Thursday 28 February 2013

snowshoeing in Gavarnie

The holidays are here and finally there are tourists in the valley wanting snow-shoeing excursions with a Mountain Leader (that's Nico, not me by the way!).

Last week, I managed to sneak along on a couple of Nico’s excursions. On Wednesday, we spent the morning in Gavarnie, tramping through the deep snow in the magnificent natural cirque. 

The road up from Luz winds up along the breath-taking Saint-Sauveur Gorge up to Gavarnie. From the village of Gèdre, we caught a far-off glimpse of the Brèche de Roland (2,807m), a natural breach on the border with Spain reaching nearly 100m high and 40m wide in the soaring cliffs which dwarf the Saradets hut.

On arriving in Gavarnie, I was surprised to find how tranquil the village was, in comparison to my last time there in late summer. Gone were the myriad horses and donkeys upon whose backs the majority of visitors make the pilgrimage along the bottom of the valley to the Hotellerie du cirque with its wonderful view of the 422m (1384ft) high Grande Casquade, the highest waterfall in Europe. Gone were the hoards of day trippers, milling about the countless cafés and gift shops of the village before piling back into the multitude of coaches at the end of their visit. Even the piles of marmottes sifflantes, whistling at passers-by outside the gift shops were somewhat thin on the ground.

As we crunched along the snowy path beyond the village, bathed in sunlight and with a breathtaking 180 degree view of the cirque, there was nothing but fresh air, pine trees, frozen waterfalls and the silence of the snowy mountains all around. Magnifique!

Tuesday 26 February 2013

the Batsurguere in a snow storm

Just a ten minute drive from the hustle and bustle of Lourdes, we find ourselves in the Batsurguere, a tiny valley, tucked behind the Pibeste massif.

As we arrive in the tiny farming hamlet of Omex, the snow starts to fall heavily, swirling around the car. A little outside the village, we park and strap on our snowshoes, heading out into the snowstorm. We're aiming for the Col d'Ech but soon realise it will be impossible in this afternoon's conditions.

It's hard to measure a snowstorm when the wind is howling around your ears and snow is blowing into your eyes, your mouth, your nose...

Up to our knees despite the snowshoes, we plough our way through the white stuff for about an hour. The snow drifts as we walk, enveloping us in clouds of white powder, momentarily blinding us.

We are not the only ones braving the storm this a afternoon. We stumble upon horses and cows huddled beneath trees...and a strange field of snowmen before turning back.

Now we are by the fire, warming ourselves with scolding tea and watching the snow continue to fall outside.

Thursday 21 February 2013


It’s not my first winter out here in the Pyrenees. But in the four years since I first set foot in the valley, I’ve never known a winter quite like this.

This year, winter has certainly kept us on our toes. It comes and goes, playing hide and seek with the Spring. In the space of a few days, the temperature can soar and plummet, just like a red-kite racing across the sky.In the past few days, the sky has gone from blue to white to grey back to blue again.

More snow is forecast for the weekend en altitude.

Today, the valley seems drained of colour. The lower hillsides without snow remain stubbornly brown. And the trees are still naked. I am desperately craving some verdure. 

But as the earth spins ever forward, moving us closer and closer towards the Spring Equinox, we can rest assured that Winter will slowly but surely start loosening her grip on the valley.

Tuesday 19 February 2013

Lourdes by candlelight

Driving back to Luz through Lourdes with my beaux-parents earlier this week, we somehow took a wrong turn down by the gave and ended up slap-bang in the middle of a religious procession.

From March to October each year, Lourdes transforms into a place of mass Catholic pilgrimage from Europe and other parts of the world. Around the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, where on 11 February 1858, a 14-year-old local girl, Bernadette Soubirous, claimed a beautiful lady appeared to her in the remote Grotte de Massabielle, religious processions in Lourdes are a common occurrence. Nonetheless, in supposedly secular 21st-century France, such blatant displays of religious fervour in the streets always seem to catch me unaware.

Processions in Lourdes are often strange events, imbued with religious symbolism which, having grown up in a predominantly Anglican culture, often pass over my head. The participants processed in silence, red capes thrown over their shoulders. Some carred banners, others large crosses or icons. Driving carefully through the crowd, I asked myself what it all means.

Whenever we are in Lourdes, we find ourselves in a non-Catholic, non-pilgrim minority. We are always onlookers. For us, there is no dress code, no specified behaviour to follow or outward expressions of religious fervour. The meaning of this particular procession escapes us entirely. The pilgrimage “season” has not yet commenced. Are they processing because it is almost the start of Lent? Because today is the Feast day of Saint Bernadette or because the Pope has just announced his departure? Who knows.

Watching on, it’s easy to have the impression that it’s all just folklore. Then I notice another attraction dedicated to the worship of a quite different gods: the shops and restaurants have all awoken from their winter slumber and doing a brisk trade in plastic jerry cans of holy water and alabaster Saints…

Thursday 14 February 2013


The dusk fell quickly tonight. Whilst walking back from the holiday apartment N’s parents have been renting this week, I found myself gazing up at the heavens. Tonight, the romance of a night-time stroll on Valentine’s day passed over my head. Having been wiped out by a virus all week, my thoughts were turned to home…and all my loved ones over there. Odd to think that only a month ago, I was looking up at that very same bejewelled sky with my parents.

As often happens when star gazing, I was overcome by the infinite size of that wide expanse of sky. It left me feeling tiny and powerless…cut off from those whom I love the most across the Channel.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

fresh tracks in the snow

We wake early and easily this morning. After days of low cloud and heavy snow, the day dawns sunny and bright. There has been so much snow the last few days that all the ski stations were closed.We go skiing anyhow.

We drive to Betpouey, park in a lay-by, fix on our skins and set off on a nearby trail. Through the woods above the village, towards the Mont-Agut. It feels like half the valley is out of the hill this morning. Or at least the entire community of Guides, Mountain Leaders and Ski-Touring enthusiasts, carving out deep tracks for us to follow.

I can hardly hide my enthusiasm to be out on the hill. It's my first time skiing since last year, my first time on my new (second-hand) skis, my first time in the powder.
Je monte, tu montes, il monte, nous montons...

After nearly two hours of ascent, we arrive at a plateau and decide to leave the trail. 

From now on in, the ascent is pretty testing.
I'm fourth in line, as ever, the slowcoach bringing up the rear.

Je monte, tu montes, il monte, nous montons...
Progress is painfully slow through over half a metre of fresh snow.

 Je monte, tu montes, il monte, nous montons...

About half an hour from the end, I come close to having a sense of humour failure.

I am exhausted, my body just about ready to give up.

But encouraged by the others, I keep ploughing forward, one painfully slow step at a time.

Je monte, tu montes, il monte, nous montons...

Like all of the best moments out on the hill, I can’t wait for it to be over.

But the  Pyrenees have a peculiar way of offering little fragments of pure beauty, usually  just when things are starting to seem utterly hopeless, worthless and pointless.

I can hear nothing but skis advancing on snow. I can see nothing but blue sky, pine trees and glittering fresh snow.

In my mind, I am nowhere but in the here and now, wrapped up in the utter silence of the mountains.

Je monte, tu montes, il monte, nous montons...

Breaking new trails in deep snow is never easy. But it is absolutely worth it.

skiing in powder

In the last week of January, a big heap of snow fell on the valley all week. By Friday, the snow-clouds had departed, leaving behind over half a metre of fresh snow. The ski stations were all closed...because there was too much snow! But that didn't stop us getting out our back-country skis and heading off for a (relatively) easy first ski de rando outing for 2013.

The going-up was quite hard, but nothing could prepare me for the sking back down. I'm not a complete novice, but I haven't done that much skiing (either in the station or out in the wild) and I certainly have never skied in fresh powder before.
For those who, like me, have never tasted la poudreuse before, here's a little compte rendu of the reality of skiing in the powder for the first time:
  • It's awkward: (Unlike me) you're probably quite a good skier, but you've never skied beyond the comfort of the groomed ski station slopes before. You don't know exactly what’s called for, what stance to adopt, how to react to the snow, how to keep motivation and momentum going, what to expect from your body, the snow. In brief, awkwardness abounds.
  • It should be fast, but it's actually very slow: The snow is so deep, up to your thighs in places, and you are skiing with such awkwardness embedded into each turn that you feel like you are descending at a snail's pace. You're so careful with each turn that you take more time than someone who’s done it a thousand times. The whole thing last forever (or seems to)....and your friends stood waiting at the bottom won't let you forget it once you've made it down the mountain!
  • You're indecisive: You aren’t sure how to do this, and so you hesitate before committing yourself to the slope. It's new, it’s different, it’s uncomfortable and you've got to get it just right.
  • You have to do it yourself: The reality is, when it's time to come back down, nobody can hold your hands or ski beside you. You have to find the motion and rhythm for yourself, something that no amount of instruction or good advice can ever do for me - you've got to learn how to do it all by yourself.
But here's the thing - even if it took me ages to get down that slope, even if I had to use every inch of courage and strength to do it, even if I kept the others waiting and poor Nico had to keep pulling me out of the snow, I realised that somewhere, sometime if there is something that I really want bad enough, I can just do it.

I saw the others skiing so effortless down in front of me, enjoying the excellent conditions, the beautiful surroundings and in my beginner skier's mind it cried out "I want to do that too!".

So I skied. And fell down. And got up to try again. And advanced three metres and fell again.
And got up to take a turn.
And fell down.
And got up to take another turn.
And another…
And another…

And in that awkward, uncomfortable, slow, hesitant way, I made it down the mountain. It taught me the importance of inching forward, no matter how hard it is.
It also taught me that if you're going to fall, it's best to fall in lovely soft powder. And to make sure you have a Mountain Man skiing behind to help pull you out when you get stuck.