Our first foray to Patagonia was so rife with anticipation, my five compadres and I gave the trip its own hashtag: #teamfrey. Despite our skillful use of the hype-machine, make no mistake—we aren’t qualified in any way to climb in El Chalten (most of us anyway). Lacking the skill and vacation time for that, we concocted a Patagonia-lite adventure to Frey, Argentina. A few of the more compelling reasons to head there include:
- The weather there doesn’t suck that much
- There is a refugio nearby that will feed you and, more importantly, supply wine and beer
- The climbing doesn’t sound that hard or scary
- Stunning landscapes abound
Karah and I arrived on Christmas Eve, insensitively abandoning our families for the second holiday in a row (sorry mom), while our boyfriends (John and Emmett) and kindly Canadian friends (Peter and Julia) demonstrated the true spirit of Christmas by scheduling their flights for later that week. Karah and I were happy to find the hike into Frey very easy, the weather fair, and the refugio’s provisions ample. We set up camp and quickly made friends with locals who found our interpretation of Spanish delightful (this could have been lost in translation).
Despite their friendliness, most of the climbers there assumed we were trekkers and when informed that we intended to climb, actively dissuaded us from trying any climbs above the 5.8 grade…of which there was exactly one. We dispatched our sole option easily, then used that as affirmation that we should climb the tallest tower in Frey via a questionably protected route the next day. The approach and early pitches of Clemenzo went swimmingly, but we encountered more challenges as we progressed. After Karah endured screaming barfies in an off-route, snow-filled squeeze chimney and became near-hypothermic while I was busy trying to make the climb relent via staring contest, we opted to bail. Naturally, we were thrilled with our efforts and regaled our new friends with our epic tale at dinner (via pantomime).
We were so enthused with our badassery that we decided to make the hike down from Frey to help our boyfriends carry their loads that night. We started down the trail at 10:30 PM, excitedly looking around each switchback to find their headlamps. At midnight, with no boyfriends in sight…we started to get suspicious. We found cell service, called them and were informed they had opted to spend the night in a hostel. With resentment burning in our hearts and blisters burning on our heels, we trudged back to camp empty-handed, returning to our tent at 2 AM with the promise of seeing the boys “by 10 AM” the next morning.
In the most perfect weather day in all of Patagonia’s history, we awaited their arrival at camp on bated breath. As the morning and afternoon hours rolled by, we began referring to them as “boyfriends at large” and decided they must have given up on both climbing and their girlfriends in favor of a microbrewery. After another sleepless night, we took off to find cell service in order to give them a piece of our minds. Turns out, John had food poisoning, and Emmett was hiking in (on his birthday) with a massively heavy pack containing both their supplies. We begrudgingly turned our outrage into sympathy and helped them both settle into camp.
The next day, we were off to Campanile which involved another lengthy approach. With other climbers hot on our heels, I desperately raced up scree slopes in order to secure our classic climb first. This turned out to be unnecessary for two reasons: 1) I got off-trail and made everyone else wait for me while I scrambled up and down a crumbling buttress 2) The climbers that got there first were (literally) twice as fast. Despite the rough start, John and I agreed Campanile’s Imaginante was hands-down the best route we climbed in Frey.
While we continued to have a grand time (despite my oozing sunburns and John’s inability to digest more than 200 calories per day), our Canadian friends weren’t faring quite as well. They had opted to take an alternative approach to Frey, using a chairlift to gain elevation and hiking down to camp. With no trail and vague directions, they ended up in very much the wrong place and waged the most epic two-day bushwhack I have ever heard of. They navigated steep, sliding scree fields, juniper bushes thicker than Emmett’s winter beard, and a multi-hour wade through a river that offered respite from the mountain’s other hazards. We found them a few days later and quite a bit worse for wear at camp…but luckily we had wine at the ready and they bounced back quickly.
With #teamfrey reunited, we enjoyed the rest of the good weather, ate a lot of refugio pizza, and tried hard on gorgeous cracks. We had just one bad weather day and spent it sitting and eating. I did not move from my seat for 12 hours. Not for the bano, not for the beer, and certainly not to bail out our bomber 4-season mountaineering tent which had completely flooded and was filled like a bathtub.
While there were a few hiccups along the way, we were very pleased with our Patagonia-lite adventure in Frey! For anyone reading this who wanted actual useful information rather than 1000 words of babble, here’s some important beta:
- If you’re flying from Buenos Aires to Bariloche, leave at least 3 hours on your layover to switch airports
- Don’t bring your gear in a carry-on if you’re flying into Bariloche (“too much metal”)
- Remis and taxis take USD and other establishments take credit but you’ll want to withdraw AR pesos for ease of transactions at the refugio
- Refugio Frey requires camping reservations but doesn’t appear to police this system (yet?)
- The hike to Refugio Frey is not four hours and is mostly flat…even the “steep” part is barely inclined
- Eating at the refugio isn’t all that cheap, meal times are restrictive, and there aren’t many snacks for purchase. Most climbers hike supplies in about once per week.
- There is free water and bathrooms at the refugio, but no toilet paper or soap
- No showers for you at the refugio
- Bring a single wall tent with extra cord to tie it down and, for the love of god, put your tent somewhere sheltered (if you can see the lake, you’re doing it wrong)
- The sun is very strong, sunblock is essential
- The rock there is rough on the skin, and most climbers use jammies (for some reason, they will laugh at your tape gloves)
- There are a just a couple moderate routes in Frey and you probably want to be solid on 5.10 to enjoy yourself
- The staff at the refugio is awesome, speaks little English, and will absolutely crush you in a pull-up contest
- Cell service is extremely hard to find, but if you are desperate, hike up the Col de Parotida and continue up the ridgeline until you must start scrambling. Find a suitably tall and accessible rock and point your cell toward the valley to the right of the refugio. Curse until you get two bars. Better yet, climb Vieja, Principal, or Campanile and check the weather forecast while you pretend to belay.
That’s about it for #TeamFrey, can’t wait to see where the next hashtag takes us!