BD Athlete Mary McIntyre: Skiing & Climbing in the Argentine AndesThursday, March 8, 2018
After a month in the Argentine Andes, despite the season's record-breaking snowpack, we've skied only a week's worth of days—the Patagonian winds and unrelenting winter storms repeatedly hindering our plans. With just a few days left in the southern hemisphere and one promising weather window, we set off for one last mission to ski at Refugio Frey and climb Torre Principal.
Torre Principal dominates the Bariloche skyline, a lone finger of granite stirring swirling clouds. Jutting above the spiny ridgeline encircling Refugio Frey, a 1950's-era stone cabin perched on the shores of an alpine lake, it beckons climbers from around the world all summer long. Winter ascents are less common, but have the added enjoyment of a ski approach and descent. Frey's dining room windows look out at line upon line of granite-walled couloirs, at least one of which must be skied to access Principal's north ridge.
The approach to the refugio up the groomed, refrozen ski runs of Cerro Catedral Resort proves particularly sweaty under a load of climbing gear, and we welcome the cold breeze whistling along the ridge. Lingering clouds slip through rock outcroppings, keeping the new storm snow velvety-cold despite the fact that it's nearly summer. We descend to Frey from the Lizard's Head, a horizontal behemoth chunk of granite, and are greeted by a tiny, barrel-chested man with a cherubic smile. Pana, the hut-keeper, prepares coffee and throws a pizza in the oven to fuel our afternoon skiing, telling us of his wild winter in the old hut, spending consecutive days solo, stormed-in and unable to step outside. And though there are other skiers around when we arrive, it's fairly quiet considering the amazing terrain accessible right from the hut's worn wooden threshold.
The following morning, we grind upwards, sweating kickturns toward Principal's north col as the snow bakes under windless sunshine, turning the frozen surface to roller-balling mush before 10 a.m. Leaving our skis at the ridge, we pare down to the bare essentials—including a Jetboil and mate (we are in Argentina, after all)—before scrambling up a snowy gully to the base of the climb.
The first few pitches are a gentle reminder of how to move without skis on my feet and poles in my hands. Working the featured granite, trying to keep snow off my rubber-soled climbing shoes, I pause to watch three massive condors glide overhead, swiveling their necks to take in newcomers to their spired kingdom. After crossing a blocky ridgeline to the base of our first chimney, I belay Willie Benegas as he makes his way upwards, jamming feet, knees, shoulders, and pack into the slot. I follow suit, losing traction on an ice bulge in the shadowy crack and nearly wedging myself for eternity.
Granite patina jugs lead up a vertical face before an airy spread-eagle brings me back into the crack system. I unclip a draw from a sun-bleached wood-block piton wedged overhead, a vestige from early ascents 70 years before. Willie hangs effortlessly from a pinch, dancing feet up the shaded summit pitch. I struggle across the exposed face before topping out on a slender, angular ridge. Fear and nerves dissolve into elation and wonder. From our perch atop a singular finger of granite glowing in the late afternoon light, the skyline is an eternity of snow-capped peaks and deep blue lakes. Cold wind blasts east across the glaciated summits of Tronodor, Puntiagudo, Osorno, and Lanin. Piling on jackets between gusts, we flake ropes as the sun sinks towards the horizon.
Rapping down, we find the couloir frozen into breakable crust. After a hilariously terrible, crunchy descent, we traverse above the lake, thoughts of Pana's pizza encouraging us to push on through the crud. The refugio is bustling with activity and we squeeze into a corner table beside fellow skiers to swap stories over dinner. Skins and boot liners hang by the stove and the walls are covered with photos, maps, and climbing paraphernalia from years of adventures. The Milky Way blooms over ridgetop towers, and a clear, cold night readies the snow for the next day.
"Buen dia!" Pana greets us the following morning with a huge grin and a basket of freshly baked bread. He slides a frothy café con leche across the wooden table and points out a few noteworthy couloirs. The Monk and Central are today's objectives, along with the descent back to Bariloche. The snow heats quickly and the sweet spot between solid ice and spring mush comes and goes, but the steep, surfy skiing momentarily satisfies my ski urge. This finale has me stoked to be heading north, with an entire season of cold weather and skiing just around the corner.
—BD Athlete Mary McIntyre