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Bariloche skiing: difficult to figure out; easy to fall in love with
“Welcome to Bariloche, I hope you’re not a gluten free vegan!” Diego welcomed me to his hometown with these words the day my wife, son and I rolled our campervan, Paco, into Argentina’s ski mecca after five months of traveling through South America. My friend Diego’s warning was fair and warranted considering the locals’ pride and abundance in beer, bread, chocolate, and most importantly, steak.
No doubt about it, that’s solid advice for any new tourist landing in the north end of Patagonia, but what would be the best sage wisdom for a steak/bread/beer lover (me) who is here to ski?
I overheard many appropriate words of wisdom during two nights in the legendary Refugio Frey. The following week, I scribbled down some of my own during a three night trip in Refugio Lopez.
Sage wisdom #1: Perhaps the best advice for a skier was summarized by a Spanish traveler to his friends one evening over lentil soup in Refugio Frey as infamous Patagonian winds blasted the west end of the stone building. “Remember, if you wanted a user-friendly, low-hassle, english-speaking hut trip with the highest likelihood of pow, you’d go to Canada. Patagonia is where you come for adventure, experience and culture.”
I would add “incredible terrain and views” to that statement, but his point is this: be prepared for some time-consuming, frustrating, but very rewarding logistical puzzles. Even when planning the most basic of ski trips, one can get lost in a sea of sparse (mis)information, dropped phone calls, and futile smartphone direct messages. This might be why Frey is the most popular, albeit crowded, refugio (backcountry hut) in the region. The trip logistics and available information for getting to, and skiing from Frey are within the grasp of most seasoned travelers. Naturally then, when Chris and Sarah arrived at the airport in early August, we chose Frey and were on our skins in less than 24 hours.
It would be hard to find a more enthusiastic and capable couple than Crested Butte locals, Sarah and Chris. Chris is a long time favorite ski buddy of mine, who, upon hearing I’d be wintering in the Andes finally pulled the trigger on one of his many bucket list goals: a six week ski trip in Patagonia. He and Sarah are what you’d call a “yes couple”. Dawn patrol? “Yes.” Ski another lap? “Yes.” Go to the summit even though the descent starts lower? “Yes and yes!” In fact, it’s not quite fair to call them “yes” people. The truth is, whatever it is you had in mind, Chris and Sarah were probably already planning on it; you’re just lucky to join them.
I make this all sound easy, but let’s talk about some of the advantages we had going for us.
First, I had been living with my family in Bariloche for two months prior. While my son was at school, I was able to get out for a few early season tours with friends. One of those friends, Diego, is one of the region’s premier guides, who owns and operates Magellanica Guides along with Aprendica – Training & Consulting. While we drove to trailheads and discussed local weather, snowpack and routes, I obsessively plugged GPS pins and notes into my phone. In the evenings poor Diego was bombarded by my texts, asking where to find… well… just about anything. Locating weather forecast sites, money exchanges, fresh vegetables, the best empanadas (my new weakness), boot fitters, maps…etc. could drive a skier insane without the help of a local friend and guide.
Read between the lines here for sage wisdom #2: find/make a friend, hire a guide, or plan a lot of extra time into your trip.
Back to Frey. Speaking of advantages, two weeks before Chris and Sarah showed up, Bariloche’s mountains were visited by the biggest snowstorm in 25 years. Cite my source, you say? This statistic is not exactly backed up by hard data. It came, instead, from a native-born taxi driver who helped us get around once the storm made it very clear that Paco was not going anywhere for a while. Fake news or not, the mountains got slammed; over four feet of sticky white crystals fell on Refugio Frey in less than 48 hours.
Time to ski. A perfectly calm, clear and warm afternoon approach brought Chris, Sarah, and me into our first hut just as day turned into night. We climbed the ski resort and traversed below a long ridgeline until we reached a saddle overlooking the basins above Frey. For three days, we took advantage of clear skies and solid snowpack to ski some world class lines.
Sage wisdom #3: Understand all modes of transportation. Of course, aforementioned “sage wisdom #2” will come in very handy again when it comes to figuring out life off of skis. There are buses, rental cars, taxi drivers, friends with cars, and good ol’ hitchhiking. Get to know them all because you’ll probably use each one in a well rounded trip in Bariloche. If you are my wife, son and me, you’ll also find yourself hitchhiking in three separate cars to the ski resort in the morning (the bus was broken), then on the wrong bus from the ski resort in the evening, which drops you off, exhausted, three kilometers from your house with no choice but to walk with all your gear in the rain…in the dark…but that’s a different story.
Reluctant to leave the seemingly endless possibilities around Frey, Chris, Sarah and I slogged back to town via Cerro Catedral in a strong blizzard to resupply and transition. After a phenomenal dinner at steakhouse Alto El Fuego, we set our sights on Refugio Lopez, another easy access hut surrounded by mind-bending terrain not far from town. Transportation logistics sorted out, we picked up another gringo traveler, Greg, at the airport. Greg and I met only once before at a book release presentation in Seattle, but through the phenomenon that is social media, he saw that I was in Bariloche, where he was planning to pass through on a work trip. Lucky Greg, employing sage wisdom #2, was in Refugio Lopez just four hours after landing. Once again, we landed with decent weather and a generally stable snowpack, this time in a completely empty hut; just us and the hutkeeper!
Couloir and soft snow hunting ensued.
Leaving Lopez, we had a solid plan: Andy skis out early to get a taxi ride to Paco the van, returns to the trailhead to pick up the rest of the group, then we all drive to a brewery for the obligatory apres beer. Only one problem. It’s election day. In Argentina there are no liquor sales on election day. Which brings me to sage wisdom #4: always leave a six pack in your van.
Andy Sovick is a father, husband and Colorado native. He is the owner of Beacon Guidebooks whose publications include Lou Dawson’s Skiing and Light Tours of Colorado and forthcoming Off-Piste Ski Maps. His eight year old son, Walker, read the rough draft of this post, and had one question:
Walker: “Dad, so did you leave a six pack in the van?”
Andy: “no…no I did not.”
Walker: “Oh. That’s funny!”
Andy is the founder and owner of Beacon Guidebooks, a ski guide and mapping publisher. Author of Backcountry Skiing: Crested Butte Colorado, Andy has been skiing Colorado’s backcountry his entire life. Raised on cross-country skis pulled from a dumpster in Fort Collins, he started his ski career following his parent’s tracks along Cameron Pass. He moved to the Colorado’s western slope in 2000 and now resides with his wife and son in Gunnison. From woodworking to book writing, Andy is a craftsman to the core. He believes that sharing relevant information and photos about skiing the backcountry will help travelers spread out, get inspired to explore, and most importantly, make better and safer decisions.