Words by: Brette Harrington
Located in high in the mountains of Northern Patagonia, above the bustling town of Bariloche, is a small stone hut that rests at the toe of Laguna Toncek. The Refugio is named after Emilio Frey, a Swiss Argentine geographer and topographer who realized topographical maps of the Andean Mountain Region and the disputed borders of Chile in the early 1900’s. Frey was a supervisor of the National Park Nahuel Huapi and later became co-founder and president of the first Alpine club in Argentina in 1931, Club Andino Bariloche. Today trekkers, climbers, and caretakers spend their nights socializing over wine, and freshly baked pizza in the rustic wood framed hut. Ancient rock towers silhouette the skyline reflecting off Laguna Toncek, surrounding it with ever eroding boulders of granite and greenery. The steep spires lend themselves to trad climbers; adventurous routes following crack systems and slabs, in a relatively easily accessed alpine setting. Climbers from around the world travel to Frey throughout the warm months of the year, are then replaced by skiers and winter enthusiasts in the opposite season. The east rim of the basin dips down like a ladle pouring it’s waters into the lush valley below.
Refugio Frey in the foreground and Torre Principal in the Background. Photo by José Antonio Délano Alcalde.
The hike up to Refuigio Frey is around 10 kilometers and gains about 700 meters of elevation. The trail wraps around the northeastern side of mountain Cerro Catedral, a popular ski resort of the region, over looking the dark waters of Lago Gutiérrez. Following the natural water shed the trail cuts into the heart of the Andean Cordillera. The trail reaches a high plateau traveling through dense forests of Bamboo and the twisting bulging barks of the Lenga Trees. The forest floor is carpeted with wild grasses and the orange Amancay flowers, regional to Patagonia. The chirps of friendly forest birds can be heard amidst the constant churning of the Van Titter stream below. The summertime brings in countless groups of school children, making the trek from Refugio Frey, over the mountain pass to the next Refugio San Martin and beyond.
Now it is fall and the trail is quiet, apart from the few day hikers and ambitious trail runners from Bariloche. The air becomes dry as I cross the tree line and enter the alpine. The varnish encrusted tower of Aguja Frey is the first spectacle that comes to view at the side of the Refugio. Aguja meaning Tower in Spanish. The sun is low in the western sky, sending golden rays across its wrinkled face. I can hear the humming of voices as climbers call to their partners somewhere on Aguja Frey. On any given day of good weather, multiple parties will be seen climbing this tower due to the five minute hike from the Refugio and high quality routes. Farther along the perimeter of the lake are the towers of El Abuelo, M2, and La Tonta. At the far end of the lake is the highest tower of all, Torre Principal, and off in the distance, is Campanile. Other such formations are scattered around the basin of eroding rock, la Lechuza and Piramidal, to name a few.
The old wooden door of the Refugio Frey opens into a narrow hallway with a staircase to the dormitory above. The small wooden kitchen is filled with delicious aromas of herbs and spices, and a rich odor of molding wood. A wood-burning stove warms the hut from the dining room, where windows open to view Laguna Toncek. Another dining room is attached to the east end of the hut where campers are free to cook. Skies line the wooden rafters of the ceiling, alluding to the snowy winter season here in Frey. I carried up my tent and would be sleeping outdoors where camping is free. Hundreds of campsites are scattered about the slope, all with semicircles of rocks built up around their western front like fortresses against the wind. I chose a site on the eastern slope where I would be most protected.
Photo: João Pini. Brette on a classic ridge line traverse of Cerro Catedral
This was my second trip to Frey. I came here last year for two weeks and was very impressed with the area. The climbing is both mindful and powerful amidst an expansive and scenic alpine environment. This year I spent three previous weeks in southern Patagonia in El Chaltén, sick with a severe lung infection, and missed my opportunity to climb in the massif. The timing of my sickness was unfortunate but upon recovery I changed my ticket and flew north to Frey where I was familiar with the area and knew what to expect. Over two weeks I climbed various multipitchs, sent a few of my projects and established two new multiptich lines.
Here in Frey the approaches range from five minutes to two hours, depending on the objective, and the routes are anywhere from one to six pitches. Being a good day’s trip away from town, Frey’s rock towers maintain an alpine feel, but the commitment levels are low as the comfort of the Refugio is close by. The climbing is characteristic of being very heady, run out, and mindful, and there are very few beginner friendly climbs.
Brette on the Crux on EMC2, 7c Aguja M2 Photo: José Antonio Délano Alcalde
My first day I joined in with a Canadian team Quentin and Chris, whom I had met a few days previous in El Chaltén. We warmed up by heading to the tower of M2, with a mellow 20-minute approach. We finished off the day by sessioning a climb I had unsuccessfully projected the year before. My luck was with me as I sent the climb EMC2, 12d without much difficulty. The days continued as I climbed various multi pitch routes throughout the basin. The run out slabs and sustained climbing gave my head a rush.
I decided to go on a solo mission up Torre Principal one sunny morning. The day was calm and the surrounding mountains resonated in the mid day sun as I climbed the final pitch and rounded over the summit. Not another climber in sight. I stood in silence at the pinnacle of the tower; only Volcán El Tronodor appeared to be higher. Light reflected from its broken glaciers in the distance. I was surrounded by a landscape of deep blues and greens mixed with the pale colors of sand from the eroded desert rock. The low-lying valleys formed colossal mazes of deep lakes winding between the mountains. The endless expanse of unfamiliar terrain was too overwhelming for the little knowledge I had of the region, so I relaxed on the summit and admired the sheer beauty of it all. I rappelled off the summit block and traversed across the north face. I climbed a few pitches of loose blocks to arrive at the base of the second summit tower of Principal called El Pilastro. A sliver of a crack splits the north face of the summit block. I set up an anchor and slowly aid soloed up the Bertoncelj- Fonrouge 7c. A faint voice echoed from deep valley below. Afar on an adjacent tower, I spotted the orange helmet of Quentin standing on the summit of tower Aguja Muralla China. I called over to him and as he belayed Chris up the final pitch. They watched as I micro-traxioned the Bertoncelj- Fonrouge. I felt the exhaustion of three consecutive days of climbing and I made no substantial connections to free climb the route. Quentin and Chris made their way over to Principal to complete a link up of the two towers and we passed each other as I rappelled down. I was content with my link up for the day and slowly began the 1.5-hour trek back to the Refugio.
Two days of strong winds and rain gave me time to explore the outer regions of the area. I went on a boulder hunt in the Lenga Tree forests, joined by Quentin and Chris. One after another a hidden boulder circuit appeared. Each boulder had one line, then we would continue to the next. The following day I bailed off a rope solo in the rain and decided to go on a ridge traverse. Starting at the north end of the basin, right from camp I climbed the rocky ridge speckled with towers of eroding rock. The granite had a dark grey tone that felt similar to what Squamish Rock feels like. The ridge protected the eastern valley from the wind and the atmosphere seemed to trap in humidity. The valley was lush with vegetation. An elegant tower in the shape of a feather caught my eye. I wondered if it had any established routes? A family of condors soared around me. Two adults landed on a perch while two babies chased each other playfully around the towers. This was their sanctuary. I returned to the Refugio that evening to find all the climbers huddled up inside. With the powerful winds, no one had gone out rope climbing, so I rallied a group of climbers to come bouldering. Across the lake we climbed on the granite boulders all evening, and I told my new friends of the areas I had explored.
Brette on her new line La Pluma, 7a+ on Aguja O5. Photo Quentin Roberts
João Tavaras Pini, a climber from Brazil, joined me the next day to establish some new lines on the towers I had explored. The first route we set was three pitches. It began with a stout and mossy roof crack. Moss covered my face as I reached my arm high above me into the thick crack, scraping away the plants with a carabineer. With eyes full of particles, I pulled around the roof and zigzagged through flakes where I built the first belay. Joao climbed up to join me at the anchor complementing the beauty of the pitch. We looked above to the steep headwall of dark red rock. Two possible lines appeared, so I chose the more direct line that followed a crack system. Two more pitches of patina plastered flakes took us to the summit. The view into the green valley was serene. We watched the condors soar about and contemplated names for our new route. I later consulted the caretakers of the Refugio and we decided upon the name: Semático Temático, 6b.
Brette climbing the crux pitch of Semático Temático. Photo: João Pini
Aguja 05’s silhouette, like a feather Photo: Quentin Roberts
João and I hiked around the backside of the wall, collected our backpacks which we had left at the bottom and moved along to the base of the feather shaped tower. High on the eastern face we spotted an overhanging finger crack. It was getting late in the day but Joao encouraged me to climb it. I scrambled up an unprotected squeeze chimney covering myself in moss once again to arrive at the base of the pitch. A beautiful corner dihedral initiated the hard climbing on dark orange granite. I moved to a comfortable stance on the southeastern arête, underneath a roof. A perfect splitter crack curved out of the roof and onto the overhanging east face. The crack was mossy so I spent some time clearing it, then lowered back to Joao and started up once again climbing it on lead. Using powerful finger locks I pulled over the overhang and continued up trivial terrain to a sun basking balcony. Joao climbed up to the belay. We spiraled around to the top of the skinny tower on the north side via a flake system and miraculously found a rappel station equipped with a bolt! I later checked in the guidebook and found this Aguja to be named Aguja .05 and it had one established route up the south face. I named my new route ‘La Pluma’ meaning The Feather, 12a.
Brette on the First Ascent of La Pluma, 7a+. Photo: Quentin Roberts
I returned with Quentin to Bertoncelj- Fonrouge for my final day in Frey. I had little expectations that I would send the route given I had not had the opportunity to work out the cruxes. I surprised myself by coming as close as one can get to a send, without sending. I took one fall, but without rest got right back on and climbed to the top. It was exhausting and I had worn the skin on my fingertips through as well as the rubber on my shoes, so with one more failed attempt, I called it good. Bertoncelj-Fonrouge will be an inspiring line for my next trip to Frey.
Quentin and I sat under the starry sky and sipped tea infused with Dulce de leche. I treated myself to the music from my ipod, which I had not played the entire two weeks to conserve battery power. The milky way speckled the sky with the infinite twinkling light above the dark features of Aguja Frey. Not a thought in the world could distract me from this tranquility. The tranquility that exists in these northern Patagonian mountains, filters through the lakes region and resides in the hearts of the condors.
Sunset reflecting over Laguna Toncek. Photo: João Pini