Backcountry skiing Patagonia: Refugio Frey
“Refugio. Refugio. Refugio. Refugio? Refugio?” Our waitress stared at Adam with a complete lack of understanding on her face. He was trying to explain to her in a painfully American accent that we were on our way to Refugio Frey, a stone, backcountry hut located on the shores of Laguna Toncek beneath massive rock spires, including the famed Torre Principal. Refugio Frey is no ordinary hut, however, as it’s a European-style shelter with a full kitchen, dining area, upstairs sleeping quarters, and a live-in host who cooks breakfast and dinner, plus serves all the beer and wine you can ask for.
We tried to reach this legendary hut the day before, but bad weather turned us away, so we spent the afternoon making ski laps at the resort in the rain. But as Adam tried to pantomime the roof of a hut to our cute, yet dumbfounded server, the morning shone bright and blue outside without even a hint of wind – ideal conditions for the trek to Refugio Frey.
“Refugio. You know, Refugio?” Still, the waitress didn’t comprende. Finally, Adam tried a different tack. “You know, like a casa en los montañas?” Her face immediately lit up. “Ah! Re-fu-hio,” she said correctly in Spanish, complete with a rolling “r” and a “g” that sounds like an” h.” “Refugio Frey, si!” With that, a vague conversation in broken Spanish and English about skiing in Utah followed. It didn’t last long though, as she had other customers to tend to, and we had a date with “The Frey.”
For the second time in as many days, we rode the lifts of Cerro Catedral to the top of the mountain where we exited the resort boundary and began our rock-strewn ridge traverse to a place where a descent would get us to our destination. With clear weather and warm temperatures, our spirits were high as we strapped skis to packs and unsheathed whippets and mountaineering axes. The route was simple enough, and previous parties had already booted in a faint trail barely covered by a thin dusting of snow.
The standard way to reach Refugio Frey is to ski down from The Notch, a small opening in a cliff band that allows entry to Valle Van Titter, a route that requires bushwhacking at the bottom of the drainage followed by a skin up to the hut. So Justin and Sean had their eyes on a different way by traversing the entire ridge, then skiing right down to the hut on a headwall dubbed “Schmoll Bowl” that spills onto Laguna Toncek. But after a few hours of slowly making our way over loose rock, scrambling along boulders, and tentatively side-hilling without crampons over death exposure, we decided to cut things short and ski from a saddle just beyond The Notch. Plus, the weather was beginning to turn, with a rapidly lowering ceiling and visibility becoming dangerously low.
After a quick pit test and lunch, we clicked into our skis and carefully made turns on chattery, hard snow that gave new meaning to sewing-machine-leg. One by one we descended down the steep headwall that led to an area of rollers and small cliff bands broken up by openings large enough for us to ski and snowboard through. Eventually, the line traversed skier’s right to a final pitch of softer snow where we we able to edge a little bit turn for turn to the valley bottom.
Despite the mediocre snow conditions, we were taken in by our surroundings. Cerro Catedral completely encased us with grey spires and towers of stone. At the bottom of Valle Van Titter, it felt as if we were standing in the palm of a god hand below fingers curving skyward.
A short traverse along a stream filled with melting, spring snow brought us to what Justin dubbed the “Spooky Forest.” I could see where he got the name. Gnarly trees of dark grey and barren limbs grew thick and tall, creating a sense of foreboding. Large curtains of bushy moss covered the trees like an old man’s beard, while bark knots scarred tree surfaces in the shape of an evil face. Silence fell on us as we put skins to our skis and ate dried pears to fuel our ascent to Refugio Frey, hiding somewhere in a hanging valley above.
Bushes and naked limbs tore at our shells and snagged our poles as we skinned up through the forest that thinned into a grove of shrubs as we got higher. A bit of route-finding navigated us over snow bridges and through the occasional patch of bare ground until we found an old skin track. Switchbacks on rapidly melting snow under the late-afternoon sun made short work of the climb, and before we knew it, a corner of the hut’s roof appeared around a small shoulder of snow. With renewed enthusiasm, we skinned faster until Refugio Frey came into full view, a storybook, stone cottage nestled beneath an impossibly jagged cauldron of sawtooth mountains.
Immediately, the cameras came out, despite the beer that surely waited for us inside. We probably spent an hour taking photos of the hut, providing the perfect foreground to the otherworldly granite spires beyond the frozen lake. Several of the group decided it best to relax and drink, but despite the late hour, Adam, Sean and myself decided to go for a short tour. A quick skin halfway across the lake and up a stone littered face brought us to a saddle overlooking Campenile, the next valley over that housed even more thin towers. It was no wonder why rock climbers converge here in the summer. But we skiers scoped out the lines on couloirs and chutes that spilled down between the monoliths.
Unfortunately, because of the previous day’s weather and our inability to reach Refugio Frey at that time, we only had one night at the hut, which meant there would be no time to ski any of the juicy lines that I had hoped to tick off one by one. So after more picture taking and soaking in the scenery, the three of us skied back down to the lake on creamy corn snow and savored every turn, knowing it would be our only turns at Frey as we had to leave early in the morning.
Despite that disappointment, our time was well spent at Refugio Frey. Good company, excellent pasta dinner, and bottles of wine that just kept coming occupied us late into the night. But the real highlight was the setting sun casting alpenglow (or Andean glow here) on Torre Principal and the cold, alien landscape. Even more alien was the Hoth sky above us, as southern hemisphere stars and constellations we didn’t recognize shimmered above. It truly felt like we were standing on another planet as an arm of the Milky Way cut across the black, brighter than I have ever witnessed.
The morning was cold. A thermometer nailed to the outer wall of the hut read 20 degrees as we ate burnt toast with dulche de leche for breakfast. We needed the carbs, however as the exit out of Valle Van Titter back to Cerro Catedral would prove to be the most challenging adventure of the trip.