There are a few places on this earth that I return to, over and over again. In body and in mind, wandering the hills and haunts of imagination: past, present, and future. The Refugio Frey is one of these places. I first traveled here at the age of 25, bright-eyed and shutter-finger happy as the great expanse of Argentina’s wild southern wilderness unfurled a welcoming carpet the likes of which I had seldom walked. Sweeping dark storms splashing prismatic colors across deep blue lakes, lush woodland valleys woven with the gurgling tendrils of snowmelt, and the mountains. The mountains greeted me as an old friend, showering me in new surprises, furious storms, and crisp glittering mornings that gave way to sun blushed peaks, laughing, inviting us to play. Located in the mountains above Bariloche in northern Patagonia, this particular refugio is one of a series of huts in these mountains linked by hiking trails. The huts serve as melting pots and gathering spots for a host of international climbers and skiers, trekkers, and transients. In the summer, the patio in front of the refugio bustles with a revolving cast of loungers and adventurers who discuss climbing, sort gear, share steaming mate gourds and often stand transfixed for minutes on end by the higher peaks of the cirque. In the winter, skis stack deep along the outside of the hut, while inside the warm confines of the refugio, excited chatter builds, wet clothing steams, and happy helpers bustle about preparing pizzas and otherworldly delights in the tiny corner kitchen. In any season, the atmosphere around the hut is communal and eclectic, with folks from far-flung continents squeezing in to share the long tables for family style meals as a battered guitar circulates the room, the black refugio cat (Mr. Dragon) prowls for scraps, and folks sing and swap stories in a half-dozen different languages. On stormy days, warm bodies pack together into the small space to weather out the fierce Patagonia storms, often passing time with games, more conversation, and a good book. On spring days when the weather is favorable, you can ski right out the front door, or alternately grab your harness, hike to the base of the Aguja Frey, and be climbing within a 10-minute walk from the hut. The refugio doesn't take reservations but instead has a policy of taking in anyone in need of shelter. As a result, the tiny hut is often fully occupied, and it's not a bad idea to bring a tent or sleeping gear as a backup. That said, space is always made to accommodate a traveler in need— even if it means sharing bunks. Sitting on the old wooden chairs in front of the refugio and watching as the wild winds of Patagonia push clouds up and over the ragged spires that ring the lake, one feels that they are far removed from any form of civilization. In reality, as the crow (or condor) flies, we are only a few miles from the Cerro Catedral ski resort, and perhaps 15 miles from the town of Bariloche. Today I am far from the refugio; yet to return, even in memory, puts a smile on my face. As I type this, I am comforted to know that chances are, no matter what else is happening in the world, the Refugio Frey bustles on, nurturing a spirit of joyous adventure whose ripples rollick and roll into the vast world beyond, continuing to dance and delight far beyond the cozy confines of the hut.
Photographer Forest Woodward reflects on a warm refuge in the middle of storm-ridden Patagonia. Trust us, you'll want to go here.