Monday, October 21, 2013

Splitboarding the Refugios of Bariloche Part I: Frey

I spent my weekdays in Bariloche diligently attending an intensive Spanish course, doing my homework, doing my work-work (finishing up manuscripts from my Ph.D. work), and doing other responsible things like feeding myself and putting together job applications. The minute I was released from Spanish class on Fridays, however, I split for the hills, and spent my Bariloche weekends with my splitboard in the mountains.


Note: A "Refugio" (= refuge) is a mountain cabin, [sometimes] manned by mountain folk (refugieros/as) to provide food (or a kitchen), water, and shelter in remote places to people playing in the mountains. In most of Argentina, they are run by the Club Andino mountaineering club, and usually involve a dining hall and kitchen on the main level, a large attic stuffed with bunks or mattresses for housing sleeping guests, and an attached or nearby toilet facility.

Refugio Frey

The most famous and popular of the refugios around Bariloche, people who have never been to the area have heard of Frey. Refugio Frey sits at the end of Laguna Toncek which fills the bowl at the bottom of a hanging valley surrounded by insanely toothy granite spires. I saw it poetically (and perfectly) described in one blog post by snow writer and Utah Outside owner Jared Hargrave as "the palm of a god hand below fingers curving skyward"It is a mecca for rock climbers, unsurprisingly, since my first thought when I saw the spires around Frey was, "hot damn, bet those would be awesome to climb." It is also a favorite of ski mountaineers due to its easy access from the backside the Cathedral Alta Patagonia ski resort, and also because the steep chutes, narrow couloirs, and broad bowls surrounded by the granite towers poking like claws out of the snow make for quite a winter playground.

Refugio Frey at dusk (graininess = high ISO setting because it was dark, but check out those spires!!)

So it was an obvious first stop upon arriving in Bariloche.

I was a little nervous, this being my first solo splitboard tour as will as my first time out with a bivvy sack in non-summer conditions. I spent the nights before going reading an avalanche safety book to brush up on long-forgotten tests and details, and agonized over what to pack.

But Friday afternoon rolled around and I packed my sandwiches, packed my backpack, waited 40 mins for the bus to the trailhead to show up, and arrived at the trailhead only to realize that I had lost my sunglasses at the bus stop back in Bariloche (my first of many lost pairs of sunglasses on my South America trip). So I did some quick shopping at the little shops at the base of the ski resort--which had closed for the winter but was still hosting tour groups and was thus not completely shut down--and finally found some affordable cotton candy pink hipster shades at a pharmacy.

Me with my awesome new pink sunglasses.

Finally I was off. The ski area had shut down for the season the Monday prior to my arrival in Bariloche, and no wonder. Temperatures were balmy, the hills were starting to brown, and there was no snow on the bottom of the slopes. So there I was, hiking in a t-shirt and capris, through miles and miles of dry, dusty trail, all while carrying a snowboard on my back. I looked--and felt--insane. Some two hours later of climbing slowly up and around the side of a hill while listening to learn Spanish podcasts to keep myself entertained, I still hadn't seen any sign of snow, and was beginning to wonder if I had made a terrible mistake, or if Fernando at the Club Andino was home laughing, having sent me on a wild goose chase.

But then I turned a corner and suddenly saw a snow-draped spire framed between the trees and I gasped. Ooooooooohhhhhhh!! My pace doubled. Soon afterwards I met two hikers coming in the opposite direction carrying their skis, and they said something which I thought was "it was good!" and then "only another 40 minutes!" which gave me another burst of energy just as the trail started to get steep.

Why, hello, pretty.


I felt every gram of my 60-pound pack and my legs were burning and blisters were screaming with every step. The promised 40 minutes came and went with no sign of an end to the climb or anything that looked even remotely like where I thought I was going. It eventually dawned on me that 40 minutes for them--going downhill--would not be 40 minutes for me going up. It was over an hour later as the sky was turning pink before I finally spotted the ridgeline, and then the antenna of the hut. I climbed and climbed and finally staggered up to the door looking confused (I had never been to a refugio before and had only a vague idea of what they were and no idea what refugio protocol was...do I need to check in? are there hours? are people going to be asleep in there? will they hear me if I knock?) just as the sky went dark. Someone saw me and the refugiero, I'm going to call him Gordi because I don't remember his name but know it sounded similar to Gordo, but wasn't (Gordo means "fatty" in Spanish, which would have been an ironic nickname for the wirey refugiero) came outside, helped me with my pack, welcomed me, made me a hot meal, and gave me a beer.

God bless you, Gordi.

Beer and soup at the Refugio Frey, Night 1

I slept that night on a wooden platform under a sky bright from a full moon and reflections on the iced-over lake. I had to burrow into my sleeping bag to sleep. Despite the light, I didn't wake until hours after sunrise. I quickly ate one of my sandwiches for breakfast, divided my things into "snowboard' and "not snowboard" piles, packed for the day, and then set off. Gordi joined me, glad for an excuse to get out of the hut.

Woke up to this view from the bivvy sack


Picking my way around the lake was another example of my inability to traverse on my splitboard. It wasn't long before I ditched the skins, put on crampons, and started to hike up the slope, first to a little lake (Laguna Schmoll), and then up the final ridge of the Cathedral. Gordi stopped near the top, put on his skis, and headed down, after asking me what I wanted to do and I pointed in a general direction and asked him what he thought and he replied, "for me, it's all scary". He handed me his radio before he left and told me to be careful. It was sweet, and reassuring knowing that I'd be missed if I didn't come back that evening. I watched him, then finished hiking to the top to enjoy the views while eating another sandwich.

Enjoying the views from the top of Cathedral


I strapped my board on, took a deep breath, and pushed off. The snow was crusty, but good, fast and manageable. I rocketed by Schmoll and down the second ridge, decided my run was way too short, and hiked up another ridge for another go. This one was steeper, and even more fun, and since I still had plenty of time before evening, hiked up a third side of the valley.

One of the chutes I boarded. It was sweet.

By this point the temperatures had really climbed, the snow was very wet, and my skins stopped sticking to my board. After a few frustrating attempts to re-apply them so I could climb, I gave up, tore them off, threw the board on my back, and started post-holing. I soon had to stop again to put on crampons when the snow got harder and the way steeper. The going was slow. I cursed my splitboard the whole way up, thinking "Why the hell did I haul you and all your trappings all the way up here only just to haul you on my back at the end? I should have just brought my good board." But my mood quickly changed.

Toward the top, "Club Can't Handle Me" came through my earphones, and I had to stop and dance a little, and then ran to the top, and stopped and danced some more. No really, I did.


There's a back story here. The song was put on my MP3 player two years earlier by my friend Vicky when I told her I needed better running music. I never listen to pop, electronic, or hip-hop, and that's what she loaded me up with. Whatever, the beats were better for running than the rest of my limited music collection. But "Club Can't Handle Me" became my Power Song when one day while out on a "short" trail run, after months of physical therapy after struggling with an injured knee and not being able to run more than a mile or two at a time, this song came on and it was so funny, so happy, and so perfect for the moment that I ran a whole 8 miles and felt no pain. From then on it became my "Oh hell yes I can do this" song. Right before my thesis defense, I had this playing on repeat as I set up and paced the lecture hall waiting for people to arrive, mentally substituting "thesis committee" for "club" in the lyrics.

So when the song came on, I really did have to stop and dance. And decided it was the perfect way to mark the tops of all of my splitboard climbs in Patagonia. Hope you like it. :-)

All those lines are mine. Ignore the wet slides...

Once the dance party on the mountaintop was over, I ate another sandwich (I came prepared), then boarded down the steep couloir I had climbd up, skirting cliffs and a waterfall before coming to a stop at the very bottom in the bushes above Laguna Topeck. The snow was great spring snow and the boarding was awesome, but I had stupidly forgotten my GoPro at the hostel that weekend so you'll just have to take my word for it. By the end of the ride, I had a crowd watching, a group of physical education students who had arrived that afternoon and were tromping around in the snow and who had spotted me on my way down, so I returned to the refugio a minor celebrity.

Inside Refugio Frey


Meanwhile Gordi had returned from going out looking for me because it was getting late (despite there still being plenty of light) and he was worried because, as he later told me, "I thought maybe you went over the other side. I mean, usually people come back early. The snow is bad there, but I thought, she sleeps in a bivvy sack. She's a crazy woman. So I thought maybe you went."

Gordi then insisted that I sleep inside the refugio the coming night because the wind was howling and was supposed to pick up; when I hesitated he scolded me and said "no charge! but you sleep inside!" and put me up in the attic of one of the outbuildings. For dinner I sat with him and Santi, the other refugioero, in the kitchen and drank wine with them while the students partied.

My soup in Refugio Frey, Night 2 (love you too, guys)


Exhausted, I excused myself at around 11:30 and crawled up to the attic, where I slept soundly despite the wind shrieking and threatening to tear the roof off. I woke up the next morning next to a lost-seeming Canadian guy who explained that the refugieros had told him to sleep there to avoid the wild students but had warned him, "there's a pretty blonde girl up there, but she's crazy." I'll take that reputation.

Refugio Frey at night

Continued in Part II: Refugio San Martin (Jacob)