more than we expected on our Patagonia Friends Tour, and we were all elated to have gotten through it unscathed (aside from Wes’ ski.) Back at the Alaska Hostel, the engineering-minded fixed the binding, and we all ate pizza and Fernet con Coca while recounting the details of the day. But as fun as Refugio Frey and Catedral Norte was, the best was yet to come…