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Trail of Tales

In the Argentine Andes, the Fidani    family has navigated and embraced a unique life.

Photos by: Bianca Fidani & courtesy of the Fidani family

In the Andes Mountains outside San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina, Tambo Báez, a trailhead, marks the starting point for mountain adventures and all they carry. Setting out from the open field, hikers have the option to veer to the right or left. Turning right leads to Cerro Bella Vista, a common day hike. Heading left leads adventurers along a 14-kilometer (8.7-mile) trail to Refugio San Martín, a mountain hut more commonly known as Refugio Jakob.

The moderate trail traipses through a valley along the Arroyo Casa de Piedra, a pristine mountain river, weaves through a forest of coihue trees, and zigzags up a steep incline and over an alpine pool at the base of a waterfall before leveling out again at Laguna Jakob, where Refugio Jakob rests invitingly on its northern shore.

A birds eye view of a refugio, with surrounding snowscapes and mountain ranges
The refugio and the lake, as seen from above in winter

The trail from Tambo Báez to Refugio Jakob encourages those who travel it to journey into life’s details—big and small, within and beyond. To gaze at the macro details, like the mountains that rise up on either side of the valley, and the micro details, such as the lines that pattern the leaves of a lenga tree. To breathe in the tranquil flow of the river that grows louder and softer as the trail careens close to and away from the water. To pause and welcome Patagonia’s infamous wind as it pushes and pulls against one’s skin or whistles through one’s hair. To savor a sip (or splash) of cold, fresh water, straight from its alpine source.

A landscape view of a valley full of red foliage and mountain ranges on either side
The trail and the valley, as seen from above in fall
A close-up image of a lenga tree in the fall
"Lenga" tree in fall

For nearly 50 years, Claudio Fidani and his family have traversed this trail thousands of times. Claudio, 62, first walked the trail between Tambo Báez and Refugio Jakob in December 1976. In 1977, he started work at Refugio Jakob. In 1985, he became the concessionaire of the refugio. Then, in 1991, with the birth of his first child, Claudio began to introduce his (eventually) five children to the trail, the refugio, and his work in the mountains.

Individually and collectively, Claudio and his family have told, and lived, story upon story along the trail. With each step, along this trail of tales, they’ve navigated external and internal narratives—the good, the challenging, the devastating, and everything in between.

•••••

Two horses saddled up, with a parent and child on the back of one horse
Claudio rides horseback with baby Luca
A toddler in a backpack on the back of an adult
Baby Luca in a backpack

In May 1991, Claudio had known the trail to and from Refugio Jakob for more than 14 years when his and Maria Veronica “Vero” Schlieper Casas’ first child, Luca, was born. In the spring, when Luca was nearly five months old, Claudio returned to work at Refugio Jakob, spending a week or more at a time in the mountains. He often took Luca with him, holding his son in one arm while riding horseback along the trail from Tambo Báez to the refugio.

While Claudio worked in the mountains, Vero worked as a kindergarten teacher in Bariloche. Outside the city, when they decided to start a family in 1990, Claudio and Vero put down roots together in a small house. Once Luca arrived, the two navigated life between places, however unique, with their infant son one step at a time.

On the weeks when Luca accompanied Claudio to work, Claudio prepared a pack at home with what was needed to accommodate Luca at the refugio: clothes, diapers, food, and formula.

At the trailhead, he carefully loaded what was necessary for the refugio—anything related to construction projects or food and supplies for guests—onto the horses. From there, with Luca in one arm and the reins of the lead horse in the other, he set off on a five-to-six-hour journey.

“Putting a child on a horse has to contain a bit of magic,” Claudio says. “You have to keep them entertained. They can’t get bored. Because it’s not like we were riding [for the fun of it]. We were working.”

Throughout the first two years of his life, Luca spent time with Claudio up at Refugio Jakob and with Vero down in Bariloche. When the opportunity presented itself, he spent time with his two parents together—sometimes in the refugio in the mountains and occasionally in their family home outside town.

A toddler on a bench seat looking off in the distance
Baby Luca
A kiddo in a kitchen sink getting a bath
Luca gets a bath in the kitchen sink

No matter the physical distance between Refugio Jakob and Bariloche, Claudio and Vero leaned into each other and the family that, since before they knew each other, they’d both longed to have. Between 1993 and 1998, the couple had another son and two daughters: Nico, Bianca, and Ananda.

As Claudio and Vero grew their family, a new pattern of life began. They were living their unique life and integrating Luca, Nico, Bianca, and Ananda into that life in a way that worked for all of them. With each step, individually and jointly, Claudio and Vero navigated the trail under their feet—taking each uphill, downhill, and level stretch as they came into view.

•••••

Creating a life and raising a family between places—and carrying the roles, responsibilities, risks, and rewards that come with such a split—is all Claudio, Vero, and their family have known.

Vero, baby Nico, Claudio, and Luca

As parents, Claudio and Vero had to navigate universal questions: How do parents manage risk in adventurous lifestyles? How do we create better lives for our children than we may have had ourselves? How do we manage to carry what matters most to us? What’s worth it, and to whom?

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Luca, Nico, Bianca, and Ananda all took turns accompanying their father to work at Refugio Jakob—often by horseback, in the same way as Luca, in their infant and toddler years.

Two horses saddled up, with a parent and child one one and another child on another
Luca, Nico, and Claudio on horses

Each child gently rocked back and forth, back and forth with the sway of the horse through the valley along the Arroyo Casa de Piedra. Once they were old enough, the kids no longer rode in Claudio’s arms. Instead, they sat behind him, often perched atop a cushiony pack of supplies—their arms wrapped around their father’s shoulders and neck, their legs dangling on either side of the horse’s rear.

Over the top of their dad’s curly, disheveled hair, they absorbed the world around them: the earthy scent that rose from the dust on a dry afternoon; the soft edges of flowers and leaves that swept across their skin; and the rock formations that rose around them, each one different from the last.

Whether they were meant to or not, those hours on the trail have all led to something: moments shared, memories made, and lessons learned. Over the years, Claudio and Vero have carried their children, taught them to walk on their own two feet, and given them the freedom to journey on their own.

“The two of them always threw us the end of the thread and let us unwrap it however we wanted,” Nico, now 31, says.

In this way, the siblings have also carried each other. They’ve walked alongside each other through nearly every chapter of life, and in each other, they’ve forged a bond that feels like home no matter where they are—the refugio, at home in Bariloche, and on any trail they find themselves traveling.

•••••

When the children were up at the refugio with Claudio, he and the refugieros, those who work at the refugio, took care of them. When they were in Bariloche with Vero, she had help watching the kids in the mornings while she taught kindergarten. Then, she spent her afternoons and evenings at home with them. When both Claudio and Vero were in Bariloche, they carried their responsibilities as parents more evenly.

“We never conditioned ourselves to a life of having kids,” Claudio says. “It was the life we had, and it was there.”

A family photo in front of a refugio
The family (L to R: Vero, Bianca, Nico, Claudio, Ananda, and Luca) together on the rock outside the refugio

And though this adventurous, unconventional lifestyle carries many rich moments, nurturing a family between two places, with one quite remote, is indeed challenging.

For one, Refugio Jakob is only accessible on foot. Starting from the trailhead, it takes five to six hours during the summer and fall—and longer in the winter and spring—to hike to the refugio, which rests 1,600 meters above sea level (an elevation gain of approximately 700 meters from trailhead to refugio).

A man and woman posing together inside a refugio
Claudio and Vero

“The challenge was carrying this life with young children when Claudio was away a lot,” Vero says. “Above all, it was difficult because we didn’t have a telephone to communicate with, we didn’t have a car to get around in, and the distances [between places] are long.”

Prior to the 1990s, the refugieros used the servicio social de mensajes al poblador (social service of messages to the citizen) on the national radio to receive messages. Then, radio communication between the refugio and Club Andino Bariloche, where messages could be exchanged both ways, began in 1987. Starting in the 2000s, the Fidanis’ house in Bariloche also had a radio that could be used to communicate with Refugio Jakob.

For the Fidani family, while Claudio worked in the mountains, radio was the only mode of communication between them.

No matter if she’s at the refugio or in Bariloche, Ananda, now 25, notes the time away from her father and family was and still is challenging. The delay of communication, cellular or in person, is merely one example.

“Many times, I text my dad to share something only to realize he’s at the refugio,” she says. “Then, I have to wait for him to come down to have that conversation. The same thing has happened with my siblings, at times. And then, it also happens the other way around, where I’m up there and don’t see my mom for a long time.”

Routine communication is one thing. Communication in the event of an emergency, pre-satellite phones, is another. If the children or Vero had an accident in Bariloche and Claudio had to urgently return to town, it would take roughly five hours. On the flip side, if the children fell ill or had an accident while at the refugio, it would take the same time, or longer, to reach medical assistance in town. Fortunately, the Fidani family has not faced accidents or emergencies in this way, though Claudio did nearly miss the birth of Bianca. (He was up at the refugio, found out via radio, came down to Bariloche on horseback, and arrived right as his first daughter was born.)

“The care [for the children] was very strong and guided by ground rules,” Claudio says. “You couldn’t have an accident up at the refugio. You couldn’t fall. You couldn’t cut yourself. You couldn’t get sick up there. We cared for [our children] in a way that taught them to take care of themselves.”

A man and child wading through a river carrying firewood on their shoulders
Nico and Claudio collecting firewood

As Claudio and Vero raised their children between places—and weathered the storms of growing their relationship and family at a distance—there was never a doubt for either of them that they would both be involved in their children’s lives and upbringing. Claudio and Vero had fathers who were absent throughout their childhoods, and they did not want the same for their children.

Vero recalls times when the kids returned from the refugio and called her “dad” at home in Bariloche. None of it was easy, she reflects. But “... it’s what I was also choosing, so they could live with the presence of a dad who took them into town, who took them for walks, who gave them that experience in the mountains,” she says.

It was an adventurous and unconventional life that held heavy risks and beautiful rewards. Claudio and Vero were raising children who knew how to navigate rocky trails, ford rivers, live in collaboration with each other and others, and appreciate the kinds of mountain views that come after the steepest climbs.

•••••

In the coming, going, and growing up between spaces, the Fidani children were immersed in a natural world, where life lessons were often imparted by their parents with the aid of nature itself. They also attended school in Bariloche, and their time on the trail and at Refugio Jakob served to supplement their traditional education.

A father and daughter on a white horse
Claudio and Ananda on horseback at Tambo Báez, before going up to the refugio

Following a storm, as a little girl, Ananda rode up to the refugio with Claudio on one of the horses. As they ambled along the trail, Claudio and Ananda shook the dewey branches of the trees. Cool water droplets landed in their hair and on their faces, slowly fading away as they meandered on. Just as nature absorbs what’s left behind after a storm, Ananda was learning to shake off the hardships following the storms of life.

As infants and toddlers, the siblings completed river crossings with Claudio. He crossed first and deposited his backpack on the other side before returning to help each child across the water—in his arms, on his back, or holding his hand. In time, though, he let go and taught each child how to cross on their own. They learned to make their own calculated decisions: where to step, how to feel out a stable rock, how to balance in the current with a backpack on, and more.

Lessons for walking the trail. Lessons for living life.

Throughout her childhood, Ananda remembers the relief of traveling the final stretch of trail and catching her first glimpse of Refugio Jakob. Through a clearing in the lenga trees, the refugio, a humble structure made of rock and wood on Laguna Jakob, peeked in and out of view.

“I always liked that part of the trail a lot,” she says. “You’re walking, and you have this feeling of having arrived. Your steps feel a little lighter. ‘I’m here! I’m here!’”

In the refugio of the children’s childhood and youth, several stone steps with a stoop led into el refugio viejo. Back then, the simple entrance hosted greetings and goodbyes, long afternoons sharing conversation and yerba mate, and spells of games among the Fidani children and friends.

The rock and wood construction of the exterior continued inside, giving Refugio Jakob a true mountain hut feeling. Between wood-paneled walls and large windows that framed views of the lake and mountains, six wooden tables with benches invited conversation, among old and new friends, in the main room.

Dining room of the old refugio
Kitchen and mugs in the old refugio

A mix of tin cups—to serve everything from water, to tea, to vino tinto—hung upside down above the counter. In the kitchen, the refugieros prepared hearty mountain meals in a modest space: fresh bread, polenta, soup, stew, and even dessert. In the mornings and evenings, conversations of nighttime dreams, daytime adventures, and worldly pursuits wafted through the hut.

Claudio and Vero taught their children how to be with each other as well as other people. For them, respect was an important value to instill. It was important to acknowledge the differences and similarities among the siblings as well as other people. Fights between the children were strongly discouraged, and to this day, Claudio and Vero were successful in imparting this lesson on their children.

Early on, the Fidani children formed a natural friendship. In each other, no matter where they were, they had built-in playmates.

Two kids playing, one pushing the other in a wheel barrow
Ananda and Luca playing

They spent hours outside in the field and marsh near the family’s home in Bariloche, creating bows and arrows from the branches of retama bushes and playing along a river in their neighborhood.

On the trail to Refugio Jakob, they played question or word games and invented stories for one another. At the refugio, Luca, Nico, Bianca, and Ananda played make-believe games in the worlds of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. Sticks became wands, lenga trees became horses, and spells were cast as they ran through the woods.

As young kids, at the refugio itself, Luca, Nico, Bianca, and Ananda have vivid memories of actions and moments that likely played out on repeat over days, weeks, months, and years spent within and outside Jakob—the kind of memories that cement themselves in your mind because they’ve repeated themselves enough over time.

Two kids sitting together on a porch and playing
Luca and Nico playing on the porch

“I remember watching the moon and clouds pass by against the outline of Pico Refugio [a mountain peak just west of Refugio Jakob] as I lay with my head in my father’s lap,” Luca, now 32, says. “He caressed my hair as I listened to the murmurs of the people at dinner in the refugio. I fell asleep in moments like that.”

In the mornings, the crisp scent of the wood-burning stove mixed with a hint of toasted bread lured the children from their slumber. As the refugieros drank mate and guests ate breakfast, Claudio sat his children on the counter overlooking the main room, asked them what they wanted for breakfast, and brought it to them.

Two kids sitting at a table eating breakfast
Ananda and Luca eating breakfast
A father and kid in winter gear in the mountains
Claudio and Nico in the mountains

In one another, Claudio, Vero, and the children built a home. In their love for each other and meaningful moments together, they’ve woven personal meaning and a feeling of home into Refugio Jakob. In accompanying their father to work from a very young age, Luca, Nico, Bianca, and Ananda formed a forever friendship, one with deep, powerful roots of reliance that remains firmly planted in their adult years.

•••••

Just as each hour, day, week, and season in the mountains is different, so it goes in life itself. Though the Fidani children have bright and beautiful memories from throughout their childhood, stormy days rolled in the background—likely something Claudio and Vero were more aware of than their young children.

As a child, Claudio faced moments in which his parents were absent; he was raised by his grandmother. When Claudio was a young adult, a brutal military dictatorship governed Argentina. His mother was kidnapped in Córdoba, where Claudio was born and raised. Following his mother’s release, she took Claudio and his two brothers and escaped to Bariloche, where the family started a new life fraught with difficulties and instability.

They arrived in Bariloche at the end of 1975. Within a year, Claudio encountered Refugio Jakob and started work there. As a young adult, Claudio grappled with unresolved trauma from his childhood. Though he found some of what he needed in the mountains, he also developed an addiction to alcohol. This addiction continued through the births of Luca, Nico, and Bianca.

“Life carried this feeling of wanting to get better but not being able to,” says Claudio, of that moment in time. “I wanted to be able, somehow, to do what I could to make them [my children] have a good life, but I couldn’t. I went from one to two to three children. I felt the ‘zoom’ of not being able to get better and move forward.”

Through it all, Claudio and Vero kept stepping forward. Ultimately, it was the space between “up there” and “down here” that provided health and healing.

“In the worst moments of transition as a human being, in charge of children as well, we never stopped going up,” Claudio says. “We continued to generate this space. For us, the trail was the healthy space that we had. It was like the bellows of an accordion, inhaling and exhaling between one thing and the other.”

On and off the trail, Claudio, Vero, and their young family took life—and Claudio’s health—one step at a time. According to The Trauma Foundation(Opens in a new window), more than 485 published studies have linked time in nature to better health. Multiple articles note that “feeling connected to the natural world” can support individuals in healing from trauma and lead to healthier, more whole selves.

In his personal and professional lives, whether he knew it or not, Claudio took steps to fill the instability and uncertainty of his childhood and adolescence. He had a job. He was in a relationship. He was raising a family. He had a home.

By 1998, when Ananda, Claudio and Vero’s fourth child, was born, Claudio’s struggle with alcoholism had loosened its grip.

“When Ananda arrived, I was already better,” he says. “I was alone [the sole concessionaire] with the refugio. We [Vero and I] had a house and a vehicle. We had arranged everything. But when everything was settled, the questions changed. When we had all the answers, they changed the questions.”

•••••

By the early 2000s, Claudio and Vero had experienced a series of irreconcilable breaking points in their relationship. When Luca was 12 years old and Ananda was 4 years old, Claudio and Vero chose to separate. In this, though, their commitment to parenting their children well together remained steadfast.

As young adults, they had longed to start a family. They each felt a strong calling to be parents. With their separation, that didn’t change. And they also wanted to be present in their children’s lives—and wanted their children to have the presence of both parents.

“When we separated, that space between us was needed,” Vero says. “We practically did not see each other, but the fact that it was the two of us that were going to raise this family was always present. What our kids deserved was a joint love, us listening to each other, and us resolving the necessities regarding the concerns of our children.”

Following Claudio and Vero’s separation, the children divided their time between their parents’ homes in Bariloche as well as the refugio. In moments, as they saw their parents interact again—even as they witnessed them date other people—Luca, Nico, Bianca, and Ananda desired to see their parents get back together, to see their family unit “whole” again.

A mother holding her kiddo in a backpack carrier
Viviana with Indira in her backpack
A kiddo sitting at a table eating breakfast
Indira eating breakfast

In 2007, the reality of Claudio and Vero’s separation ricocheted with a sense of permanence for the Fidani children. Claudio and Viviana González, his partner at the time, had a baby girl. With Indira’s arrival, the Fidani siblings grew from four to five.

As a baby, Indira, now 16, typically traveled to and from Refugio Jakob with Viviana, who carried her in a backpack. Indira’s tiny legs hung out from the bottom of the pack as Viviana wandered along the trail. Fascinated by the forest and mountains around her, Indira often reached out her arms to touch the flowers and leaves on the trees, cooing softly on her mother’s back.

Indira’s childhood contains many of the same details and memories as her siblings, and at the same time, it’s different, as Luca, Nico, Bianca, and Ananda took her under their wings—showing her the ropes in Bariloche, at the refugio, and along the trail that connects the two. It feels like the Fidani way, to walk hand-in-hand with your family no matter the conditions.

•••••

As the seasons passed and the children grew older, they started to help around the refugio. They looked for firewood, greeted guests as they arrived, set the tables, served food to guests, and cleaned the tables and bathrooms.

A person working with two horses, one with saddle and gear loaded up
Nico working with the horses

The refugio offered all the Fidani children a window to the world beyond Bariloche and Argentina.

“When I was little, I wasn’t shy,” Bianca, now 29, says. “I talked a lot with people, and I loved getting to know different cultures. I felt that Bariloche was small and that I was surrounded only by what I knew. So as people from outside [our city] came, I really liked hearing stories—asking them where they were from, what they did, and what their home is like. I was so curious.”

In their teens and early 20s, Luca, Nico, Bianca, and Ananda all took on more official roles at the refugio, as refugieros, where they stayed and worked at the refugio, with or without Claudio present.

A woman holding a beverage and working at the counter in a refugio
Bianca working at the counter

“Your first job is the relationship with people,” Claudio says. “That’s what they [the children] always had: a relationship with people. It was more challenging for some than others, but no matter what, they were all always very kind to people.” It was important to Claudio that guests of the refugio felt at home.

Luca feels the interaction with and among the guests is one aspect that makes the refugio a special place. “The refugio generates something very nice,” he says. “It’s a place in nature where people get together. It contains this spirit of meeting new people all the time—people who walk to find themselves, who seek to connect with nature or with their nature, who are sometimes escaping something. Many times, when someone arrived, my old man has said, ‘What are you escaping from?’”

Though the positives outweigh the negatives, the relationship with others is not always easy. Service in the mountains is still service, and as more people have sought out these spaces in recent years, the refugieros get a wider variety—a mixed bag, if you will—of people.

When it’s crowded, one of Bianca’s least favorite things to do is interact with people because those interactions don’t contain the same depth she enjoys when there are fewer guests.

“Many people don’t respect the environment and don’t respect the ‘rules’ of being there,” she says. “It’s frustrating when you ask someone to pack their garbage out with them and they still leave it behind. Or if you tell someone they cannot make a fire outside and they still make a fire. So you have to go back and tell them, ‘You can’t make a fire. I already told you.’ That’s the part I like the least.”

•••••

For 47 years, Claudio and his family’s journeys up and down the trail from Tambo Báez to Refugio Jakob show a progression through time. If the trail could talk, it would have years of stories to share—stories of courage and fear, stories of love and loss, stories with laughter and stories with tears. The trail, and Refugio Jakob, have seen the Fidanis through many chapters of life.

A group of siblings all in backpacking gear standing on a snowy surface together
The five Fidani siblings (L to R: Indira, Ananda, Bianca, Nico, and Luca) with Refugio Jakob in the background

“If I think about it, I can describe the whole trail, from Tambo Báez to the refugio, with my eyes closed,” Luca says. “Every uphill, every downhill, every rock, all of it.”

With decades of coming and going—and moments of simply stopping to savor the environments that surround them—under their belts, the Fidanis have named every corner of the trail. “For us, everything has a name,” Nico says. “The refugieros laugh, but they’ve also learned the names now.”

Among many, the Fidanis know by heart la playita (the little beach), el mallín redondo (the round marsh), la subidita (the little uphill), la bajadita (the little downhill), los ñires (a spot full of ñire trees, not to be confused with other parts of the trail that also contain some ñire trees), and la escalerita (the little staircase), a waterfall and pool of water at the top of the trail, close to the refugio.

A group of siblings standing together outside on a forested trail, with backpacking gear
A group of siblings standing together outside on a forested trail, with backpacking gear
Three women standing near a low tree trunk, with two resting their heads on their hands on the truck
Three women standing near a low tree trunk, with two resting their heads on their hands on the truck

Claudio dubbed one wider section of the trail inside the forest, where you can walk side-by-side with another person, el sendero de los enamorados (the lovers’ path).

Following international travels, he also formed a ritual at la canoga, a part of the trail that has mounds of small stones on either side. In different parts of the world, Claudio encountered a tradition of asking for permission from Mother Nature or the spirits of a place to enter and then, upon leaving, giving thanks for a safe journey. Both acts are often symbolized by depositing a stone at the point of entry and exit.

With time, Ananda has realized everyone approaches the ritual at la canoga differently. However, for her, it’s a spiritual place. Every time she walks through that part of the trail, she whispers a message of gratitude and deposits a little rock or two.

“It is as if I am speaking to the earth or to God,” she says. “It’s like saying, ‘Thank you for allowing me to be here, for allowing me to pass through here, for taking care of me and my family.’”

Nearly 50 years ago, when he was 15 years old, Claudio set out from Tambo Báez for the first time and veered left at the fork in the trail to hike to Refugio Jakob. His life, and his family’s life, has been one unique adventure after another ever since—all one step, however big or small, at a time.

Continue reading the story of the Fidani family and Refugio Jakob in the third and final part of this three-part series. Read the first part here(Opens in a new window).

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).

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

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