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Climbing at Frey

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Sitting on a ledge, 100 metres up, the toughest move on the toughest pitch lay ahead. I had good reason to be anxious. I’d struggled on several easier climbs, and if I couldn’t make it through the crux of this, I’d place all three of us in a difficult situation. Retreat from this position, while possible, would not be easy.

Cerro Catedral, near Bariloche in Argentinean Patagonia, is regarded by many as the best rock climbing area in South America. Honey-coloured granite pinnacles surround a snow-filled basin. The rock is weathered, solid and breathtakingly beautiful. Sitting on a belay ledge high above the valley it is easy to see shapes and faces in the surrounding spires, as though they had been carved by some ancient civilisation rather than hewn by the weather. But then weather is something Patagonia has plenty of.

The Hot Rock climbing expedition should have been here, but for a variety of reasons the group had elected to give the area a miss and move on to Chile. Caelen and I were off the expedition for a few weeks while his broken ankle recovered, but I had no qualms about abandoning him in Bariloche for a few days if I could find a climbing partner. Clyde and Geoff were not quite the climbing partners I had in mind though – while I’d be hard pressed to think of two climbers I’d rather have looking out for me, they’re far better than me and I knew I’d be holding them back. Caelen, fearing that I’d pass up on the opportunity, told them that I’d love to go with them but was too shy to ask. “Don’t be ridiculous!” they responded, “Come on, it’ll be great!”

The 10km trail to Refugio Frey, the mountain hut that serves as a base for climbers at Cerro Catedral, begins some 25 kms from Bariloche. We wound our way around the mountainside, passing above a deep blue lake as we moved into deeper forest. The path was mostly easy going, with a stream crossing here and a rickety bridge there to keep things interesting. For the first hour or two I had little difficulty – my load was manageable and the pace fairly comfortable. As the route steepened, though, my lack of fitness began to tell. By the time I passed the marker telling me I had 2 kms to go I was straggling. From time to time I could see Clyde up ahead, stopping to make sure I was okay and moving on as soon as I came into view. The final kilometre seemed interminable. I knew that the refugio could not be far, and yet still I couldn’t see it. It was raining now, and when I reached the snowline my heart sank a little. I was exhausted, and wasn’t sure I had the reserves for knee-deep slush. I stopped for yet another breather, and suddenly saw the welcoming building no more than 200 metres away. I tramped on with renewed vigour and arrived with sweaty delight at the front door.

Refugio Frey is spectacularly located at the mouth of a broad basin. From the front door the view stretches for miles back down the steep sided valley we had ascended and beyond to the lakes. The common room looks back at the encircling spires. With cups of tea in hand and the guidebook open before us we looked from rock to page and back to rock again as we planned our climbs for the next few days. The hut warden was a keen climber and reacted with almost comical levels of enthusiasm no matter which route we suggested. It seemed that there were no bad choices here – everything was “Muy, muy bueno!”

While we were planning our adventures, a weather front was closing in. We had expected this, and so we weren’t too discouraged when the wind picked up and the snow blanked out our view. In a way, it just added to the feeling of adventure and exploration to sit in a little hut, feeling far from anywhere and clutching the inevitable cup of tea.

We were lucky, and by the next afternoon the weather had cleared. The following day was all that we had hoped for. The rock was perfect, the climbing superb and the weather favourable. The contrast between sun and shade, between sheltered and exposed faces was intense. On one route the rock was warm to the touch yet just meters away ice filled the cracks. We trudged back down through the now wet and slushy snow already planning bigger and better things for the next day.

And thus I found myself now faced with trickier moves, in a more exposed situation, than I would have liked. I checked my harness, took a deep breath, and swung out onto the rock. Clyde sat below me in a small cave nestled in the rock – a perfect spot for belaying on a multipitch climb. Geoff was way above me, out of sight past the roof that loomed ahead.

Overhanging rock requires strong, powerful, strenuous moves. Not my strong point. I worked my way up, placing my feet carefully and trying to find the body positions that would minimise the strength and endurance required. If I tired myself out getting to the crux, I wouldn’t have a chance. Step by step, handhold by handhold, I inched my way up the rock. I was going to have to go for it now, out and around the overhang. I studied the rock above me, playing the moves over and over in my mind and finally … lunged. All of a sudden I was dangling on the end of the rope, a couple of feet below where I’d been before. Clearly my study had been less than adequate.

I moved back onto the rock and retraced my moves to the crux. Making a couple of micro-movements, I found myself much better positioned for the up-and-left thrust I required, rehearsed the move in my mind’s eye and went for it. For two seconds I had it – the fingers of my left hand curled into the good hold that lay above. I willed myself to get a foot up and my body into position, but it was no good. The first move was right, but my follow through much too slow and awkward. Once again, I was hanging in mid-air on the end of the rope.

I weighed up my options. I knew what I needed to do now, and I had no doubt I could do it. But I was afraid it would take me several attempts, sapping my strength for what lay ahead. The bloody-minded, persistent part of me was dying to go for it, but the voice of reason spoke slightly louder. If I spent all my reserves on this one move, I wouldn’t be able to complete the rest of the climb. Better to cheat a little here and be confident of getting to the top.

Drawing a discreet veil over my next couple of moves, suffice to say that by fair means or foul I moved through the crux and managed the rest of the climb without too much difficulty. Soon Clyde had joined us and we basked in the sun, admiring the view, taking pictures and congratulating ourselves. I may not have climbed in the greatest of styles that day, but Frey is probably the most satisfying, exhilarating and beautiful place I’ve ever climbed and I loved every minute of it.

Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture of the refugio in Frey - Argentina travelogues
Photograph of sunset over Frey - Argentina travelogues
Refugio Frey

Sunset over the valley

Picture of Aguja Frey - Argentina travelogues
Photograph of Clyde and Geoff on the approach Frey - Argentina travelogues
Aguja Frey
Clyde and Geoff on the approach

Picture of Clyde climbing Frey - Argentina travelogues
Photograph of Geoff climbing Frey - Argentina travelogues
Clyde climbing
Geoff climbing