Will Robson finds powderfields galore in Grand Tourmalet, the biggest ski area in the French Pyrenees
10:30 Having spent the night in former scientist accommodation at the Pic du Midi observatory (2877m), on one of the higher peaks in the Pyrenees, the headache is gone but the cloud remains. Rosie and I await Manu Bonniot, who’s on the first telecabine up from La Mongie – part of the Grand Tourmalet, the biggest ski area in the French Pyrenees. He’s a Nordica pro and big mountain skier, the ideal man to show us some Pyrenees off-piste.
10:45 Manu has arrived and is taking us underneath a huge yellow and black sign that says ‘Don’t Go Here’. We climb a 20ft snow bank and stand atop a steep slope that disappears into the clouds.
10:48 With a cry of “allez!” Manu swoops down the face, having assured us it’s just a thin layer of cloud and the wide expanses of this untracked, piste-free mountain await us.
10:51 He’s right – as I follow Manu’s ghostly form, the cloud thins fast and the snow feels light and deep underfoot. But it’s only a temporary break in the weather so we’re sticking to the classic route over the Col de Sencours and down the Vallon de Sencours and the Val d’Arize.
11:22 Manu sets up some drops and screaming powder turn shots for my camera. The snow is untracked: word has only just got out that riding the mountain is an option today. It’s one telecabine to the top, with a station halfway, and that’s it. So riders on the Pic du Midi need to know conditions are viable before taking the cable car. When all’s good they can launch themselves from the top in almost any direction, including seriously exposed couloirs of 800m vert that easily match Chamonix and La Grave – if your ability and nerve allow.
11:59 Ever had that smug feeling, as a vast valley of untracked snow stretches for miles below and you realise it’s all yours? It may not be the adrenaline rush of the higher, steeper slopes, but it’s a different satisfaction. We know how lucky we are.
12:47 With burning thighs and pit zips unzipped, we’re waiting for a minibus by the side of the road. Other riders have made it down through the tree-line to the Artigue pick up. It’s a 10-minute ride up through the forest to La Mongie – all included in your Pic du Midi ticket price.
09:00 Kitted out with my trusty Black Diamond Reverts and pack, I’m ready to go touring. Rosie and I meet guides Henri Nogue and Robert Mason for a five-minute drive up from Barèges to the lift station at Tournaboup (1450m) and the first chair of the day.
Barèges is 6km west (as the Alpine chough flies) of our two-day tour start proper, but this Napoleonic spa town is so much prettier to stay in than built-to-order La Mongie. The memory of being caulked with hot clay and trussed in paper towels the day before still lingers. But that’s another story.
09:12 We’re taking the Caoubére chair up and east, over the Col du Tourmalet (2115m), famed as a Tour de France climb. We bomb down the rolling blue runs below Tourmalet, tucking in a most un-touring like fashion towards La Mongie, its accommodation blocks strung out like a cruise liner fleet aground in a snow-covered fjord.
09:24 The team rides the Pourteilh lift, heading due south and up into another freeride area of the Grand Tourmalets ski domain. Behind us on the north side of the valley is the Pic Du Midi, the scene of yesterday’s epic run from the summit.
10:18 Finally, at the top of the Quatre Termes chair, we run out of upwards assistance. Skins on and we follow Henri’s zigzag tracks ever uphill towards the col at the Brèche du Contadé.
10:49 From the col we bootpack to the top of the Pic du Contadé (2714m), watching freeriders traverse round the back of the Pic de Teste Guilhem before descending the 1.5km off-piste back to La Mongie’s ski area. We’re now skirting the edge of the Néouvielle National Park.
11:06 Lock down time. Henri, otherwise known as the Silver Fox, leads the charge down the mountainside, each of us picking a clean line. Robert’s got big mountain riding fever and his high-speed descent with barely a turn ends in a spectacular tomahawk. Respect. Henri reminds us all, with a twinkle in his eye, that it’s better to play the long game when touring – you know, in the interests of making it to the refuge in one piece.
11:23 Skirting easterly beneath the Crête de Port Bieil, Robert, who was a geologist in a past life, tells us that the granite rock over which we ski has created this strange landscape of lakes and rolling terrain.
The Néouvielle National Park is part of a network of nature protection areas, as it contains endangered species such as the bearded vulture, or Lammergeier. With its three-metre wingspan and keen eyes it can spot the carcass of a cow from thousands of feet up. It drops carrion from a great height too, to break open the bones for the marrow.
Recently, a hiker died and was removed piece by piece by vultures, leaving nothing but indigestible technical clothing. Nice, eh?
12:34 Lunchtime. Sandwiches are devoured near the Lac de la Hourquette. Not that we can see it. Henri cuts some cheese from a block in his pocket, furthering my theory that mountain men have been following the ‘caveman’ diet for generations before it became a health fad.
Henri is a legend in France. He qualified as a mountain guide in Chamonix during his national military service and is an expert paraglider as well as skier and climber. He has been eyeing up his favourite flora and funghi-collection spots for when spring really gets going and he can fly off the mountaintops with his precious pickings.
13:15 I try some downhill skinning near Lac Supérieur. The ensuing slo-mo crash becomes the high point of Rosie’s trip so far.
14:07 Henri and Robert crack on at a fair pace up the Col du Bastan (2481m). Rosie too leaves me in her wake as my kick turns become less and less ‘textbook’ with each zig and each zag.
14:43 The end is not in sight. Sitting on the col looking east across an impressive vista, Robert and Henri have decided that we’ll bag the Pichaley peak above us (2626m). Why not?
15:20 The crampons came out as the granite became ice-covered and treacherous, but now – after 30 minutes – we sit atop the Pichaley in brilliant sunshine, content that the rest of the day is downhill.
15:39 The conditions off-piste are a little too cruddy to be fun, so we steal some piste time on the western edge of the Saint Lary 2400 ski area, running down the long ridge-line of the Crête de Graouès Blanques and into the trees above the Lac de l’Oule and our overnight stop.
16:11 The Refuge de L’Oule benefits from being a restaurant stop for resort skiers so although basic, it’s pretty plush by high mountain hut standards – the roof doesn’t leak and there’s even limited hot water.
19:00 Were chowing down massive plates of Tarbais bean and pork stew. Robert tells me that in the Pyrenees you get far better local dishes than the Alps. No pasta bakes here, and that’s because of this relatively poor, isolated and rustic region’s pride in its produce. Even the lamb has an Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) label. That and their robust Madiran wine, and I’m sold on Pyrenean cuisine.
07:45 A slightly more touring-like starting time and we cross the dam outside the refuge at the bottom of Lac de l’Oule (1800m).
08:15 Having skinned along some of the official GR10 Trans-Pyrenees route on the west side of lake, we now turn west to climb up into the Estibère valley. We are not alone. Somewhere in the valley, an Ursus arctos lies sleeping. He’s a European brown bear and about seven feet tall. The authorities wisely keep the overall number of bears a secret, but this one is known to be an excellent forager of berries and only the occasional eater of sheep – probably about 25 a year – which is apparently reasonable.
A Slovenian female bear called Franska was introduced a while back, in the hope that love-magic would happen. Sadly, she was not as good a forager. She killed more than 200 sheep, raided restaurant bins and was eventually run over on the dual carriageway into Argelès-Gazost.
08:40 We climb a steep 200 vertical metres up a couloir cleared of trees thanks to avalanche, and enter the hanging valley of Estibère.
09:24 As the valley opens out into rolling terrain, we move through impressively gnarled and ancient pin à crochets trees. Some of these pines are more than 1000 years old. They are native to the Pyrenees and grow at the highest altitudes in Europe, up to some 2700m. The trees need their cones frozen for two weeks solid so they open next spring. A hot summer 10 or so years back killed many. They’re so-called because the pine cones when pulled open look like crochet hooks.
10:15 We’ve climbed to 2100m to Lac du Pé d’Estibère. After the steep entrance to the hanging valley, the rolling terrain rises only 250m in the next 3km of climbing. Robert talks about the ‘glacial foot’ that formed the valley, pointing out that very few glaciers still exist in the Pyrenees along its 500-mile ridge between the Atlantic and the Med.
11:23 I can see why Henri calls it the ‘jolie Estibère’. It’s very wild and we’re told hardly anyone ever comes here, which has to be a good thing, and not just for our friend Bruin in his hibernation lair. There’s talk of banning tourers from coming here in future. A shame, but I can see the sense.
12:20 We haul ourselves up onto the Crête d’Estibère and follow this knife-edge ridge round to below the summit of the Pic d’Aumar (2578m).
12:40 With some satisfying contour skiing, we’ve skirted round Lacs d’Aumar and d’Aubert, covering 2km in 20 minutes.
12:57 We’re headed for the Hourquette d’Aubert col (2498m) as time is pushing on. We were planning to do the much longer 500m climb to the Brèche de Chausenque 200m below the summit of Pic de Néouvielle, after which the park is named. It dominates the area at 3091m, with its legendary dragon’s spine feature. Next time.
13:45 At the col we descend a fine 35° couloir, where a thin layer of fresh snow on a harder base has us turning fast at the top, but it softens nicely as we get deeper into the chute.
13:48 It’s now a long traverse round to the Hourquette de Mounicot (2547m), below the Pic de la Mourèle. I learn that in the south of France the end of proper nouns are usually pronounced, so Mounicot is a hard ‘t’. So there you go.
14:30 Across the rolling terrain we see the Refuge de la Glère (2103m) perched on the side of the mountain. ‘Glère’ means a stream running just beneath the surface of the snow. As the terrain is impermeable granite, water runs through the massive boulder fields.
You can hear it but not see it, as the snow is so deep. So deep, in fact, that it hangs around well into June up here, despite the relatively low height and lack of glaciers; hence the name ‘Néouvielle’, which means ‘old snow’.
14:58 It’s a final, very steep short climb up to the refuge. It’s a bit of a kicker but the cool beer is all the more welcome as we sit steaming in the afternoon sun.
15:45 Robert tells us we’ve covered 12km today, similar to yesterday but with more climbing. Today was more of a trek than a skiing fest but that’s touring – some days are more about covering ground and seeing the beauty of the area. The wild and unspoilt Néouvielle National Park certainly delivers on this many other fronts – just don’t tell everyone about it…
Ryanair operates a weekly flight from Stansted to Lourdes (Saturdays). It’s a 30min transfer if the timings work for you. If they don’t, BA flies into Toulouse twice a day, which is a two-hour transfer.
#1 on Tripadvisor in picturesque Barèges is Robert Mason’s Chalet Les Cailloux. His guiding company Mountainbug runs touring trips throughout the season, such as ‘Iconic ski touring level II’, which runs for a week from 2 April 2016 and costs £829 (not including flights, equipment hire and lift passes). Or try Pierre et Vacances, which offers self-catering studios in La Mongie from £255 per week.
A day pass costs €30, or a five-day pass is €205, for the whole Grand Tourmalet area, which takes you all the way over to Barèges.
It’s €42 for a day pass if you want an unlimited Pic du Midi pass on top of the Grand Tourmalet pass. Check grand-tourmalet.com for details and offers.