My recent long weekend exploring Gavarnie and Tourmalet in the Hautes-Pyrénées region opened my eyes to both.
I joined the small-group, guided holiday ‘Ski Touring Try-It-Out Weekend’ – a new one from the mountain walking specialists at Purely Pyrenees. The trip is aimed at groups of friends or individuals who are reasonably regular skiers and would like to try something a little different.
That first day was a great introduction to the mechanics and general feel of ski touring gear. The first thing that becomes apparent is that it is far easier to walk in it. The boots and the skis are much lighter in weight than Alpine gear and your standing stance a little less extreme. So shouldering the skis and heading across the parking area to the lift felt like a breeze.
Next up is the clipping in. This is where things get a little trickier. With ski touring skis you click into your binding toe first. Lining up two metal bolt heads with corresponding holes and then pressing down to click in and secure the boot. Then you press the heel down and you’re in. This makes sense, as it is your heel that is released when it comes to the walking up the mountain part.
First things first though – it was time to catch the chairlift and try out a downhill run. This is a really important part of the weekend. Firstly it gives your guide the chance to get a feel for the group and your skiing ability. Second, and crucially, you will get the chance to try out the kit. I mentioned that the boots and skis are lighter. This makes for some luxuriously easeful walking and carrying. But once you are on the downhill you may find yourself a little less poised. I certainly did!
The lightness of your feet makes the skis quite a bit harder to control. They move and respond a little faster than I was used to and I needed to work harder to stay in control. After our early mornings we called it a day after a few long, sunny runs and headed back to the hotel to change for dinner.
Earning your downhill
The next stage of learning to ski tour is getting up the mountain under your own steam. This is when you free the heel and those light skis really come into their own.
First up you choose a suitable outfit for the exertions of the climb. You will likely need fewer layers and more snacks for this bit. You will also need a compact rucksack to carry your gear and an avalanche transceiver (supplied). Rather than ski trousers a pair of leggings with waterproof hiking trousers over the top are ideal. Otherwise, prepare for sweaty legs.
You then remove your skis, flip them over and take out your ‘skins’ from the kit bag. Traditionally the ski coverings used on the underside of the skis were sealskin. Nowadays they are a highly sticky backed non-slip fabric. You simply press them onto the underside of your skis and hook them in place at each end. Be warned that if it is a windy day and the skins fold in on each other you need some muscle to pull them apart again. Tackle it by summoning your Sellotape skills and it should be a breeze. Some clever clicking of bindings and loosening of boots later and you are ready to go.
Up and away
Going up was great fun. It is all very well floating up the mountain on ski lifts and swishing your way back down again. But there is something very satisfying about making your own way up through the snowdrifts. The skis hold completely firmly so you are free to lift your eyes and simply enjoy being in the mountains.
For me it was great to experience that feeling you get when you are hiking. Without the concentration needed for downhill skiing your mind can wander a little. You can look around at the trees and the streams, hear the bird song and let your mind drift.
Of course walking uphill at altitude gets taxing at times and there are some more challenging stretches than others. But there’s no rush. We all go at our own pace, stopping for snacks and a look around when we need a breather. Once you’ve reached your destination its skis off, skins in the bag, coat zipped and off you swish for the downhill run. Quietly pleased in the knowledge that you have earned this!
We flew out from Stansted Airport to Lourdes in Southwest France on the regular 8am Saturday morning flight. Landing at around 11am into a tiny airport we were quickly into our waiting transfer and on the road to the town of Luz. With a swift transfer we made it to the ski hire shop just before they closed for lunch. This meant that within four hours of taking off we were kitted out and sailing up the mountain on the chair lift.
Where we stayed
We stayed at the Hotel de Londres, a comfortable down to earth hotel in the centre of town. The comfortable bar and restaurant were just the right side of lively with locals popping in for drinks and dinner. The hotel packed our picnic lunches each day. We tucked into local cheeses, fresh bread, blueberry cake and hot tea – all enjoyed with excellent mountain views.
In the evenings we had three course dinners at the hotel on two nights. Lulled by the knowledge that all we had to do afterwards was drift upstairs to our rooms. If you do want to head out in the evening though Luz is lovely with some unique architecture to explore. Stone waterways channel the rushing melt water through the town, so on an evening stroll you are always accompanied by the sound of water.
There are also some great mountain restaurants within a short drive. With log fires burning they serve up hearty traditional Pyrenean mountain food. Duck, river trout and dark berry desserts where some of our favourites at Chez Louisette.
The area and things to do off skis
Being based in the town you will have some short transfers to the ski areas. On each day our drives were dramatic and beautiful. The route took us through deep river gorges with steep mountains rising up 3000 metres to form a natural border with neighbouring Spain. On one day we took a walk to the Cirque de Gavarnie – a natural rock amphitheatre punctuated by waterfalls. If the weather is fine you could also tack on a trip to the Pic du Midi Observatory.
There are several thermal baths in the area where you can go and soak your tired muscles. We especially enjoyed the high-pressure water massage at Balnéo Cieléo in Bareges. I would definitely recommend adding this to your itinerary.