Cerro Catedral, Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, Argentina

After a week studying español in Bariloche it’s time to get back out on the trail. This weekend, myself and a companion from my hostel are planning to climb Cerro Catedral (yes it’s spelt correctly) to Refugio Frey, where we plan to stay the night and do some day walking around the lakes.

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Our original plan was to do a 3-day hike, walking on to the refugio after Frey, but the amount of ice on the higher trails meant the climb beyond Refugio Frey would be too dangerous.

We packed and caught the bus for the 20km trip to the township of Catedral, a town set up for the ski slopes above it. The weather was beautifully clear when we headed out and remained that way for the entire weekend. A rare weekend for this time of the year in Bariloche and perfect for the hike.

We headed out along a wide dirt road away from the huge car park for the ski fields. After a short walk, we left the road and walked up a short thin trail to the official beginning of the trail and a wooden hiker…

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The first part of the hike meandered south along the base of the rocky edifice of Catedral Norte, heading away from the chair lifts and the ski fields.

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Along some parts of the trail sat snow from an earlier snowfall, although much of it had melted leaving a thin layer of mud.

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The trail continued on its fairly flat way across the southern base of the mountains heading towards Lago Gutiérrez…

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The trail crossed many small arroyos flowing down from the mountain, many flowed beneath a layer of ice. This created some very beautiful natural icy sculptures.

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The trail rounded the base of the mountains, with a clear view of the lago as we headed west up the gully towards the refugio. The trail became icy as we walked and we had to watch our steps to ensure we didn’t slip off the path. There were sections of the trail that looked like normal dirt but you could occasionally put your foot right through it leaving a 10 cm deep hole. Ice forms in layers beneath the mud, pushing it up and making it fragile. Some places it was obvious, but other places you didn’t know it was there until your foot went through it. Beneath the ice was more dirt, so it wasn’t dangerous, just strange to walk through the icy mud. The ice itself hardens into layers of hexagonal rods about 3cm thick, and there always seemed to be three layers of the ice.

Walking through a cold forest gully, we avoided as much ice as possible. The climbing began across some muddy tracks until we came to a flattened areas where an emergency hut had been built under a massive boulder. The boulder slants down making the inside back wall of the hut. Inside there is a flat platform to sleep perhaps 3 people and a fireplace.

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With the light starting to fade, we pushed on along the gully, sighting the roofs of buildings at the top. As we walked, the top of the Cerro Catedral range could be seen off to our right with a light dashing of snow around its jagged peaks. We continued climbing up through some slippery mud until we came over the crest and crossed an icy arroyo to see the refugio ahead of us.

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Refugio Frey is expensive to stay in and provides little more than a mattress upstairs and no heating. We cook our food in a tucked away corner and settle in for the night with several other people including 3 young and rather noisy preteen boys.

It wasn’t too cold for most of the night, but as it headed towards day break it began to grow a little colder. I arose just before sunrise and headed outside with camera to catch the sun upon the mountains at the back of the valley beyond the frozen laguna. I watched the sun shine pink on the mountains opposite before lighting them up in a golden light.

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We decided to climb the wall of the valley to Laguna Schmoll. To get to the other end of the valley we decided to walk across the frozen lake. This was rather fun as it was fairly solid. The children at the refugio got out on their ice skates and stayed there for much of the day. At the far side of the laguna is the arroyo that feeds it, we walked across the ice but this wasn’t as solid and I broke through on two separate occasions. Thankfully, my trusty boots are waterproof, so it wasn’t too much of a worry.

The climb up the rocky wall of the valley was fairly easy, although there was snow in several places and some ice. This part could have been climbed with packs, but it was the next part that we weren’t supposed to do without crampons.

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Another pair of hikers had also climbed to the laguna, but they couldn’t speak english and I’m not totally confident with my spanish yet, so I left my companion to chat with them while I investigated this new valley.

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After stopping for lunch, my companion and the two other climbers decided to climb the icy wall without crampons (or packs). I scouted it a little and decided against it and let them go. On the other side of the lower valley is a ridge that leads to another set of peaks. This is sun drenched and has no snow or ice on it, so I decided to climb this instead.

I made my way back down the rocky wall and around the side of the laguna towards the short ridge, with the refugio across the lake.

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Then in the warmth of the sun, I made my way up the side of the ridge. It was an easy climb and standing atop it could see down both valleys. This is the mountain Pico Bara at the end of the ridge…

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The climb up Pico Bara was fairly easy and there were several different ways to climb it. It was a lot of fun, crossing from the back side with some snow, to the sunny side and back again. The views from the top were pretty impressive, both looking back along the valley…

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…and down upon the refugio a couple of hundred metres below.

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After a brief stop in the chilly wind, I headed down again. It didn’t take me very long to reach the bottom, where I met up with my companion and donning our packs we headed off back down the mountain.

The trip down was a lot quicker than the climb, as you can imagine. It had taken us about 4 hours under pack to climb to Refugio Frey and 2 hours and 30 minutes down again. We were really pushing it, but still missed the earlier bus by 15 minutes. We waited another hour over a couple of beers and caught the next bus back to Bariloche for a well deserved shower.

The Trail Wanderer

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