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The Nahuel Huapi Traverse March 31, 2007

Posted by Cheryl in Argentina, Patagonia, South America, trekking.

Jase under the flagpole at Refugio Lynch

Jase managed to talk me into doing this trek with him even though I had done it before (last year while I was in Bariloche).  He coaxed me into it by asking me to be his “guide” which was very brave of him considering I got myself spectacularly lost last time!

Although it is a tough trek with long days of big climbs and descents, the scenery is spectacular and the views you are rewarded with after a gruelling climb make it all worthwhile.

Cable car up the mountain

We started out taking the bus to the ski village of Catedral only a few miles outside Bariloche.  Last time when I was here the chairlift wasn´t running (peculiarly it doesn´t run on Sundays or Mondays) so I had to walk up to Refugio Frey but this time we could get the chair lift all the way to the top and then traverse along the ridge before dropping down to Refugio Frey. 

The ridge is fairly sheer on one side with steep drops into the valley and the terrain is tough requiring a fair amount of climbing up and down rocky sections using your hands.  Once far enough along the ridge there are another two steep sections to climb down before you get to the beautiful Laguna Tonchek with Refugio Frey on its shores.

Refugio Frey

Having decided to travel as light as possible and not take our tent, we were staying in the refugio where you can hire a dorm bed and buy all your meals.  We were carrying our breakfast and lunch, but had all our evening meals in the refugios (huts) along the route.  The Argentinians have great refugios in some of the most picturesque locations in the mountains.  They are open all year, but only serviced in the summer. 

Frey was very busy the night we were there and the small dormitory was very cramped so we didn´t get a great night’s sleep, but the Artesan Ale on draft went a long way to making up for that.  We spent a nice evening waiting for our dinner to be served and chatting to some of the people at the hut.

Refugio Jakob

From Refugio Frey we hiked back up to the top of the ridge we had climbed down the previous afternoon and then started the steep descent through the scree (loose rock) to the bottom of the valley on the other side.  This followed by a cool walk through the lenga forests before coming out into the open for another hot and steep climb to the top of the next ridge.  From here the next refugio (Jakob) came into view far below on the banks of another lagoon.  Some more slip sliding down steep scree brought us out at the bottom in time for a quick beer in the afternoon sunshine (one of the simple pleasures gleaned from hiking between refugios).

To begin with, there was hardly anyone at the refugio but we watched a steady stream of people making their way down the scree as the afternoon wore on.  We were soon inundated with people of many nationalities bravely jumping into the lagoon and just as quickly exiting it.

The talk in the refugio that night was all about who was going to go on to the next hut and how hard the next day would be.  There is a short section of scrambling (climbing using your hands) on the next section that although relatively easy, is exposed and therefore could be dangerous.  In our opinion it would only be classed as a Grade 1 scramble in England and therefore is not particularly difficult, but the Argentinians don´t encourage people to do this and therefore make a bigger deal out of it than need be. 

Scrambling up the rock face

The Jakob Refugio is a beautiful wooden building that is far more spacious than Frey.  Dinner tonight was a delicious 3 course affair.  How Marissa (the lovely lady running the refugio) achieved cooking such a great meal for this many people single-handedly is quite a mystery. 

We woke before dawn the next day to get an early start on what was going to be a long day.  As autumn approaches the Patagonian days are getting shorter and it is only getting light at 8am.  We ate a quick breakfast and were off by 8.30am.  A short way ahead of us were the two Americans we had met who had hired a guide for the trek.  The group of American youngsters who we had heard plotting the previous night to follow the guide up the mountain were still tucked up in bed.

Once again it was a beautiful morning, we had no problems on the scramble and made the top of ridge in good time.  Invigorated with our light backpacks (for a change) we climbed the extra few dozen metres to gain the top of Pico Refugio which looks less impressive at this point, but from below looms over the refugio dramatically.

Here we overtook the Americans and with me “guiding” Jason we took off right across the next ridge with me assuring Jase that even though the route markers went in a completely different direction, that this was definitely the way.  It was only later when the Americans were once again ahead of us that I grudgingly accepted that I´d taken him the long way round, at least a half an hour of uncomfortable terrain out of our way.  

With condors soaring overhead we made up for the lost ground and again met the Americans at the top of Cerro Navidad, the highest point of the trek at 2,060m.  The views from here of Tronador and the mountains on the Chilean/Argentinian frontier are stunning.  We could even see Volcan Lanin in the distance.  We sat around in the sunshine for a long break eating our sandwiches and enjoying the vista.

Sledding down the snow

The trail down the other side is exceptionally steep with sections of scree, snow (which we slid down on our bums) and rock.  Or rather, as our American friend Jim exclaimed when he got to the next refugio looking fatigued, “That´s not a trail, it´s a route”.   As you climb the opposite ridge after this descent and look back at it, it really does strike you as remarkable that you´ve descended that way, it does look impossible.

Refugio Italia on the banks of Laguna Negra was another gem of a refugio.  Very few people had come across from the previous refugio and it was quiet.  I played chess while Jase chatted about the day with the (anguished) Americans. 

We had another early start the next day in preparation for another long (10-hour) day.  The route took us up and along another ridge before descending into a valley and starting a stupidly steep climb through a rocky section of scree to gain the top of the ridge near Pico Turista.  We dumped our packs and climbed the rest of the way to the summit and enjoyed spectacular views over Nahuel Huapi Lake to Bariloche, the beautiful valley below us and once again the mountains on the Argentina-Chile border including Tronador and volcanoes Osorno and Puntiagudo.

View from final pass with Tronador in the background

One last steep descent to Refugio Lopez where we had a 5 minute rest before continuing to the road to catch the bus back to Bariloche.  We were hoping to catch the 6pm bus, it was tight, but we may well have made it if only Jason´s “guide” hadn´t somehow led him off the 5 foot wide trail onto a smaller trail that ended abruptly in the middle of a thick bamboo forest, from where we had to fight our way through the bamboo to get back onto the right track wasting valuable time.  Jase, next time take Jorge´s advice and NEVER follow your girlfriend…



1. Thiane - April 11, 2007

Hey Cheryl, how are you? You seem to be having a wonderful time. I am fine. Lots of things going on here in São Paulo and I still miss London party time. Well, if you come to this part of Latin America, let me know.

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