Patagonian Paradise

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Evening shadows creep toward the lake and the Frey Refugio below, as Scott Bennett explores an aesthetic route (5.11 R) on Aguja M2.

Evening shadows creep toward the lake and the Frey Refugio below, as Scott Bennett explores an aesthetic route (5.11 R) on Aguja M2.

Frey's blissful granite spires

To climbers, Patagonia means rumbling glaciers, ceaseless wind, and world-class alpinism. To the general public, it provokes apparel-inspired images of outdoor fun, with a Jack Johnson tune somewhere in the background. Frey, a pair of connected alpine cirques in northern Argentine Patagonia, borrows from both of these perceptions. It’s the Patagonia of steep splitters and looming spires, and also the Patagonia of the endless summer vacation. If you’d rather climb than scowl over bleak forecasts, Frey’s one- to 10-pitch granite routes, following steep splitters and huecoed faces, might just be Patagonian paradise.

A two-story stone hut, or refugio, sits adjacent to a free camping area, both straddling treeline, a mere frisbee toss from frigid Lake Toncek. Two American friends—my climbing partner, Scott, and photographer, Forest—and I arrived in Frey on a scorching summer afternoon in late January. Our dusty, three-hour hike was followed by a dare-induced plunge into the lake, ridding us of sweat and trail grime. Now clean and presentable (neither, as it turns out, prerequisites for entrance), we followed our noses to the climber-filled dining room inside the refugio.

The building’s wood-lined downstairs serves as a restaurant and gathering place, with an attached kitchen available to those camping nearby. The refugio’s cast of culinary wizards ensures that, despite being several hours from the nearest trailhead, your biggest on-route epic can quickly be followed by delicious pizza and a bottle of local wine. The loft houses simple bunks adequate for a crowd of tentless hikers. When the sun goes down, tabletop candles and LED headlamps illuminate card games, jam sessions, and the language barrier–defying pantomime of crux beta. I don’t know how to say “ring lock” in Spanish, Portuguese, or German, but when I’d make a scrunched “OK” symbol and grimace, I don’t recall anyone reaching for his phrase book.

The author nears the top of Wackford Squeers (5.11d), a single-pitch line on the north face of El Piramidal.

The author nears the top of Wackford Squeers (5.11d), a single-pitch line on the north face of El Piramidal.

From November to March, annotated and dog-eared copies of topos circulate among the callused hands of the refugio’s international crowd. A pocket-sized paperback, written and illustrated by local Rolando Garibotti, is Frey’s totality of published information. As we add a second bottle of local wine to our tab, I solicit opinions for Frey’s must-do routes. The staff and long-time locals holding court in the refugio eagerly oblige, and several favorites emerge from the crowd. But after shuffling through a messy pile of grease-stained topos, Scott suggests another route: No TEOlvidaremos. TEO has six pitches up to 5.12-, located on perhaps Frey’s coldest and windiest face on Torre Principal. Though unmentioned and unclimbed by everyone we talk with at the refugio, this route gets fi ve stars in Garibotti’s book; for everything else, the scale ends at three.

No TEOlvidaremos (Teo, we won’t forget you) was named by friends of the late Argentine climber Teo Plaza, an alpinist responsible for new routes across the country. From a windy col to the south of the Torre Principal, I crane my neck upward at Frey’s largest spire. I can’t help being intimidated. When the first pitch (5+/5.9) includes an overhanging thin-hands splitter, we decide that a few more pluses are warranted on the topo. But with every wild overhang, opportunities for protection surprise us—and the techy 5.12- crux features two bolts. While pulling another roof on “is this for real?” jugs, Scott hollers out, “This is the best rock climb in the world!” From my belay above a hanging corner, I don’t demur.

After summiting at midday, we descend below the west face of the Torre Principal, opposite our backpacks but beneath the first pitch of Siniestro Total. As training for future adventures on larger Patagonian peaks, we commit to the nine-pitch route for our second trip up the “principal” that day. Our snacks and water are gone, and darkness can’t be too far away. Without a watch or headlamp, and with fears of a forced bivy, I take off.

Siniestro’s starting slabs lead to an overhanging face, the route’s 5.10d original crux. From atop the third pitch, a short pendulum (free at reach-dependent 5.11) gains access to a major dihedral and several consecutive pitches of immaculate jamming and stemming. Then comes the route’s signature pitch, a laser-cut fist crack taken straight from Indian Creek. The angle and difficulty relent just in time for Scott to encounter a few antiquated wooden pitons. We reach the summit at dusk. Darkness-induced drama on the final raps confirms that biting off too much in Frey can leave climbers with a memorable taste of Patagonia.

At the end of our week together, Forest, Scott, and I cross to the head of the adjacent valley. The Aguja Campanile Esloveno, a 40-story granite skyscraper, is reached by two hours of hiking. Around the summit glides an Andean condor, never flapping its 11-foot wingspan. Whoops of encouragement echo outward from our team on the Campanile’s overhanging north arête. If granite climbing gets better than this, I’ve yet to find it.

A group of climbers and hikers representing at least four continents gathers at Frey to swap stories over teh ritual morning mate tea. Torre Principal, the area

A group of climbers and hikers representing at least four continents gathers at Frey to swap stories over teh ritual morning mate tea. Torre Principal, the area

Recommended Routes

The routes at Frey are mostly 5.9 to 5.12, though harder and easier pitches can be found. The following four spires provide an excellent introduction to the area’s climbing.

AGUJA FREY: The obvious, 300-foot spire just a few minutes south of the camping area.

  • Fisura de Jim (5.7/5.8): A clean open book leads to an even cleaner, perfect-hands splitter on a slab overlooking the lake.

  • Sifuentes-Weber (5.9): Four pitches of varied climbing weave past roofs and corners overlooking the Refugio Frey.

  • Lost Fingers (5.10): Stellar, sustained finger and hand cracks. You can sleep in and still catch the morning shade on this route, just 10 minutes from camp.

AGUJA M2: Located on the ridge dividing the area’s twin cirques. From the low saddle between valleys, follow the ridge east for 15 minutes on a circuitous climbers’ trail.

  • Socotroco (5.10): The west and north faces of Aguja M2 are covered in excellent, one-pitch routes from 5.9 to 5.11+. Socotroco, the central line of cracks and incuts, might be the best.

AGUJA CAMPANILE ESLOVENO: This 400- to 500-foot tower is reached by a two-hour hike to the head of the valley immediately to the south.

  • Imaginate (5.10): An unlikely passage up the Campanile’s sheer east face, Imaginate features crack and hueco climbing, an unforgettable cave belay, and a final run-out pitch (5.7) that will leave you smiling amid a sea of giant huecos.

  • Excuse Me Señora, Give Me La Hora (5.11d): Five pitches of mostly bolted climbing up the Campanile’s distinct north arête. Look left into Argentina, rightward into Chile, or straight up at overhanging granite laced with in-cuts.

Torre-Principal-300_33280

TORRE PRINCIPAL: The largest spire in the area, the “principal” crowns the ridge line 1.5 hours west of the camping area.

  • Siniestro Total (5.10+ A0 or 5.11): At roughly 10 pitches, the longest route in Frey is often considered the best. The original pendulum atop pitch three (fixed pendulum anchor) can be freed at height-dependent 5.11. Borrow an extra #3 Camalot or equivalent for the splitter fist crack on pitch six.

  • No TEOlvidaremos (5.12a): My vote for the area’s best, TEO tackles the steepest and cleanest piece of stone around. Six pitches of unforgettable 5.11 crack and face climbing, with two sections of bolt-protected 5.12.

THE BETA

GUIDEBOOK: Rolando Garibotti’s hand-drawn topos are the only option. It’s best to print these ahead of time from pataclimb.com; consider donating to support the site. Some copies of the guide are free to browse in the refugio.

SEASON: October through April, the Austral summer, is the prime season for rock climbing. Spring and fall feature less stable weather, and demand a strong tent. Holidays during December and January mark the busiest time of year.

RACK: Standard rack, with doubles up to 3” and a single 4” piece

CAMPING: There is free informal camping adjacent to the refugio, with water and outhouses nearby. Meals, drinks, and desserts can be purchased in the refugio. Beds in the loft can be rented for $13 per night.

GETTING THERE: Reaching Frey means a flight to Buenos Aires and a deluxe tour bus ride, or a direct flight to reach San Carlos de Bariloche. Backpacking hostels such as the Condor Andino (bunks are $20/night) are scattered throughout the town. Outdoor stores and supermarkets carry local guidebooks and all supplies, but the high prices of climbing gear will make you glad you brought your own rack. Nearby sport climbing (Lake Trebol) and tasty fare (Morphy’s sandwiches for the pre-hike carbo load) will keep you happy if you want to spend a day closer to town. The trailhead is at the Cerro Catedral ski area, 30 minutes via city bus from Bariloche’s downtown.