Frey Rock Climbing / Cerro Hielo Azul - 7375' - Class 2 / Tronador Attempt - January 2018
This report will be the first installment of a series of trip reports depicting my 4 month trip to South America from early January to early May this year. Words cannot describe how awesome this trip was, but I will try to sum up some of the high points and incorporate a bunch of photos to share. This was my longest trip outside of North America, and consisted prmairly of two months in Patagonia, followed by a month in northern Chile/Argentina, 3 weeks in Bolivia, then an additional 2 weeks in Peru at the end.
Elaine and I arrived in Santiago Chile around the 10th of January, then took buses south to Osorno, then east to Bariloche, where we met my friend Itai from Israel, who had already been travelling around Argentina for a couple weeks. The three of us would travel and climb together while in Patagonia for two months. Our first destination, since we were in Bariloche was to head to the Frey for some granite trad climbing. I had been here before back in 2014, but Itai and Elaine had not. We took the bus up to the Cerro Catedral ski area parking lot, which leaves every couple hours from downtown and hiked the excellent trail up to the Refugio Frey where we set up camp in one of the flat tent spots adjacent to the hut.
This hut, along with many others in the Nahuel Hupai National Park are full service refugios including flushable toilets (don't ask me where the sh## goes), a full kitchen with pizza and sandwiches for sale, beds, and electricity. The trek connecting 4 of the big refugios is one of the more popular treks in Argentina as you only need to bring day hiking gear for a 4 day trip if you want to pay for the food and lodging in the mountain huts.
We decided to save the money and camp, and since we were also carrying climbing gear, our packs were quite heavy, which would be a recurring theme for this trip! The first day we climbed a classic 3 pitch 5.9 route on Aguja Frey called the Sifuentes/Weber/Monte link-up. This tower is the one directly above the refugio the first day. Then we went for Torre Principal, which I had climbed in 2014 but was happy to return to. This is the highest tower in the Frey. Due to intense wind on the final two pitches I let Elaine and Itai continue to the summit without me this time around, however I got to lead a variation on the first pitch that was different than what I climbed in 2014. Views of Tronador from this tower are incredible.
The following day Itai rested, and Elaine and I climbed Canal Estalactita 5.9 (one pitch) on El Abuelo, then Socotroco 5.10b (one pitch) on Aguja M2. Both were excellent climbs to classic Frey towers. M2 in particular narrowed to a tiny point at the summit!
We hiked back down the trail and took the us back to Bariloche, then discussed what we would do next. After an easy day sport climbing at one of the limestone crags above town, we agreed we would attempt Tronador, which required us to take a once daily bus in the morning to Pampa Linda. You are supposed to register at the ranger station in Bariloche, however they claim to require a guide to climb Tronador. This is total bull so we just went up there planning to climb it anyways without telling anyone. It's a 3.5 hour bus ride to this tiny village in the large valley SE of Tronador, and had to pay the entrance fee where the ranger walks on the bus and manually collects everyone's money. The approach to the mountains follows the incredibly popular trail to Otto Meiling hut which we hiked from Pampa Linda in roughly 5 hours with once again, heavy packs. We had to carry our mountaineering boots and crampons among everything else. We camped at a nice spot near the hut with a large wind wall and space enough for two tents. With the alarm set for 3:30am we relaxed in the on and off foggy conditions and enjoyed the fact there were not many people around us. Sunset over the rugged peaks of Nahual Hupai Park was amazing.
We woke up early while it was still dark, and after merely 100 feet of ascending up the snow the winds immediately started whipping, and it would continue like this for the entire day
We slowly slogged our way up the glaciers, more or less following the tracks of the many guided parties. Our goal was to climb the highest international summit, rather than the lower Argentine summit that all the guided parties go to. However when we finally reached the crest of the south ridge on the international summit the winds became so unbearable we couldn't continue, plus the really bad rock was all exposed on the upper face, since snow had melted out early. This rock is so bad it really can't be climbed on, so we decided to turn around 500 feet from the summit. Our views were spectacular, as we were high above all the clouds. As we descended we slowly re-entered the clouds, and back at camp we were in a total whiteout. We didn't waste time packing up and heading back to Pampa Linda as we had to try and hitchhike back to Bariloche since we didn't pay in advance for the bus ticket back.
We hoped one of the buses would have a few extra seats when we got back, but every bus was completely full. We waited around for hours well into the afternoon, until we finally got lucky and got picked up by a local couple who was hiking the Otto Meiling Trail. We pretty quickly realized that hitchhiking with 3 people is very hard! We made it back though, and had a nice dinner in town.
We bought bus tickets to El Bolson just a few hours south the next day. I had also been here in 2014, however the forest fire smoke was so bad I couldn't do or see anything while I was there. S i was excited to go back. This town is famous for being a large hippie town with lots of great food (my favorite being the Jauja ice cream!) and excellent markets. Itai wanted another rest day, so in the evening we arrived, we stopped at the grocery store for some food and took a taxi out to the Hue Nain campground along Rio Azul where we planned to just hike up the trail towards Cerro Helio Azul a mile or two and camp for the night. However when we walked by the packed campground, the host came up to us and told us we cannot begin hiking up the trail after 2pm!!
All I could think is WTF, really? He said he would call the "mountain police" if we went across the bridge and up, and he insisted we camp at his campground. Having no part of this red tape bullsh##, we asked where we could just camp for free and he said there was no such thing, but told us there was a cheaper campground 20 minutes walk south along the Rio Azul. So we walked down the river trail for 5 minutes and found a nice flat spot a bit off the trail right next to the river to camp. Since it was dark by this point we knew no one would see us, plus we would be up really early.
By 6am we were on our way back past the Hue Nain campground and luckily there was no sign of idiot campground host, so we made our way across the rickety bridge and began up the trail. The sign at the trail says it's a 7 hour hike up to the refugio Helio Azul, however it only took us 3.5 hours. This was one of the only climbs in our whole Patagonia trip where we had light packs!
Upon reaching the refugio shortly before 10am, everyone appeared to still be asleep. This refugio was a total hippie commune though and was quite interesting to explore. It was a private refugio within the Rio Azul/Lago Escondido National Reserve, so they charged a small fee to camp in their field near the beautiful hut. We registered in their visitor log and simply avoided telling them our intent to ascend Cerro Helio Azul since the lady would have certainly tried to talk us out of it saying something along the likes "it's technical and dangerous" blah blah. We got our camp set up next to the small soccer field and I was happy to be in an area that really reminded me of the cascades! We hiked the steep trail up to the base of the Helio Azul Glacier, where a new alpine tarn had formed from the receding glacier.
Since it was still January (equivalent to July up here) there was no blue ice showing yet, and the whole glacier still had some of the snowpack covering it. This made it easy for us to continue up the glacier along its right edge all the way to its top just a few hundred feet below the summit of Cerro Helio Azul itself, which was just a short Class 2+ scramble away. From this perch, we had commanding view of all of northern Patagonia to our north, west and south, including Tronador and the Bariloche area, Cochamo, and peaks further south I still had yet to discover. One thing that really caught my attention though was a group of peaks off to the south and slightly east that were exceptionally rugged. We would later determine these to be called the Tres Picos and extensive research revealed they have only seen a few ascents, as the approach to them requires a long boat ride, and a very long bushwhack after that. We made it a goal to try to climb them at some point in our lives!
Below us directly to the east we had a great view of El Bolson in the valley floor. It was a perfect day and we stayed up there for over an hour as I felt at home in the Cascades-esque landscape. We had just ascended 2000 meters from Rio Azul in about 6 hours...it is so nice having very light packs!
We returned to the refugio and hiked back out to Rio Azul the next day, and successfully hitchhiked the 20 minute ride back to El Bolson where we explored more of the town and met back up with Itai. We agreed to get tickets for the 20+ hour bus ride all the way down to El Chalten the next day...so stay tuned for the report depicting our experience down in the Fitz Roy area coming next!