|By Jason Albino
From San Francisco, CA
Jan 8, 2014
|For those considering climbing in Argentina for the first time, here’s a narrative of my December 2013 trip to climb the spires in Frey, Patagonia Lakes District, Argentina. There may be some colorful language here and there, so if you take offense to that, please stop reading now and have a nice day :).
For those interested in just the quick bullet points to consider in planning their own trips, please see the bottom of this trip report. Otherwise, if you’ve got a bit more leisure time to spare, crack a brew and read on from here!
Having never been to South America before, it seemed like as good a time as any to tick another continent off the lifetime list. December was the month that fit our schedules, so a quick monthly average temp check pointed to Argentina as a good place to revisit summer in the Southern Hemisphere. After some preliminary research, with only two weeks to allot we knew we’d have to choose carefully amongst the crags and backcountry destinations spread out across the country. Wanting to get as epic as possible given our modest trad skills, temporal limitations, and nonexistent snow/ice climbing experience, an arbitrary afternoon poring over Google results and Mountain Project forums posts lead us to check out Frey.
With only a relatively vague picture of what climbing there would actually mean, my buddy Ben and I determined that trad gear would be necessary, as would some sort of camping gear and possibly two ropes. Adding up all that weight and figuring for a lengthy hike to base camp, we opted to track down a spot to sleep at the Refugio Frey to avoid the need to haul food and full-on camping equipment as well. Unfortunately, attempts to “reserve” a spot to sleep at the refugio via phone and email were met with a casual reply that “reservations were unnecessary”. And so we forged ahead with the plan, hoping that these claims were true.
A flight from San Francisco to Buenos Aires via Dallas got us into the country (side note: If you care about things like airline meals on long flights, American Airlines served up the worst excuse for “food” I’ve ever seen on a plane. Pretty sure my cat eats better on a daily basis than we did on those flights). A commuter flight on LAN Airlines (at the exorbitant price of $500+ roundtrip for a <1000 mile distance) would be next to get us into Bariloche, the launching point for Frey. But unbeknown to us due to research negligence, in Buenos Aires domestic flights operate out of a completely different airport than international flights, so our 2+ hours between Buenos Aires arrival and Bariloche departure proved insufficient to take the bus from the int’l airport to the domestic one and actually make the bag check-in deadline for that connecting commuter flight. With the choice between a 7 hour layover at the domestic airport (after 14+ hours already traveled) and pushing the Bariloche flight to the next day, we spent a night in Buenos Aires and chose the latter.
Due to other complications involving one language barrier and a resultant unsuccessful verbal dispute between a pro-us gun-toting security barrier employee and an anti-us militant LAN flight gate employee, we missed the second attempt to fly from Buenos Aires to Bariloche. Mercifully, the next flight a few hours later in the afternoon proved the “third time’s the charm” cliché, and we were finally inching closer. A bus ride and a taxi fare, interspersed by a street encounter with an incredulous but likely self-serving hotel salesman who couldn’t believe we would be attempting to hike into Frey starting after 4PM in the afternoon, dropped us with us loaded packs at the end of the Bariloche ski resort parking lot in front of a hiker’s trail adorned with a sign indicating “4 hours to Frey”.
Having originally intending to be in Bariloche around 11AM and thus well on our hike to Frey base camp by early afternoon, standing in front of that trailhead at ~4:30PM gave us pause as to the feasibility of continuing. Yes, the beta we’d read said “4 hours on a fairly flat and well-marked trail”, but previous international experience as well as considerations of our (ahem) “less-than-peak” hiking shape gave us cause to ponder the reasonable potential for that 4-hour figure to be sandbagged. Coupling these worries with our estimate of limited remaining daylight led us to what could most optimistically be labeled as a quietly decisive moment to set out on the trail, but this was a moment not without unspoken concern.
Luckily for us, even with ~40-lb. packs, the next 3 ½ hours would see us through to Refugio Frey. The first ~90 minutes featured pretty cruiser territory over dirt, short rocks and surprisingly well-constructed bridges. The latter half of the hike, though, gave me a good lesson in how much harder it is to hike uphill with a backcountry-type pack weight. Nonetheless, our 8:15PM arrival at the Refugio turned out be more than sufficient to avoid nightfall. The splitter weather kept us comfortable throughout the hike, and although the sunset technically occurred in the 9PM hour, the twilight seemed to linger daily well towards midnight. Overall, the late flight that pushed back our hiking time turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as we avoided hiking in the heat of the day when the flesh-eating mammoth horseflies would be at their most vicious.
Our 8:15PM arrival time at the refugio turned out to be just early enough. A quick survey helped us locate the “managers” Frederico and Santiago in order to make a late request for dinner, and a strangely popular night in the upstairs dorm-style bedroom meant that we grabbed the final two of the ~40 available mattresses (after getting creative and dropping a hidden mattress on the sole available floorspace). A simple but gratifying pasta meal and a bottle of wine accelerated the quick journey to our sleeping bags.
Refugio & Valley from Aguja Frey Summit
Day 1 of climbing: where to go… a standard refugio “breakfast” of coffee, toast and dulce de leche offered time to peruse the binder of disorganized photos and topos. Since relative exhaustion meant less-than-competent analysis of what we were reading, our brand of logic led us to step outside and jump on the first good-looking line we could see. Fortunately, the relatively compact nature of the cirque of spires (and wider-than-spires-yet-still-narrow-topped formations) surrounding the refugio offered a certain modicum of navigational comfort, and the location of Aguja Frey line, raring to go.
We Climb, and Apparently Also Wear Blue Shirts
Did we attempt to pass a slow party on P2 and wind up adding a 5.10 traverse to our day to get back on-route? Affirmative. Did we follow up that folly by getting off-route at a non-obvious divergent point on P3 and winding up wide-left in some 5.10 chimney/offwidth terrain? Yeppers. Was the friction slicker than any other I’d ever climbed upon, especially in the patina portions of the face? Yes indeed. Were the cam placements often flared and challenging to bombproof? Mmm-hmm. Was this line sweet anyway? You betcha. Recovering to gain the summit from the left cracks, the reward was our sweet turnaround views of the lake adjacent to the refugio and our first summit ticked.
Panaroma from Aguja Frey Summit
An evening of wash/rinse/repeat (wolfing down Santiago’s Argentinian-style pan pizza with a couple shitty but quenching Quilmes lagers and another great and cheap bottle of Malbec, followed quickly by a conk-out in the dorm) followed from there. A vote on day 2 resulted in a scoping/off-day, so we hiked the cirque a bit. Much to our surprise, we were trailed noisily for almost 90 minutes and up a few hundred feet of scrambling by the refugio’s resident black cat Emilio. Having no previous reference for anything close to this type of cat behavior, we marveled at Emilio’s athletic prowess in the face of no apparent reward (we offered him cheese and cracker scraps along the way, to no avail).
With his elegant cadence of feather-light rock hoping sandwiched between brief escapes under shady rocks to stave off overheating, Emilio put our Day 1 efforts to relative shame. So even as he finally gave up and headed back to the refugio as we pressed onward and upward, we moved with a new sense of motivation. Scoping the approaches and spires helped us ID at least half of the cirque’s rocks, and spotting some other climbs on Aguja M2 seemed like a good reason to stop for lunch. Watching a Dutch climber take on some sweet-looking dihedral on the formation’s west side added to our pump for the next day.
Aguja M2 Climber on Diedro
And so Day 3 had us heading back to Aguja M2, with the thought being to warm up in the sun on the east side. After a 30 minute approach hike and an enjoyable first pitch on the 5.9 Normal route, we found the second pitch to lack any legitimate pro for 20 feet off the ledge, so passed on that and instead rapped down to continue our day. Skirting around to the west side where we chilled the day before, I led the outstanding 5.9 Del Diedro, which sent using almost exclusively liebacks, peppered with a few well-placed wide stems and gaston pulls.
Cloudier Morning Over the Lake
With plenty of daylight left, we looked up the hill from the base of M2 and eyed El Abuelo, and 10 minutes of scrambling brought us to a saddle halfway up the entirety of the formation’s west face, where we climbed portions of 5.10a Pomelo (fun delicate face/arête moves but some scary higher-pitch runouts) and then finished the day around the corner on the south face’s 5.9 Normal route (cool ledge traversing with a fun mantle crux to a lone bolt and a juggy roof exit).
View from Aguja M2 Summit
Back at the refugio, the “management” baton had been passed to a hilarious character named “Bosco”, who I can only describe succinctly as an Argentine Punk Rocker. Witness: one morning during breakfast cleanup, he cranked a lovely hard-rocker featuring seemingly the sole lyric “chinga tu madre”, gleefully singing along while scrubbing up the kitchen. This dude, as you might imagine, added some well-appreciated levity to the atmosphere.
Now we were enough in the groove to consider bigger objectives, and so the new plan on Day 4 was to go for Torre Principal right up the middle of Principal’s east face seemed potentially worthy trophies, so with those in mind, we woke a bit earlier than usual to traverse the lake path and survey our approach options. With a good bit of snow higher up and no appropriate gear on hand for navigating it, after a few false stops trying to shortcut over mini-formations that wouldn’t actually go un-roped, we eventually wove our way from the marshes at the western tip of the lake through chossy lowlands and across the runoff streams to within eyeshot of Principal. The mandatory snowfield crossing was thankfully uneventful, and cairns finally appeared during the last 30 minutes of our 2-hour hike to lead us to (at least what we thought was) the precipice of the northwest/west corner.
To our dismay, the snowfield standing between us and the base was much steeper- and deeper-looking than the one we’d crossed earlier. One skinny snow easement seemed viable at the corner, but to access (again, what we thought was) our intended face, a smaller buttress we hadn’t expected (which turned out to be Muralla China) blocked the way. Too stubborn to simply bail, and given that we still had 6+ hours of daylight, I hatched a plan to rope up there and do a “see what we see” pitch on the buttress in attempt to access our intended route. This went surprisingly well, and within 30 meters of traversing up-and-right I spotted the beautiful face while the panoramas expanded further over the highest occlusions of our cirque to reveal the snowier lands of Chile with seemingly endless lakes and virgin-looking rock.
Torre Principal Insane Views
Next Valley South from Refugio Frey
Belaying Ben over to the (supposed) start of Clemenzo, I fired an easy approach pitch to set us up on a nice ledge where an amazing-looking and continuous jagged-edged dihedral awaited. But here’s where the adventure would deepen.
The next pitch started easily enough, but after 20 feet, the options seemed to be:
a) a blank leftward slab traverse with bad right-wall crash potential OR
b) an unprotectable (given we had no #6) and flared 15-foot offwidth with groundfall potential
Not loving either option, I tried option a) but couldn’t commit. So I channeled my inner Voo skills honed a few months earlier, crammed that left leg as deep as it would go into the offwidth, and muscled through option b) to gain the first good pro. Sweet: the base of the dihedral was just feet away. I plugged my remaining #3 in and assumed the lieback stance. Examining the crack though revealed another problem: the thing would only take tricky #3 placements all the way up for ~30 meters. A careful assessment reaffirmed the grim reality: without at least one other #3 to leapfrop, the multiple pumpy stances that would be required to walk the lone #3 seemed too dangerous to deploy without backup.
Sadly acknowledging that retreat was the best option, I down-led back to the belay and we regrouped. Was there an easier line to the right around the arête? Hard to tell. An hour later, it was confirmed – that line wouldn’t continue safely. No problem – I lowered back down off some fixed gear found. Back at the belay, Ben pulled the rope and… the last 8-10 meters got caught in a crack. No amount of flicking was freeing it, so I led a short left-ward pitch to get us to another spot that looked climbable and Ben tied in short on the unstuck rope segment to join me. It was now 5:30ish.
Ok, now this new line definitely seemed to go. I led it fairly quickly, but found that the remainder to the top would be stiffer than it originally looked, and probably above Ben’s skillset to follow. It was 6PM and no other lines or anchors in sight. It was truly time to get the heck off this thing entirely.
Settling on the full-retreat option, I had no choice but to leave a couple cams and build myself a rap anchor to return to Ben again. After cutting the rope to part ways with the segment stuck in the crack from earlier, I reversed part of my Muralla China approach pitch and finally located a fixed gear anchor at the top of a narrow slot. Our now- ~62-meter rope just got us down to where we started, and we gratefully hurried back down our approach hike with just a bit of light left to spare. Back at the refugio, I discovered my brain-fart – I had mistakenly and hurriedly translated “oeste” from the topos to mean “east” face instead of the correct “west” face. Basically, we were truly on the west face in 5.10+ terrain instead of the east face on the 5.9 or 5.10a, explaining a lot of our troubles. I amazed myself by my stupidity there, but understood how it happened given not enough advanced planning or an early enough start that morning.
View from Near Torre Principal
Needless to say, the dinner, wine and night of sleep that followed was supremely satisfying. There’s nothing quite like the comfort of a sleeping bag on flat ground just hours after an epic high on the wall that tests all the skills a climber/problem-solver might possess.
Although Day 5 was originally slotted for Campanile Esloveno, we quit while we were ahead given the exhaustion level and the satisfaction achieved from sending some great lines and scouting Frey well enough to imprint its visuals vividly in our minds. The goals of getting a taste of this wild destination and scoping enough beta to fuel a hunger for a return visit had been achieved. After lounging out on the refugio’s “patio” with the current group of climbers heading up that day, we stuffed our gear back in the packs and bid farewell to Bosco and the others we’d shared laughs and dinner with the nights before.
Hiking out back to the Bariloche ski resort predictably went as a just-over-2-hour shot downhill – a welcome easy day on our pretty well-worked bodies.
The last day in Bariloche, we re-motivated for a bit more climbing, renting a car (which turned out to be the awe-inspiring Renault Clio) for maximum access. Turns out, many sport climbing destinations looked pretty legit, and all were within an hour drive. We chose Llanquin and enjoyed a fun day of steep clipping in a middle-of-nowhere dirt town crag on volcanic jugs and pockets. This place certainly typified the “climbs better than it looks” concept.
Jason Cleaning His 10D Traverse At Llanquin
We spent the last couple days living the lazy life in the tourist town – waking late, drinking, taking siestas when the locals took them, and eating mass quantities of steak, pasta, and pizza.
Classing It Up w Grilled Steak & Malbec in Bariloche
Overall, the trip felt rather successful given our relatively brief timeline!
Hope you enjoy and add your comments after you visit! Feel free to email me directly with any questions. The MP section on climbs at Frey could use more beta, so I’m doing my best soon to update it to my knowledge from the trip.
Lastly, the quick-and-dirty if you’re heading to Frey:
- If you’re flying into Buenos Aires and plan to transfer to Bariloche, give yourself at least 3 hours between flights to account for your bag re-check and the long transfer time between the int’l (Ezeiza/Ministro Pistarini) and domestic (Jorge Newbery) airports.
- Lock your bags when traveling in Argentina. We flew LAN Airlines from Buenos Aires to Bariloche, and whether it was LAN directly or the Buenos Aires airport baggage handlers, we both had stuff stolen from the front of our packs (batteries, an iPod, earphones, phone power cables, walkie talkies) during the time our bags were checked. This is probably why you see those green baggage shrinkwrap machines at the airports there. Total scam, so beware.
- Once at Bariloche airport, the route to the Bariloche ski resort parking lot and the trailhead to Frey is to first take a bus to Bariloche Centro (runs about hourly from the airport parking lot), and then take another bus or taxi to the “Cathedral” terminal (runs about every 30 minutes)
- If you’re going in summertime, I’d highly recommend starting the 3-4 hour hike to Frey in the early morning or mid-afternoon/early evening. There’s plenty of daylight to ensure you won’t be benighted as long as you leave by 4PMish. If you hike it in mid-day and it’s sunny/clear, you’ll fry in the open sun and the horseflies will be at their peak activity for the day. Also, a lightweight hiking pole would be a great idea, especially for the descent back to town if your packs are heavy.
- We went in December at the start of the climbing season and got great weather, but we were lucky. If you do go then and luck out on weather, you’ll also miss out on most of those nasty giant biting horseflies. These are apparently much worse once the Argentine summer moves to January. One book advised that the horseflies especially like blue, and we found that to be true, so don’t wear any blue clothing when hiking to or in Frey. If you keep your arms covered with lightweight sleeves, it seems that they can’t bite nearly as effectively through the sleeves as they can with bare skin.
- If you do go in early summer (December) and want to climb the highest peaks in the cirque, expect snow to impede access to some formations/faces. You may want some snow gear if you want to persist to those faces.
- Don’t bother bringing two ropes to rap off some climbs as some other forum posts and Web sites have suggested. We used a single 70m rope the whole time and never had a problem getting off a formation, so lugging our second rope (60m) up the base camp hike ended up being pointless weight. While I certainly can’t guarantee that there are NO formations that need two ropes to descend, we didn’t encounter or hear about any once there.
- The best beta I’ve found online in terms of topos is here (be sure to head straight up to the roof after the first hanging-bolt belay, then traversing right under the roof to gain the correct final-pitch crack) and the Del Diedro and Socotroco lines on Aguja M2 – all classics.
- Approach the M2/Abuelo formations via the first reasonable path on your left adjacent to the lake as you leave the refugio (cairns will soon appear). Done this way, you’ll quickly reach an elevation around the base elevation of M2. At that point, just walk the ridge trail toward the base of M2 to access those two formations or the ones immediately higher in the Frey cirque.
- If approaching Torre Principal’s North or West faces, check the snow conditions and then if ok, rather than the M2/Abuelo path mentioned above, approach via a path that starts about halfway up the South side of the lake after leaving the refugio. Look for a vague/likely overgrown scant path through brush. If you can find this and bushwack through the brush for only a minute or so, you’ll be rewarded with a nicely cairned path that guides you all the way to the top of the cirque most efficiently. If you miss this and walk all the way to the west tip of the lake before ascending to your left, be sure to go straight up the talus for the next best option (don’t be tempted to ascend any actual formations on the way up, as these apparent shortcuts won’t go).
- Note that since this is the Southern Hemisphere, if you’re used to navigating rock faces by the sun as I am, remember that North (sun all day) and South (shade all day) sun aspects are reversed from the Northern Hemisphere aspects you’re used to. This is probably obvious to most, but for some reason I found this to be a real mind-fuck in terms of navigation given all my previous climbing had been in the Northern Hemisphere. East faces (AM sun) and West faces (PM sun) are unchanged.
- Don't rush it here. Read up on the beta and talk to any climbers you encounter at the refugio to lock in your beta. You'll save a lot of time on missed approaches and gear issues.
- Frey certainly invokes some alpine feel and requires some occasional alpine skills. But it's not as wild and rugged as I expected. If you've climbed somewhere in the US like the lower formations of the Tetons, you'll be just fine here. If you haven't, consider hiring a guide or bringing a climber with you who has this type of experience. I found some spots where such experience was truly valuable for route-finding or assessment purposes.