The hike to Refugio Frey – Bariloche

James has been silently dying to do an overnight hike and do it properly, carrying our tent and all of our gear with us. Bariloche sits in Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi and this park provided the ideal opportunity to realise his dream.

The day started fairly easily; with only 4 hours of hiking ahead we took our time getting packed up, had more excellent cream tea toast for breakfast and made our way to the central bus stop. We needed the number 55 bus and, for some reason, the number 55 is one of the only buses that doesn’t have a sign indicating where the stop is; there is a sign for Catedral, where we needed to go, but no number. We weren’t the only ones who were slightly confused, each new person wearing boots and toting a backpack asked along the line of waiting people if they were in the right place, to be met with the same smiles and non-committal shrugs. The number 55 did eventually show up so, for future reference, this is where you stand.

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Once on the bus we joined the traffic winding along the edge of the lake before taking a sharp left up the hill. The views are really lovely and we thought that they were probably better than those along Circuito Chico. Catedral is a ski resort and it feels quite weird to be there in summer; first impressions are not the best when presented with off-season ski runs. You can make the hike that we were tackling longer by walking from the base of the resort, but the prospect of climbing 1000m up bare ski runs under chairlifts did not appeal, so we bought our extremely expensive tickets for the lifts and took a gondola half way up the hill and then a chairlift the rest of the way.

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It gets pretty damn chilly on the chairlift so it’s advisable to layer up before you get on it, James didn’t and regretted it. At the top, we hiked about half a kilometre up to get our first proper views, which were amazing.

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We reached the pass shortly after, via a short impromptu scramble over some rocks, and the views out over the other side were just as beautiful.

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And here is where the fun started. We’d read up about the trek that we were doing, Filo por Frey, but somehow we’d missed the crucial detail that the first 45 minutes are across Satan’s slip-and-slide and that one wrong step would send you skeetering 1000 metres down.

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Never mind, a fair bit of adrenalin and an enormous amount of not looking down and we made it across. We were then faced with a scramble across the rocks, once again hanging over an abyss.

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The problem was that we just hadn’t been expecting this at all. One blog mentioned 100m of scree and referred to a couple of moments of light scrambling, but it was 3 1/2 hours of solid hard work before we reached terrain that we were familiar with. It was also our first time hiking with all of our gear so we were still figuring out our balance and this was not an ideal place to be doing it. So, it was tough, but the views were just astonishing.

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We’d wanted to get the “hard bit” out of the way before stopping for lunch but the hard bit just kept going so we stopped on the widest piece of ground we could find and ate there.

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After the first two hours, we were still scrambling but the threat of imminent death had eased somewhat. The views were still amazing.

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We finally made it around the edge of the mountain and into a narrow, sheltered valley which we crossed to find another lovely view over Laguna Schmoll and the prospect of yet another scramble down the hill.

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It really was a climb down to the lake rather than a walk. Yes we came down from the top and yes that really is snow again.

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Beyond the lake the downhill just kept going and the path all but disappeared; we simply had to pick the best path that we could amongst the rocks and scree. It was tough going but we were mightily glad that we weren’t going the other way, it was crazy steep.

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We reached the bottom after about 4 hours and the last half hour was an easy walk along the valley to another lake, Laguna Toncek, where Refugio Frey was perched on the far shore.

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The whole walk for day one is around 7kms and it had taken us 4 1/2 hours, that’s pretty tough going. We checked in at the refugio and picked our pitch. It was interesting trying to pitch the tent on a base of sand and rock but James achieved it with pretty much zero help from Caro.

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Tea was now required and it was time to use the stove for the first time; James was in his element.

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Despite the beautiful sunshine it was still pretty nippy and after a quick cup of tea we retired to the kitchen area where there was shelter from the wind. For kitchen, read wooden shack with sink.

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It turns out that this area is very popular with climbers and chat in the kitchen quickly turned to previous climbing accidents. We both shuddered as one girl described how her friend’s kneecap had been completely exposed after a fall in the same place this time last year. It made our walk seem pretty tame.

Once the sun disappeared it got even chiller at  1700m above sea level and Caro retreated to the tent while James cooked dinner, which we ate sheltered in the tent.

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The next morning, we rose to ice on the tent for the second time, but as the sun rose above the mountains it became a very pleasant spot for coffee and breakfast. Our second day was longer than the first with a 12km hike back to Catedral. The first two kilometres were downhill and steep with beautiful views across the valley.

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We met people coming up the other way, some even running, others red-faced and resigned. The track did eventually level out through a lovely stretch of woodland.

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The woodland gave way to more downhill and bamboo, which we figured must be an invasive species. Gaps in the foliage gave views out over Lago Gutierrez . This also coincided with the appearance of the sun, which was definitely welcome.

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The last few kilometres tracked around the hill back to the base of the ski resort, it was pretty enough but the dense undergrowth hid most of the views. We were fortunate that there was a bus waiting at the resort when we arrived and we were saved a potential hour wait.

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We got back to El Korú and laid the tent out in the garden to dry before having much needed hot showers. We had planned to reward ourselves for our hike with beer and ice cream and James shifted restlessly from foot to foot as Caro took far too long getting ready to head out, delaying the promise of beer. Argentina has an excellent craft beer scene, much to James’s delight, and Bariloche hosts many micro-breweries in which James was keen to do some thorough research.  He decided on balance that Blest was his favourite of those sampled that evening.

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Caro sat and watched James drink beer for about an hour (she loathes the stuff) before insisting it was time for her reward. We ate at a completely empty but surprisingly good pizza restaurant before tracking down Jasjua, which is famous for its icecream.

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We filled a bucket each and devoured the lot on the walk home, ill-advised given that it was all uphill (of course).

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