Refugio Jakob beat the Bariloche backcountry ski rush

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Refugio Jakob is still pretty much the local’s secret among Bariloche’s backcountry ski community.

If you like avoiding crowds, this is the winter refugio for you. In August and September the more famous and closer Refugio Frey can start to get pretty crowded (with loud Yanks mostly) but Jakob nearly always remains pretty quiet. This could change in coming years as word gets out, so get on it first reports Nic Lawrence.

Skier near Refugio Jakob Bariloche back country
Jakob has been practising isolation forever! © Robi Cooper

Refugio Jakob (actually it’s full name is Refugio San Martin, but it sits at the head of Laguna Jakob and that’s what everybody calls it) is more difficult to access than Frey so you have to be keen to ski there, and fit. 

You can ski off the back of Catedral or walk up a valley track. The track is 18km long so you better have your walking legs ready!

Skiing off the back of Catedral is the high road in, when safe to do so © Owain Price

Most of the winter it’s a mixture of walking, skinning and bootpacking. It takes reasonably fit people 7 – 7.5 hours going up, around 5 hours going down, conditions dependent of course.

In mid August I was lucky enough to hook up with local Aussie Robert Cooper (64 years young and still ripping!) who knew the hut managers, Fran and Lula, going out to Jakob for their next 10 day stint. Robi is an original Aussie tradie who has lived in Bariloche on and off since the 1970s. One of his toughest but most fun jobs in recent years has been helping rebuild the Refugio at Jakob after it was burnt down by some local Mapuche activists 5 years ago.

View up the Rucaco Valley, go with someone who knows the way .. © Owain Price

When I got the txt from Robert I had just gotten back from a week away spent exploring some other smaller mountains so only had a couple hours on a Friday afternoon to get myself organised (all I can say is thank goodness you can buy food at these refugios because it makes life a lot easier).

The next morning we were riding up the Nubes chairlift at Cerro Catedral then bootpack traversing a 200m icy face (keep  your eyes dead ahead – one look down and you’ll wish you hadn’t) towards Van Titer valley.

Terrain above Refugio Jakob Bariloche
Way more terrain options than people above Jakob © Robi Cooper

However, instead of dropping into Van Titer we continued bootpacking/rock scrambling along the ridge until we got to a point where we could put our skis on. This is where the local knowledge of Fran and Lula was invaluable. Someone new to the area (i.e. me) would have no idea the best point to stop walking and start skiing.

We ski traversed a face down into the next valley, skinned up to the head of the valley, over the next ridge and down to the lagoon where Refugio Jakob sits proudly. All up it took us about 4 hours (not counting chairlift time at the beginning).

Close up view of Refugio Jakob in winter
Recently rebuilt (by craftsmen, take a bow Robi Cooper!) Jakob is the bees knees of local Refugios © Claudio Fidani

Refugio Jakob is an incredibly nice backcountry hut.  After the fire it has been rebuilt with proper four person bunkrooms (as well as some bigger ones and even a couple private double bedrooms) and an inside toilet (luxury!). The dining room and kitchen is massive and has great views of the surrounding mountains you’ll be skiing the next day.

Further into the Andes, Jakob is still a secret to most © Nic Lawrence

The following day we skinned up a pretty mellow valley to lookers left of the refugio and were greeted with blue skies and some lovely spring snow.  The avalanche danger was pretty high (I actually got stuck in a slow wet slide avalanche the day before on the final ski traverse down to the refugio that dragged me about 20 metres before I managed to ski out of it) so we took it easy.  Regardless, the skiing was awesome with about four inches of new snow on top of a smooth windpacked layer – no complaining from me!

After putting in the initial skin track (cheers Fran) we could lap the face in about 50 minutes, so four laps later I was buggered.  Robert unfortunately had to head back to town later that day so he walked out the valley track and I settled in with Fran and Lula to wait out a three day storm in the refugio which carried with it the hope of an absolute smorgasbord of powder when it resided.

The 7-8 hour skin and ski in keeps visitation low © Nic Lawrence

Apart from a few quick one-hour skins to keep cabin fever at bay, we couldn’t do much the next three days as the storm took hold. The wind just absolutely howled and the visibility was basically zero. Fran, Lula and I were the only ones in the hut (it sleeps 70) so it was big and quite cold.  I also came down with a tummy bug (which I later found out was a virus I had contracted days before from the water in Catedral), so basically I just moped around the refugio playing board games, reading and eating (or in my case, watching Fran and Lula eat while I sat there clutching my stomach as it cramped).

On the sixth day, regardless of how I felt, I needed to move. There was no snow falling now but the wind hadn’t subsided like originally forecasted.  To add insult to injury, instead of wet dream-inducing fluffy dry powder the snow was wet, heavy and severely wind affected.

I got halfway up the valley we had skied on the second day and my body couldn’t hack it due to a severe lack of energy so I had to turn around and ski back to the refugio. I was gutted – all that waiting for this? Average snow and empty legs was not what I had been anticipating at the beginning of the week.

Plenty of mellow bowls out here too © Nic Lawrence

The next day I decided I had to get out.  The wind was still howling, I’d been at Jakob for a week, half of which had been spent inside with a stomach virus, and I still felt crap.  I was gutted because Fran and I had scoped out some big lines to ski when the weather cleared but the previous day made me realise I just couldn’t hack it until I got better, so I opted for the lonely 18 km skin/walk down the valley by myself.

The walk itself was long (much longer than the Frey track in terms of distance) but beautiful.  It follows a river and has some amazing forest in the upper and lower parts (the middle parts are full of bamboo which is not particularly interesting nor great for skinning/walking).  

Views above Refugio Jakob
Take your pick of lines © Robi Cooper

If you want remote skiing and less people, then Refugio Jakob is your place. It is not quite as ‘epic’ as Frey, nor as easily accessed, but if you spend time there and get good conditions the lines are just as big and gnarly, and there are some easier faces to ski too if conditions are bad.  As with all these places, the options are endless, you could tour for weeks and never ski the same line twice, but it all depends how long you have and far you’re willing to push yourself.

Cheers Robert, Fran, Lukas and Lula, my time at Jakob was memorable. I will be back to ski some of those bigger lines in the future!

Skiers skinning towards Refugio Jakob Bariloche
Heading further into the wilderness © Nic Lawrence

Refugio Jakob more info and bookings

Book your spot on the Refugio website on the link here

Refugio Jakob 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 the overnight with breakfast and diner is only about $USD 22 (Mid May, 2020) . Check the website for updated rates; you can monitor how busy it is by the availability and if you can avoid a crush ..

  • Overnight includes use of kitchen (bring sleeping bag) $1,100
  • Use of kitchen per person (campers) $200
  • Cena Completa/Complete dinner (Entrada, Plato Principal, Postre) $1,000
  • Cena Simple/Dinner main course only $750
  • Desayuno/Breakfast $400
  • Almuerzo/Lunch $520
  • Pensión Completa/Full Pension – overnight, dinner, breakfast $2,900
  • Media pensión/Half Pension – overnight, breakfast $2,400
  • Uso de Baño/Bathroom use fee for campers $80
  • Cerveza $280; soft drink $200