Nahuel Huapi Traverse
After a week of relaxation with my parents, we headed off for our next trekking adventure. This 4-5 day trek covers nearly 40 KM of various ridgelines in Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi. Our reward for demanding trekking was absolutely stunning views. In lieu of carrying a tent, we opted to stay inside at the refugios (mountain huts) scattered along the route.
Day 1: Cerro Cathedral to Refugio Frey
If only all treks could start with a chair-lift ride over steep inclines! At the top of Cerro Cathedral Ski Resort, we enjoyed a mocha with views over Lago Nahuel Huapi at Refugio Lynch. After, we sauntered over a ridgeline for a few hours; where along the way we had glimpses of Mt. Tronador, a ~11,500 foot glaciated peak marking the border of Argentina-Chile. What an amazing and relaxing way to start a trek!
We did not see a single person until our descent into Refugio Frey, a beautiful structure made from local stone. The closer we came, the more and more people we saw. We had anticipated a tranquil week, given this is the “shoulder” season and is now fall here. Much to our surprise, there were hundreds of people at Refugio Frey, thanks to it being a 4-day weekend and National Holiday.
The level of chaos and crowding exceeded our experience on the W-circuit in Torres Del Paine – quite an impressive feat! After eating polenta and downing a bottle of wine, we retired to the sleeping quarters. Refugio Frey is a tiny structure, but lists a sleeping capacity of “40 people” in a tiny double-tiered bunkroom. Capacity here is a relative term and we were instructed to sleep two people to a single mattress. In total, we estimated a total of 80+ people sleeping inside. We opted to sleep on the floor so as not to sleep face-face with complete strangers. Regardless, the scene is reminiscent of Shel Silversteen’s “Crowded Tub,” and was perhaps one of the most miserable experiences we’ve endured!
- Multiple pairs of feet
- A pair of shorts
- A pair of pants
- Someone’s long hair
- A black cat
- Sleep apnea so loud, it felt like it touched us! (even with earplugs).
After “awaking” from a horrific night of sleep, we were greeted by a wonderful morning Alpenglow on Cerro Cathedral. After hurriedly eating breakfast, we were off for Refugio Jakob. We took solstice in that many Argentinians had our same sentiments, and we weren’t simply being “weak-Gringos.”
Day 2: Refugio Frey to Refugio Jakob
Tired from the events of last night (and perhaps also a bottle of wine!), we steeply ascended from Refugio Frey. As we climbed up, we made the decision to put last night behind us and enjoy the day. After attaining the ridgeline, we then descended STRAIGHT-down a steep slope filled with unstable talus and scree. We would soon learn this was the motto of this trek; straight-up and straight-down! Before climbing the next pass, we quickly made our way through the valley. From Paso Brecha Negra, we were greeted with more marvelous scenery and views of our destination.
Arriving at Refugio Jakob, we knew it would be a better experience (anything would be better, actually!). The refugio was much larger, with a proper bunk-room and lounge. We spent the calm afternoon catching up on sleep on granite slabs overlooking the beautiful Laguna Jakob. Feeling more refreshed, we moved inside for dinner. There, a large group on holiday broke out into a spontaneous jam session lasting approximately 3 hours! Katie and I were impressed that everyone knew EVERY lyric. Occasionally, they would start playing a gringo song and look to us for lyrical assistance – but, clearly they weren’t impressed with our skills. After eating delicious pasta with butternut squash and tomatoes, we settled into a much more pleasant sleeping experience.
Day 3: Refugio Jakob to Laguna Negra
After a proper night’s sleep, we were ready for the hardest day of the trek. With exposed ascents requiring scrambling and minor route finding skills necessary, this section is discouraged for those without substantial trekking experience or without a guide. After reviewing the route and photos with the Refugio warden, we were off on the trail.
We began with some short scramble sections to Laguna de los Tempanos. There we joined with a Dutch solo hiker to tackle the harder sections. We had multiple sections of exposed scrambling, with the most difficult being a class-III+ up a couloir. “Class III: You must use your hands most of the time to hold the terrain or find your route. This may be caused by a combination of steepness and extreme terrain. Some Class 3 routes are better done with rope.” (there were no ropes) Once on the ridgeline, we had a long and exposed traverse towards the summit of Cerro Navidad, offering stunning views rivaling those of our beloved 14ers back home. This section was fun with rewarding views, marking a definite highlight of our trip.
Descending Cerro Navidad was tedious. After a short section of scree-sliding, we then descended nearly 2000 feet on loose and dusty talus. The route then narrows, following a rough streambed to the valley floor. With already exhausted legs, we then ascended back up a “steep, spiraling” ascent of nearly 1200 feet in a mile, which affectionately adorns t-shirts as the “maldito caracol” (fucking snail). We arrived to the refugio exhausted. This was certainly the most difficult single day of trekking I’ve experienced.
The avalanche proof Refugio Segre (Italia) was our favorite. Its quirky structure is warm and inviting. With only a handful of brave trekkers over-nighting, it was the least crowded. After enjoying delicious pizza, we slept soundly.
Day 4: Refugio Segre (Italia) to Refugio Lopez Bariloche
Today, we awoke to a novel sight – clouds! In the midst of an epic drought, the lakes region has not had substantial rainfall in over 4 months. Although this is troublesome in many ways, the bright and sunny days does make trekking more enjoyable (think: Colorado blue bird days without the threat of thunderstorms!).
After flanking Laguna Negra, we had a steep ascent up Cerro Bailey Willis. There, the clouds slightly lifted, giving us remarkable views of Mt. Tronador and the Chilean Volcan Osorno. After yet another steep descent, we had the most thigh-taxing ascent on the trip towards Cerro Lopez. There, we said goodbye to Mt. Tronador, with welcoming views of Lago Nahuel Huapi in the other direction.
Descending to our proposed destination, Refugio Lopez, we were greeted with yelling and screaming heard from nearly ½ mile away. On our arrival, we found that nearly 50 middle schoolers would be spending the day and night at the refugio. Opting for our sanity, we headed down the short-trail to Puente Lopez and onwards to Bariloche.
This was our first experience staying in mountain huts while backpacking. Our legs rejoiced not carrying an excessively heavy mountaineering tent (we brought a sturdy tent for exposed camping on the Dientes Circuit) and 5 days of food – allowing us to move at a quicker and comfortable pace. Sleeping in a large sleep room has its downsides, especially at Refugio Frey. However, had we not been traveling on a holiday-weekend, we would have had a more tranquil experience. Regardless, tent-backpacking is more our style! The Nahuel Huapi Traverse is a definite highlight of our trip and I would whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone.
Pros: Epic views from every ridge-line, difficult hiking with rewards! Well-stocked refugios with surprisingly excellent food.
Cons: crowds, possible future knee replacements from killer descents
- Plan to do this in the fall (late March), when the snow is mostly melted and the crowds gone. Try to avoid the Argentinian holiday on 3/24!
- Day 3 is definitely challenging, recommended for experienced and fit-hikers. Route-finding is not as challenging as expected from the internet!
Next up, El Calafate!