Cerro Catedral Walk (19km - 1240m ascent - 1240m descent)

Just over nine months ago we had started our South American adventure with a four-day trek across the Nahuel Huapi National Park. It was a magnificent introduction to the landscapes of the Andes Mountains and it seemed appropriate that our last foray should be in the same region. With only one day left, we needed one last hard walk before our 19 hour plane journey home; the circuit of the Cerro Catedral ridge was just the one, so we drove up to the ski village of Villa Catedral, a few kilometres outside of Bariloche, and set off from the carpark on another glorious sunny Patagonian summer's day.

The head of the track was a dirt road on the southern end of the carpark, but we quickly turned off that onto a wide and dusty walking path that led into the ñirre and quila bamboo scrub. We climbed gently through bush along a route lined with scrambling pink flowering pea-creepers, patches of blue lupins, cream and white daisies and the odd green orchid. The track led us across a platform high above the waters of Lago Gutierrez, crossing several steep little gullies carrying water down from the heights above.

Quila bamboo regrowth in the burnt beech forest

Traversing the slopes above Lago Gutierrez

First glimpse of the towers of Cerro Catedral

Ahead we could see the sad sight of the dead burnt trunks of ñirre and lenga - a fire had obviously passed through some years earlier. The quila bamboo had recovered with a vengeance, the beech trees less so, but with the removal of the canopy, a host of wildflowers flourished in the open habitat - yellow topa-topas, the paradoxical yellow violets, plus daisies and pea-flowers of various hues. The track now crossed a much steeper slope as the ridge ran more directly up from Lago Gutierrez, and we found ourselves below an impressive grey rock face that guided us into the mouth of Arroyo van Titter, a deep cleft that would lead us up into the mountains. The cleft of the arroyo framed our first glimpse of the rocky spires of Cerro Catedral.

Sunlight filtering through the beech canopy

At last the effects of the fire disappeared and we found ourselves walking in the cool shade of a mature lenga forest, its canopy dappled with shades of sunlit green. The palette of wildflower colours was replaced by a forest floor of dark green herbs, dotted with hundreds of small white orchids, while a bit below us the waters of the stream tumbled down their rocky bed. Arroyo van Titter was a very nice place to be on a hot day.

The cool beech forest of Arroyo van Titter

Crossing the stream on a rustic wooden bridge, we started to climb more steeply, eventually coming out of the tall lenga canopy and into ñirre scrub, still bright green, but now the hot sun burnt through as we sidled up the southern slope of the Arroyo. Ahead lay impressive views of its rocky cirque. Above us, a saddle came into view with the welcome sight of the stone buildings of Refugio Frey perched on it. To its left rose a huge rock pinnacle, with the tiny shapes of rockclimbers working their way up its sheer tan-coloured face.

Waterfall at the outlet of Laguna Toncek

Cirque at the head of Arroyo van Titter

Nearing Refugio Frey and the rock climber's favourite pinnacle

Climber about to summit ...

The pinnacles and spires of Cerro Catedral are a magnet for rockclimbers from all over the world and the refugio is their base. We crested the saddle to be greeted by the magnificent panorama of the jagged cirque of these rocky spires high above the waters of Laguna Toncek, dominated by the 2409m Torre Principal of Cerro Catedral. It was a great spot for lunch, watching the rockclimbers high above. A condor soared by several times equally curious at their activity.

... watched by a soaring condor

The cirque of Cerro Catedral framing Laguna Toncek

The walk was half-over, but the hard work was just about to begin. We picked our way around the northern edge of Laguna Toncek, crossing a long snow drift to reach a small stream tumbling down from the steep boulder-covered heights above.

Snowdrifts still covered much of the slope and the track was not obvious, so we worked our way up the scree and boulders until eventually we were obliged to traverse several steep drifts, high above the valley floor. A series of rock-hopping and cutting steps in the soft spring snow of the drifts saw us crest onto a small plateau.

A backward glance toward the glacial flats of Laguna Toncek

Refugio Frey on the edge of Laguna Toncek

Beneath Torre Principal and Torre Pyramidale

The route up to Laguna Schmolk

Cutting steps into a steep snowdrift

Behind the rocky jumble on the plateau lay a small lagoon, its surface still partly covered in ice; just when you thought it couldn't get any better! Laguna Schmolk lay directly across the cirque walls from rock towers of Cerro Catedral and we took our time to enjoy the magnificent alpine panorama.

Time for a break beneath the spires of Cerro Catedral

Superb panorama of Laguna Schmolk and the 2409m Torre Principal

The snowy route up to the pass above Schmolk

There was still one last steep climb as we pushed our way up the snow covered lower slopes of the lagoon's basin and then clambered over the jumble of boulders to reach the gap in the ridge line, a large sandy hollow in the rocks called Cancha de Futbol, which led us out onto the northwestern slope of the Catedral ridge.

On the rim of the Cancha de Futbol

The multiple peaks of 3554m Monte Tronador

The closeup views of Cerro Catedral were replaced by a vast panorama of the snow-covered mountains of Nahuel Huapi Park with the dominating shape of Monte Tronador in the background. It was hard to believe that nine months had passed since we crossed those mountains on our first trek in South America - memories flooded back as we looked out and relived that adventure.



Looking across Arroyo Rucaco to Tronador and mountains of Nahuel Huapi

Traversing the scree slopes of Cordon Catedral


Setting off again, we followed the path, a faint trace marked by occasional red and yellow paint spots, northward across the steep boulder scree on the western side of the Cordon Catedral; 800m below us, the Arroyo Rucaco tumbling down its green-clad valley in a series of cascades and waterfalls, a hundred metres above us the jagged rampart of grey, tan and black rocks of this razorback ridge. The sun shone hotly, as at times we wandered across a loose sandy scree, its slopes speckled with the occasional pastel coloured gems of the prostrate wildflowers that eked out their lives in this arid environment, and at other times we picked our way carefully up and down the sharp rocky outcrops that jutted out from the ridgeline.

Waterfall on Arroyo Rucaco 800m below us

The jagged profile of Punta Princesa

View through a gap to the Arroyo van Titter

Black and tan rock faces and scree slopes
of the Cordon

All the while we were accompanied by the magnificent skyline of snow-capped mountains, as the broad expanse of Lago Nahuel Huapi gradually grew larger ahead of us. One last scramble around the blackish rock ribs of Punta Princesa, one last climb up the grey sandy scree and we crossed the ridgeline to overlook the ski-fields and village of Villa Catedral.

View north over Lago Nahuel Huapi to the snow-capped Andes

Eastward view over the ski fields of Cerro Catedral

Boot-skiing - the fast way down

The upper slopes still held large drifts of slushy spring snow. We looked at the snow, looked at each other, nodded and took off on the most direct route down - boot-skiing down a succession of long drifts until we rapidly arrived at the snow-free middle slopes with saturated feet and exhilarated minds.

Mid slopes of the ski field

Daisy covered fields of the lower ski slopes

The ubiquitous Patagonian lapwing

The only downside to this was that we had slid into the zone of the tabaño, the feared biting fly of the Patagonian Andes (like a March fly on steroids). They had only just emerged from over-wintering and the females were ravenous for blood. Dark hordes plagued us as we followed the network of access roads down through the lupins and daisy fields of the lower slopes to return once again to the villlage and the fly-free shelter of the car. Perhaps we had chosen the right time to move on.

Requiem for a pair of Raichles

Only one thing remained - a simple ceremony at the end of our trip. My boots had gradually fallen apart over the last few months of trekking, so it seemed appropriate to leave them here, in a pleasant patch of lupins overlooking the magnificent scenery of the Andes. Our time in this part of the world was now over and our last walk around the forests, snow-capped ridges, glacial lakes and flower-carpeted slopes of Cerro Catedral had encapsulated everything that had made this trip so memorable. It was a good way to finish.