When I began planning a Patagonian climbing trip, Frey quickly became an obvious first destination. Despite having a distinctly alpine appearance, its scale lends itself to learning despite maybe playing the role of a strict teacher. When friends and fellow climbers from the states extended welcoming words and compatible timetables, friends for whom this wasn't their first Patagonian climbing trip, the destination seemed even more obvious.
The Refugio Emiliano Frey, named after one of the founders of the local Club Andino Bariloche (the old, local alpinism club), is a destination for hikers and climbers that seems to be quickly growing in popularity and for obvious reasons. A three hour hike up from the outskirts of Bariloche, Argentine Patagonia’s tourist hub, the stone refuge built in the 50’s provides a welcome environment for escaping the elements and enjoying some welcome comforts before delving deeper into the Patagonian playground.
From the refuge’s warm confines and the aromas of pizza and beer, short hikes access a basin lined with granite spires, each laced with classic routes that make for relatively low-commitment days of fun climbing. While accessible and moderate in scale, Frey’s history, much like Joshua Tree’s, ensures exciting climbing as a result of a conservative bolting ethic and an old school scale to the difficulty grades, not to mention the winds that feel like a frequent test of sanity and preparedness. Before it felt like a local cragging destination, Frey was the training ground for some of the old school climbers that went on to make first ascents of some of the most notorious and intimidating of Patagonia’s mammoth spires in places like el Chaltén and Torres del Paine. While South American rock climbing has come a long way, local climbers are still at work developing bold new routes on some of the less accessible walls today.
As much as the climbing itself and its picturesque surroundings, much of Frey’s charm comes from the community of climbers that make themselves at home in spite of the daily influx of Argentine hikers, most especially the local climbers that run the refugio baking pizza and gracefully managing the chaos that precipitates from all the excitement. As greater numbers of climbers and hikers discover Frey’s charm, rules and regulations are quickly becoming standard procedure in an effort to mediate human impact on a sensitive alpine environment and prevent an otherwise inevitable inundation that would surely work to drown Frey’s charm.
After three weeks climbing spires and slabs there remained many climbs untouched, some classics included, but the time seemed ripe to move on to the next destination. While some of my friends were getting ready to head south to try and tackle some of the big tower climbs, my path, for reasons of both caution and frugality, seemed set to head me back to Chile to sharpen my skills on long granite climbs in the coastal rainforest valley of Cochamó.
Built in the 50's, the refugio was allegedly fashioned out of a single block of granite that fell from the nearest tower, landing in the lake not far from the two Italian builders contracted by the Club Andino Bariloche.
Lizzy, a friend from Washington state, leads the final variation pitch of Sinfuentes-Weber (330' 5+/5.9+), the most classic and accessible line that sits over the refugio in typical Frey style, with her gear is well below her feet.
In the adjoining valley, a high flat boulder field with ample running groundwater provides a luxurious bivouac area with natural caves and clean drinking water. Overnight trips lend easier access to some of the more distant towers and a break from the refugio bustle.
From our cave bivy my friend Casey and I had easy access to the base of Objetivo Lunar, or Lunar Objective (900' 6b/5.10d), which ends summiting a giant detached block with a free-hanging rappel to descend and an exposed view from the summit.
On top of the ridge above the boulder field, the Aguja (needle) Campanile enjoys a clear view of the Volcano Tronador. As we were climbing the classic route Imagínate (460' 6a+/5.10), our friends Jo and Vikki (pictured), were making their way up the neighboring arête.
From the tiny and exposed summit of Campanile, both Tronador and the twin summit blocks of Torre Principal were sitting proudly on the skyline as Casey got set to begin our rappels.
Although often warm in the sun, the combination of shade and wind could often prove remarkably uncomfortable, with warm layers essential equipment for multipitch belays. Shino here shows meditative technique with patience on Torre Principal's east face.
Principal's east face sits prominently in view of the refugio, highest on the skyline and requires an hour and a half steep approach. Its face sports a handful of moderate routes with comfortable belay ledges and low angle climbing.
Casey snapped this one of me as I was packing up to begin our rappels off Principal's east summit block.
Likely the favorite route of all was Siniestro Total (900' 6b/5.10d), a sandbagged crack climb that required rappelling down the backside of the ridge below Principal to climb its west face, traversing below the west summit block to access the rappel route. Casey took this from the other side of the traverse as I get ready to follow.
With ample water and relatively low altitude, Frey makes for a convenient climbing area, troubled more by the strong winds that tear over the ridgeline and funnel down to where the refugio sits perched above the next valley.
Despite the reputation for wind and weather, my time at Frey enjoyed a majority of sunny days, light breezes and clean sends....