Cerro Catedral is coy, keeping its splendour veiled until the very last moment. Not until you ascend the final crest does the alpine vista fully reveal itself, a complicated array of granite towers marching toward a jagged skyline. Set against this backdrop is the eponymous Refugio Frey, complimenting the natural terrain with its elegant simplicity. Draped with the snow of a lingering winter, the valley is a scene from a postcard and nothing if not sublime.
I had high expectations for Frey. The climbing has been famously described as “excellent and often outrageously excellent” and many of my friends had personally recommended it. These expectations were equally built by images I’d seen of the various spires, often with enigmatic names that evoke a sense of character and history – The Grandfather, The Monk, The Fool, The Fat Lady. Frey was therefore a de riguer destination for our South American road trip, and although I spent little more than a week in this glorious granite playground, it was more than enough to confirm that everything I’d been told was true.
Accessed from the town of Bariloche, there are a few moving parts required to get to Refugio Frey. First, one must arrive in the ski village of Villa Cerro Catedral, which is about a half-hour drive or bus ride from the city. From there, you have two options – the first is a three to four-hour approach via the normal trail, the second is to catch a chairlift up to Refugio Lynch or Punta Princesa and descend the ridgeline. I can’t imagine that sliding down the diabolical scree slopes with at least 20kg on your back is an inviting option, but I’ll let you make the call. We opted for the beaten trail.
Whichever way you choose, Frey is not a day crag and you’ll want to stay for at least a week, maybe two. This requires you to carry a rather weighty pack, that is of course unless you are planning on eating and sleeping at the Refugio. This is not a particularly economical option and I daresay you’ll probably be able to build your own refugio for slightly less (check www.refugiofrey.com for current prices, keeping in mind that the Argentine peso has dropped in value almost as quickly as the Australian Cricket Team in recent years, which is pretty rapid to say the least).
Those of us who prefer the DIY option will instead stock up on food at La Anonima or Carrefour in Bariloche and get it up the hill via the Bootlace Express. Camping is free but must be booked online at the website. Drinking water and toilets are provided, as well as a kitchen which you can use for a small fee if you don’t feel like bringing a stove and fuel. Again, I can’t imagine this is a great choice, particularly in peak season, but the option exists. Another campsite can be found in the neighbouring Campanile Valley, which could be a better alternative if the crowds are too intense or you plan on tackling objectives in this neck of the woods. As always, pack it in, pack it out.
Once safely ensconced in one of several campsites, each with varying levels of wind protection and flatness, you’re free to plunder the veritable bounty that is Frey climbing. The various spires occupy two small cirques connected by a low col, and each has a tremendous amount of high quality routes. That said, just about everyone starts out on Aguja Frey, a destination made immensely popular by virtue of its proximity to the hut. A mere 5-minute approach will find you at the base of the moderate classic Sifuentes-Weber, a route that is essentially obligatory as an introduction to the area. This was our first route, followed closely by the amazing dihedral/handcrack combo of Diedro de Jim, which is so magnificent that I frothed about it at length in this Instagram post. Other routes have lengthier approaches, though never extremely laborious and having an average length of about an hour.
In addition to its reputation for excellence, Frey has often been noted for the severity of its grades. Whilst this reputation is not undeserved, I found the sandbagging to be less drastic than I imagined it would be. The history of climbing in the area dates right back to the 1930’s, with many of the classic routes opened between the 50’s and 70’s. The stiffness of the grading is consistent with any old school traditional climbing area, so those who are familiar with Arapiles and Frog Buttress, or perhaps J-Tree and the Shawangunks, won’t be particularly fazed. Those who aren’t well versed in such areas might want to shift their expectations a little lower.
In addition to the grading, the style of climbing is itself somewhat old school. Would-be ascensionists should be comfortable in cracks of all sizes or prepare to become so. Almost every route I climbed at Frey contained at least one segment of offwidth climbing as well as slab of varying difficulties. You can probably avoid such terrain by sticking to short bolted or mixed routes, but if some humble grovelling and thin smearing truly fills you with dread, maybe Frey isn’t for you anyways.
The season runs from roughly December to March, with February the driest month. We arrived in late November, and even though there was still a lot of snow around, we found that there was more than enough accessible terrain for us. The weather was perfect and we climbed in T-shirts on sunny aspects or wearing a mid-layer when in the shade. We didn’t have a problem with traffic on any of the routes, even at the uber-popular Aguja Frey. By all accounts, the crowds in January and February are exponentially larger, so I would certainly recommend the shoulder season to anyone, particularly if it’s your first visit. Crampons or snowshoes might be a good idea for those who are keen to access some of the more remote spires such as Campanile or Pyramidal.
The overall verdict? In my mind, Frey is nothing short of incredible – mega-classic trad climbing on high quality granite in a beautiful alpine setting. What the routes lack in length, they make up in quality and consistency. Every line packs a lot of punch into its modest length, and the result is accessible adventure climbing without the epics.
Although I didn’t get to sample even half of the routes I was keen on, I recommend the following all-time classics in the moderate grades: Sifuentes-Weber (linked with the last pitch of Sifuentes-Monte), El Diedro de Jim and Lost Fingers on Aguja Frey, Ruta Normal and Del Techo on El Abuelo, and Ruta Normal on Torre Principal.
Route information can be found in the excellent Frey Climbing Guide by Rolanado Garibotte and Dorte Pietron, available for sale in Bariloche or online.
Ryan Siacci, Esq.