Previous Post – Day 1: Villa Catedral To Refugio Frey
Another sunny day in northern Patagonia! By 8:30 everybody was ready for whatever adventure the day would bring. Outside of the refugio a couple of dozen people milled about, busy with their packs and water bottles and sun screen. Maps were out and being examined.
On the menu for the day were a few different options:
- Some would be staying and doing some rock climbing. The hut is at the centre of some excellent rock climbs as I could see by the number of people with the necessary gear.
- Some would walk back down the trail to Villa Catedral (see 1 on the map above).
- Some would return by route 2 to Villa Cathedral via Laguna Schmoll and the trail to the right of the cancha de futbol, which is the at the junction where the trail splits in two – to the right back to Villa Catedral and to the left to Laguna Jakob.
- Some like me would be walking route 8 to the Refugio San Martin on Laguna Jakob.
I boiled some water on the kitchen stove and prepared my oatmeal breakfast. I also had that essential cup of coffee – a no-frills Nescafé instant with some powdered coffee creamer. Then it was out to join the others as we discussed our various plans for the day.
Mine involved a walk along the shores of Laguna Toncek and then a scramble up the scree slopes to Laguna Schmoll. From there it was another bit of rough uphill to the split in the trail at the “Cancha de Futbol”. The trail would eventually lead to a ridge at the top of the Rucaco Valley. From there it was a clear view to the west and Laguna Jakob and the refugio.
Before I left the refugio the first of perhaps four or five helicopter drops for the day began. Lowering down food and other supplies and taking out a load of waste or whatever, it kept the staff busy hauling stuff to and from the landing zone for 45 minutes. I watched for a while and then headed along the shore of the laguna. Ahead of me were some other hikers, people I recognized from the previous day. Only one of them – Diego from Buenos Aires – would still be on the same trail with me the next morning.
Looking back at the Refugio I saw the last of the drops for the morning. Twenty minutes later when I snapped the photo below I was at the other end of the lake. Next up was the ascent on a scree slope to Laguna Schmoll. The “trail” markers – sometimes just a red circle, sometimes a red circle inside a black one, sometimes an arrow in red or black, sometimes a word! – are painted onto the rocks. Looking for them becomes a part of journey; not seeing one for a while and you start worrying that maybe you are lost!
See if you can find any red dots in the three photos below!
At the top of the ridge I turned around to get one last shot of where I had come from; then I turned forward and faced Laguna Schmoll. Since there was no wind, he glacial lake was ripple-free. I found a spot by the edge of the laguna and sat there for a while, taking in the scene. Forty meters away a hiker had put up his tripod and was taking in the scene.
Not far from where I was sitting was the plaque you see below; it explained the origin of the laguna’s name. It is a memorial for an Austrian climber – and perhaps member of the local alpine club – who lost his life on Cerro Paine in Chile’s Torres del Paine Park.
With my water bottle out, I also reached into my pack for a snack. Not too long afterward I got visitors! A couple of birds, tentative at first, but then hopping fairly close to where I was sitting were clearly wondering if I had anything for them! Let me know if you can identify the kind of bird they are!
My rest spot had been on the shore just above that small point you see jutting out into the laguna. Now – thirty minutes later – I was looking down, having scrambled up that mess of rocks you see below. Visible in the middle of the photo are a couple of fellow hikers coming up behind me.
In the photo below I am already looking back at the top of the ridge I had just climbed; Laguna Schmoll is behind and below that wall of rock you see. I was now standing in a fairly flat open area which has earned it the nickname “cancha de futbol”, a totally appropriate name for futbol-obsessed Argentina!
On nearby rocks arrows pointed in the directions of both Catedral and Jakob. While the Catedral trails follows the ridge the right, the indistinct path to Jakob goes down a fairly scree slope on the left.
Laguna Jakob is located below the ridge on the top left hand side of the photo above. To get down into the forest from the cancha de futbol requires 45 minutes of heavy-duty scrambling down a fairly steep scree slope.
Ahead of me on the down slope was a hiker – a guy in his early thirty’s from India – who was having a rough time. He was slipping and sliding and losing his balance and facing in to the slope as he made his descent. One of his problems? He did not have trekking poles! The extra points of contact provide more stability. Years ago I had laughed when I saw Chamonix walkers using them; these days I know better and would never go hiking without them. Live and learn!
As I caught up to him we stopped for a brief chat on the challenge of the scree slope. I offered him one of my poles but when he declined I told him to follow me. He had been trying to go straight down; we went down more gradually in switchback fashion and that seemed to help him.
In the photos above and below I have stopped and pointed my camera back up at the terrain I have just negotiated. You can see my fellow hiker in the photo above.
The reward for the scree slope scramble was a nice walk up the Rucaco Valley on a flat dirt trail. I stopped for lunch in the cool of the forest; it was hot out there in the full sun and the shade was appreciated! The Indian guy came walking down the path; he was keen to keep moving so did not stop for a break. I’d catch up to him a bit later in the afternoon as we made our way downhill to the refugio.
After lunch it was on to the end of the wooded area before the trail heads back up above the treeline to more scree and indistinct trails marked with the occasional red dot or stone cairn. Along the way I refilled my water bottle from one of the side streams coming down the slopes to the Rucaco valley. While it is probably perfectly safe to drink the water in this area without treating it, since I had brought my SteriPEN along, I did make a point of using it. It weighs about 100 grams and uses UV light to make the water safe to drink.
It had taken me three and half hours to descend from the Cancha de Futbol, walk the Rucaco Valley and ascent to the ridge above laguna Jakob. I looked back one last time and took the photo above, complete with the helpful arrow pointing hikers toward the Frey hut! Then it was on and mostly down to my next tent spot, the bush behind the Refugio San Martin.
As we neared the refugio, my Mumbai buddy and I crossed the bridge and walked what is apparently a new path for the final half-kilometer. Oddly, when we got to the refugio I just took off my pack and relaxed and chatted with a couple of other people who had just come in. What I didn’t do is take some close-up photos of the refugio and surroundings! The one you see here I “borrowed” from the Club Andino de Bariloche website. See here.
Update: In early July 2017 the San Martín refugio was intentionally burned down. It was either the work of an indigenous Mapuche resistance group or made to look like it was. Pamphlets claiming Mapuche responsiblity were found near the hut. See here for an English translation of an article about the incident. Click on the top right hand side to access the Spanish original. There are now two dome structures on the site and Refugio San Martín is open for trekkers.
Already on my mind was the next day’s hike, the one from Refugio San Martin to Laguna Negra via a steep climb above Laguna Los Témpanos and Cerro Navidad. It was the most complicated and poorly marked – and least used – section of the entire traverse. Since the guys who had just come in – a couple of German guys in their twenties, Moritz and Daniel – were planning to do it, I was keen to talk to them since I clearly was not going to be doing it by myself! The fact that Moritz had the GPS track for it was definitely a good sign!
Not far from the refugio I put up my tent on a bed of sand in the shade of some overhanging branches. Then it was back to the refugio for supper – and more discussion and assessment of the next day’s possible adventure. The Lonely Planet Trekking Guide-book had the following bit of advice about the next day’s section –
This section of the trek, following a high-level route, is harder and more hazardous than other stages. Ideally for very experienced trekkers, it should not be attempted unless the weather is very good. At any time – most commonly, early in the season (until about mid-December) – crampons and an ice axe may be needed to do the route safely. The hut warden at Refugio San Martín (who has photographs that clarify the route) can give further advice, and will ask you to fill in a form and hand it in on arrival at the other end.
from Lonely Planet’s Trekking in the Patagonian Andes (2009)
Lots to think about and different options to consider. As always, time – or maybe the title of the following day’s post! – would reveal all!