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Refugio Frey

Refugio Frey

Yesterday, we hiked to Refugio Frey. Was it spectacular? Yes. Was it worth it? Definitely yes. But it was one of those hikes that made me wish I could enter a cheat code and double my fitness score because I was hopelessly out of shape for the final ascent – and particularly for traipsing through knee-deep snow.

We had some trouble finding accurate descriptions for the hike 20km-ish return hike, something which frustrated me hugely, so I’ll be sharing more details and photos than usual. We couldn’t find any maps that listed sectional times or distances, so I’ve marked up the photo of a map we found at the refugio itself. The map lists a hiking time of 4.5h each way, whereas the website lists 3.5h for the ascent and 2.5h for the descent.

Map with section references

Map with section references

The hike began at the Villa Catedral car park, which was completely empty when we arrived in the morning. We parked in front of the police station for safety then ascended a rocky path for five minutes or so before encountering a sign for Refugio Frey. The hiking time was listed as 3h 45min.

The first section of the trail was very comfortable and took us roughly 1.5h. We spent half the time meandering through the forest until it opened up and offered us views of Lago Gutierrez, then we continued alongside the mountain parallel to the lake until we started curving to the right into the valley.

Views of Lago Gutierrez

Views of Lago Gutierrez

For the most part, we walked on a dirt path, and it wasn’t muddy despite a moderate amount of rain in the preceding days. There were some rocky sections but they were few and far between, and most of the river and stream crossings had bridges or sizeable stepping stones. It was also fairly flat, gaining only 100m or so in elevation across several kilometres.

Bridge crossing

Bridge crossing

As a warning, it can get quite buggy along the trail, particularly with a bit of sunshine and warmth. That didn’t bother us on our way to the refugio because we were walking in a light drizzle, but I was waving my arms around like a madwoman during our return. From what I could tell, they weren’t the stinging type – they just liked to fly into my face and eyes and nose until I covered everything up.

Still, bugs or no bugs, the section itself was fairly scenic. We had a view of the lake on one side, including the mountains and city in the distance, and on the other, we had mountain peaks and the occasional waterfall.

Waterfalls

Waterfalls

Towards the end of the section, when we started veering away from the lake and into the valley, the path also started to change. There were more up and downs, including a few brief scrambles. The terrain also started becoming less smooth than before.

Scrambles

Scrambles

By the time we passed the 30m bridge which followed the curve of the mountain, the path had become a more typical forest path – exposed roots and rocks, steeper slopes, and ground that grew decidedly muddy with a bit of rain.

The section continued for a while, passing a junction where the path forked – the left branch heading back down towards the lake, and the right branch leading upwards towards Refugio Frey. See the “J” on the marked up map. The signage indicated 2h to the refugio at that point.

Forks in the road

Forks in the road

Not long after the fork, the path opened up somewhat and eventually became a gentle walk along a river. There was one major bridge crossing and a bit of an ascent before we reached Refugio Piedritas. It was a really cute hut, built into the base of a large rock, and we rested outside at the picnic table for a while.

Refugio Piedritas

Refugio Piedritas

By my calculations, we’d gained roughly 200m in elevation over roughly 1h of walking in the second section of the hike, and the signage at Refugio Piedritas indicated 1h remaining to Refugio Frey. That’s where the fitness issue came into play – because for me, that last section definitely took more than an hour. More on that later.

In many ways, it was the most beautiful section of the hike. There was a forest of gnarly trees with bare branches, most of which grew at odd angles to survive the harsh environment. The buzzing insects from the earlier river section all but disappeared. There was the occasional bird, fluttering past but disappearing as quickly as it came. There were passing glimpses of the mountain peaks and ridge lines against a stark blue sky.

Adapting to survive

Adapting to survive

After a while, the ground also started to get slippery with unmelted snow from the night before. The ascent grew steeper and more intense – we’d be covering almost 400m in elevation in this last stretch. I started getting nervous. we hadn’t been prepared for ice or snow, and didn’t have any equipment for it.

Increasingly snowy paths

Increasingly snowy paths

Around halfway up, I’ll admit had a bit of a breakdown. What if the snow got deeper? What if there were stretches of ice – and why didn’t we bring our crampons and gaiters? And dammit, how far did we have to go, and how could we possibly tell when the path seemed to go on forever (or at least, definitely more than the listed one hour)?

Then, all else fell away because the snow had become knee-deep and my neurones became fully engaged in the exercise of survival. My trekking poles had become next to useless because I hadn’t brought the snow baskets, so it was a matter of trying to follow Bruno’s footsteps as he broke trail. We were the first people to make the hike that day and I tend to be quite slow at the best of times, so it took us a while to get up that final slope.

Final ascent

Final ascent

Still, we finally made it. And yes, it was worth it. We had uninterrupted views of the towering peaks – Cerro Catedral – rising around us in every direction, all jagged and majestic and imposing. It was a genuinely breathtaking sight.

Arriving at Refugio Frey

Arriving at Refugio Frey

We did duck into the hut for shelter and lunch, but before long, the scenery drew us out again. There was so much splendour everywhere.

Spectacular peaks

Spectacular peaks

Much as it was tempting to stay for longer, we also wanted to descend in relatively clear weather, so after a bit of rest, we started making our way back down. It was an uneventful trip of just over three hours (a full hour less than hour ascent), made easier and safer by the fact that Bruno generously offered to carry my backpack until we’d passed the snowy section, and also by the fact that some of the snow in the lower areas had melted already. I did take a fall but was lucky enough to get by with only a few bruises and dirt streaks.

Deserted parking lot

Deserted parking lot

By the time we’d returned to our car – still the only one in the large parking lot, likely because the weather conditions were tricky and it was low season for hiking – we were happy, tired and very much ready to celebrate with steak and pisco sours.

(Note: There are actually quite a few different routes for accessing Refugio Frey, though some of them would have been completely iced or snowed over based on the conditions we saw. Some of the tourist shops in town offer a selection of maps, but we couldn’t find any that listed either hiking distances or times so I refused to buy them out of principle. There’s also some information on the internet, of course, and if you are inclined towards multi-day hikes, I’d suggest looking into routes that begin at Refugio Frey.)

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