Think of Patagonia and most people instantly go to Fitzroy, Cerro Torres or the Torres Del Paine all situated on the far end of the South American continent. A place reserved for the top alpinist of the world to carve out stunning ascents against a ferocious backdrop of canine tooth sharp granite mountains and unrelenting wind. A place as close to a modern day wild west as there is, but Patagonia is a vast region covering nearly the whole of the southern tip of the continent to just below Santiago in Chile and Buenos Aires in Argentina.
Close to that northern limit is a magical town called San Carlos De Bariloche, something of a place out of sorts with its surroundings, a geographic anomaly. Transport it to Swiss lakeside resort and it would fit right in, but it is quite a surprise encounter in the heavily Spanish influenced Argentina.
It’s story goes to show just how forward thinking the Argentine’s were, as the origins of the modern day look of Bariloche can be traced back to 1935, when the nation park’s department built the civic centre in the image of a Swiss alpine village. An architectural style that stuck as the growing town shifted from cattle trading centre to a place where the Argentine elite came to play and the town now prides itself as centre for outdoor recreation including skiing, trekking, rock climbing and mountaineering.
The place has also been surrounded by conspiracy theories and for a good reason. More than one Nazi war criminal has been picked up on the streets of Bariloche which has led a couple of author to suggested that Hilter who’s body was never found escaped and lived out his life just a stones throw away from the town. That influence of the German’s comes through in the form of several superb local microbreweries, one the Berlina is well worth seeking out, although the local Refugio’s do pack in kegs of the stuff.
Surrounding the town are many small crags, ideal for getting to know the place. And well worth a visit, as they range from single to multipitched sport and trad climbing venues. They can also make a difference if the whether is forecast to be bad in the mountains. Especially if you hire a vehicle and head 30 minutes down the road to Llanquin, which is situated far enough away from the mountains to be in an almost desert climate. The other crag to visit is the Crag of the Virgin snow, if for no other reason to see what a crag would look like if the topo lines were drawn on it.
The main event here is Frey and as you make your way up to the trailhead in the South American summer, you arrive at a rather scrappy looking ski resort of Cerro Catedral. Its large parking lot all but abandoned in the summer months. Parking up in the remotest corner, there are usually a few vehicles there from mainly trekkers heading into the hills for a day walk to the Refugio and back or to hut to hut across the park.
The hike in takes around 4-5 hours with a heavy pack and is generally a steady incline through a prestine alpine forest. Through the trees you gain fleeting glimpse of Torre Principal, the main peak in the Frey group. Only in the last hour or so does the track steepen as you make your way out of the forest through talus and thicket to arrive at the spendid Refugio Frey, a picturesque hut ideally positioned for climbers.
All around are numerous granite spires from single pitch affairs to spires that are almost mountains in there own right. It is an inspiring place to view the hanging valley from. To me it is one of the best climbing views on the planet, up there with some of the classic views of Yosemite or Chamonix Aiguilles or dare I say simply looking up my home valley of the Llanberis Pass.
It is best to catch your breath before you continue and I advise you if possible to book into the refugio. Which can be done at the Club Andino Bariloche (The local Alpine Club and owners of the refugio) in town. As whilst people do camp out around the ‘col’ to save a few bucks, remember you are in Patagonia and the wind is exactly like you have been led to believe, a nearly continuous barrage or 40+ miles per hour and worse when the weather deteriorates.
You do get used to it and adjust to Patagonian ways, from opening car doors with care so they don’t get ripped off their hinges to lowering the first person down an abseil to save yourself dealing with the Patagonia rope trick. Where ropes thrown down tend to go straight back up and over the top of the tower. So be warned. Despite the wind you can generally find shelter on these peaks, at least for the lower pitches. After a month here I was once woken up by the deafening silence and wondered what was happening because the roar from the wind was gone.
The climbing here also makes up for the weather, although be warned that the grades are pretty harsh. A F5 can seem like a very tough HVS on natural gear, and whilst there is some fixed gear on routes, in the shape of pegs and bolts, the routes are generally trad climbs throughout with bolted belays. The climbing is generally on pristine granite, although like any alpine climbing area, there are places where the rock is broken.
The place most people start is on Ajuga Frey that guards over the refugio at the mouth of the valley like a frozen sentinel. It is less than 5 minutes from the Refugio and whilst the main face has the incredible Sifuentes-Weber a fantastic HVS up the front, the best route to get acclimatized to the granite is Deidro y Fisura Jim, another HVS that bridges up a fine corner before tackling the immaculate hand crack to get to the top of a sub-peak.
Once you start to acquaint to the climbing on granite, which will be quickly if you have been climbing in places like Yosemite, Squamish or Chamonix. There are around 30 or more towers to visit. All with routes to the top.
Another one that is worth visiting early on is simply called M2, it is only 15 minutes walk from the Refugio and is a lot steeper than Ajuga Frey. The best route up it is Del Deidro, a stunning HVS/E1 corner systems that climbs steeply up the spire in a single sustained pitch.
If you want something slightly harder then the Aprendiendo A Valor is an E2 corner/crack climb, easily seen from the base of the previous route. If not then there are other routes at around F5 or HVS scattered among the numerous pillars.
If the weather looks set to be bad for a couple of days then maybe plan a hike to the neighbouring Refugio’s, or at the very least pack a good book, as the weather can shut down you down for a days at a time. Hence it is good to stay low and utilize the crags around Bariloche before choosing the right time to head to the Frey. If you do strike out up there, the comfort of staying in the Refugio cannot be over looked and the view across spray ridden lake as the wind scuds in is very dramatic but ultimately fine when inside the refugio.
Frey is not Yosemite, but to be honest if you want to go free climbing rather than big walling then maybe Frey is a better destination. It is off the beaten track and whilst many people know of it, very few actually make it there. Meaning that you have the joys of a world class climbing venue without the crowds. Don’t be too afraid if you don’t speak Spanish, I am terrible with languages and seem to get by, I just occasional order something unexpected from a café.
Despite the long running animosity between the UK and Argentina, something that was very apparent when I cross a small border from Chile, who happened to help us during the Falklands War. In general the Argentine’s seem past caring, whilst the government like to be vocal in laying claim to La Maldivas, the population are less interested in the history and more interested in welcoming you with their hospitality.
So if you are a competent HVS/E1 climber looking for a more exotic and adventurous location to climb then maybe Bariloche is the place you have been looking for. It is not as remote or gnarly as the climbing around El Chaltern, but for the average rock climber it will offer some of the best granite trad climbing outside of North American west coast heartland.
That said if you go to the very top of Cerro Principal via the very enjoyable and more alpine original route, and look over the Andes to the west into Chile, you can just see the mighty Granite domes of Cochamo, which is the Yosemite of South America.
In terms of the information you need on the climbs it is all on Rolando Garibotti website PATAclimb.com. A simply amazing website for all things climbing and adventurous in Patagonia. Although you can support Rolo’s work by buying a locally produced guidebook to climbing in Frey and Bariloche from one of the local outdoor shops in Bariloche or the CAB (Club Adino Bariloche).
Either fly to Bueinos Aires or Santiago and get connecting flight to San Carlos De Bariloche, which does have a provincial airport. Alternatively you can travel by bus overland, although be warned the distances are huge. I drove for 15 hours north on the amazing Ruta 40 and past only a handful of towns and villages.
It is more reasonable to get a bus or fly from Santiago to Puerta Mont or Puerta Varas and then book a coach across the border to Bariloche. This also allows you to potentially get into Cochamo
Where to Stay
There are several Hostels, Hotels and B&B in and around the town. There is also a campsite about 4 miles from town on the lake which is nice and can give access to much of the cragging and the trailhead to Frey.
There is a reasonable bus service into and out of town although you need to get a local travel card and charge it up with some pesos as many buses are now cash free. It is easy to get to the trailhead to frey Frey on the bus signed Cathedral, but generally it will be easier to hire a car as many of the crags are a little off the beaten track.
When to Go
The season for Frey is from around December to March, or their summer time. Although in December there can still be snow on the ground up there. This doesn’t effect the climbing but it can make some of the approaches rather exciting. An ice axe and crampons aren’t generally necessary, if you go later.
Guided Adventure Climbing Holidays
The author offers guided trip to Frey. He has been there three times now and has loved every trip. There is also opportunity to combine a guided trip to Frey with either Cochamo (Big Wall/Trad/Sport climbing on Granite) or Piedra Parada (Sports Climbing in a remote desert setting). For more information contact Mark Reeves at Snowdonia Mountain Guides.
We charge £2500 for the two week course and will extend it at a discounted rate or offer deals if there is more than one person booking.
The find out more email us