Steel Shovels and Infinite Couloirs — Refugio Frey, Argentina

Post by blogger | August 28, 2012      

Skyler Mavor

Skyler dropping into powder after a day-long storm at Refugio Frey.

Editor’s (Louie’s) note: We just got back from 11 days at Refugio Frey, Argentina. Tomorrow we head to Cerro Tronador. I didn’t have much time for blogging, and my camera got stolen, so Skyler wrote this post. Many of the pictures are his, or our Dutch friend Saunders.

Rationed up with enormous bags of dried fruit, we left Chillan, Chile and headed to Pucon, where rumor had it the snow would fall soon.

Pucon is super touristy, a big change from Chillan. After spending the night, we hitchhiked up to the local ski resort on the slopes of Volcan Villarica. Cloudy skies with occasional clearings let us see the summit of the active volcano. An hour on the side of the road had us skinning from the parking lot of the ski area at 11:30.

Bad weather and a crack of noon start gave us fairly low expectations for the day. We skinned through the ski area, hoping to head into the steeper terrain above to find better snow. An hour or so above the ski area, we threw on our crampons as the snow took a turn for the worse.

With a “we´ll just go until it starts to suck” attitude, we headed up into the fog, passing a Scottish couple who said it was far too windy to get near the summit. Undeterred, we cramponed up the last couple thousand feet, getting to the summit in thick clouds and blasting wind. Villarica is famous for the active lava lake in the summit crater. The geologist in me has a bucket list check box of seeing lava up close. Alas, the pea soup at the top made us unable to see the edge of the crater in front of us, let alone the ocean of lava. So, the box remains unchecked.

Cramponing through wind and fog toward the top of Villarica

The wet, incessant wind at the summit of Villarica created instant rime. A short glance into the wind quickly coated goggles. The wind was so strong I had to pole downhill off the summit!

We switched our gear and began the descent in some of the worst weather and snow conditions I’ve encountered. The snow was horrid. Uneven ice chunks got our quads burning within a hundred meters, even though the slope was thirty degrees or less. With no landmarks to reference, “downhill” was our best approximation for our descent route in the whiteout. Luckily, our internal compasses prevailed, and a partial clearing showed us that our guestimations had been spot on, and we were indeed headed towards the ski area. A bit of windblown powder eased the ski down, and a look at the map showed that we had managed to climb and ski 5k of vert in half a day. We hitched to Pucon with high spirits as the storm clouds grew even thicker.

Keeping warm on the ride back to Pucon from Villarica.

Honestly, we were rather unimpressed with the terrain around Pucon, and with the looming storm we decided to head elsewhere. A look at the (very unreliable) forecasts suggested that Bariloche was also going to get hit with the cycle, so we headed southeast to Argentina. A couple bus rides later, with rapid transitions between, we found ourselves in the South American “sister city of Aspen.” We had heard that the place to go for backcountry skiing was Refugio Frey, located in a hanging valley to the west of the local ski area, Cerro Catedral. A day spend planning and stocking up prepared us for the four hour trek to the Refugio, a dirt walk until the last couple hundred meters, which we skinned. With three Québécois friends, our posse of five arrived at Frey in the late afternoon in foggy weather.

Sunrise at Refugio Frey. Couloir factory!

Louie and I still had energy left to spend (it´s nice to be 22), so we headed out to explore the nearby terrain despite the poor visibility. We managed to skin most of the way up a nice couloir, skiing down to the frozen lake as darkness fell. After a sound sleep, we woke to find that the skies had cleared and hurriedly cooked our breakfast as the morning alpenglow lit the beautiful terrain before us. The terrain immediately above Frey is thick with endless “canaletas,” couloirs that ranged from tens down to just a couple meters wide, and ran just over a thousand feet of vertical, and separated by beautiful granite spires that had me wishing for my trad rack on the warmer afternoons. The first day we broke trail up five couloirs, and reaped the rewards of our efforts with the best skiing we’ve had yet in South America.

Entering a skinny chute above Frey. Louie's shovel blade broke on the first day while digging a snowpit in rock-hard ice that took minutes to saw through. He resorted to using a heavy steel dirt shovel, after briefly considering an ancient, cracked, plastic shovel lying around the hut. Some of the Argentine hut guests started calling him "El Hombre Del Pala", or man of the shovel. I don't even want to think about how heavy that airbag pack is with the added weight of a garden spade! He eventually bought a 'normal' shovel off some folks heading back to the States (thanks!).

A couloir we skied on a peak in the next valley over from Refugio Frey on our second day. Although it didn't hold quite as good of snow, it was nice to ski a slightly longer route right off the summit.

The next day we headed farther out, skiing a longer couloir in the next valley. Thoroughly impressed with the terrain, we did a quick restock after the third night, spending a couple hours in Bariloche to replenish our supplies of empanadas and dried fruit. We returned to the refugio that night, with a week´s worth of food and a hunger to ski the storm snow that had fallen during our resupply.

For the next few days, our motto became “¡Canaleta Empanada!”, a play on the Spanish word for steep, “empinado”. After several days, the hut cleared out as a storm cycle set in. Heavy snow and blasting winds gave us a good excuse to stay in the hut for a rest day. We read our books (Louie read 300+ pages), and hoped the weather would clear soon despite the forecasts that the next day would be “feo” (ugly) as well. We slept late that morning, and it wasn’t until 8:30 or so that we woke and saw that there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

The storm had kept other skiers away, and we reveled in the novelty of having a bluebird powder day all to ourselves in such magical terrain. We tried hard, but there was so much powder and so few of us that we couldn’t track it all up. The next day rose cloudless as well, and we skied longer runs in untouched canaletas approaching 2000 feet, with no other skiers to be seen.

People began arriving that evening. It became “Attack of the Film Crews,” as a couple groups of pro skiers and photographers caught wind of the conditions and made their way to Frey, including Bellingham´s own Grant Gunderson on a shoot for Powder Mag. We had done our best to track the place out, but the pros managed to find some good snow and laid down a few rather impressive lines as we watched from couloirs across the valley. With our legs tiring, we set our sights on a bigger goal for our last day at the hut. We skinned to the top of the next valley over from the hut, to the base of the “Mini Trango Tower” (popular with summer alpine climbers) at the head of the valley. From the base of the couloir, we did a short rappel to the far side of the ridge, and gained access to a beautiful couloir lined on both sides with steep craggy cliffs. The weather wasn’t great, but added a dash of excitement as we rapped into the intermittent clouds with skis on our packs.

We returned to the refugio that evening fully satisfied, and were surprised with free thick steaks (beer in the taproom on me, KC!) to top off our beautiful week at Frey.

Approaching a fine looking granite tower, on our way to a couloir that starts right at its base on the other side.

Skyler rappelling into the last big couloir of our trip.

Finding some shallow powder midway down the couloir.

We returned to Bariloche and gorged ourselves on 50 cent pastries and all-you-can-eat pizza. Louie and I both agreed that those eleven days had been the best hut trip that either of us had ever been on. Not only is the terrain at Frey amazing, but we had nailed the conditions as good as they get, getting over a week of “polvo” (powder) skiing, mainly to ourselves.

A sampling of the couloirs we skied on the trip. All in all, we skied 17 chutes, a few more than once, mostly in powder. Couloir overload!

A couple more chutes we were lucky enough to sample. These are dubbed the Zebra Chutes, and are located between Frey and the ski area. They are slightly longer, about 2,000 vert, and super fun!

We’ve hit the halfway point in our trip. It has been amazing so far. Tomorrow morning we’ll travel to the Argentinian border with Chile, where we hope to ski the extinct Volcan Tronador (the name meaning Thunderer) with a night or two in another refugio. It’s amazing to get in this great skiing while enjoying the lovely South American culture (and their food!). Cheers from Argentina!

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17 Responses to “Steel Shovels and Infinite Couloirs — Refugio Frey, Argentina”

  1. Lisa Dawson August 28th, 2012 9:04 am

    Great trip report, Skyler! Thanks much. Good to see you are wearing helmets while driving through the crazy city traffic. So glad you and Louie are having a fun time!

  2. Matt Kinney August 28th, 2012 9:11 am

    As far as I can tell you guys are the real “pros de la canaletas” . Nice TR.

  3. Brody Leven August 28th, 2012 11:42 am


  4. joshGage August 28th, 2012 11:47 am

    ahhh.. thank you for briefly taking me away to some couloir skiing.. makes my palms sweat just thinking about it.. carry on

  5. Caleb Wray August 28th, 2012 2:38 pm

    Wow Louie! Great trip and great photos. Jealous…

  6. Somebody's Mom August 28th, 2012 9:36 pm

    HFS, you are having WAY too much fun and this was a most stellar report. It almost makes me want to go skiing in August.

  7. Frank K August 29th, 2012 7:55 am

    You guys are killing it. Very jealous.

  8. Jane August 29th, 2012 10:47 am


  9. Gregg Cronn August 29th, 2012 10:57 am

    You two need to get back to Bham pronto….your going to miss the Mountain Rescue meeting tomorrow night:) Great report!! Nice to see some stoke in the middle of the NW surf season.

  10. Zap August 29th, 2012 4:00 pm

    Great trip report and photos. Villarica views were what we saw on our storm on Villarica. Your visit to Frey is fantastic – don’t go back. There is so much more . 🙂

  11. Mark W August 29th, 2012 9:13 pm

    Superb. Makes me want to get out and ski…right now!

  12. Chris August 30th, 2012 5:37 am

    pretty amazing, the ski looks scary in the pic at the top

  13. Dave Millar August 30th, 2012 6:51 am

    Glad you guys were able to get some good turns down there and glad that at least my shovel got to enjoy more time down there than I did!! I’ll definitely be back next summer.

  14. Louie Dawson August 30th, 2012 8:52 pm

    I’m pretty stoked with how this trip has been! Far exceded my expectations so far. Just got back from a few days on Cerro Tronador, great weather, I’ll put up another TR soon.

  15. Tob September 1st, 2012 7:34 pm

    Nice report skyler! See you back in b’ham

  16. Frank meloche September 3rd, 2012 6:48 am

    Nice guys! I’m stocked that you have finally get some powder and ride every couloir we’ve seen from the huts. For us it’s the end of our trip, it was nice to meet you a chillan and make the 2 refugio together, get some pow! The 3 quebecois

  17. steveo September 5th, 2012 4:06 pm

    Great report. It is so inspiring and yet so humble at the same time. Besdies the great pictures of the canaletas, my favorite part was when the boys hit bad weather, but continued on: “Undeterred, we cramponed up the last couple thousand feet.” Classic.


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