Why Hike To Refugio Otto Meiling:
[See the previous post for general info and maps which show Bariloche’s location in relation to Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile.]
The slice of the Andes to the west of Bariloche is easily accessed and there is no lack of great hikes to be had. Most involve an overnight stay at a refugio run by the Club Andino de Bariloche or a tent site near the hut. I had already done the spectacular Four Refugios Hike over five days from Villa Catedral to Refugio Negro.
Having a couple of days for another little hike, I decided to do the walk up to the Otto Meiling Refugio. The reward?
- Awesome close-up views of the glacier-covered Cerro Tronador (“The Thunderer”),
- an evening spent in a mountain hut full of kindred spirits,
- and a tent site I will not soon forget.
The extinct volcano gets its name from the sound of chunks of its glacial covering breaking off and falling down the mountain sides. At 3484 meters Tronador is the highest of Nahuel Huapi’s mountains. Two of its three peaks are visible in the photo above – Pico Internacional (3484m) on the left and Pico Argentino (3187m) on the right. A third – Pico Chileno – is not visible from the Meiling refugio.
The mountain hut itself is at 2050 meters and sits on a rocky ridge between the Castaño Overo and Alerce glaciers. It sleeps 60 and has provides full room and board to those keen on combining time in the mountains with a touch of luxury! It is open from early December to late April and is a 14-kilometer hike from Pampa Linda.
How To Get To the Trailhead:
The adventure begins at 8:30 a.m. with a two-hour ride in the mini-bus arranged by Club Andino de Bariloche. I bought my return ticket the day before at the Club Andino de Bariloche information kiosk next to the building you see in the image below. It is a 73-kilometer ride to Tampa Linda; as you leave Bariloche you ride southwest on Ruta 40 all the way to Villa Mascardi before taking the turnoff for the dusty gravel road RP82 to Pampa Linda.
Waiting for the bus in front of the CAB building – and then on the bus – would be the people I’d be sharing the trails with. I’d get to chat and share water breaks with more than a few of them before the hike was done! Standing to the left is a Danish adventurer Birte. We were both high school teachers and had lots to talk about, including our shared experience of life in classrooms with mid-teens!
At the Park entrance we all got out of the mini-bus and paid our park entrance fee, which will vary depending on where you are from. The further your home is from Bariloche the more you can expect to pay!
The ride on the gravel and dirt road was very dusty, thanks to the lack of rain over the past couple of weeks. I tucked away my camera to spare it from the dust floating around the bus interior and wondered about the particles I was inhaling. Along the way we stopped for a few minutes at the Hotel Tronador near the west end of Lago Mascardi. It would make a very plush base camp for hikes in the area!
It was not long after that we arrived at Pampa Linda (elevation 850 meters). The name of the place literally means “beautiful flat area” and it has a number of facilities catering to hikers. The first one we all headed to was the Park Office pictured below to fill out the form indicating the nature of our hike, our gear, and more. It took about five minutes. I did not notice – but apparently there is a drop off box for your form upon completion of the hike. The next day I would forget to do so!
The Hosteria Pampa Linda is the poshest of the accommodation options available here but there are few camping options available too. Some that I noticed were –
- Camping Los Vuriloches
- Camping Pampa Linda
- Camping Rio Manso back on the other side of the river
Had I known beforehand about all the options – camping and hiking – that are possible out of Pampa Linda I would have allocated more time – maybe a week – to take the area in. The park map below shows the possible hikes –
- the short hike from Pampa Linda to the Mirador del Valle
- the somewhat longer hike to the Mirador Glaciar Castaño Overo
- the hike to the Refugio Agostino Rocca (Paso de las Nubes) which continues all the way to Puerto Frias
- The ultimate Nahuel Huapi Traverse – an occasionally badly marked trail from Pampa Linda to Colonia Suiza. The blue trail on the map below is the start.
If there is a next time, I will certainly not have any trouble finding a trail to walk! Spending another day at the Meiling Refugio would also have been nice.
As it was, my two days would be spent walking the green trail up to the Ceiling Refugio and then back down. We got to Pampa Linda about 11; we would leave for Bariloche the next afternoon around 4:30.
The 14-kilometer walk takes about 5.5 hours and takes you through varied terrain. To be honest, for the first three hours dramatic alpine views are all but non-existent. It is only when you get above the tree line that the quiet pleasure of walking up a park road through an old-growth forest is replaced by the WOW of the glacier and the jutting peaks of Cerro Tronador.
Part I: 2.7 km. From The Trailhead To the River
A fellow hiker checks out the map at the trailhead and then he is off. I don’t know him yet but we will take turns passing each other. Later at the refugio I will give him half of my rehydrated Indian veg curry and rice! I was just glad that there was a bit of shade on the trail because it was close to noon and it was hot!
There are three bridges over the river – the wide one for park vehicles, the original log, and a narrow newer metal bridge with railing for the hikers.
Part II: 3.5 km. Gentle uphill on the park road
Leaving the Rio Castaño Over behind, we made our way up the park road over the next hour and a bit. Thanks to the incredible forest cover we were often shaded from the full effect of the sun. Passing the occasional stream tumbling down from further up, we would stop and fill our water bottles. The cold clear water went down – to be absolutely safe, I did treat it with my Steripen UV wand. As shaded as it was, it was quite warm and I was sweating profusely.
We made our way up the forest road as it zip zagged its way up to gain elevation gradually. Three hundred meters up from the river we passed the turn-off to the Paso de las Nubes. Then, about 2 1/2 kilometers later after a walk up a long gradual ascent up the park road (904 meters to 1060) we came to the turn-off for the Mirador Glaciar Castaño Overo.
I leaned my pack against the base of the tree to give some perspective on its size. Else-where I did see recently cut trees on the side of the road, though none as impressive as the one in the photo. I am not sure if it was just deadfall or if logging goes on in the park.
Part III: 4 km. Series of Steep Switchbacks
So far the gain in altitude had been gradual. The next four kilometers of the trail (from 1060 meters to 1450 meters) is a series of switchbacks (las carcaroles) that takes you up steeply; it pushed the ‘effort required” needle beyond “easy”!
To give us an extra bit of adventure, my walking partner, a Danish adventurer, and I took the wrong fork in the trail! When we came up to the flat area in the photo below we just kept on with our conversation and turned to the right.
To the left is where the trail actually goes! Now I can even see a small yellow circular trail marker on the tree in the photo below – but at the time we missed it completely. We must have walked along the flat trail for a half-hour before it struck us that something was not right. It may have been that we were going downhill! It may have been the GPS location I was getting on my “sometimes working/sometimes not” osmand map app was.
As we headed back we passed another couple who also thought they were headed to the Meiling hut. We told them it was not the right way! Later that afternoon we were very happy to see them at the Refugio. I’ve wondered about the trail we were following. It was too high up to have been the trail to the Refugio Agostino Rocca. It may just have been an alternative trail for use by horses to get to the Refugio at a more gradual incline.
On the right track again, we got confirmation from one of the employees of the refugio who came up behind us with a backpack laden with the evening’s supper ingredients! Still facing us was the most difficult part of the day’s hike – the zig zag up the slopes to a resting area. On the plus side, the views were becoming more dramatic!
And then – a fifteen minute rest. As we sat in the shade of the trees pictured below, a mountain guide and his client arrived and sat down for a bit. They had an early morning departure for the Pico Argentino – one of Cerro Tronador’s three peaks. Later in the refugio we would continue our chat. It turned out that the client was an Obama administration diplomat who had just had to submit his resignation as the Trump people “drained the swamp” not. From chatting with Obama and Joe Biden he had taken a brief break while he did some peak-bagging in the Andes!
Part IV: 3.5 km. sand and scree ridge trail to the Refugio
Yet a bit more to go – first a kilometer from our shady rest stop to another flat spot used as a horse rest stop (Descanso de Caballos). I stepped a bit to the left of the trail there and got the shot below of Tronador and of the refugio sitting on the rocky spine on the middle right of the image.
By now the tree cover was gone. Also long gone was drinking water! I really should have topped up my 1-liter Nalgene bottle when I had a chance at one of the streams tumbling down to Pampa Linda! It was a very warm sunny afternoon and I was dripping sweat For the last hour – no shade and no water!
I took off the pack and sat for a while and contemplated the Glaciar Castaño Overa and the water dripping from its toe and down the cliff side. Cool, clean water – drip, drip, drip!
Above us three condors played in the wind currents, swooping back and forth and putting on a great show. Whenever I see them – in Peru on the Huayhuash trek, in Bolivia in the Cordillera Real, and now here near Cerro Tronador – I know I am in a good space! They are the Andes equivalent of the eagles that often fly over my brother and I as we canoe the rivers and lakes of the Canadian Shield in northern Ontario. There too we celebrate their presence.
As we were going up the trail, others were going down to Pampa Linda. By the time I finally got to the refugio, my Danish hiking partner had already rounded up a bottle of water and was headed my way. One minute – parched; ten minutes later – a liter of water and a can of Coke gone and feeling much better!
I didn’t even get a shot of the refugio as I approached, so focussed was I on just getting something to drink! Here is the refugio from a shot the next morning!
There was a storm coming in – thunder and rain were predicted. I made the quick decision to make use of the loft in the refugio that night instead of tenting. I hauled my pack up to the second floor and found what I hoped would be a quiet corner and unfurled my sleeping bag on the foam mattress. Then I grabbed my camera and went up above the hut for some shots of the neighbourhood, along with the slopes of Volcán Osorno perhaps the singlemost scenic spot I saw in my Chile/Argentina rambles this year. It was worth the effort of getting there, in spite of the dehydration and losing the trail!
Coming storm or not, some hardcore backpackers had their tents up. By dusk the storm came and went and I made a last-minute decision to join them. On the photo above is a tent on the extreme middle right is a red tent on the edge of the image. Clearing all my gear from the refugio loft, I put up my tent about 10 meters to the left of his. i needed my headlamp because it was already dark as I finished the set-up!
As I walked above the hut towards the glacier I found this memorial to some Argentinian climbers who died on the mountain in 2001. I have not found the details of the tragedy. Perhaps rapidly deteriorating weather and a crevasse or avalanche took their lives. It has not stopped others from making the climb.
The trip from the refugio to the Pico Argentino and back takes about 10 to 12 hours. The two climbers in the refugio the night I was there got up around 3 a.m. for the little adventure. It would have been a neat thing to do and is not really difficult technically. There are some crevasses to deal with and some ice climbing is required, as is a mountain guide. I had researched the climb myself but had decided that given the $500 -$600. cost, I would pass.
The Lonely Planet has some misleading information about the climb. You read this –
Climbers intending to scale Tronador should anticipate a three- to four-day technical climb requiring experience on rock, snow and ice.
What the writer does not make clear is that the ascent he is describing is the Pico Internacional, the highest of Tronador’s three peaks and only accessible from the Chilean side. It may indeed be a four-day trip. As already stated, the route from the Refugio Meiling is at most a half-day.
As well as the Refugio with its dining and kitchen area on the first floor and second-floor loft with sleeping for sixty hikers, there is another building where the staff sleep. It can be seen to the right of the Refugio in the image above. They also use it for storage. The buildings sit on a ridge between the Castaño Over and Alerce glaciers. The shot shows the bottom end of the Alerce glacier –
I checked out the view in Google Earth and the image below – not exactly the same perspective – shows where I was standing on the bottom right hand of the image when I shout the above photo. I was maybe 200 meters to the left of the refugio.
When the official refugio supper hour arrived, I left the hut, having already eaten half of the contents of my rehydrated Backpackers’ Pantry bag. (It is meant to serve two!) The young English hiker glady accepted the rest of it. I wandered up towards the glacier and walked into the magical hour of mountain light. The two shots below are just a couple that I framed in my Fuji X20 viewfinder. Later I heard that the folks at supper were taking turns running out of the hut with their cameras so they could get a shot or two of Cerro Tronador in the amazing light.
My tent spot was well-sheltered and it would be windless and rain-free overnight. I had a great sleep – no snoring or restless sleepers to listen to, no stifling heat up on the second floor of the loft, no rain to worry about. The sky was clear and blue when I got up around 7:20 and I looked up to Tronador and saw the moon.
My sleeping bag and the tent- the little hovel you see on the right hand side of the photo below – and other gear went back into the backpack. I headed down for breakfast:
I had my usual oatmeal concoction and two cups of coffee and then went outside to take in the warmth of the sun. There was no big hurry this morning – the six of us on the Club Andino bus had until four to get back to Pampa Linda and it was all downhill. And this time Birte and I would not stray from the trail!
On the way down we got another chance to capture some of the magic of Tronador – and the Glacier Castaño Olvero as chunks of ice break off at its toe and tumble down with the water to form the beginning of the Rio Castaño Olvero that we will cross near the end of our return hike to Pampa Linda.
When we got to the bridge over the river we took off our packs and spent a half hour on the river bank. Some took off their boots and gave their feet a wash while others (like me) found a shady spot under a tree and leaned back. At Pampa Linda more time was spent sipping coffee in the restaurant while waiting for the mini-bus departure.
Our two-day adventure was over – and we all agreed it had been worth the effort!
A Wikiloc Route of the Trail:
While in Bariloche I discovered the wikiloc app for my iPhone 6 and bought and installed it. I even downloaded a Pampa Linda-Refugio Otto Meiling route file. Had I known how to use the app properly, we would not have wasted time wandering down that horse trail (if that is what it was!) away from the main hikers’ trail to the Refugio!
If you check the wikiloc website, you will find several GPS tracks of the walk from Pampa Linda to Refugio Otto Meiling. Click on the image below to access one of the best tracks, the useful one by paco de miguel which includes a number of waypoints.
Refill your water bottle whenever you can!
Had I known what it would be like I would have spent an extra night up at the refugio. This would have given me time to wander above the hut and get much closer to the glacier itself and perhaps – with a guide and the proper technical gear – onto the glacier itself.
Another, more ambitious add-on would be the walk to Puerto Frias via the Refugio Agostino Rocca (Paso de las Nubes) trail.
Good luck on your own Refugio Otto Meiling visit. Weather is obviously the main factor; we were lucky to have a couple of beautiful sunny days on the mountain.