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One Step at a Time

In the mountains, Claudio Fidani encountered a sense of belonging and purpose.

Photos by: Bianca Fidani & courtesy of the Fidani family

Following a winter storm, a bluebird day in San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina reveals layers of fresh snow blanketing the Andes Mountains west of the city. Tucked within the Patagonian backcountry, several mountain huts, refugios, entice adventurers in all seasons—often on skis or snowshoes during the winter months—away from the city and into the mountains.

Sixteen kilometers (nearly 10 miles) from downtown Bariloche, a 14-kilometer trail weaves its way along a river, through a valley, and up a series of forested switchbacks to Laguna Jakob, an alpine lake. In winter, cresting the last of several icy hills—following seven hours on the trail on foot, skis, or snowshoes—provides a welcome sight and a well-earned exhale.

A half-circle of mountains rises against a lavender-colored sky, as dusk slips into night. Not too far off, down the quilted curve of a couple hills, Refugio Jakob—one of the aforementioned mountain huts—glows with the warmest, most inviting light.

A black and white hand drawn map of the landscape surrounding the refugio
Hand-drawn map of the trail to Refugio Jakob

The minutes from that hilltop view to the front door of the refugio waltz by. The porch is boxed in. Where travelers would usually step up to enter, the winter snowpack is piled around the refugio, forcing visitors to descend down several shoveled steps of snow to enter the shelter.

In the frame of a slightly steam-covered window, two refugieros, caretakers for the hut and its guests, cook dinner. Inside the wooden door, snowshoes, skis, and poles line the wall to the right. A bench mirrors the gear. Crocs and slippers, available for guests to use inside throughout their stay, reside on a shelving unit next to a heater that has racks above it for drying cold, damp clothing.

A brown sign with yellow lettering, on a wooden wall. The sign indicates the refugio name and information
Sign for Refugio Jakob, officially known as Refugio San Martín, along the staircase inside the refugio

A refugiero emerges from the kitchen. Greetings are exchanged, a short list of items is covered for an overnight stay at the refugio, and a cup of hot tea is offered. Packs are dropped in rooms, and wet clothes are swapped for dry, warm layers.

In the dining room, the main room of Refugio Jakob, six wooden tables with two benches each stretch the length of a wall of windows. Through the glass, the shimmer of the winter moon dances across the snow-covered lake and mountains. Inside, a few guests relax at each table—chatting as they stretch. On the opposite side of the room, a wood-burning stove adorns a stone wall. Artwork, maps, pictures, and plaques hang on an adjacent wooden wall.

In one photo, eight people stand with their arms around one another at the counter outside the refugio’s kitchen. There’s a resemblance among them. Near the middle, a man with dark, curly hair, a short, scruffy beard, and clear, green eyes leans gently into the counter. He smiles slightly, an eyebrow raised. The photo is captioned “Refugio San Martín (Jakob): 70° Aniversario 1952-2022.”

A wall of artwork and maps along a wooden paneled wall
Artwork, maps, pictures, and plaques hang on a dining room wall in Refugio Jakob

As the wind howls outside, the refugiero delivers a cup of hot tea and adds a log to the wood-burning stove. Conversation murmurs throughout the room, as guests await dinner.

Refugio Jakob hasn’t always welcomed guests in the winter months, nor has it always received adventurers with the same warmth: a friendly greeting, an introductory conversation, and the offer for a cup of hot tea. But for more than four decades, an Argentine man and his family have poured themselves—their heart, soul, and human- and nature-centered service—into making the refugio a place that feels like home to all who encounter it.

•••••

In December 1976, when he was 15 years old, Claudio Fidani and a few friends visited the Casalata Valley near Refugio Jakob to ring in the new year. Though it was early summer in the Southern Hemisphere, when they arrived in the valley, it started to snow.

Unprepared for the weather, two of the friends crossed over the Schweitzer Pass to seek shelter at the refugio. Claudio and another friend stayed behind in the valley, where they spent the night camping. In the morning, their tent was broken and letting in cold air and moisture, so the two also made their way to the mountain hut.

Refugio Jakob, officially known as Refugio San Martín, was first constructed in 1952 by Club Andino Bariloche(Opens in a new window), the local entity that owns and operates the refugio. The refugio is within Nahuel Huapi National Park, which was established in 1934 and sits on the ancestral lands of the Mapuche people.

A sepia-toned photo of a group of people standing in front of a refugio
Inauguration of the original refugio, named "Refugio General San Martín"

Otto Meiling, Emilio Frey, Juan Javier Neumeyer, and Reynaldo Knapp founded Club Andino Bariloche in August 1931 to contribute to, promote, and share knowledge about the mountains in all aspects and the practice of sports linked to them. Following its founding, the organization constructed a handful of refugios in areas surrounding Bariloche. The idea is that these huts give locals and tourists, mountain athletes and casual outdoorists alike a base within the mountains.

Nestled among lenga trees on the northern shore of Laguna Jakob, Refugio Jakob rests roughly 1,600 meters above sea level. In photos from the 1950s to 1970s, the one-room stone hut has the structure of a simple house, like the kind children draw: four sides, a triangular roof, a stone chimney, and a few windows with a wooden door. The interior is paneled with wood. A couple modest tables and benches line the room. A wood-burning stove hosts various kettles and pots for heating water and cooking.

The refugio’s natural colors blend in with the landscape that surrounds it. A family of mountains rises around the alpine lake on which it sits: Pico Refugio, Cerro Brecha Negra, and Cuernos del Diablo, the highest peak that can be seen from the refugio. Foliage climbs about halfway up the mountains before transitioning to only rock.

A black and white photo of a refugio nestled into the mountains
The original refugio in summer
A black and white photo of a refugio with updates and an extension
The refugio with the small extension

As Claudio and his friend made their way to the refugio on New Year’s Day in 1977, Claudio was imagining a simple reunion with his friends and a shelter that would offer him a respite from the unexpectedly cold landscape. This was his first time adventuring into the mountains that surrounded Bariloche and his first visit to a refugio.

But Refugio Jakob was not what Claudio expected. Instead of a place where he felt welcome to pause, refresh, and warm up, Claudio and his friend were met with indifference. There was no greeting and no offer for a cup of hot tea or a bite to eat. On that first visit to Refugio Jakob, Claudio encountered a space where he lacked a sense of belonging. That day, he returned to Bariloche feeling disappointed—and as though, after this first foray into the mountains, he wouldn’t return again.

Today, he recounts this story matter-of-factly. He pauses at the end. “Little did I know,” he says, a knowing look glimmers in his green eyes.

••••

Claudio, 62, was born and raised in Córdoba, Argentina. His father, Alfredo, was an actor and director who traveled throughout the country performing in community centers and school gymnasiums. His mother, Lotti, later became a teacher at a German school. For the first five years of his life, Claudio’s paternal grandmother raised him, while his parents were on the road throughout Argentina. When they returned, he had two more siblings, Marcelo and Alfredo. From the ages of 5 to 14, Claudio lived with his mother and two brothers in Córdoba. His father continued touring the country.

Growing up, Lotti’s side of the family had a cabin made of stone and wood in the mountains near La Cumbrecita, a small town in the Province of Córdoba. Claudio often spent the weekends with his extended family there.

These excursions to the Sierra de Córdoba provided Claudio with an early connection to nature and the mountains of central Argentina. Among his grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, conversations in German, a language unfamiliar to young Claudio, cut through the cabin. Claudio’s aunt often sent him to gather wood in the forest to start a fire in the stove. A little lamb always accompanied him, until it was butchered for a family meal.

Throughout his childhood, Claudio’s life was altogether rooted in one place while also drifting in and out of people and places. Though he lived with his mother and brothers in Córdoba, he periodically accompanied his father on tour throughout Argentina with the theater company.

Claudio doesn’t recall aspiring to be anything in particular when he was a little boy. “I wanted to run away,” he says. “I was an escapist.”

••••

Argentina’s history is spotted with political and economic unrest and recession, rebellion, and instability. Frequent coups d’état, low economic growth in the 1950s, and high growth rates in the 1960s marked the decades leading up to 1976. In 1973—with the return of Peronism, an Argentine political movement, to Argentine rule—a calm governance was anticipated. Instead, it stirred a major rift between right- and left-wing Peronism that led to more years of violence and political instability.

When he was 14 years old, life as Claudio knew it took a dramatic turn—and never spun back.

On March 24, 1976, a coup d’état in Argentina ousted President Isabel Martínez de Perón and gave rise to a military dictatorship. Throughout the country, those seen as an opposition to the governing party were seized by authorities and taken into custody at detention centers, detained, oftentimes tortured and violated, and, in the worst cases, murdered or “disappeared.” The vast majority were never given a trial. From 1976 to 1983, while the military dictatorship governed Argentina, it is estimated that between 10,000 and 30,000 citizens were killed.

In the months leading up to that coup d’état, the oppressive climate and violence within Argentina, especially the larger cities, was smoldering. In Córdoba, Lotti was friends with someone who vocally opposed the rise of the military dictatorship. As a result, Lotti was captured and detained in late 1975 before she was released after a week, thanks to a human rights commission.

“She barely left, she grabbed us [me and my brothers], and we came here [to Bariloche],” Claudio says. By this time, his parents were separated. “Our arrival in Bariloche was marked by escape. We were exiled within the same country.”

In the more remote region of Patagonia, the reality of the military dictatorship wasn’t felt as harshly. During the military dictatorship, Bariloche, which is 1,680 kilometers (approximately 1,044 miles) from Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital and largest city, was considerably safer than the larger, more populated cities in central and northern Argentina.

Lotti, Claudio, and his brothers left everything they had in Córdoba and started with nothing in Bariloche. Their arrival proved challenging.

“Those of us who came here—who were not born and raised here—were not treated well, especially if you were poor,” Claudio recalls. “It was very traumatic […] In Bariloche, we lived in the upper neighborhoods in a house with a dirt floor. We didn’t have food. We didn’t have anything.”

At the start of the 1970s, nearly 26,800 people resided in Bariloche. In photos from this time, the city center of Bariloche is marked by rolling hills peppered with houses and dirt roads. The Andes rise in the background. Bariloche’s natural landscape breathes comfortably among the minor marks of humanity.

In the Northern Patagonian city, Lotti worked as a teacher at a German school. Claudio and his brothers attended public school. From the moment his family left Córdoba, Claudio wanted to return. On several occasions, he hitchhiked from Bariloche to Córdoba, roughly 1,500 kilometers (about 932 miles) away. Each time, his father sent him back to Bariloche.

As Argentina howled through some of its more horrific years in recent history, Claudio struggled to find his place in a city that didn’t feel like home. In reality, the sense of belonging and purpose Claudio was unknowingly seeking didn’t lie in Córdoba. It was mere kilometers away from where he was in Bariloche. But to find it, he had to leave the city and head for the mountains.

••••

In February 1977, more than a year after his family’s arrival in Bariloche and roughly a month after his first lackluster visit to Refugio Jakob, a friend asked Claudio to accompany him to the same mountain hut for a night. Claudio agreed.

In February 1977, more than a year after his family’s arrival in Bariloche and roughly a month after his first lackluster visit to Refugio Jakob, a friend asked Claudio to accompany him to the same mountain hut for a night. Claudio agreed.

This time, he met Andres “Andi” Lamuniere, who was managing the refugio alongside his brother Gerardo Edmundo, nicknamed “Chule,” who had a contract with Club Andino Bariloche. In conversation, Andi asked Claudio if he wanted to work at the refugio, mainly gathering firewood to start. Claudio said yes and began work immediately with the Lamuniere brothers.

A sepia-toned image of a man holding a cup with a straw and looking down at his hands near his lap sorting through items and belongings
"Chule" Lamuniere
A lightly colored image of a man sitting and smiling at the camera
Andres "Andi" Lamuniere
A group of people standing in front of the refugio
The refugio and visitors

In this era, Refugio Jakob typically saw around 300 visitors, mostly Argentine, per season—which typically ran from October through May. Most people came in groups; there were very few who came alone. The shelter was one room with no running water, two tables, and a loft upstairs for sleeping. Twenty people could stay inside the refugio at one time, and everyone cooked, ate, and slept in the same space.

For the first year, Claudio’s work gathering firewood and performing other odd jobs for Refugio Jakob evolved into more tasks and more responsibility with Andi and Chule. Amid the challenges of starting a new life with his mother and brothers in Bariloche, Claudio came to like the order of Refugio Jakob—and how the Lamuniere brothers operated it.

•••••

At their most basic level, refugios provide protection and shelter in mountain environments. For Claudio, Refugio Jakob provided a reprieve from a life he hadn’t chosen in Bariloche. Starting with that first season, Claudio fell into a rhythm and new way of living with Andi and Chule.

A man standing inside a refugio, surrounded by gear, tables, etc.
Claudio, in his late teens, in the kitchen of the small refugio

“There was a mattress, a meal schedule, and all those things,” he says. “I had nothing orderly in my life, and this was very orderly. It was what I needed.”

Under Andi and Chule’s management, Refugio Jakob started to feel like the home Claudio longed for. In the mountains, among the brothers, Claudio felt a strong sense of belonging.

Andi and Chule were very organized. They’re from a Swiss-French lineage and were raised and educated with order. There was the coffee canister, the tea canister, and the sugar canister. “You couldn’t do it any differently,” Claudio says.

An interior view of the dining room in the refugio
Dining room within the small extension of the refugio

In his days working with the Lamuniere brothers, Claudio rose first and lit the fire at 6:00 a.m. Back then, the wood-burning stove provided heat for the refugio as well as a place on which all water was boiled and all meals were cooked.

“No one got up and ran anywhere,” Claudio says. “There’s a daily ritual with the same pace. The kettle, the [yerba] mate, the time.”

Often, as night gave way to dawn, the world blinked awake outside the refugio’s windows. The sun rose behind the mountains, sweeping shadows over Laguna Jakob. Fog lingered on the alpine lake. Inside the refugio, the first cup of mate was prepared. As hot water met the yerba, steam danced upward. In the hum of the morning, little by little, conversation warmed the refugio.

The day unfolded from there. Between the morning and the evening, before the days of communication via radio, the refugieros tidied the kitchen, main room, and sleeping loft—resetting for any new guests who might arrive that day.

A man standing outside and opening goods
Claudio, 17 years old, opening goods at the refugio

Outside, the refugieros collected wood for the wood-burning stove. Over seven years in the 1980s, they spent the bulk of their days expanding the original refugio. The construction, which doubled the capacity of the refugio from 20 to 40, was completely horse- and human-powered.

The original refugio with the first extension recently removed to make way for a larger one
Claudio uses the chainsaw to make a window frame
Dining room of the new extension

In the late afternoons and evenings, guests arrived. The refugieros welcomed them—asking questions, giving them the rundown, offering up a cup of hot tea—and prepared dinner. No matter who you were or where you came from, the meal and conversation were shared around Refugio Jakob’s two tables. In the evening, conversation, games, music, and a certain warmth filled the air.

In their spare time, the refugieros walked along the forests, the mountains, the rocks, the trails, the water. They talked. They thought. “Jakob is not like the other refugios,” Claudio says. “It has a very strong creative and philosophical side. There are people who say that Jakob is not a place but rather a frame of mind.”

A man standing with his hands in his pockets, looking down at an alpine lake
Claudio observes the refugio and lake

Each season, working with Andi and Chule, Claudio took on greater responsibilities, such as taking care of and working with the horses—Claudio had never seen a horse, let alone worked with one—that carried supplies along the trail to the refugio.

“You learn to walk,” he says. “You learn to walk on the rocks and how to cross the rivers and streams. You learn how to pace yourself on the trail.”

As he grew into a young adult, Claudio was learning to navigate life in Bariloche, work at Refugio Jakob, and the trail that connected the two. He started to carve his own path in life, balancing the weight of life’s ups and downs and covering known and new ground one step at a time.

A man guiding a group of recreators on a forested trail
Claudio guiding a group on the trail
A man standing with his head close to a brown horse's head, his hand underneath the horse's face
Claudio with his horse

Each season, working with Andi and Chule, Claudio took on greater responsibilities, such as taking care of and working with the horses—Claudio had never seen a horse, let alone worked with one—that carried supplies along the trail to the refugio.

•••••

As Refugio Jakob was rapidly becoming the place that felt most like home for Claudio, a dependence he’d developed throughout the 1980s—in part adopted at the hands of a culture of partying, drugs, and drinking—proved difficult to shake. Throughout his 20s and into his early 30s, Claudio’s heaviest struggle was alcohol, even up in the mountains.

“There are days, days removed from civilization, staring out the same window, when it’s just you and the voice in your head,” he says. “The refugio is a paradise and a prison at the same time. Everything that happens to you, there’s nothing to cushion it. Just because you’re up in the mountains, it doesn’t mean your sorrow is going to be less or your joy is going to be greater.”

As a young boy, Claudio had lived among a wide range of people and places. As a teenager, due to a volatile and violent political climate, he and his family were internally displaced. Before encountering Refugio Jakob—and the years of life and work that followed there—Claudio had endured an adverse childhood and adolescence.

Over the years, research globally has “confirm[ed] the link between traumatic experiences in childhood and addictive behaviors in adulthood.” Though the impact of childhood trauma is nuanced and complex, unresolved trauma can lead to a variety of negative effects, including a dysregulated stress system. This, in turn, can increase vulnerability to addictive behaviors, such as alcoholism.

As a young adult, Claudio increasingly turned to alcohol. On one side, this was due to the culture and social circles in which he found himself. On the other, conscious or subconscious, his relationship with alcohol was a way for him to cope with the challenges he’d experienced as a child and teenager.

In time, the addiction rang throughout Claudio’s life, no matter if he was at Refugio Jakob or in Bariloche. Simultaneously, in the thick of his struggle with alcohol, change was splitting through Refugio Jakob.

•••••

By 1984, Andi, Chule, and Claudio were entwined with the refugio and their work there together. “It was always the three of us,” Claudio says. “We had a very strong work system. Very trustworthy, very powerful.”

That year, after Claudio had been working with them for seven years, the Lamuniere brothers told him they planned to take on a large expansion of the refugio—and that, under the contract with Club Andino Bariloche, they wanted to carry the project out on their own. In other words, he was done working there. He was done working with them.

“It was very hard,” Claudio remembers quietly. His gaze shifts to look out the window. “I remember the moment. I remember the sunset. I remember the two of them, the exact place where we were. I didn’t know where I was going to go or what I was going to do. It was like my world was falling apart.”

The refugio was the only place that had ever felt like home. With that changing, Claudio felt anxious and adrift.

Then, during the 1984-85 season, conversations from the season prior thawed as plans changed. Andi had a serious girlfriend and was contemplating marriage. In March 1985, Chule went on an expedition to Cerro Mercedario, 100 kilometers north of Cerro Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in South America. When he returned to Bariloche, after 12 years of operating Refugio Jakob, he no longer wanted the role and responsibility—and canceled his contract with Club Andino Bariloche.

A group of people standing inside the refugio. Image is in sepia tones
Claudio, Cepillo Gentile (his colleague at Refugio Jakob), and friends

Andi, Claudio, and a man from Buenos Aires named Cepillo Gentile made a “bid” for the contract. Following their pitch and then some back and forth with Club Andino Bariloche, the trio signed a contract with the organization to manage Refugio Jakob. Claudio, who was in his mid-20s, was back in business as a refugiero—with a more official role than he’d ever had before.

•••••

Outside the refugio, Claudio continued to meet and spend time with friends in Bariloche. In 1989, when he was 28 years old, he met Maria Veronica “Vero” Schlieper Casas, a kindergarten teacher from Rosario.

“Following a yearslong relationship, I was in a grieving process,” Claudio says. “In Vero, I found a warm, loving, and beautiful person.”

“I was impacted by Claudio’s personality,” Vero recalls. “He was a mountain man, and I loved that. That was attractive to me. Coming from the city of Rosario, I ‘idealized’ the notion of working outside in nature. I’d spent my childhood in the countryside in Mendoza, so there was an aspect to living and working in nature that spoke to me.”

Claudio and Vero started dating. When Claudio wasn’t at the refugio, the two spent time together in Bariloche. When Claudio was working, Vero occasionally ventured up to the refugio with friends.

“I loved the refugio,” she says. “It all felt like an adventure to me. Everything was new to me—the trail, hiking a lot—and it fascinated me.”

A woman smiling and standing at the front door of the refugio
Vero on the porch of the refugio

During this time, Claudio’s alcoholism was still active. “I thought I was going to die because of the addiction,” he reflects now. “I was going out with Vero, and I thought I was going to die. But I wanted to have a child before I died. Insanity.”

His call to be a father felt like the one thing Claudio was sure of. It felt like the one thing he knew how to do, the one thing that came naturally to him. “Even before I had children, I felt like a father,” he says. “I was like a father to the children of the girlfriends I had as well as to the children of friends.”

After they’d been dating for a year, Claudio asked Vero, “What do you think about us having a baby?” As a teacher, Vero loved children. For her, it was an immediate “yes.”

A pregnant woman standing with a brown and black dog on a rock
Vero, pregnant with Luca

After they’d been dating for a year, Claudio asked Vero, “What do you think about us having a baby?” As a teacher, Vero loved children. For her, it was an immediate “yes.”

During this time, Claudio’s alcoholism was still active. “I thought I was going to die because of the addiction,” he reflects now. “I was going out with Vero, and I thought I was going to die. But I wanted to have a child before I died. Insanity.”

His call to be a father felt like the one thing Claudio was sure of. It felt like the one thing he knew how to do, the one thing that came naturally to him. “Even before I had children, I felt like a father,” he says. “I was like a father to the children of the girlfriends I had as well as to the children of friends.”

After they’d been dating for a year, Claudio asked Vero, “What do you think about us having a baby?” As a teacher, Vero loved children. For her, it was an immediate “yes.”

By 1990, Claudio and Vero were expecting their first child. They moved to a little house outside Bariloche, all while Claudio continued work at Refugio Jakob and Vero continued work as a teacher.

In November, they went to an ultrasound appointment. The doctor gave them a printout with the ultrasound image. From that appointment, Claudio went to the refugio.

“I was in the middle of the frozen lake with a friend named Vicente,” Claudio recalls. “I told him, ‘I’m going to be a father.’ I showed him the image. It was such a little thing, and I was already so excited.”

The following fall, on May 18, 1991, when Claudio was 30 years old, his and Vero’s first son, Luca, was born.

Over the past 14 years, through his life and work Refugio Jakob, Claudio had learned to navigate the valleys, mountains, and even ground of life. He’d found his place and purpose in welcoming and serving people in a remote mountain environment—always with a warm greeting and the offer for a cup of hot tea.

A man standing near a window inside the refugio, holding a newborn baby close to him
Luca as a newborn baby
A man sitting with a toddler in his lap
Claudio and baby Luca
A toddler standing with his upper body over a bench seat
Luca as a one-year-old

Now, with Luca, Claudio felt his place and purpose expanding. He was still learning to carry the weight of life, yet as a new father, Claudio took a step forward toward the only life that ever felt like home.

Continue reading the story of Claudio Fidani, his family, and Refugio Jakob in part two(Opens in a new window) and part three of this three-part series.

Claudio Fidani is the concessionaire of Refugio Jakob. The refugio is owned by Club Andino Bariloche. To plan your visit to and stay at the refugio, visit https://refugiojakob.com.ar(Opens in a new window).

Author’s note: In covering Argentina’s history, particularly the military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983, I consulted Encyclopedia Britannica: Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Dirty War.” Encyclopedia Britannica, February 3, 2024. https://www.britannica.com/event/Dirty-War(Opens in a new window).

Words by Emily Hopcian. Photos by Bianca Fidani & courtesy of the Fidani family.

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