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Ski Touring In The Pyrenees

by David Shepherd

After some years of Scottish hill walking and downhill skiing I finally decided it was about time I tried combining the two. So I booked on an introductory ski-touring trip for the first week of March in the Pyrenees.

To most people skiing the Pyrenees means Andorra, but there are in fact plenty of much larger resorts on the French side of the mountains, which are ideal for a cheap long weekend's skiing if you're prepared to hire a car from the airports in the region. The big problem for groups is that only one British company does trips there, that being Pyrenean Mountain Tours who organised this trip, so people rarely get to know about these places. The region is however most renowned for ski touring and walking routes through the National Park, away from the crowded pistes of the Alps.

Getting there proved an adventure as the plane to Biarritz got diverted to Bordeaux, due apparently to a lack of firemen at the airport (they'd all gone to watch the France v England rugby someone claimed). Our destination was the medieval village of Luz St Sauveur including castle and hot springs to relax in. The 2 star hotel Cimes is run by Marie Helen a very friendly local who enjoyed arguing with her expert chef husband - a welcome contrast to Frau Weiss at St Anton - plus the food was the best I've ever had in France.

The first two days consisted of very relaxed but informative training, using ski lifts, provided by our English BASI instructor Simon. We work on improving turning techniques carrying big rucksacks of course, some uphill practise, and do two afternoon tours at Bareges and Luz Ardiden respectively.

From day 3 onwards our French guide Ricard takes over. The first day's tour is near the Col du Tourmalet, better know as the hardest climb in the Tour de France. The uphill bit takes some practise, especially using ski crampons, but once in a steady rhythm we make good progress. The conditions eventually force us to ski down early, but it's a good descent.

The great satisfaction of this and the next three days, based at a mountain hut in the National Park, was the fantastic scenery, and skiing through untracked areas and powder over a wide variety of terrain. It is a world away from regular ski resorts and it more than justifies the uphill treks, even in bad weather. Everybody falls over occasionally, though it is not a good idea when carrying a big rucksack. The food in the hut is pretty good too. The last day's ski down is a 13-km trip in bright sunshine.

Despite being rather exhausted after 6 days I am hooked enough to buy the required equipment, it's much cheaper in France. This type of skiing is not everybody's cup of tea - don't bother organising a club trip here Sharpy - but I will certainly be back for a full tour next year.