It’s no secret that my heart is linked — inextricably — to the mountains, that something in them draws my soul like a moth to a flame. They’re magnetic, potent, and irresistible to me — intoxicating and terrifying in the same moment. For this reason, Patagonia has long been a dream of mine to visit, a dream which was at last realized last week when I finally made it to the town of San Carlos de Bariloche. There, I would go hiking to Refugio Frey, and just a little bit further…
Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.David McCullough Jr.
I almost didn’t choose that particular hike, since I’d heard hiking to Refugio Frey was the most popular route in the park and really didn’t want to chance being part of a mob of tourists on the trail. My AirBnB host reassured me it was worth doing, however, and I decided an early start on a Friday should help me avoid most of the crowds.
I was right, and so — as it turns out — was she.
The trail is a slow burn, skirting the hillsides as Lago Gutiérrez shimmers in the valley below. After so long away from the trails, the initial ease of the hike was a welcome surprise.
Like so many other things in this world, every hike is different… every jaunt through Nature’s palace has its own special flavor. Some — like Lookout Mountain in my home of Washington State — keep their views fiercely secret, while others — like Ptarmigan Ridge — entice you onward with evermore-astounding views…
Hiking to Refugio Frey yields an experience somewhat in between the two, but is more akin to Ptarmigan Ridge. After the initial traversing of the hillsides, the trail turns, and a single pinnacle peeks out over a distant pass. A finger of craggy granite flanked by snow — even in the middle of summer — it beckons on those looking to savor the vistas it guards.
The trail takes a turn here, both figuratively and literally, and dives into the shaded depths of a twisted and whispering wood. An alpine stream burbles through it, and large boulders lie dormant on the forest floor, cast-offs from glaciers long since melted.
The climb intensifies, the pace quickens, but so too do the incentives — views increasingly more epic in scale dangled just out of reach. Cajoling, prodding, tempting onward…
Then, a short scramble up a muddied creek bed and a tumble of boulders later, and the refugio comes into view, perched on the near shore of Laguna Toncek…
The lake shore has space to spread out, to linger, away from the refugio itself. There was a light wind that day, barely enough to disturb the surface of the laguna, and a family of Patagonian crested ducks paddled about. The duckling seemed to copy its parents’ every move, as they dunked their heads and ruffled their feathers in the frigid water.
The sound of wind, of waves, and of contented quacks were only broken by the occasional murmur of conversation… the occasional outburst of laughter.
Communing with the mountains always feels like coming home…
Here the trail splits, and one can tread lightly along either side of the lake, to where the trails rejoin on the other side. Ahead, the pinnacles loom ever taller — improbable and striking in their form.
The way up out of the valley can be difficult to distinguish at first, nearly indiscernible from the rest of the rocky scree. But look closely, and the path is there, marked by red dots on larger boulders, winding its way up the dauntingly steep rockfall and — at least in January — still crusted in snow.
The top reveals another laguna — Laguna Schmoll — nestled in a little divot on the shoulder of the surrounding peaks. This laguna is, perhaps, even calmer than the first, and I very nearly fell asleep on its shore until the sounds of fellow hikers roused me from my almost-slumber.
I’d initially planned on turning around and returning the way I’d come, but the pair continued on up the steep slope across the lake from me — trudging through some snow patches and clambering up a rockfall to claim the ridge-line.
An odd, football pitch-sized depression lies just on the other side of the ridge, with a small gap at the far end. Through it, the world unfolds, and breath — if you still have it — is snatched from you.
While the view from Refugio Frey is stunning, it is enclosing. The hedge of pinnacles encircles you, traps you within its embrace, and your gaze is held captive within its confines. Here, though, the views are expansive. The eyes are drawn, further and further away, to distant peaks and valleys, to the sapphire smudge of Lago Nahuel Huapi in the distance…
The trail splits just after the pass, a steep and hair-raising descent leading down into the valley and deeper into the park or a winding scramble along the hillside to another lookout, with the earth dropping away beneath your feet nearly the entire way.
I chose the scramble.
Hiking teaches me so much. There are moments on the trail, moments when I’m alone and daunted by the path ahead, moments when my heart catches in my throat, moments when I am desperately, desperately afraid…
Sometimes, I listen to those fears. Sometimes I turn around. More often, I don’t. There are times when I can’t.
But just like there are moments of fear, there are moments of power, moments of self-realization. There are moments when your perspective shifts, and you realize the path you’ve tread doesn’t look so harrowing from the other side, once you’ve conquered your fear and made it through unscathed….
I live for those moments.
When, at last, I crested the far ridge-line, I was exhausted. It hadn’t really been a crazy hike, but I’d gone hard. That, combined with my relative inactivity since September, rendered me just about useless, and I was more than a little relieved to find the nearby chair lift down the mountain operational. I decided to save my knees and take advantage of the convenience.
Sometimes, it’s okay to cut yourself a break.
Feel like doing this hike as well? Here are my GPS treks from the day. I’d also recommend downloading an offline map of the area with Maps.ME, as that application seemed to have the most comprehensive depiction of the various trails in the area. I’d also recommend having some hiking poles, as I didn’t bring mine on this trip and really missed the darn things!