Frey's blissful granite spires

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Climbing.com - To climbers, Patagonia means rumbling glaciers, ceaseless wind, and world-class alpinism. To the general public, it provokes apparel-inspired images of outdoor fun, with a Jack Johnson tune somewhere in the background. Frey, a pair of connected alpine cirques in northern Argentine Patagonia, borrows from both of these perceptions. It’s the Patagonia of steep splitters and looming spires, and also the Patagonia of the endless summer vacation. If you’d rather climb than scowl over bleak forecasts, Frey’s one- to 10-pitch granite routes, following steep splitters and huecoed faces, might just be Patagonian paradise.

A two-story stone hut, or refugio, sits adjacent to a free camping area, both straddling treeline, a mere frisbee toss from frigid Lake Toncek. Two American friends—my climbing partner, Scott, and photographer, Forest—and I arrived in Frey on a scorching summer afternoon in late January. Our dusty, three-hour hike was followed by a dare-induced plunge into the lake, ridding us of sweat and trail grime. Now clean and presentable (neither, as it turns out, prerequisites for entrance), we followed our noses to the climber-filled dining room inside the refugio.

The building’s wood-lined downstairs serves as a restaurant and gathering place, with an attached kitchen available to those camping nearby. The refugio’s cast of culinary wizards ensures that, despite being several hours from the nearest trailhead, your biggest on-route epic can quickly be followed by delicious pizza and a bottle of local wine. The loft houses simple bunks adequate for a crowd of tentless hikers. When the sun goes down, tabletop candles and LED headlamps illuminate card games, jam sessions, and the language barrier–defying pantomime of crux beta. I don’t know how to say “ring lock” in Spanish, Portuguese, or German, but when I’d make a scrunched “OK” symbol and grimace, I don’t recall anyone reaching for his phrase book.

From November to March, annotated and dog-eared copies of topos circulate among the callused hands of the refugio’s international crowd. A pocket-sized paperback, written and illustrated by local Rolando Garibotti, is Frey’s totality of published information. As we add a second bottle of local wine to our tab, I solicit opinions for Frey’s must-do routes. The staff and long-time locals holding court in the refugio eagerly oblige, and several favorites emerge from the crowd. But after shuffling through a messy pile of grease-stained topos, Scott suggests another route: No TEOlvidaremos. TEO has six pitches up to 5.12-, located on perhaps Frey’s coldest and windiest face on Torre Principal. Though unmentioned and unclimbed by everyone we talk with at the refugio, this route gets fi ve stars in Garibotti’s book; for everything else, the scale ends at three.

No TEOlvidaremos (Teo, we won’t forget you) was named by friends of the late Argentine climber Teo Plaza, an alpinist responsible for new routes across the country. From a windy col to the south of the Torre Principal, I crane my neck upward at Frey’s largest spire. I can’t help being intimidated. When the first pitch (5+/5.9) includes an overhanging thin-hands splitter, we decide that a few more pluses are warranted on the topo. But with every wild overhang, opportunities for protection surprise us—and the techy 5.12- crux features two bolts. While pulling another roof on “is this for real?” jugs, Scott hollers out, “This is the best rock climb in the world!” From my belay above a hanging corner, I don’t demur. Read more..

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