Last September, I went on a trip of a lifetime in Patagonia to go backcountry skiing with buds in some of the biggest mountains I’ve ever seen, and to visit legendary mountain huts like the Refugio Frey, located in Cerro Catedral outside Bariloche. Of course traveling exotic mountains requires the consumption of exotic beer, so I paired a visit to Refugio Frey with one of Argentina’s beers, Isenbeck Pale Lager.
First thing was first though. We had some skiing to do, and we found it at the resort at Cerro Catedral. It is an immense ski resort that honestly has seen better days. The snow line began halfway up the mountain, and the locals say nobody has been able to ski from top to base in five years because of warm winters. Despite that, the upper mountain held good, albeit soft, snow that was fast and fun to turn in. Wide open runs above tree line provided the most incredible views from a ski resort that I’ve ever seen, and dozens of lifts in close proximity allowed for easy lapping over and over again.
When we had our fill, we rode lifts to the top of the mountain where we exited the resort boundary and began our rock-strewn ridge traverse to a place where a descent would get us to our destination. With clear weather and warm temperatures, our spirits were high as we strapped skis to packs and unsheathed whippets and mountaineering axes. The route was simple enough, and previous parties had already booted in a faint trail barely covered by a thin dusting of snow.
The standard way to reach Refugio Frey is to ski down from The Notch, a small opening in a cliff band that allows entry to Valle Van Titter, a route that requires bushwhacking at the bottom of the drainage followed by a skin up to the hut. So Justin and Sean had their eyes on a different way by traversing the entire ridge, then skiing right down to the hut on a headwall dubbed “Schmoll Bowl” that spills onto Laguna Toncek. But after a few hours of slowly making our way over loose rock, scrambling along boulders, and tentatively side-hilling without crampons over death exposure, we decided to cut things short and ski from a saddle just beyond The Notch. Plus, the weather was beginning to turn, with a rapidly lowering ceiling and visibility becoming dangerously low.
After a quick pit test and lunch, we clicked into our skis and carefully made turns on chattery, hard snow that gave new meaning to sewing-machine-leg. One by one we descended down the steep headwall that led to an area of rollers and small cliff bands broken up by openings large enough for us to ski and snowboard through. Eventually, the line traversed skier’s right to a final pitch of softer snow where we we able to edge a little bit turn for turn to the valley bottom.
Despite the mediocre snow conditions, we were taken in by our surroundings. Cerro Catedral completely encased us with grey spires and towers of stone. At the bottom of Valle Van Titter, it felt as if we were standing in the palm of a god hand below fingers curving skyward.
A short traverse along a stream filled with melting, spring snow brought us to what Justin dubbed the “Spooky Forest.” I could see where he got the name. Gnarly trees of dark grey and barren limbs grew thick and tall, creating a sense of foreboding. Large curtains of bushy moss covered the trees like an old man’s beard, while bark knots scarred tree surfaces in the shape of an evil face. Silence fell on us as we put skins to our skis and ate dried pears to fuel our ascent to Refugio Frey, hiding somewhere in a hanging valley above.
Bushes and naked limbs tore at our shells and snagged our poles as we skinned up through the forest that thinned into a grove of shrubs as we got higher. A bit of route-finding navigated us over snow bridges and through the occasional patch of bare ground until we found an old skin track. Switchbacks on rapidly melting snow under the late-afternoon sun made short work of the climb, and before we knew it, a corner of the hut’s roof appeared around a small shoulder of snow. With renewed enthusiasm, we skinned faster until Refugio Frey came into full view, a storybook, stone cottage nestled beneath an impossibly jagged cauldron of sawtooth mountains.
Immediately, the cameras came out, despite the beer that surely waited for us inside. We probably spent an hour taking photos of the hut, providing the perfect foreground to the otherworldly granite spires beyond the frozen lake. Several of the group decided it best to relax and drink, but despite the late hour, Adam, Sean and myself decided to go for a short tour. A quick skin halfway across the lake and up a stone littered face brought us to a saddle overlooking Campenile, the next valley over that housed even more thin towers. It was no wonder why rock climbers converge here in the summer. But we skiers scoped out the lines on couloirs and chutes that spilled down between the monoliths.
Unfortunately, because of the previous day’s weather and our inability to reach Refugio Frey at that time, we only had one night at the hut, which meant there would be no time to ski any of the juicy lines that I had hoped to tick off one by one. So after more picture taking and soaking in the scenery, the three of us skied back down to the lake on creamy corn snow and savored every turn, knowing it would be our only turns at Frey as we had to leave early in the morning.
Despite that disappointment, our time was well spent at Refugio Frey. Good company, excellent pasta dinner, and cans of beer kept us occupied well into the night. I enjoyed my first brew while sitting on a boulder just outside the hut where a view of Cerro Principal loomed above the frozen lake and glowed pink with Andean glow that reflected the setting sun. With that serene yet jagged view in front of me, I popped open an Isenbeck Pale Lager and drank to the day.
Isenbeck Pale Lager
It’s funny how being in a foreign country, you almost expect everything to taste better, or at least different, than what we eat or drink in the United States. This certainly holds true for beer. So it was with much relish that I took my first sip of Isenbeck Pale Lager, one of the few “macro beer” companies in Argentina. The yellow can states, Cerveza 100% Malta, which I thought translates to a tasty, malty beer. But upon the first swig, I determined that even South America has its “Budweiser or Coors” style beers.
Isenbeck has a watered down taste that is certainly easy to drink and was wonderfully refreshing after a long day skiing and hiking in the mountains. It has a light, grainy hop aroma with a touch of straw and some barley. Typical bitterness for a lager style beer was dominant with some sweetness as well, probably from the malts. Overall, it’s not a bad beer, but is uninspiring unless you’re drinking it in a place that is nothing but inspiring.