PHOTOS: Owen Leeper and Matt McDonald
In Bariloche, Argentina, we start with 17-ounce tenderloin cuts—bife de lomo—and a bottle of Malbec. “Anywhere in the States, this is $60 steak,” Owen says. But we’re in South America.
We “ball out,” and dinner costs each of us around $30. Our next vintage Argentina moment? Hiking through mud, slush, bamboo and rain from the parking lot at the Cerro Catedral ski resort to Refugio Frey, a hut in the Bariloche backcountry.
Contrast two and a half hours of trudging through lenga forest with the winter scene when we ultimately reach the hut and you fully appreciate Patagonia’s different biomes. In Lord of the Rings terms, it’s Misty Mountains meets Fangorn Forest. Low clouds shield the upper spires from view as we chow down beef goulash. By breakfast dulce de leche, though, bluebird skies prevail.
One of the epicenters of backcountry skiing in Patagonia, Refugio Frey is owned and operated by Club Andino Bariloche. It can sleep 40—in one shared room with creaky adjoining bunks and zero contingency for snorers. The creek that flows out of the lake provides hydro power and makes running water and flush toilets possible. It’s the only hut in the area that operates with a staff year-round and attracts mountaineers and climbers in summer, many of who tent outside the hut and use the self-service kitchen. That crowd talks about standing atop the towers around Frey. Winter visitors eye the chutes between them.
Our host at Frey, Santiago, leads us up a wide couloir for our first lap. From the top of the ridge, we descend into the next drainage to the south (looker’s left). When Owen drops in, slashing out of a gap between two jagged monoliths, he kicks up enough snow to make the folks back home swoon in the summer heat.
Lines are stacked into the ridges and bowls above Frey—couloirs of every width, aprons, gullies, faces, and even rolling low-angle lines perfect for hot laps in hippy pow. Over breakfast on our second day, Santiago points to a diagonal cut in the mountainside. “That’s Y Couloir,” he says. “Is good! It goes!”
We take Santiago’s word for it and skin/boot up a couloir and around the backside of the ridge. Topping out between two massive columns, we size up the alley below us. A left turn about 200 feet down puts us on top of what must be Santiago’s Y Couloir. He’s right. It does go. But not without a spicy (and mandatory) air at the exit.
The Y Couloir proves to be Santiago’s most photogenic contribution to our trip. But it’s not the only memorable one. As he cooks flatbread pizzas and slings bottles of Malbec, rapping fervently to Argentinian hip hop, he takes breaks to impart wisdom. “If it snows a lot,” he says, “you say it’s snowing ¡empanadas!” He then adds that you also use ¡empanadas! to exclaim when you see a woman in tight pants.
It doesn’t snow ¡empanadas! during our time at Frey. Hunting dream turns, we find just about every version of snow. Thick, light, crusty, creamy, manky, cold, warm, dusty. Avalanche debris. Slashy powder. But in a way, the conditions fit the place. Backcountry skiing in Patagonia means big mountain terrain with a big helping of adventure snow.
Back home, people know Owen for being an anytime skier who goes big wherever, whenever.
His moniker online is @O_leeps, for crying out loud. So when he points out a jutting chunk of rock shaped like Mount Crumpit, I know what’s on his mind.
Same goes for the sliver of sun spotlighting a spine 600 feet below.
And on our last run, we trade places.
We share Frey with only Santiago and four others on our first night. For night two, the place fills up. Two guys from the Scottish Highlands fill their self-deprecation with brogue (“Look for the two guys pinned against the cliffs in fear!”). A quartet from Jackson trade Teton stories with Owen, plainly stoked to be drinking Argentinian stouts with him. A French couple studies topo maps and aerial photos in the corner. An Aussie tells me about hitchhiking the 20 hours from Buenos Aires to Bariloche on semi trucks. Rows of boots dry in the cubby under the stairs.
Our buddies back in Colorado and Wyoming are sweating in the shade. We’re planning our route back to Cerro Catedral, where more snow will drop tonight when we return to the steakhouse El Boliche de Albierto.
If August has dog days, these are not them.
Get to know Powder7 athlete and pro big mountain skier Owen Leeper.