Refugio Frey is the most popular and best known in a chain of mountain refuges (hostels) in the spectacular Andes ranges behind Bariloche. The refugios are built, owned and operated by the Club Andino Bariloche (CAB), which was founded back in 1931. As you can see, they knew a thing or two about picking locations ..
The basics on Bariloche’s mountain Refugios
They all offer basic accommodation, meals (either individually or as a package with breakfast or breakfast and dinner included), and kitchen facilities if you prefer to cook your own food (a small kitchen use fee applies in that case). You can even camp free right outside too if your budget is really tight (a small bathroom facility fee applies). The CAB refugios are by far the simplest and best way to get into more of the unlimited back country skiing on offer here. It’s a system familiar to anyone who skied Europe – like the Swiss north to south Refugio tour we featured recently.
It could have been done in Australia too, we had the basics in place, expecially Albina Hut on the Main Range, which would have converted perfectly into a refugio and helped with a lot of other problems from waste to rescues if done properly .. dream on, it didn’t meet the NWPS definition of heritage and they took it out.
From spring to autumn hikers can trek around to one or more and do some amazing circuits. Winter and spring several stay open for ski touring, offering perfect bases to get into this magnificent terrain – sure, there are penty of higher mountains on the planet, but very few areas with so many magnificent alpine lakes, never mind the beautiful lenga and coihue (antarctic beech) forests. And it’s all pretty much pristine, apart from the refugios.
While this series definitely isn’t a comprehensive list (the abundance of mountains you can access around here is truly unlimited if you have the time and talk to locals) it should provide you with an abbreviated glimpse into the main ski touring areas around Bariloche.
Keen Kiwi skier Nic Lawrence, who can normally be found at Mt Olympus from his Christchurch home, spent the 2019 season living in Cerro Catedral, South America’s first and biggest ski resort 20km from downtown Bariloche. By happy chance he turned out to be staying right next door to Snow Action’s Argentina office/base.
He was on a mission to unlock Patagonia’s ski secrets, and in this special series gives us the lowdown on the Refugios, starting with the popular Refugio Emilio Frey to give it the full title – named for one of the four original Club Andino founders.
Nick skins at speed, tackles anything heading downhill and is always up for a challenge.
Despite the general difficulties of South America (transport, inflation, accommodation, food, water etc), especially when travelling with ski gear, access to backcountry skiing is surprisingly good and relatively simple in the Andes. I spent three months in the mountains around Bariloche, Patagonia, Argentina and was seriously impressed.
However, it’s not exactly easy to find information on the different places to go ski touring around Bariloche. On purpose perhaps? The locals quite enjoy keeping the tourists in the resorts I think.
If you have done any research on back country skiing in Patagonia at all, Refugio Frey is the one that you’ll read the most about on the internet. That’s for two key reasons. First is the setting and skiing, with the most stunning backdrop, salivating couloirs and striking rock spires of all the refugios in the region. Second is proximity, it’s the closest refugio to the largest ski resort in South America, Cerro Catedral outside Bariloche.
Refugio Frey sits at 1700m, at the head of a glacial cirque lake. That’s about 50m or so above the treeline here. The summit of the Torre Principal reaches 2415m, the skiable bit 2250m or so. The normal winter snowline is around 1150-1200m, so you can make descents of well over 1000m vertical when conditions are good. Most people will spend most of their time in the chutes and bowls above the refugio.
In late July two yanks (Caleb Fields and Toby Aberman), two Aussies (Will Nelson and Carla Golde) and I decided we had to check out what all the fuss about Refugio Frey was about. I’d only met Will and Carla the day before at the bottom of La Laguna basin, Cerro Catedral’s side country favourite (Will’s long bleach blonde locks from spending all his days surfing gave him away) and they were dead keen to join Caleb, Toby and I (and I was glad for the company of a couple of like-minded Australasians) the following day.
By this time I’d been in Bariloche for about a month so had talked to enough people to know there were a couple options for getting to Frey: over the top of Cerro Catedral and down through Van Titer valley, or walking up the track from the bottom of Cerro Catedral carpark. Touring down through Van Titer would’ve been more fun and quicker, but due to recent snowfall and the fact that none of us had ever been to Frey before, we opted for the safe option and chose to skin/walk the track.
Caleb had run the track in the summer and said it would be 2.5 – 3 hours of skinning with the fresh snow. Turns out he was wrong. Very wrong.
A big dump of snow the day before meant we could skin, but it was not easy. It took a few of us nearly 5 hours to skin up to Frey along the track (the first half of which was very undulating and not easy skinning at all), and a couple of us nearly 7 hours. Safe to say the refugio was a welcome sight at the end of the first day. The cover on the lower section is on and off through winter normally, it’s actually quicker when you can hike a good chunk of the way, especially the first few kilometres from the car park start point at the base of Cerro Catedral.
If you can, I’d recommend accessing Frey via Van Titer valley. It’s what the locals who know do. Ski Guide/instructor Daniel Olivieri, who grew up here, says, “In winter the walk up is death itself! Via the top as well a good ski down it doesn’t take more than three hours to do a couple of great runs before you get to Refugio Frey.”
However, when we arrived at Frey I was awestruck. The spires at the end of the valley are huge, the chutes and couloirs are epic and everywhere, and the refugio itself is cute as anything.
We were lucky in that we were the only ones staying in the refugio for three nights. There were some Chilean dudes braving the cold (and saving money) by camping next to the refugio, so the big bunkroom was all ours (yes there is only one BIG bunk room for 30 – 40 people). The hut manager, Para, was a great dude and we opted for the full board option which includes a bunk, breakfast and dinner cooked for you, all for only about NZD $50. You have to pay in cash at Rifugio Frey so bring plenty of pesos.
NB: with constant high inflation and currency regulations in Argentina you will get 80 – 100% more changing $USD on the ‘Blue’ unofficial market than at the ridiculously low official rate; $USD 50 or $100 notes are best. Beware of scams, but Argentina has been operating like this for decades.
It’s a proper hut, so no phone signal. You have to walk through the snow to the toilet, and only the kitchen/dining room is heated.
However, being able to buy food and alcohol out here is pretty cool, although I brought my own lunches and snacks to avoid a massive bill at the end (by the way, thanks Caleb for fronting me that extra cash, I’ll pay you back one day, I swear…).
The first evening over dinner Para told us heading up to Torre Principale was the best option the next day. I wasn’t about to argue with him. So the next day we woke up at 8am, had toast, dulce de leche and coffee for breakfast (it’s no luxury hotel) and we were skinning by 10am. Not exactly strenuous but hey, this is Argentina.
Across the lagoon, up a couple steep sections of skin track and along a ridge; two hours later we were at the top of Principale and GODDAMN it was epic.
Will and I decided to bootpack the last 20 metres of a nice steep chute so we could say we skied from the “very top”. Everyone else dropped in just below and I can safely say it was one of the best runs in my time in South America.
The south facing aspect meant it had had no sun on it so the snow was light, untracked and about 45cm deep. If you turned hard enough you could eat snow like the cookie monster which, well, if you call yourself a skier, you should be trying to gobble up faster than Popeye before a boxing match.
After a 45 minute skin back to the Refugio for a late lunch we headed back out to try to ski another face straight down the end of the lagoon opposite the refugio in the late afternoon/evening. However, this one was slick, wind packed and not much fun. We skinned and bootpacked for over an hour, but ended up pulling pin due to poor conditions and heading back to the refugio about 6pm just as the sun set.
The next day was another Principale day and we managed to do a couple laps this time. We also found some great rocks to jump off for a bit more fun.
Sadly, the next day we had to leave and while the option of going up and out the Van Titer valley was open to us, we decided to head back down the track as the wind had turned the face of the skin track into a sheet of ice.
Good option, because it only took us 2.5 hours on the way down including some fun tree skiing just under the refugio. Tree skiing is on and off here, but when it’s on it can be magic – check our skiing the Old Forest feature here for more on that.
Refugio Frey more info and bookings
Book your spot on the Refugio website on the link here
Going with a guide who knows the place is a great option, there are plenty of people touting services including instant foreign experts you might bump into in bars/around the ski mountain. For a seriously good local guide who grew up here, is a longtime member of Argentina’s Interski Instructor Demo Team, and a great skier and personality, we recommend Daniel Olivieri.
He has done numerous seasons in Whistler and Europe. Email him at email@example.com
Refugio Frey price list
All rates are in $ARS Argentinian pesos – they use the dollar sign, so don’t have a heart attack! If you change money at “Blue” unofficial street market rates as of today early May the overnight with breakfast and diner is only about $USD 15. Check the website for updated rates; you can monitor how busy it is by the availability and if you can avoid a crush ..
- Overnight (bring sleeping bag) $1,000
- Use of kitchen per person $200
- Cena Completa/Complete dinner (Entrada, Plato Principal, Postre) $1,000
- Cena Simple/Dinner main course only $750
- Desayuno/Breakfast $400
- Pensión Completa/Full Pension – overnight, dinner, breakfast $1,650
- Media pensión/Half Pension – overnight, breakfast $1,300
- Uso de Baño/Bathroom use fee for campers $150