Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Bariloche’s 4 Refugios: Not for the faint of hearted.


I was tempted to leave the blogpost here and let your imaginations run wild with the title alone, but sometimes the real stories are worth telling. I believe that this is such a story. It tells of miscalculated shortcuts and subsequent tree surfing; it features boxed wine and soaring Andean Condors; and the protagonists are none other than Matias, myself and the unpredictable uncontrollable unconquerable weather of a Patagonian autumn.

Bariloche is the trekking capital of my heart. It has a little bit of everything: from hop-skip-jump beginner treks for the city folks to knee-shaking-palm-sweating mountain-ridge traverses for the fearless fanatics. Everything from rolling forested hills with well-marked paths to dramatic jagged snowy peaks with ferocious howling wind (and tremendous views). Yes, Bariloche has it all.

One of my goals before leaving Bariloche was to do the 4 refugio trek, a circuit of four mountain shelters, or refugios, Frey, Jakob, Laguna Negra, and Lopez. I had heard that it would be tough, but I mean… how tough could it be?

Bariloche to Frey

We chose Cerro Catedral’s parking lot as the starting point. You have your options, but this is my favorite.

My worn trekking shoes already know the way to Frey from doing the trail so many times. They knew where to avoid the squishies, where to skip over the graspy hands of forest roots, where to run, where to wisely conserve precious energy. The only difference was that on this trek our backpacks were heavy, very heavy, prepared for five days in the mountains.

I found myself disappearing into my head, as is common on treks. Letting my feet carry me over the rocks, dirt, mud, roots, streams… my thoughts wandered ahead of me, soared over me, tripped under me. The mountain is great for sloooooowing down and dedicating time and energy to appreciating the things we are normally top busy or too in a hurry to pay any attention to.

We quickly passed from exposed path, to comforting forest, to tremendous mountain. And before we knew it, we marched up to our first refugio.

The stars were fierce that night. A perfect night. No wind. We bundled up against the autumn chill and, from the shelter of our tent, we cooked up an improvised rice dish typical of camping cuisine.

Familiar constellations smiled down and performed a welcome dance party. Welcome to the mountain, they sang.

Frey to Jakob

A week prior, I had done this trek with Sol, a friend and Canopy co-worker. Sol is not a mountain girl. She’s a city girl from Buenos Aires. This is not an easy trek. I’m very proud of her for toughing it out. I’ll include some of those pictures here as well.

As I mentioned, this is not a physically or mentally easy hike. After circling around Laguna Tontec, you head up. Straight up. Prepare your thighs, calves, and lungs. Because once you reach Laguna Schmoll, you can take a rest if you need it, but you’ve still got a climb to the cancha de fútbol.

At the top of the crest if it’s a clear day, you may graced by a snow-topped Tronador peaking across a valley.

Little do you know that you have to cross that valley and climb up the other side. So prepare your knees because it’s quite a rocky way down. The valley is home to forests, marshes, and quite acceptable campsites. But watch your step, it’s squishy!

Another steep hike up leads to a breathtaking view. A view that includes, TADA!, Laguna Jakob and Refugio San Martin.

But don’t cheer just yet, it’s still a long long long rocky hike down. But it’s a beautiful feeling to make it!

Unlike the refugieros of Frey, the ones at Jakob are just that much more isolated from civilization. They are welcoming, warm, wonderful, and willing to supply you with water for mate. Jakob is less commercial than Frey; it’s not as far down the road to selling out. And the bathrooms are better.

Jakob to Laguna Negra

Ah. The famous Jakob to Laguna Negra stretch. I had never done this one, but I had heard about it. This is the tough one, they all told me. And they are right. This is the one that requires the most mental and physical strength. This is the one that everyone everyone everyone gets lost on. Yes, everyone.

The morning we were supposed to embark for Laguna Negra, the odds were against us. Wind. Lots of wind. Drizzle. Rain. More wind. And… due to said wind, Matias’s tent pole snapped in half. As I evaluated all the contributing factors, I was convinced that we would be heading back down to Bariloche that day. My goal of doing all four refugios would have to wait until who-knows-when. The next trip to Bariloche, if there ever is one. That really sucks. My face wore a frown.

And while I was pouting away, Matias fixed the tent pole (have I mentioned that Argentines can fix anything? Anything.) and we decided to chance it. The refugiero said he would radio to Laguna Negra that night to confirm that we had made it. We set off.

With our faces bent into the wind, we climbed and walked and grasped and gasped and staggered and swaggered for hours and hours. Yes, we got lost. Yes, it is a very very very difficult trek. Yes, there were a few times that I honestly feared for my life. But was it worth it? Yes, yes it was.

The wind was the exhaustingly present the entire trek. Especially at the top!

But here’s where it gets interesting. Any worried family members may want to stop reading here.

Arriving to Laguna Negra one comes across a very long very steep very winding path. Anyone familiar with Laguna Negra will shudder at the mere mention of “el caracol” or “the snail”. The refugiero back at Jakob had told us of an alternative path, a shortcut, and we jumped at the opportunity to avoid the caracol. As we were approaching Laguna Negra, leg-shakingly exhausted with soaking wet sneakers, Matias announced that he thought he’d found the shortcut. We left the main trail and started climbing. Soon the climbing became extremely vertical. I’d never considered rock climbing an extreme sport… until this moment. The rock we were climbing was slick from the mist that had started falling again. We climbed up up up and soon it became increasingly important that we didn’t fall. With no harnesses, ropes, or gear, one foot slip, one miscalculated hand grip, one loose rock would be bad, very very bad. And with the whole day’s exhaustion, the ever fading daylight, heavy trekking backpacks and slippery sneaker soles…

And on top of it all, I mistakenly went left instead of following Matias right. Subsequently, I found myself hanging on for dear life to the slender, but resilient branches of Lenga trees as my feet swung below me kicking at near vertical slippery soil.

It is very important in this situation not to freak out. Anyone familiar with rock climbing knows this. Once you entertain the idea of falling, your body suddenly enters into a state of paralyzed fear. You can’t move up or down or sideways. You are consumed with this fear. Suddenly your hands overgrip, your legs shake uncontrollably, you tire yourself out. And you fall.

So, keeping this in mind, I remained calm. I kept my mind clear and focused on up. Up. Up. Up. It was very important that I tough it out. It was imperative to push on. Honestly I didn’t have any other option. It was either be a hardcore mountain girl, or fall. And falling wasn’t an option.

Needlesstosay (or is it?), we had not correctly identified the shortcut. This became apparent to us as we arrived at a relatively flat treeless area… and saw where Laguna Negra was supposed to be (where we were supposed to be)… two whole valleys over. But since the sun had long since passed the horizon line, and with daylight quickly fading, we set up the tent on the most level ground we could find. Once we changed into dry clothes, climbed into our sleeping bags, and opened the box of wine… we smiled. We weren’t where we had planned to be that night, but we were dry, warm, and most importantly we were safe.

The next morning we took our time waking up. Our mouths were dry from not filling up our water bottles at the last stream, our backs were sore from sleeping on bothersome shrubs, and our minds not fully rested after periodically waking up at the foot of the tent and having to haul our sleeping pads back up the 45 degree incline we were on. Upon stepping foot outside the tent, our situation dawned on me anew. We were still who-knows-how-many hours from Laguna Negra, our sneakers were still soaking wet, we hadn’t eaten more than a handful of crackers because we didn’t have any water to cook with, and we didn’t have a path to follow. That morning I tried my absolute hardest to remain in a good mood.

Matias, his hardcore mountain saavyness, and his incredible patience win the triple MVP award of the four refugio trek.

After crashing through trees, scaling rock walls, sliding down canyons, and surveying the landscape to make sure we were still relatively on the “right” path… we joined with the real trail. When I saw the trail markers, I knew we were saved! When the rooftop of the refugio peaked over the rocks, a wave of relief flooded over me. Happiest moment ever!

There were four of us that night. Fede, the refugiero; Sergio, the veterinarian from La Plata; Matias; and myself. We stayed up late drinking boxed wine, eating luxurious pizza, and chatting around the fire burning stove.

Laguna Negra to Lopez

Matias told me a few days later that after our “detour” the day before, he thought that I had had enough adventure and would want to go back to Bariloche from Laguna Negra without continuing on.

Fat chance.

There was no way that I would come this far and not take it to the end.

We got a late start to Lopez. In fact by the time I woke up and sauntered over to the refugio, our buddy Sergio had already taken off.

After our morning mate and breakfast cereal, we set off in search of the last stop on our refugio adventure. Around the laguna and up to the mountain ridge.

Tronador was hiding that day, and yet we were fortunate to see him peaking through a cloud window.

The path took us over large unstable black rocks that rocked gently to keep us paying attention. I was beyond words. We were walking along a mountain ridge. This is as real as it gets, I exclaimed, there is nothing more real than this. The world extended below us. Life doesn’t get much more lifelike.

We descended into a valley and as we crossed said valley, Matias pointed out a mountain in the distance. See that mountain, he asks, I think we have to climb it.


He must be joking. It was a mountain mountain we was referring to. Not a wimpy fake mountain. A real mountain. I couldn’t, wouldn’t, didn’t want to believe him.

But, of course, he was right. I looked up. A mountain of loose stones of various shapes and sizes. The sun was low in the sky. The light was getting the mystical quality of late afternoon. There was not much time to dilly dally. This mountain had to be climbed. And relatively quickly.

When you don’t have any other option, you can push yourself to do the unthinkable. I really didn’t have many options. The path that led to the next refugio passed over this mountain. And I had to climb it.

Up up up. Shaking legs trusting in wobbly rocks. Up up up. I was tempted to look down, but decided against it. Up up up. Until the tippy top was within reach. Up up up.

At the top, I allowed myself to turn around and look down. What a feeling.

It was all downhill after that. When a pink Refugio Lopez came into view, a smile was born. A knowing smile. A smile that only the last refugio on this journey could provoke.

That night we fell asleep to the wild screeches and squawks of a lost condor, a confused fox on steriods or an outraged tourist. We’re not quite sure which.

Lopez to Bariloche

Do you ever have those moments that make you stop to think: “Wow, this is too amazing to be coincidence!”? Some people call them divine intervention, some people call it fate, some people call it luck. We had one of those moments on our way down from Lopez, which for me, was the cherry on the top of the snow covered mountain.

When you’re in the mountains, time takes on a different meaning. Hours and minutes mean very little. Sunlight is everything. Moonlight is everything else

Coming down from the mountain meant that we had to get accustomed to playing by society’s rules once again. Rules governed by the hour and minute hands of the gigantic life clock. When I found out that the bus passed by the trailhead around 12:10pm… and then again at 16:40... It became pretty important to catch that first bus. Unless we wanted to wait for four hours.

Matias had a little less urgency to catch that bus. Afterall, only one of us is from the big city rhythm. By the time we started heading down the mountain, it was 11:50 and it was clear that there was no way that we would make it to the bus. Nonetheless, I started to jog down the mountain. We jumped over roots, dashed around corners, avoided tourists. I knew we were going to miss the bus, but kept the pace up anyway and we sped down the mountain. By the time we reached the main road, the clock struck 12:21pm. My hope frowned.

Matias passed under the wire fence and turned back to help me with my backpack. The little glimmer of hope still residing in me told him to go to the right and check if the bus was still there. As I was ducking under the fence, I heard a shout. And a honk!

By chance, the bus was passing right when we stuck our heads around the corner. If we hadn’t run down the entire trail. If we had said one more word to the people we passed on our way down. If I had passed Matias my backpack under the fence. If we had spent one more minute talking to the refugiera. If the bus hadn‘t been 11 minutes late… we would have missed our ride. But as fate, chance, luck would have it… we made it, sweaty and out of breath and all smiles.

And, with that, I end the story of the four refugios: with a smile, a little bit of luck, and a good story. And, with that, my last goal for Bariloche is accomplished!

1 comment:

Ed Gragert said...

Inspirational and awesome. Having tackled only one Refugio, Frey, (and struggled with that one) I'm blown away by the concept of doing all four refugios. Congrats!!!