The One Less Traveled By: a chronicle of my yearlong sabbatical


Climbing and Classes in San Carlos de Bariloche
March 24, 2010, 7:03 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

After two weeks of climbing in El Chalten I decided to make the long journey north to Bariloche, in Argentina’s beautiful Lake District, the northernmost part of Patagonia.  The most direct, though not necessarily quickest, land route to Bariloche travels the famed Ruta Cuarenta (Route 40), which traverses the length of Patagonia and remains for the most part unpaved and completely wild.  It is considered a feat to successfully drive its length oneself; the hardcore do it on motorcycle.  I opted for bus.  The ride lasted a mere 28 hours, not including an overnight stay in the sad little town of Perito Moreno.  The majority of the trip transverses the Patagonian steppe and, aside from some guanaco here and there, there is nothing to look at except the beautifully massive, flat, arid landscape.  We stopped every few hours to stretch our legs; a few times we were lucky enough to pull into an estancia or a miniscule town (if 10 houses, max, make a town) to grab some food.  One estancia in the geographical middle of nowhere was aptly named Siberia.  We finally arrived in Bariloche at about 10 PM on February 24 and I promptly checked into a great Kiwi/Argentinean-run hostel called 41 Below and made friends with some beers.

The much-abused bus making a pit stop.

Estancia La Siberia - the kid playing soccer appears to live there.

The Patagonian steppe

Bariloche is a beautiful city perched on the edge of Lago Nahuel Huapi.  It’s a — or perhaps the — favorite vacation spot for Argentineans of means and is an excellent place to be in summer (now) or winter.  There is hiking, biking, climbing, kayaking, and windsurfing in abundance as well as South America’s largest ski resort.  Bariloche is also renowned for its obscene number of chocolateria (chocolate shops) and heladeria (ice cream stores).

Me on a hike to a local mountain, Cerro Otto, with the lake in the background

Lago Nahuel Huapi from above Bariloche

Bariloche's catedral

Bariloche centro

El centro civico

After a few days hanging out in town I decided to go backpacking in the nearby mountains and brought my climbing gear with the hopes of meeting a partner with whom to climb.  Argentina has an excellent system of backcountry huts, called refugios, which are roughly a day’s hike apart and, at a minimum, provide a place to sleep.  They also generally have food available for purchase and,  at some, sell local microbrews and wine.  My first stop was Refugio Frey, a four-hour hike in on a trail that starts at the bottom of Cerro Catedral ski resort, and which serves as the launching point for some of Argentina’s best rock climbing.  I hiked up with a friendly girl from Colorado named Christine who was working at the Refugio for the season.  Somehow I have been blessed with fantastic weather nearly every day I’ve been in Patagonia, a real rarity, and that day was no exception – warm, blue skies, and only light wind.  Frey is perched on the edge of a beautiful lake and upon arriving we headed straight for it to cool off.  I’m glad I did because I saw a girl paging though the local climbing guide and soon discovered that she, too, was looking for a partner with whom to climb, so Noelle and I made plans to climb the next day.  I was happy that I had not humped my climbing gear up the mountain in vain.

A helicopter approaching with supplies for Refugio Frey, which is visible at the far end of the lake

Refugio Frey in the morning

The next day we did two incredible routs on Aguja Frey, a large granite pillar adjacent to the refugio.  The first route was a beautiful dihedral climb called Diedro de Jim, which Noelle led.  Next we roped up for the ultraclassic Sifuentes Weber route, a four pitch climb up the looming face of Aguja Frey.  I led the first pitch up a steep dihedral hand crack which ended up being scary when I ended up 10 feet above my last piece of protection with no chance to place another piece and serious decking potential.  I was happy when I arrived at the first belay bolts unscathed.  The rest of the climb was beautiful and at times quite intimidating; it had everything from hand and finger cracks, to steep face climbing, to an airy and unprotected traverse, to an ultra awkward and insecure move under and around a hanging flake.  Not having done a ton of lead climbing, and not having lead trad in at least a year and a half, this definitely felt like the hardest lead climbing I’ve done.  For you climbers out there, it’s rated a 5+ on the French scale, which converts to about 5.9, though some of the moves felt like 5.10.  We climbed for three more days but learned that the area is all about hard climbing.  There were very few climbs in the range Noelle and I were comfortable leading, particularly given how intimidating portions of the Sifuentes Weber route was.  Nevertheless we got in some fun climbs and great adventures (having to bail a few times after getting off route, which is not uncommon in the alpine environment).  At night I hung out in the refugio with the dozens of other climbers and trekkers making their way through and drank the local mircobrew, which is brought up by horse in pony kegs (naturally).  After five days in the mountains I hiked back down to town.

Aguja Frey with the classic, fun Sifuentes-Weber route traced in light blue.

Aguja Frey in profile

Some of the surrounding granite spires that make Frey such an alluring place to stay

The view from on high our second day

Watching the moon rise over Frey from my campsite

I decided to stay in Bariloche for another week to take a Spanish language course and also take advantage of the local rock climbing near town.  The weeklong language course was through a great school called La Montana.  After taking a placement test I was placed in an intermediate level with three other students and an excellent teacher, Flavia.  Our small class jived quick and had a blast.  It was great to be back in school, if only for a bit.  After class, which lasted from 9am to 1 pm, I either went climbing or, more often than not, napping, having had to recover from late nights partying, listening to local jazz bands, or just hanging out with others at a local microbrewery, Antares.  I split my time between two great hostels, 41 Below and Penthouse 1004, where I met heaps of good people.  Penthouse 1004 is a unique hostel in that its on the 10th floor of an apartment building and enjoys what is probably the best view of Bariloche, but 41 Below had a real homey vibe so I spent most of my time there.

On the Saturday after our last day of Spanish class, I went horseback riding out on the steppe with three others from the Spanish school.  One of the women in my class, Deanna, had three horses she boarded at a ranch outside of town that also had about a dozen other horses.  So the four of us went on a two-hour ride guided by the gaucho who owns and runs the place.  According to Deanna, my horse was a true gaucho’s horse because while all the other horses walked, mine always insisted on trotting.  Apparently gauchos train their horses to trot — not walk — in order to make good time over the vast expanses of Patagonia.  Anyway, I was super sore when that was done.  But it was a blast and the countryside was beautiful and rugged.

Our guide, what's-his-name

Jack, Jessica and I getting adjusted.

Getting in touch with my inner gaucho.

Riding like the wind...

Feeding my horse a carrot

After over two weeks in Bariloche and with the weather starting to turn cold and rainy (really, my first bad weather in a month in Patagonia), I was itching to move on, so I doubled back and headed a few hours south to El Bolson.