Just after the unforgettable Petzl RocTrip in Piedra Parada, Argentina, a gaggle of climbers chose to stay in country for a while rather than head straight home. In order to "decompress", a dozen members of Team Petzl spent a few days in Bariloche, an ideal stop along the road back to Buenos Aires.
Bariloche is a bit like the "Annecy" of the Cordillera Argentina: a decent-sized, very pleasant city, surrounded by mountains, and located along the shore of a big lake. It is easy to see why the area is considered an outdoor sports paradise… with fishing, sailing, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, kayaking on flat or white water, and of course climbing and other vertical adventures right at your doorstep. For both cultural and economic reasons, bolts are few and far between.
Although the sport climbing crags around the lake made for a pleasant climbing experience, they proved somewhat limited and not very exotic for a group of young people for whom a belay device and the world’s greatest climbing spots are part of their daily. We needed to find something a bit more original, to say the least, a climbing area that would in-"spire" our friends. Next stop… Frey!
Located four hours on foot from the bus terminal in Villa Catedral, the Frey hut, run by the Andean Alpine Club chapter in Bariloche, provides an ideal base camp for venturing out to climb the legendary Patagonian granite. When compared to the giant monoliths of Fitz Roy and Torres del Paine, the spires in Frey pale in size. However, their sheer number, the easy approach, the area’s beauty and the high-quality rock make it an ideal spot to learn the art of traditional crack climbing.
On paper, Frey has what it takes to make the driest of chalk sweat, to make the coldest of sticky rubber melt, to make the most bomber cams stop in their "cracks"…: 30 spires from 25 to 200 meters high, 400 routes from hand cracks to friction slab, 1500 pitches from 3c (5.3) to 7c (5.12d). In order to better understand the layout of the area, we spent hours meticulously studying Roland Garibotti’s superb guidebook. The gals took the first stab at gathering the requisite information; Florence Pinet, Charlotte Barré, and Anaïs Verbrugge made sure to speak with park rangers and local guides, all avid climbers. The guys, on the other hand, just mindlessly charged ahead…
Due to the somewhat uncooperative and surprisingly snowy weather, once the skies partially cleared it was a full-on sprint to Aguja Frey, a striking spire just 5 minutes from the hut. A popular climbing spot, the routes have more fixed gear than elsewhere (which isn’t saying much), reassuring when making your first forays into crack climbing. As soon as our heroes arrived at the base, they merrily warmed up their weary joints on such classic routes as Sifuentes and Diedro Jim, which are to Frey as the Rébuffat route is to the Aiguille du Midi. Guides Martial Dumas, Sébastien Foissac, and Mathieu Maynadier, already well versed in the crack climbing arts, felt right at home, jamming up their first route without a second thought. A 6c (5.11b) pitch of clean, easy to protect crack climbing provided for a fun yet committing start for the group. Although typically accustomed to dispatching 8c+ (5.14b) sport climbs one after the other, Mickaël Fuselier’s could not hide his joy; you should have seen the ear-to-ear smile on his face when he topped out on a difficult to protect 6a (5.10a) off-width. Everyone quickly understood that their frame of reference for climbing ratings had gone right out the window. "Climbing here is the full package," Gérôme Pouvreau enthusiastically proclaimed, "When you are used to climbing bolted routes and then all of a sudden you have to place your own gear, it’s definitely a bit daunting at first. But you quickly understand that this supposed hurdle is really an advantage; you can place as much gear as you want, where you want, and in the end you reconnect with idea of commitment, which is really a blast."
During the short week, in spite of climbing from dawn ‘till dusk, the eager group barely scratched the surface of all the "learning" and "fun" that the climbing in Frey has to offer, including a jumbling expanse of boulders right along the lake. The guides on the team promised themselves that they would come back to the area with their clients, and the others started dreaming about Frey’s older siblings in southern Patagonia: Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre, and Torres del Paine.
The history of climbing in Frey
Climbing in Frey started right after the Second World War with the European immigrants who had fled the devastated old continent. Slovenian Dinko Bertoncelj, became well known by making the first ascent of Campanile spire. Argentineans then continued with exploration of the area. During the 1960s and 1970s, Jose Luis Fonrouge made his mark in 1964 with the second of Fitz Roy and the first ascent of Super Couloir. On Slovenian Campanile, he and Bertoncelj would put up a series of masterpieces that are all considered classic routes today. The next generation witnessed the arrival of two talented and charismatic leaders, Sebastian de la Cruz and Rolando Garibotti. Inspired by Michel Piola’s visits to the area (three long stays in Frey starting in the late 1980s), these young climbers applied a strict ethic early on when putting up new routes, combining their taste for risk with a strong dislike of fixed gear. Starting in the 1990s other climbers decided to put up more enjoyable and easy to protect routes, no longer interested in climbing only horror-fests. The route "Imaginate" on Slovenian Campanile bears witness to this change in paradigm towards "pleasure climbing." Even today the pendulum swings back and forth in Frey between these two climbing philosophies – adventure,
commitment and exposure on the one hand; safety and fun on the other.
Text and photos by Guillaume Vallot.