A Spanish Invitation

COME SPEND A WEEKEND EXPLORING ONE OF THE PYRENEES’ QUIRKIEST SPOTS, THEY SAID. HECK, WE’RE THERE, CAME THE ANSWER

“Hello Fall-Line, I’m mountain guide Roger Martorell, based in Val d’Aran, Pyrenees… I would like to invite you to get to know the area and discover all the possibilities of our mountains”. 

That’s the kind of email that gets my attention. The only problem is that we have just two short days during which our paths can cross – not long when you see the size of Baqueira Beret, Roger’s home resort. But you’ve got to start somewhere.  

DAY ONE 

It’s easy to spot Roger and the Snoworks team of instructors and clients we’re joining for their final day of a backcountry week. At 9 o’clock this February morning the vast, glossy restaurant-café El Bosque, one lift up from Baqueira’s centre, is empty but for them. Given the typical (i.e. late) local dinner time – a major hazard for skiers – most people are still in bed, meaning we have the whole resort, not just the café, to ourselves. Even if it had just snowed a foot overnight (it hasn’t), I suspect there’d be no competition for fresh tracks. 

Today’s plan sounds good: a climb to an in-bounds summit, 2594m Tuc de Beret, to ski its big south face, followed by a journey to a refuge in a remote valley. 

Traversing the western side of the resort via a series of empty chairlifts and rolling, pristine piste, we head for Beret, the higher hub of the domain, to ride its most northerly lift to the Tuc deth Dossau at 2521m. That’s almost as high as it gets around here – the summits or ‘tucs’, which dot the domain, are mostly around 2600m; modest in Alpine terms, but big in the Pyrenees, whose highest peak, Aneto, is 3404m. The key thing resort-wise, is that Baqueira’s base altitude of 1500m gives you a clean 1000m vertical, and, combined with the breadth of the terrain, it feels big. 

We feel like we’re cheating to start with. A magical blue piste, the Colhet de Marimanha, follows an undulating ridge, with the help of a short drag lift; where piste dives downhill from the Marimanha col we veer off and stick on skins to continue south up the Tuc de Beret, ignoring at least one interesting looking descent en route. We’re finally having to do some of the uphill work ourselves, though it’s minutes, not hours to the tuc. My feeling so far is that the Spanish have a nice balance of effort versus reward. 

That’s confirmed as we peer into our descent: huge, and all for us. The general view is also impressive, with more peaks than skiers to be seen even though it’s already late-morning. Entry to the face is uncomplicated, but steep, and Roger delivers a little explanation on how best to tackle this kind of thing, dropping over the edge, poking about a bit and then deciding we’d be best off descending the shoulder from the summit to hit the face a little way down. Not sure if it’s the condition of the snow or our skiing that is the determining factor.  

Even from our lower, more gentle entry, it’s still a long way down – an uninterrupted bowl of sun-groomed south-facing loveliness that can be taken in one massive pitch. Where the angle eases we hit bouldery, playful, well filled-in ground, heading towards sparse trees, for an exit route that’s as fun as the main event.  

A quick break for lunch at Audeth in Beret – wild boar stew and ham croquettes – and it’s up the same lifts, but this time to head north, off the back to Montgarri. A long upper-valley descent feels instantly remote, though mellow – we’ve definitively left the domain behind, with no hint of infrastructure in any direction. We hit trees as the valley drops more steeply, at which point we begin a climbing traverse through perfectly dotted trees across a beautiful hillside; it’s warm now in the Spanish sun and taken slowly even a downhill die-hard would get it.   

What goes up must come down, though not necessarily as enjoyably. Rounding a lightly wooded shoulder we can sense as much as see an epic descent of forested mountainside, which looks from here like a very promising series of glades. But the problem is the snow: a couple of days ago it would have been eleven on a scale of one to 10. Now, thanks to a bit of freeze-thaw and who knows what, it’s in the minus numbers. 

Much, much later, we limp west along the valley of the Noguera Palharesa river. We’re all alive, limbs intact and, in that type-two-fun kind of way, we’re enjoying ourselves. The day’s real skiing is over – all that’s left is to slide a few meters into the hamlet of Montgarri with its Romanesque church, stone refuge, and some dog teams and sleds.  

We’re a world away from the gloss of Baqueira, though in reality it lies just a few kilometers across the mountains from us, which leads to a final sting in the tale. You could overnight here, but we’re planning something much more terrifying: skidoo-tow along the mountain track back to Beret. It doesn’t sound too bad until you factor in the steepness of the terrain, which means the drivers have to gun it along the flatter bits to have a chance of making it up the hills. And the track is twisty. And – the really nutty bit – we’re towed not in a long line, but with a V of twin ropes coming off the back of each sled, meaning it’s not just hanging on that’s the issue, but not crashing sideways into your neighbour. That’s a complication we could really do without. As Lee from Snoworks says, “Just scream if you want to go faster”. 

DAY TWO  

It’s just two of us plus Roger today; he suggests starting from the south-east end of the resort near the Bonaigua pass to head straight out of domain for a short tour.  

One chair, a drag and a short skin gets us over a ridge for a ski down to a lake, Estany Pudo. This country is different again from anything we skied yesterday – still in the midst of big mountains but with a distinctive, un-Alpine feel to it; it’s hard to guess what geological processes might have created the shapes, gullies and rocky outcrops we ski through but they’re ideal. This is natural ski terrain for pure fun.  

It’s good on the way up too, with no vast unbroken expanses to make you feel you might never get there. In the clear light it’s easy to see that you could head in almost any direction to find more idyllic skiing, following the sun’s work as it softens the slopes by degrees. And it’s also clear, back on the ridge top, with line after line of peaks and ridges in every direction, that we’ll have to come back, and not just for a weekend. 

**ESSENTIALS** 

TRAVEL 

The closest airport is Toulouse, France, two hours away. Ski Inspired (skinspired.co.uk) arranges minibus transfers from £80 per person return.  

STAY 

Baqueira is a big, modern ski station with a range of accommodation. But for a real Spanish experience, nearby Vielha, an authentic mountain town, is the place to be, with an old centre of cobbled riverside streets, tapas bars and quality restaurants. Contact local specialists Ski Inspired (skinspired.co.uk) for all your arrangements; Iori Hote (iorihotel.com) is highly recommended.    

SKI 

Roger Martorell (rogermountainguide.com/en) guides by the day and also has regular group trips, both local to Val d’Aran and internationally. Prices from €155 per person per day (based on a group of five).  

Snoworks (snoworks.co.uk) runs various trips, including a Baqueira backcountry course aimed at upper level skiers. Prices for course only (five days’ coaching) from £535. Packages cost from £1350 per person, based on twin-shared half-board accommodation, five-day backcountry course, and return group airport transfers from Toulouse.