La Última Parte de
La Casa Rodante: La Vida del Viajero o no tanto, en Patagonia, Argentina
(The Mobile Home: Life of a Traveler or not so much, in Patagonia, Argentina)
With over a week of Van Life under our belts we were finally starting to get things dialed. We’d purchased all the fuel canisters from all of the ferreterias in Bariloche. We’d found access to free water in a local park in El Bolsón and learned that cooking outside was one of the best ways to cut down on the moisture inside the van. Even when it’s raining. We’d also learned how to make the best use of our time, our mobility, our patience, and on top of all that we’d even figured out how to ask the waitress in a café if she had free wifi (tenés weeeeefeeeee gratis acá?). All of the important things were dialed.
There was something to the freedom of the road, the traveling life that I’d sarcastically dismissed with jokes after reading all those stories about it on facebook over the years. We’d stood on top of mountains, seen first hand the contrast between city, desert, Valdivian rainforest, and the rising Andes mountains beneath our ski tips. We’d skied with pisteros, swam in ice cold Patagonian lakes, tasted polvo and hicimos limonada. The life was challenging, mentally and physically, and with our collaborative energy we’d been able to thus far meet the challenges that Van Life in Patagonia presented. Nothing would have been possible without La Casa Rodante y esa es la verdad!
We’d already done more than we’d ever imagined, the van was starting to really feel like “home” and we still had a week left to fully immerse ourselves in La Vida de un Viajero en Patagonia, Argentina. The options were limitless. Travel further south to El Chaltén? Perhaps we should head back to the north, try a winter ascent of Volcán Lanín? What about the northern Andes around Las Leñas?
It’s never easy when you decide to leave a place that you’ve grown to really enjoy, especially in a short period of time. Part of you says stay, another part says it’s time to go. The life of the traveler doesn’t inherently mean your leaving something behind, always searching for something better, more adventurous, or more fulfilling in the future. The traveler is constantly evaluating his surroundings. He’s using multiple perspectives, making the best choice based on the information available, always with thought and consideration. El Viajero has the flexibility to stay, to leave and even return on a moments notice. Because he has La Casa Rodante.
Jared and I have surely left a lot undone, thus far, in Patagonia. We’ve made plans all to simply break them in a moments notice. Nothing forced, nothing regretted. We weren’t simply shooting from the hip. We’d driven for hundreds of kilometers around lakes and through national forest looking for places to ski. The reality was a lot was impossible to access. Our plan b’s were transforming into plan a’s, our moments always enjoyed in some weird way, because, hey, we were skiing in August, in Patagonia, Argentina. Remember? Here the weather changes faster than you can refresh your web browser, and any day without rain is meant to cherished.
So with that said, we hit the road again. Jared behind the wheel, myself riding shotgun, driving into the sunset. We breezed through a series of mountain passes on our way back north, the open alpine plains and valleys spread out in contrast between the surrounding mountains. The lakes harnessed their own unique beauty that I truly appreciated from my spot in the passenger seat. Patagonia was enormous and we were only in one small part of it.
If there was one place I really wanted to go while in the Lakes District of Patagonia it was El Refugio Emilio Frey. The refugio lies at the foot of La Torre Catedral Principal. We first spotted the tall spire as we entered Bariloche, riding high, front row seats, on the upper deck of the viabariloche bus. The entire basin where the refugio is located is incredible. The surrounding ridge lines are made unique from anywhere else in the world with their tall weather carved granite towers, golden colored spires and encapsulating couloirs. Frey is a true masterpiece of stonemasonry, its granite walls having housed rock-climbers, skiers and all types of outdoor enthusiasts since 1957. We were, in a way, obliged to spend a few days at this incredibly unique refugio. Even if it meant leaving La Casa Rodante behind.
Jared and I arrived back in Bariloche from the south with a few hours to pack our things and prepare to spend any number of consecutive nights at Frey. Of course, upon our arrival, it was raining. As a creature of habit, I checked the weather again, and it was saying two days from now things would be sunny and cold in the mountains surrounding the refugio, but tomorrow had the potential to be bad. Even the small thought that good weather lay ahead was all the inspiration we needed to get out of the van, even it if it meant rolling the dice on accessing the area.
We arrived at Cerro Catedral early the following morning. The parking lot lay frozen, the trees stood with a dusting of icy snow. We loaded the lift, bogged down by our heavy packs, the outsides complete with our ice tools, the insides chaotically crammed with food, our sleeping bags, and warm clothing. No essentials were left behind. As we ascended the 6-pack lift up the mountain we went in and out of the clouds. Visibility was lower than I had anticipated when I’d told Jared I was all for using Catedral to access Frey instead of taking the summer trail.
Once we reached the alpine, it was obvious today was a full-on powder day at the resort and the weather was going to be a challenge. We ditched our packs, stoked to take a couple quick polvo laps, but even the abundant snow couldn’t hide the unease that was building within ourselves about the weather. On our third chair lift ride of the day, as if we were both being cued by a conductor, and before I could open my mouth Jared was already saying “hey, we should head for the refugio sooner, rather than later.” I was in complete agreement. The weather, my unfamiliarity with the big terrain and my general feeling of disorientation around the side-country of Catedral already had me a little on-edge about us finding our way to the refugio.
The moments before we dropped into the traverse that would take us over to Frey, via an opposing ridge line and well hidden saddle, in hindsight, were the most scary of the entire trip for me. Visibility was low, really low. Sometimes you could only see 20 feet in front, and skiing and route finding with zero-vis is something that really freaks me out. After consulting our map, and spotting the route through the clouds, we realized we had what looked like a really exposed and highly committed traverse to gain access to the ridge and saddle. It’s funny, but not really, how the weather can play tricks on you. With the proper texture, just a few centimeters of new snow can look like feet, and low light can make what locals describe as an easily findable route alarming, terrifying, and dangerous.
In times like these, minutes seem like hours. Time flows at a different pace when your scared. Waiting for our weather window was frustratingly painful and the time we spent taking the map out, looking for the route, confirming we knew the route, then second guessing ourselves as we lost visibility again, was enough to really make me lose my confidence. Jared suggested we take a closer look and we moved down the mountain toward our point of access. At this time the weather got much worse, and I told Jared that I didn’t want to make the traverse because there were few options for mitigating avalanche risk in the low visibility and the route finding was too questionable. It didn’t help that a number of ski patrollers passed us, telling us the slope was extremely dangerous and we should go another day. Awesome. I felt really bad, deep in my stomach. That point where maybe you think you’ll throw up, and so we agreed we would head down, go for the summer trail. “Fuck the lift tickets and the 4 hour plus walk we’d need to make, at least we’d be safe,” I thought.
I really appreciated Jared’s willingness to listen to my instincts, his levelheadedness when I seemed to be losing mine. I also had complete trust in his confidence and expertise in big terrain. Our combined skill sets had been very affective thus far and so when he asked if I didn’t mind if he took a quick hike up to check out the traverse from a better vantage point, I said “sure.” At this point we needed a little help from external sources, and the help we needed not only came in the form of much improved weather but a couple backcountry fanáticos from Bariloche.
About the same time Jared reached the better vantage point the light popped and so did a couple guys on skins, climbing from a different route that eventually crossed our path. I immediately struck up a conversation with the guys and con suerte they were headed to Frey. Since the duo were such self proclaimed fanáticos of the refugio, they agreed to show us the way to the saddle. I was still pretty uneasy about making the traverse because the snow looked so new, so deep, so wind loaded, so prime to rip out and take me thousands of feed to the valley floor. No thank you chicos, por favor, vamos a seguir.
So off we went, a bit of a leap of faith, but as our first new friend made it across, the second was near a safe zone and I finally pushed off, out into the grandness of that terrain, I realized things were a lot safer than I had thought. That perfectly textured snow was only a few centimeters deep, and the snow underneath it, not going anywhere. I was surprised how solid it was. I breathed a sign of relief as I reached the safety of the rocks on the far side of the traverse, popped the tabs on my dynafit bindings and followed the guys up the boot pack.
Big props to Jared for hanging back and snapping photos of the traverse, which we couldn’t find elsewhere online, so now people have a better idea of the route.
The climb from the bottom was worth the effort when we finally reached the refugio. The painfully challenging mind fuck that was finding the route was made even more sweet when we first laid eyes on what we’d have for the next several days. And as we got comfortable, spread out, and I re-balanced myself with a nice long sip of mate, I realized we were probably going to have this place to ourselves, at least for a little while. And this seemed to make everything alright.
The following morning we hit the skin track, basked by an incredible alpine glow. It was the kind of early morning light that reminds you why you got up early, left the hut before anyone else, and set out with all the ambition in the world to climb and ski. We were alone as we crossed the lake, the early morning head fog burning off as we followed the sun up toward La Torre Catedral Principal, the most obvious line from the window of the refugio.
It’s hard to describe, in words, an experience like this particular one. This day was rare, for anyone, anywhere in the skiing world. And if you look at these photos and read the descriptions, you might see why. There is something truly euphoric about ascending in dawning light, breaking trail through an abundance of perfectly deposited polvo. The light breeze on your face, a constant reminder that your at the mercy of the elements up here. Perhaps this is the essence of skiing, earning every turn, complete focus, totally in the moment. Your mind in one place, and nowhere else.
In its essence, in its purest form, this was skiing. We’d earned every one of these turns, this moment in space and time. We’d arrived, amongst the golden spires, the towers, the pinnacles, the walls of granite that I’d dreamed of skiing beneath all my life. The moment couldn’t have been any more inspiring, the locale any more surprising, and the texture of the snow any smoother. The pitch was liberating. As Jared later described to me, our first run at Frey wasn’t about stepping up to something big and challenging, it didn’t require pure focus on technique, or the pressure to perfectly execute every turn. It wasn’t the steepest line, or the scariest. It was about the freedom of being able to start at the top, finish at the bottom, and paint the canvas anyway you chose.
Things we setting up beautifully for the the two of us. We had the entire zone to ourselves. The temperatures were staying cold and the polvo, blower. Our first run under La Torre Catedral Principal served a dual purpose for us. It not only allowed us to ski freely in the wide open, lower angle terrain, but it also gave us the opportunity to see how the new snow was bonding to an older, much harder slab beneath it. We both felt things were stable. The frequent freeze-thaw conditions that the area gets after storms really locks things up. Our only challenge as we approached bigger, steeper terrain was going to be mitigating sloughs and any more sensitive, wind deposited snow. We continued to followed the sun around the cirque above us, evaluating the changing aspects as we went.
We were getting tired but after a quick snack, we renewed our spirits and continued to follow the sun as it wrapped its way around the cirque above Frey. We were both feeling strong, the skin track was set, and we headed up again, for one final line. This one was the first line I immediately spotted when we arrived to the refugio and starred wide eyed from its dining room windows. The tight, steep, rime lined couloir looked like a needle from the refugio, just my style, it spoke to me.
Up up up and we were breaking trail again, the couloir hanging high above our heads in the sun. Things were setting up nicely. This was my type of thing, climbing straight up, really getting into the snow, plunging my axe, feeling the layers, the snow quality, one step after another.
A committed, airy entry, one ski cut, two, a sizable slough of wind deposited snow out the bottom, traveling well past the exit and my heart was racing. “Quit forgetting to breath!” I told myself, thankful for my balance and composure as snow collapsed and cascaded down the steep couloir. This was “for-real” I thought as I made a final ski cut across the slope, making sure everything that needed to go ahead of my descent was gone.
As Jared finished the remained of the line, dusting the lower apron with his usual fluidity, the cold snow barely setup with the days ample sunshine, I sat on the ground, exhausted. I don’t remember the last time I had a day in the mountains as memorable as the one I was experiencing right now. In Colorado, it’s rare to ski terrain like this in the same conditions we had just experienced. The dry snow, the couloirs, the aprons, they had me, briefly reminiscing times in Canada and Utah, but just for comparisons sake. The day was unique, the skiing, the company, even more so.
After a long day we took to relaxing in the dining room at the refugio. We watched skiers from the big glass windows slowly trickle in from the flanking mountains surrounding the area. We wouldn’t be alone tonight.
The Refugio Frey seems to be a bit of a cultural epicenter in the Bariloche area. Oneour second night we played pingpong against accomplished freeride athletes, sipped mates with the caretakers, chatted with pendejos, took hits of Paraquayan weed with guitar slinging vagabonds, and shared stories. Our new friend Alejandro was joining the crew for a few nights from Buenos Aires, trekking in the winter and sleeping in a tent outside, while in contrast, the caretakers preferred ice climbing one day and steep skiing the next. Inti and Niki were there to freeride, and others just to drop off supplies, have a quick sandwich, and charge back down into the Patagonian darkness. A true melting pot of personas copadas.
Some things you just can’t resist, even when limitless opportunities exist around you. Jared and I both agreed that although we wanted to ski some of the other lines around Frey, it would be crazy not to top out as close to La Torre Catedral Principal as we could. The tall tower, so remarkable, so perfect, stood like a beacon, attracting us.
We woke up a bit later, as neither of us slept too well with the howling winds that shook Frey to its old foundation all night. The skin across the lake wasn’t as pleasant as the morning before and we were both tired. I’m sure Jared shared my sentiment at the time when I was thinking, “why in god’s name am I out here right now.” I was grasping, holding on to the slightest, deepest motivation that was fueling through the winds. I hung on to the hope that things would improve. However, they just got more interesting. But in a different form.
We slogged up and over to the base of La Torre, traversing, skin skiing, boot packing, and skinning again before settling into my preferred method of ascending. We were navigating what became an incredibly complex approach up an east face that would connect us with our goal. Above us stood the incredible, picturesque golden spires. The ones that the area was known for. Below us, massive exposure. A long devastating fall. The slope was warming as we climbed. The cooling winds gone, the freeze-thaw beginning to re-emerge in a thaw, from a few days of consistent cold weather.
We were fortunate to receive some helpful cloud cover as we continued up the east face. My level of alertness to the encompassing danger of the warming slope and the existing long climb to safety had me suppressing the wanting that was putting my skis on and getting the hell out of there. As our team dynamic continued to play a huge role in our ability to overcome uncomfortable situations, it was Jared’s instinct to continue forward, and my experience that sometimes it is just safer to keep climbing, that allowed us to get our day back on track. One plunge of the axe at a time.
(I was too focused to take any photos during this portion of the climb. Oops)
The ridge brought us comfort, access to southernly facing lines and the security of solid ground. However, it brought me discomfort in its uncertainty. I hate down climbing through rocks with skis on my back and without the protection of a rope. Jared lead the way, one step at a time. This was his thing and I had huge respect for that.
In retrospect, if we had known there was an easier approach to La Torre, we probably would have taken it. But, since we were exploring, paving our own path and evaluating things based on the information we had at the time, there was nothing we could do but accept our situation and move forward, one plunge of the axe at a time. The ski mountaineers approach to the line was certainly emotional, at times uncomfortable and yet glorious in its own right. After all, skiing, in its purest most fundamental form, is exactly this. Find an objective, approach it in the most logical way based on the information available, use your skill set and the skill set of your partner or partners to accomplish that goal.
That night at Frey, amongst a sea of Argentinians, next to some guys from France, and a cat named Emilio, backgrounded by the guitars, bongos and lyrics of Manu Chao, harped by our new friends, our mouths full of pizza, Jared and I both shared a common sentiment. Our collective commitment to the van life, La Casa Rodante, had gotten us here, given us these opportunities. All the high points and all the low points, the successes and the failures. The lines left unskied and the ones skied. La vida del Viajero was our current reality, our contrasting yet complimentary styles and approaches to the mountains our mode to experiencing all that was around us.
Had I known that La Torre Catedral Principal was going to be the last, legitimate climb and ski of our time in Patagonia, Argentina, I still don’t think I would have approached the day any differently. Our time here was spent in the best way we knew how. Each moment unique, transitory. Our time was in fact the collection of many incredible moments blended into one thing much greater, all encompassing, that can only to be described as La Casa Rodante. Van life, an idea that I once believed to be so abstract, in actuality, is. It’s completely unique to its drivers, it’s Viajeros. It will and always will be what they make of it. The beauty of this life lies in the collection of the moments that are formed, inadvertently, through the challenges and the ease of life in a van. The one constant that always remains, the van itself.
Big thanks to everyone we met and who helped us out along the way. Jorge Kozulj, Miles Clark, Kevin Castillo, Federica Del Olmo, all the caretakers at Frey and everyone we met along the way.
Huge thanks to Jared Akerstrom for his supportive role through photography in these blog posts.