Is it possible to talk about skiing the Pyrenees without comparing them to the Alps? Apparently not. But there’s nothing to be shy about. They’re pretty impressive when you get the ruler out – over 400km from Atlantic to Mediterranean coasts; that’s further than Switzerland spans west to east, but with the advantage of the surf of Biarritz at one end, to bouillabaisse in Banyuls-sur-Mer at the other.
Not so high though, and worryingly close to the Sahara, I hear you say. True enough, no-one’s pretending a few extra vertical meters wouldn’t come in handy on occasion. But the southerly situation of the range comes with ‘maritime influence’ – weather-forecast speak for moisture, which means snow. And what with being the only big sticky-up bit for miles around, these hills collect whatever’s going, from whichever direction.
Which is why domains like Cauterets can record world class 10 metre seasons when the right storms roll in. Sounds like an excellent place to start a little road trip.
It turns out that it is, and it isn’t, depending on your timing. ‘Too much snow’ is not a concept I generally recognise, but as we slide off at the top of the Cretes chair (impressive that they’ve managed to open it) I’m willing to accept that the enticing itineraries – over the Col d’Ilheou to the Lac d’Estaing or through the Cau de Liarets – which our guide, David Marret, has just outlined on a map, will have to wait for another day.
Actually, who cares? When it feels like this under your skis, just dropping through snow crystals is what it’s all about, not tackling some gnarly route miles from anywhere, and certainly not the view. Visibility is over-rated when you’ve got David to follow, and anyhow we’ve got an eerie, lemony light coming and going, despite pretty much constant snowfall, which at least allows us not to fall off the top of the mountain, nor ski into any lift pylons. Terrain is optimal for a day like this – the domain, known as the Cirque du Lys, is a big bowl with no surprises, which gets you back, almost without fail, to the top of the gondola from the village. Four chairs and a couple of drags cover the bowl; the highest chair ‘la Breche’ gives a maximum vertical drop, without hiking, of just under 600m back to mid-station.
Down below, Cauterets – despite swarming with skiers this weekend – is more a small mountain town than a resort, with grown-up 19th-century architecture, and a historic thermal spa for good measure. Going pink and wrinkly in the Bains du Rocher outdoor pool is a good end to a great day, as you watch the sky clear in the west and realise that tomorrow might just be the best ski day of your life.
Like Cauterets, St Lary, 35km away as the eagle soars, but nearly four times that by road, is another proper town which just happens to have a ski domain attached. It’s all a bit Monday-morning-ish as we lurk at the gondola base to meet Vincent, freeride specialist from the local ESF. There’s hardly anything stirring and certainly no-one rushing for first tracks. Which is, frankly, insane. It has just snowed non-stop for a week and today is calm, blue, cold.
More than that, the forecast says that by the end of the day temperatures will sky-rocket and it will be raining by Tuesday. Even without skiers to compete with for powder, time is ticking. The lift is… much… too… slow… Vincent is charming, but we’re nervous – he looks the business, but what if, through his cool French instructor-y shades, we don’t cut the mustard, and he spends most of the morning checking we can ski blue runs before hitting the tamest off-piste he can find?
Long before he’s pulled the most massive backflip off a lip at the bottom of a mega-couloir, it’s clear we needn’t have worried. For a man who skis this place every day, he’s extremely enthusiastic about it, and I can see why. Straight under a rope and over scratchy, wind-scoured trickiness for a warm-up, then within 100 vertical meters we’ve hit the sweet spot – epic powder through trees to shortcut the meandering piste down towards Espiaube.
HEAVENLY DEEP SNOW SKIING
As starts go, that’s about as good as it gets. We haven’t even traversed, never mind booted, and best of all, there’s still no-one here, bar the lifties. I can see Vincent’s in the classic quandary, one ski pulling towards the Tortes lift for the peak of La Tourette, the other to take us back the way we’ve just come, via the Lita chair, for another go. I’m feeling it too, and I don’t even know what’s round the corner.
One lap later – still no-one other than a ski-school gaggle on-piste – and we head up the Portet lift and get the map out. Vincent explains the good stuff (huh!?) lies at the far end of the domain, where steep forested slopes drop to the Lac de l’Oule whose shore you can follow to a mountain hut and – genius – an old chairlift. A bit of schlepping, but no skins required. D’accord?
Beyond the top of the Corne Blanque drag lift, the start of the route is good in that picturesque, above tree-line, big views over virgin territory kind of way. We glide across flattish snow domes with the feel that we’re approaching cliff-edge or at least a sudden steep plunge. I’m hoping for the latter. And so it turns out. We traverse above tempting forest which clads the steep slopes down to the lake. Not dense, and with glimpses of glades and gullies which all look amazing, though half of them probably don’t go, or not without a bit of air-time. But then it mellows ever so slightly and it’s obvious this is the way to go, with a broad glade to drop into, which – without being able to see the whole way down it – just feels right.
Vincent doesn’t hesitate (I think he’s been here before) vanishing in a puff of white smoke at high speed. Following his line, I realise this is possibly the ultimate terrain in the fullest sense – if you were God, sorting out the extras on day eight, and were aiming for heavenly deep snow skiing, this would be what you’d come up with. Not just perfectly spaced trees, but glades, narrowings, rolling ground and pillows; and all unbelievably aesthetically pleasing, so that, despite the steepness and challenge, you are zen-skiing, standing tall, relaxed, floating, your perception of speed warping to make seconds seem like hours.
At the bottom, I have just two words for Vincent: “très bon”. Sometimes it can be a struggle to express yourself adequately in a foreign language, but this time I think I’ve nailed it.
Last stop of our trip, La Mongie and the Grand Tourmalet domain, takes us from the sublime of St Lary to the ridiculous and back again. I’d be lying if I didn’t call the stuff coming out of the sky rain, even if I am supposed to be going skiing. Put it this way: none of us batted an eyelid when guide Raymond Cuilhé walked out of the café and pulled on his Marigolds. But I’d also be lying if I didn’t admit to having a great day. If lack of other skiers has been a refreshing, if puzzling, aspect to the trip so far, today our splendid isolation is less surprising.
So we blat about on-piste without a care in the world. It’s a happy coincidence that our one bad weather day is here in the French Pyrenees’ biggest ski area: together, the resorts of La Mongie and Bareges make up the Grand Tourmalet domain with 28 lifts and over 100km of piste – that’s a mega-resort for these parts; I just wish there were more chairlifts with covers. It’s equally good luck that the linked resort of Bareges has the perfect rustic restaurant in the woods, Chez Louisette, for a long lunch. Raymond judges it to perfection, securing us a place by the fire, where we fortify ourselves for the way back over the Col du Tourmalet (a lot snowier than when they race up it in the Tour de France) for home.
The great thing about weather this bad is that it can’t last – it’s just not meteorologically possible. So our final day is blue-sky, and a chance to explore some of what Raymond could only describe the day before. The lake-country to the south, a classic day tour, is not an option after yesterday’s conditions; instead we maximise mileage, using the extraordinary Pic du Midi cable car which accesses only off-piste terrain, exploring mid-station descents and going round again for the long variant from the observatory domes on the 2876m peak to a bend of road 1500 metres below, near Artigues, arriving in the nick of time for the bus ride back up the hill to La Mongie.
Mountain guide David Marret (+33 6 8707 8655) offers guiding in Cauterets from XX per day. In St Lary Soulan, Vincent Gramont for the ESF from €370 per day. In La Mongie, mountain guide Raymond Cuilhé offers guiding €350 per day.
Hotel Les Arches in St Lary Soulan offers doubles from €60 per night. Hôtel Crete Blanche in La Mongie offers doubles from €98 per night.