#sendandreturn: Cat Skiing the Bariloche Backcountry from Refugio Frey to Lopez

By BCA ambassador and BC Adventure Guides owner Matt Schonwald.

Dulfer the #alpinekitty stood defiantly in front of my ski tips yowling, clearly demanding one thing, a ride. For a cat I had just met an hour ago at the Refugio Lopez, he was a pushy feline. My mind struggled to absorb the simple fact, Dulfer had followed us for a 1,000’ and we still had another 1,000’ to go. I knew what needed to happen which triggered, my Scooby Doo flashback to the last ten days that got me to this moment, which led me to dedicate my guidebook about the Mt Baker to this cat and compassion. The moment I picked Dulfer up and put on my pack, his purring reverberated through my body going up and down my neck, reward my act of Compassion for my first cat skiing adventure in the Bariloche backcountry.

For more than then years Bariloche, the Refugio Frey, the Volcanoes of Chile and Patagonia sat high on my to-do list and stood at the other end of a 24 flight keeping them far away until I confirmed my reservation last month (July). The plan: to spend 29 days of September skiing as much as possible. The season started slow, but like watching a Seattle sports team, the last month has brought on the best ski season in almost a decade! After many persuasive email campaigns, beers plied and promises made; Jake dropped the credit card on the plane ticket. We piled our equipment on and off several planes, buses, and taxis for three days of continuous travel from Seattle to our hostel in Bariloche.

OMG-Bariloche surely stands as one of the most iconic and beautiful ski towns on this planet. It wraps around the shores of Lago Nahuel Huapi, a jaw-droppingly exquisite Glacial lake with granite, snow-covered towers slowly transitioning into a high, cliff infested desert. The natural beauty of the mountains above the lake kept us staring, repeating the same words, ‘this place is so unbelievably beautiful,’ for the next week.

The promise of new snow, beta and beer brought me to my friend, Diego Allolio, the South American Profesor de Avalancha de Aprendica. Diego, his wife Maca(the map maker), their infant son and dogs treated us to great Argentine hospitality, arming us with maps and gave us enough liquid courage to go get some pow. Diego pointed out his favorite tours out of the Frey then pointed out several other valleys one of which he paused and said, ‘If I have time we should go to Cerro Lopez, that is my favorite.

The seed was planted, so we took a day to ski Catedral, considered one of the best ski areas in South America, and it showed us why. Great big alpine bowls dropping into steep, flowing tree -skiing led us to explore fun side country and recon the approach to the Frey Hut the next day. An intense snow shower gave us another 10 cm before the day was over, giving us hope for some great riding at the Refugio Frey as well as some concern, no easy way into the hut.

The next day dawned cloudless and calm, and we knew this was our opportunity to #sendandreturn in the best conditions locals have seen in years. We left the ski area on a wind-scoured boot pack for twenty minutes from the top of the ski area to arrive at the first notch we could cross into the famous Van Titter Valley. We dropped 1,600’ of boot top pow through orange granite towers and glacier-carved bowls into the Lingua, the infamous dense forest of Argentine Patagonia. We made a few errors navigating the Lengua till we left the trees behind and arrived at the Refugio Frey.

The Refugio Frey stands in a small class of huts that offer challenging terrain, matched with a staff that brews their own beer, bakes their own bread, and shreds the gnar! Many people came here before, and we carried their beta with us, yet weather gave us what we could ride. As the other guests at the hut joined us for dinner, we met fellow Cascadians, Pitkin and Betsy who were wrapping up a month of riding in Chile. We shared many common friends and proceeded to ride the next week together. We spent several nights hanging out with Pana, Juane and the rest of the Refugio Frey crew, learning about them, the area and working on our Spanish.

#sendandreturn Day 2 started with some great SE runs on the largest peak, Torre Principal. Rolling upper bowls lead into a variety of gullies and couloirs that gave us two mind-blowing laps! 500 meters of granite Torres mixed with steep lower chutes.

#sendandreturn Day 3 started with Hippy pow above the hut, and Lago Schmoll then led us to several couloirs that simply were the reason we came. 300- 400 meters of granite lined walls, steep and wide enough to skin up, deep enough to burn memories in our soul.

We went back to town the next day to avoid a windstorm, which blew our powder into the next mountain range. One last tour to Cerro Lopez, which both the hut staff and Diego recommended as one of the best in Bariloche, it did not disappoint. A long taxi ride took us out to Colonia Suiza, a postcard-perfect neighborhood with Cerro Lopez rising 2,000 meters above the Lake. We hiked the first 400 meters on a trail then switched to skins. We arrived at Refugio Lopez to the local brewpub owner hitting a kicker with his amigos and the hut guardian.

We walked into the Refugio Lopez with Basquo, the hut guardian and met his cat, Dulfer lounging in the sun on one of the dining room tables. Like most first impressions, #alpinekitty did not look any different from other house cats, except we were several hours from a snow-free road.

We left the Refugio, powered up for the next climb and started skinning. Ten minutes into our climb, someone asked, ’Did you hear that? I think I heard a cat meow…’ We nodded in agreement and turned around to see the hut kitty following our skin track, a first for me.
The moment passed when Dulfer hitched a ride the rest of the way on my pack topping out with us what can only be described as the South American version of the Shuksan Arm, enormous rollers with cliffs and gullies that roll to and past the Refugio.

Dulfer summited the ridge with us, and we had a brief discussion whether to let him run down or get another ride down because only an hour earlier a shadow the size of a 747 flew over us and it seemed Dulfer would stand a chance against a Condor big enough to carry Godzilla away. Jake drew the short straw and di the first and only carry as Dulfer made it clear high-speed skiing was not his thing. We all ripped SE pow back down to the Refugio, Cat Skiing!

We made sure he made it back, the last time he followed some tourers, they left him and he spent two days avoiding Condors. Near the Refugio, Dulfer veered off the tracks and made his way to the only cliff band then executed a couple of small leaps to a mid-cliff Lengua then hucked it! All we could see was a small orange ball rolling for 15-20 feet before coming to a stop to shake off the snow and trot back for his afternoon nap.

When my publisher Andy asked me who I wanted to dedicate my new Backcountry Skiing Mt. Baker book to I struggled. 2017 seemed full of stories about cold, callous behavior in the front and backcountry and Dulfer gave me a moment to reflect what I love about bc touring. The moment Dulfer stood in front of my skis I knew what I would do and what I would regret doing. #alpinekitty reminded me of the compassion we all share with our backcountry brothers and sisters.

I looked the definition, and ‘compassion’ literally means “to suffer together.” Among emotion researchers, it is defined as ‘the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.’

When we feel compassion, our heart rate slows down; we secrete the “bonding hormone” oxytocin, and regions of the brain linked to empathy, caregiving, and feelings of pleasure light up, which often results in our wanting to approach and care for other people. The best day ever ski touring with your partner requires compassion to break trail, share the group gear, pack the coffee, remember the beer, wait a few extra minutes when you feel strong, and someone else does not, and to share that shit-eating grin when you ride down with snow flowing over your shoulder as you float from turn to turn through the silence of the deep backcountry. Backcountry riding brings out the best in people when compassion and wisdom are shared by a small group of friends to receive the gifts of winter. Dulfer purred his way up and down, sharing his joy and reminding us cat skiing may require compassion to look beyond our expectations and be open to the gifts winter gives us. #sendandreturn.

Matt Schonwald is BCA ambassador, founder and owner of BC Adventure Guides. He just published his second guide book Backcountry Skiing Mt. Baker, Washington, available online at offpisteskiatlas.com.