The Hard Way Out: Catedral Norte, Patagonia

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Written by Jared Hargrave   

An early morning start at Refugio Frey, Patagonia. [Photo] Jared Hargrave

“Oh God. It’s going to kill him!” I yelled as a lone ski flew down the mountain toward Sean. He was the first to ski the line and waited in a safe zone below as Wes dropped in. On the first turn, Wes’ telemark binding tore completely out of his right ski and zipped down the steep face. I stared in shock as Sean purposefully walked directly into its path. I watched helplessly from above and imagined the ski-turned-missile leaping up and impaling my partner below.

It was late afternoon, and the seven of us were on Catedral Norte (2,180-meters) in Patagonia, returning from the legendary backcountry hut, Refugio Frey. After skiing around Laguna Toncek beneath massive rock spires, like the famed Torre Principal, we wanted to end the adventure on a high note. So instead of returning to civilization via the eight-mile hiking trail that circumvents the mountains to the city of Bariloche, we decided to go out the hard way.

Sean Zimmerman-Wall skis La Laguna just before the missle-ski incident. [Photo] Jared Hargrave

In the morning, we skied through soft snow from the hut to the bottom of Valle Van Titter, then skinned up the forested drainage to look at our options. Overnight temperatures had dipped below 20 degrees, and anything still covered in shadow was frozen solid. But one option lay in the sun. The north side of Catedral Norte appeared intimidating, but had some solar exposure. We could approach on a low-angle ramp above a cliff band and boot the upper headwall to the summit.

Our trek for Catedral Norte started out well enough as we easily skinned into a cauldron of amber rock claws grappling with the southern sky. But once we reached the shadow line, my skins lost purchase on the ice. So I removed my skis, unsheathed my whippet, and we started booting up a small chute that led to the ramp we spied from across the valley.

As I wedged myself between the confining, stone walls, a layer of blue ice revealed itself beneath a thin sheet of snow. Without crampons on my boots, I had to kick steps to build a sketchy ladder for the group. The ice was so firm it took at least five kicks for every step—an exhausting and inefficient method. Already committed, I cursed myself for leaving crampons in my pack, and had no choice but to keep going up. Sweaty and convinced my toenails were turning black, I finally reached the ramp.

The view of Catedral Alta Patagonia and the lake country beyond from the top of Catedral Norte. [Photo] Jared Hargrave

Everything was steeper than it looked from below. So I continued to boot until the slope got so steep that I finally had to don my crampons beneath the main headwall. Then the real workout began. Wes went into guide mode and “Chuck Norrised” a route for us to follow that skirted the edge of the vertical walls. Ice crust and pockets of soft snow around warm boulders threatened to sink me to my waist. The snow was rapidly getting warm—too warm—and the top of Catedral Norte was still far away. Head down, I let all thoughts disappear and focused only on my steps. Any mistake meant a slide-for-life over boulders and the cliff band below.

After what seemed like hours, we made it to the summit cliffs where a class-five scramble through a narrow, rocky chute filled with loose stone and slick footholds put us at the top. Elated but thirsty, I drank the rest of my water and took in the still-life view below. Valle Van Titter lay indifferent to our climb. Beyond, the pyramid volcanoes of northern Patagonia cast long shadows over the lake country. Worried we’d miss the last tram to Bariloche, we hurriedly traversed to a point above La Laguna, a premiere backcountry ski zone just outside the resort boundary of Catedral Alta, Patagonia. Sean dropped in first and made jittery turns down a wide bowl of Styrofoam snow beneath derelict lifts.

Brian McKenna wedges into the final, upper pitch before topping out at the summit. [Photo] Jared Hargrave

Then Wes lost his ski. Sean, watching the scene play out from below, entered the ski’s path despite our screams from above. But instead of trying to stop it, he tapped it with his pole as it rocketed by, sending it airborne. The ski came down on its tail and stuck into the snow like an arrow on a target. Sean skied down to recover the errant board and we all made turns in the setting sun to the gondola station where dinner and Quilmes beers awaited.


GUIDE SERVICE: Patagonia Ski Tours offers multiday, guided skiing in northern Patagonia’s Lake District from $2,795 for seven days to $5,195 for the 14-day Patagonia Super Tour (

GETTING THERE: Catedral Norte, Refugio Frey and Catedral Alta Patagonia are all accessible from the city of Bariloche. Fly to Buenos Aires and catch a connecting flight to Bariloche on LAN Airlines, the local carrier of Argentina.

Once there, stay at the Alaska Hostel, a large cabin with seven rooms and a massive barbeque where you can cook up some Argentinean asado (

ADDITIONAL LODGING: Refugio Frey is the premiere backcountry hut in the area. It’s a daylong hike from the Catedral Alta Patagonia resort base. Nightly rates from $55 for full room and board or $15 for just a mattress (

BEER: Drink at Cerveza Artesanal La Cruz in Bariloche (

MORE SKIING: Catedral Alta Patagonia is one of the largest ski resorts in Argentina and is minutes away from Bariloche (

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