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Ski Touring in Patagonia: Lopez Refugio

Posted on November 29 2017

Time Round Trip: 
Total Ascent: ft
Difficulty: 
Elevation: 
Season: August- September
Location: Argentina
GPS:
Pro tips: Expect to pay $60 a day for all food, beverages and lodging. It can be done way cheaper but we recommend going for the full deal.
Weather: mountain-forecast.com

 

 

Cripple-Creek-Backcountry-Doug-Gary-Heading-To-Refugio-Lopez

Doug and Gary heading up the trail to Refugio Lopez

From the Frey hut we got some beta of the new, privately owned refugio near Cerro Lopez, Refugio Lopez. It is hard to hold anything to the textured and lengthy Frey lines embed in the massive spired amphitheaters of Catedral, but Lopez has some worthy skiing without any of the crowds one would encounter from its South American hut brother.  Like Frey it is, as of 2017, fully staffed, but unlike Frey, the word is not yet out internationally. We agreed that any staffed hut experience is the best possible way to enjoy a vacation so we took one day off after Frey to shower and let the blisters heal and headed up. 

If there is one big advantage of Refugio Lopez, it would be its much shorter approach.  In the summer a road would get you within several hundred vert of the hut, but in the winter this road is snowed in from miles away. It meanders up the mountain in a round about way and taking the hiking trail is far faster and more direct. At times, perhaps too direct, as you can see the pink hut looming directly above you as the "STFU" trail attacks your tired calfs and trees rip at your packed skis. At the closed for the season yet super cool Rocka Negro Refugio and restaurant, we were able to drop our skis and let the skinning begin. The trail was slick from recent refreezes and we cheated back to the snow pack road for some brainless plodding at the final switchback. Lopez remained just out of reach above and across a narrow slot canyon we were forced to go around. We did this days after the most recent storm, but the final switch back's to the hut would be very intimidating in even moderate avalanche conditions;

Refugio-Lopez-Cripple-Creek-Backcountry-Doug

Doug Arriving at Refugio Lopez

When I finally topped the knoll the hut sits on, I found the door locked, so we sat down in the snow banks that marked the tunnels down to the ground floor window and put down some food. Right when we were contemplating stashing our gear to take a lap the refugiaro and crew came back from their morning ski. It was hilarious watching the back seat boys of the South navigate a couple cliff bands setting off minor new snow sluffs down the steep face. It turns out we would later eat even our good natured heckling when we attempted the same descent a few hours later. By far the highlight of the spectating was the appearance of the refugio cat descending hot on the heals of the skiers. The cat had apparently disappeared over the snow capped mountain days before and after weathering a small storm met up with the skiers for a true powder cat lap back to the hut.

Basco, a true character and legend of the Argentina refugioeros, let us in to the hut and invited us to be at home. By far our biggest regret was forgetting the packs of cigarettes that the Frey boys advised us to bring as a gift to him. He was truly generous and went far out of his way to be welcoming and hospitable. He smokes like a chimney, so grab a pack or 2 and tell him they are from the Cripple Creek Boys and you will own the place.

Cripple-Creek-Backcountry-Refugio-Lopez-Hut-Cat

Refugio Cat Gazing At The Patagonian Countryside

The hut was giant and freezing, as no fire was maintained during their morning ski mission. We picked out the lower bunk room that probably could sleep 40 or more, got back into our skier gear and started up the mountain hoping to get a quick lap in before dinner.

The bowl the hut sits in looks like a giant blank catchers mitt from far away on a filled in snow year like 2017. When skinning in it, the white blankness gives way to highly textured ridges and gullies that miander up the South East face of the mountain. The 2-3 inches of new snow was sticky and reactive giving way in sheets under our skis on the ascent. Brian turned back due to standard splitboard skin failure and Gary and I continued to the ridge to poke around and by the looks of it, ski some pretty decent looking transitional powder. Over the ridge the wind whipped and the clouds had settled into a low blanket on the mountain. We decided to take it easy and farm the powder turns back to the hut. To our complete charging the first 500 vertical feet of powder gave way to a heinous breakable crust lower on the mountain and we truly survived the bottom turns back to the hut.

Cripple-Creek-Backcountry-Gearing-Up-For-Full-Moon-Wood-Run

Gary gearing up for a Full Moon tour to grab some firewood

I felt a little discouraged by the snow conditions and feared for our tour the next day, but we were already up there and there was nothing left to do but to settle into a few bottles of wine and beer, play some dice and try to stay warm infront of a dwindling fire of wet wood. When we had a very thorough buzz on from nips of a terrible flask of honey whiskey, Brian and Gary descended for a full moon mission to stock the hut on wood. Another pro tip would be grabbing a few pieces of wood from the pile right at tree line before crossing the avalanche path. Full moon tours always seem like a good idea after wine, beer and whiskey, but the skiing was horrendous and the skin track was icey and I found the whole situation hilarious from high atop the hill. When the boys made it back we sat down for an amazing Basco-made dinner of fresh baked bread and hut made pasta sauce until we were content and full and headed off to bed.

There is nothing better than a South American "early" 9 am start and after taking our time with the biggest refugio breakfast we had received yet, we were dressed and ready to take on a long tour of varying conditions. We descended our skin track from the previous day finding varying amounts of powder and breakable crust depending on slope aspect, gained the road and descended to a ridgeline we could see from the comfort of the refugio the night before. Skinning up, the ridge was ice giving way to corn as we moved out to the east face and were soon looking over at colder even if wind effect snow off the south side of the mountain. We pulled skins and made a mix of good and bad turns through small couliors and into the valley basin below.

Doug-in-Patagonia-Overlooking-Cerro-Lopez

Doug navigating the Patagonia terrain with Refugio Frey in the distance

A quick transition and some warm north face skinning lead us up to another ridge and the next peak. We were now on the opposite side of a giant rock ridge that can be seen from the hut. From this angle it looked like a mini Patagonian Matterhorn and we concocted a plan from the topo of how to circumvent it. We skied a wide open shot between some great ridges that actually rolled over to be pretty steep and exciting. It took us into a new basin and we were left gawking up at a massive hanging snow field face with only one weakness, a massive avalanche gulch right up the center.

Even in locked up maratime snow pack days after the latest major storm it is truly intimidating skinning in the path where hundreds of natural avalanches must have came through. We could see the buried debree of several at the base. The gully was just wide enough to skin in the middle and maybe avoid a small one or at least have time to pray before the big one came roaring over one of the massive cliffs. We proceeded cautiously with a lot of space between skiers. My biggest advice would be if you tried to take on this tour after reading the post, do this trip in reverse. It would be way less sketchy to slash down the middle of this quickly then spend and hour ascending and you would get the benefit of a truly epic 2000 vert descent from the Dark Side of the Moon Coulior to the valley floor. I held my breath over a few wind loaded pockets while breaking trail and put in some tight switch backs to the safety of the saddle in lee of a freestanding finger of rock.

The whole time ascending the gulley what we would name the "Dark Side of the Moon" Couloir came clear into view. By some grand coincidence the impenetrable rock face of the matterhorn of Patagonia we had viewed from 3 sides had one skinny fissure from the always shady south side. As I broke trail to ensure we could get back to the hut over the saddle, Gary tested the snow in the DSOTM. It turned out to be incredibly supportive and stable, perfect staircase powder and shot up the roughly 700 vertical to the summit of the ridge. From the top Gary pulled out his probe and prodded the last few feet of the precipitous ridge that turned out to be nothing more than a vertical cornice with a thousand foot drop off on the other side. Using my whippet we sawed out a window to look out over our previous ski lines from the two small previous peaks below us. 

Cripple-Creek-Backcountry-Vail-Crew-Summit-Cerro-Lopez

Brian, Doug and Gary posing for a pic on the Summit of Cerro Lopez

Brian dropped to DSOTM first which for most of its length was approaching if not at 50 degrees and at times barely wider than my skis were long. After coming in with a good head of speed and some strong diligent turns he caught air on a wind lip covered by cascading slough and began to get push through the shoot by the moving snow. He was able to fight on his heal side turn until he arrested himself and skied the rest of the line a bit slower and more carefully. I was in next and favoring my recovering knee slowly jumped turned on the harder bed surface that remained. I always like to stop in the middle of these giant corridors of rock and take in the scene. It was dark enough that sun probably only touches it a few months of the year and steep enough that my tails would drag on the uphill slope with every jump turn. The massive bulk of Volcan Tronidor loomed just over the ridge of the hanging snowfield face and the true scale of the zone fully sank in. Gary tore through the couloir without pause and after some cheers and high fives we were on skins again approaching the saddle. 

From the finger of rock there was a long and a bit hectic descent back to the road. Every single type of snow was encountered in the last 2000 feet of descending with the final turns through some old and rock hard avalanche debree. After one final skin back up to Refugio Lopez, we were eager for another amazing meal of Pizza and more wine and beer. Its giant tours like that one that make you truly appreciate a refugiero and all they have to offer. Gary tended the fire and while Basco cooked and we soon had the common room up to a comfortable temperature, slammed down dinner and crawled off to bed. As one final desert for the trip, the next day we awoke to a fresh 5 inches of snow, climbed the ridge and got one last great run to the hut. 

The Lopez Refugio is a much different experience than Frey but a truly amazing entry point to Patagonia skiingl It is always a tough call to spray or not to spray about a new hidden gem. It is easy to fall into the trap of keeping a zone fully to yourself, but meeting Basco tipped the scales. If you speak to him even through broken english you can see running a refugio is his true dream and passion and he pushed the owners of Lopez to stay open in the winter for skiers. Argentina is not victim to the insane bureaucracy of the United States and the more people that visit these first few fully catered huts in Patagonia the more huts we will see staffed in years to come.

Doug Stenclik Owner of Cripple Creek BC

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