And so the hike begins. Step #1: get to the trailhead! There is a bus from downtown Bariloche that goes right to the Villa Catedral parking lot at the foot of the ski hill. The night before I had topped up my SUBE card. (If you bought one in Buenos Aires it will work in Bariloche too! It takes the place of bus tickets – just swipe the card as you enter the bus and you’re done.)
I walked almost to the east end of Avenida Moreno to the correct bus stop. Unlike the other route stops on Moreno and the buses themselves, which have numbers, the stop and the bus (officially #55) to the ski hill are indicated by the sign Cerro Catedral or Catedral. A bus makes the trip every hour during the summer.
We went west along Moreno and then turned south on to Morales and west on Neumeyer, where it stopped to pick up some backpackers. We had come back to within 200 meters of my hostel! I remember thinking that I had done a lot of walking for nothing given that I too could have gotten on here. I later asked the person at the CAB info desk why she had told me to catch the bus on Moreno and she explained that the bus route alternated between Avenidas Bustillo and Pioneros so the safest thing to do was to catch where I did.
The bus ended its run to Villa Catedral shortly after 11. As people got off the bus, some headed towards the trailhead to Frey. Other backpackers headed for the ski lift and the ride up to Piedra del Condor or Punta Nevada. The two maps below show the choices hikers have at the starting point at Catedral:
1. hiking above Lago Gutiérrez and up the Van Titter Valley to the Refugio Frey
2. riding the cable lifts to Piedra del Condor or Punta Nevada and then hiking the ridge to the Cancha de Futbol and then a scree slope scramble down to Laguna Schmoll. From there it is down to Laguna Toncek and a walk to the Refugio at the other end of the glacial lake.
And here is a section from the more detailed official park map.
Of the two ways of getting to Refugio Frey, #1 is the easier and #2 the more scenic. For someone just intending to go to Refugio Frey and Laguna Toncek, #1 and #2 together would make a nice loop with a night at the Refugio to break it up. If you’re planning on continuing on to Refugio San Martín (Laguna Jakob), then #1 makes more sense since you will only have to walk once the section from the Frey hut to the trail junction called Cancha de Futbol.
I set off at about 11:15, having taken out my trekking poles and set up my Spot Connect GPS tracker so my wife could follow along as I did my walk in the park! Keen to do some walking, I headed for choice #1 – the trail up the Van Titter Valley. In the image below the trailhead sign is barely visible on the far side of the parking lot.
At the far end of the parking lot, I found the small wooden statue of a hiker next to the signboard for Frey. I stepped back and got a shot of the hiker with my trekking poles and then continued. For the first 100 meters or so the trail is actually a gravel road but soon enough I reached the point where a sign pointed to the off-road start of the trail.
Since 2016 hikers need to book a space at the Refugio if they plan on sleeping there overnight. This is true even if you are going to put up a tent. I had made my reservation at the Park Info Centre in Bariloche a couple of days before and had a voucher to show at the registration desk at the Refugio when I arrived. Frey is the only hut which requires pre-book. Given its easy accessibility, the hut, which sleeps 35, is the busiest of the CAB mountain huts. See here for the 2017 price list.
On the first section of the trail, Lago Gutiérrez is on your left as you make your way to the point where a second lower trail from the lake joins the main trail. There are a few bridges – like the one on the photo below – that cross over small streams tumbling down to the lake. A section of the hillside with charred tree trunks was a reminder of the fragility of the ecosystem. In the park wood fire are not permitted, campers being required to have their own butane or gas stoves. I had left mine back in Bariloche, having decided to make use of the Refugio kitchen instead. I figured it would also give me the right to sit in the comfort of a warm dining area if the weather was bad.
When I came to the junction of the two trails, the second section of the walk began. It is a very pleasant walk up the Van Titter valley with its many mature trees and the arroyo or stream flowing down.
The following four images will give you an idea of what it looks like. It was about 1 p.m. on a very warm sunny day as I made my way up the valley; I was very happy about the leafy canopy which provided some shade. While no one will rave about the stunning mountain views on this part of the trail, it clearly has its own soothing and quiet beauty. I stopped to fill my water bottle with some cold Arroyo Van Titter Nouveau and for a while listened to the stream as it trickled down to Gutierrez.
When I came to the clearing pictured in the panorama shot below I took off my pack and joined the dozen or so other hikers in the shade. Out came the water bottle and the energy bar. There were just two kilometers to go but they would be the most work, given the altitude we needed to gain before we got to the Refugio.
Built over the cavity in the corner of the rock pictured below is half of a hut! Inside the shelter I saw a wooden platform which would give hikers a dry floor for the night if needed. There was also lots of space around to put up a tent or three, though given how close you are to the Refugio from here it would really have to be an emergency to make you want to stop here. The views up top at the Refugio are also far superior!
Time to move on – and up! I watched as a family with two young children – the boy was 6 and the girl 5 – made their way in front of me. I would see them again in the refugio kitchen, impressed again at their cheerful, non-whiny attitudes. When I mentioned how impressed I was, the father smiled and said they were experienced hikers who had done a few walks already. They were going to overnight at the Frey and then head down the next morning.
This last section of the trail above the Refugio Piedritas was the roughest of the day. It was also the most exposed as we lost that leafy canopy that had provided shade on our way up the valley.
As you spend time on a hiking trail you come to recognize people as you pass them by – only to have them do the same a while later! In the photo above I can see Diego, the guy from Buenos Aires, who I did not know yet. We would end up walking together on Days 3, 4, and 5 of the Traverse.
Finally, the Refugio Frey came into sight! Still a half hour to go but there it was. That red arrow in the photo below is actually pointing at the bathroom/shower building; the Refugio itself is just to the left of it.
The first thing I did was check in at the desk, showing my permit to tent overnight. It was about 4:00 when I arrived and gathered outside was a crew of scruffy hardcore rock climbers sitting there with their collections of rock bolts, belays, carabiners, helmets, harnesses, ropes … I looked around and could see a dozen amazing climbing objectives that could keep these guys and gals amused for days. I was quite happy just to be walking by!
I had decided to leave my cook stove and gas canister behind in Bariloche. Instead, I figured I would pay the nominal fee to use the kitchen facilities and also give myself a reason to be inside if the weather turned bad. I spent no more than $10. U.S. at any of the four refugios I stayed at on the traverse, tenting each night and preparing my food in the hut.
The views from the Refugio Frey and from other vantage points were wow-inducing! I had left my “better” DSLR-quality cameras at home (my Sony A77 and my Sony A6000 with their various lenses) because of weight and security concerns. Instead, it was my Fuji X20 with its 28mm-112mm zoom lens that came along. While its sensor is small compared to the one in the cameras left at home, it is still twice as large as the sensors most point and shoots and smartphones have. The fact that it shoots raw image files meant that I was usually able to avoid the blown-out sky problem that smaller sensor cameras like my Canon Elph 330 have. I had it around my neck the entire hike and it was ready to go at a moment’s notice!
I left the Refugio, having checked in at the desk, and went looking for a tent spot. I considered the empty space you see in the photo above but decided that in spite of the attempt to create a windbreak, it was still too exposed. I walked past the helicopter landing area – no camping there! – and headed down the slope. As I did the wind disappeared. “Much better!” I thought. That is my tent – the small sand coloured one behind the North Face mountain tent. It is a Big Agnes Fly Creek UL and weighs 2 pounds (1 kilo). I made sure I secured the tent so that it wouldn’t blow away and then headed back to the Refugio.
Actually, I ran back! As I was finishing with the tent I reached into my pocket for my wallet and – it wasn’t there! I had left it out on the counter in the Refugio when I had taken it out to show the young woman my registration slip. Various horrible scenarios came to mind as I rushed back to the hut. As I stepped into the refugio she said – “You forgot something!”
I looked at the registration list. A few other hikers had checked since I had left to put up my tent. Most of the hikers were Argentinian with two from France and me the lone Canadian. I did also notice that I was a bit older than most of the others!
The cook shack is an add-on to the Refugio itself. It has a basic stove and pots and kettles, running water, and utensils and some plates and cups. It can hold perhaps 12 people on the benches around the three tables.
One thing that caught my eye is the circular object you see below. It is a “dream catcher” and it comes from a world I am more familiar with, that of the indigenous people known as the Ojibwe or Anishinaabe who inhabit the boreal forests of the Canadian Shield. To see it hanging at the Refugio Frey, some twelve thousand kilometers from its place of origin, was to realize that it was one of those cultural creations which speak to something universal in the human spirit. In March of 2016 in the display window of a surfers’ shop on main street in Bicheno on the east coast of Tasmania I had also seen one. Small world!
After my supper in the cook shack – I had one of my Backpacker’s Panty suppers – I scampered up above the Laguna Toncek and the Refugio for a slightly different perspective on things. In the image below I am looking at my tent and the valley – the Van Titter – that I had walked up in the early afternoon.
More conversation in the Refugio with my fellow hikers, including that couple with the two amazing children. The boy had spent the evening playing chess with anyone who was willing! Also, there was a Taiwanese couple currently living in Buenos Aires. They too also had their six-year-old boy along for their overnight at the Frey. Both couples were going back down the next morning by the same trail we had all come up on. But first they had a night up on the second floor of the Refugio; there were about thirty people booked.
My tent spot, had it been raining, would surely have had a stream of water running through it. But – I had perfect weather – no rain, very little wind, and a temperature of about 10ºC. So, no worries this night – in fact, not on any of the four nights of my hike. It would have been a more messy and challenging and potentially dangerous trip with rain or strong winds or snow on the high trails.
My sleeping bag (good to -10ºC) and my Thermarest NeoAir sleeping pad with 5 cm (2 in.) of air to cushion me assured a restful sleep. The day’s exertion also made falling asleep very easy. In my dreams, I wondered what the next day would bring!