Tension was mounting. At times it felt thicker than the duck-butter snow we sliced through. We’d busted around the previous day on beige, sun-baked snow at Gavarnie, the highest and presumably snowiest “skistation” in this part of France.
Though surrounding peaks offered a picturesque Alpine setting, there was nodenying it-these were not the goods we’d come for. Richard (REE-shard), our French mountaineering guide,described the conditions as “Spanish powder.” Alas, what is tension without irony? Back in the States two days earlier, we passed through the airport in Salt Lake City on our way from Montana to France. Gazing through the terminal windows toward the Wasatch, you couldn’t mistake the six to seven feet of fresh that fell during a recent series of storms—a proverbial bird in the hand. But a plan is a plan, damn it. Ours was to fly toToulouse, France, work our way south by Land Rover, and meander about in the French and Spanish Pyrenees, bagging the range’s three highest summits along the way. Atop these lofty perches, Chris Ankeny, Jane Mauser, Mark Gallup, Tom Routh, and I would eyeball the rowdiest lines and drop them en route to the next hut, the next culinary extravaganza, the next bottle of tinto. On paper, it sounded plush. Mark, who’d been in Europe for a week prior to our arrival, gave us fair warning. Even at high-elevation Italian ski areas, sheep grazed on the slopes.Snow conditions throughout Europe were, undisputedly, on the grim side of marginal. We wound-out theRover’s V-8. The blur of an older world flew past, stone buildings masoned centuries ago lined the ever-narrowing streets.
We passed through Lourdes, a holy place where the Madonna is said to have made an appearance in 1858. Palm fronds fluttered in the subtropical breeze and cherry blossoms busted out on the 70-degree afternoon. Intent, we continued onward to Luz St. Sauveur, our staging area in the bosom of the French Pyrenees. Marie-Helen, the woman who was to become our surrogate mother, greeted us at LesCimes (The Summits), a quintessential French hotel which she runs with her friend Thiery, one of Luz’s acclaimed chefs. Jessica from Pyrenean Mountain Tours was also there with her honest, welcoming smile Upon schlepping our 100-pound board bags up the narrow, steep steps, we quickly changed into shorts and flip-flops—not a precursor to epic snowboarding. We resolved ourselves to sampling regional malt beverages on the veranda. Like any good adventure, we’d thrown our best-laid plans at the wall. It was time to see what stuck.
Before launching our three-summits bid, we agreed a shake-down day was in order-a day to strap on all the gear, to hike with bulging backpacks, and to slog about in our snowshoes. Our objective, the Breche du Roland, was a massive geologic cleft in the cliff band that separates France from Spain. Standing around in a muddy parking lot, last night’s rain appeared to have eaten away 50 percent of the already sketchy snow cover. Our cautious optimism was being bludgeoned by meteorological realities. Gaining our initial vertical via chairlift, thule fog created a translucent Bermuda Triangle haze around us. At 2,000 meters, we offloaded and headed southeast into pea soup. Finally breaking through the ceiling, our first view into Spain was a mirage-visibility pulsing in and out. Squinting, we saw steep, snow-choked couloirs with limestone ribs. After another quarter-mile of contouring upward, Chris and Jane spied their first lines. The surface conditions were variable from corn and crust to, well, Spanish powder. Mark recommended that Chris first climb his intended descent.
Chris had left his ice axe and crampons at the hotel, so he donned my spikes and began kicking steps. Jane and Richard picked an alternate ascent to another dramatic line. The sea of mist and vapor settled into the valley below; the heavens went cobalt. Chris was already bathing in adrenaline, balancing his way up the varicose, rock-rimmed chute. Accustomed to this kind of expose when riding,levering off front points was a different matter for him-he was faced with consequences long before setting up his first turn. Composed, he topped out and clicked in. Focusing now on the descent, he styled the crux with precise, artful edging and laid out nonchalant, brickhouse arcs as the gully flared. Our day to the Breche proved an upbeat turn of events.
We tapped the first quality riding of the trip. We found a perfectly transitioned windlip to sky off-going new school in the Old World, if you will. And, we learned just how glacially slow we moved on snowshoes. We had, however, turned a critical first hairpin in our saga.
*** After lashing our packs and boards to the top of the Rover, we squeezed in for a five-hour road trip toBenasque, a mountain village in La Franja in northeast Spain. Ancient, serpentine roads led to the trailhead of our first summit-Aneto-the Pyrenees’ highest. Shouldering our gear, we headed toward the Renclusa, a classic stone refugio that serves as a base camp for climbers and randonnée skiers. Tromping in cross-country tracks, we rated a number of sideways stares as Nordic skiers skated past in Lycra leotards. Returning mountaineers gave the snowboards strapped to our packs a perplexed double take. Richard had made plans for the hut keeper to meet us at the Renclusa; we assumed we’d arrive to warm food, cold beers, and fluffed feather beds. Not so. When we got there, the place was locked tight. Some German climbers were occupying an outbuilding that, by the smell of things, appeared to double as a water closet.
They, however, were equipped with sleeping bags, stoves, and all the requisite bivouac gear. Not us. A stew of dissension began to brew. The panic button grew larger by the second as the prospect of a team melt-down became real. The sun had ducked below the horizon and the temperature dropped as fast as our spirits. We were about two minutes from bailing when we heard the crunch of footsteps on the now-frozen neve. It was the hut keeper. Richard, normally the most cool-headed guy you’d ever meet, cut the señor off before he reached us and came unglued. Our angst was apparently contagious. Once in the Renclusa, we swiftly located the liquor stash and made ourselves welcome to the cases of tart regional wines hidden under the staircase.
With parkas on and watch caps pulled down, we savored a meal of sausage and peas, steam pouring from our faces as we killed another bottle of red. That night we each slept under a minimum of five natty wool blankets-approximately 25 kilos of bedding a piece. No one rolled out of bed. Well before first light, we heard other climbers banging about in the Renclusa. We, too, intended an Alpine start. Over coffee and crusty toast, Richard advocated a change of plans. The Aneto, he said, was a massive, full-slog approach to a low-angle summit. Having seen our penchant for steeps and the snail’s pace with which we covered ground on snowshoes, he instead recommended Pic d’Alba. Though a bit lower in elevation, he assured us the pitch of the terrain would be much more to our liking. Chris and Jane tiptoed up a firm couloir on the face of Alba, while Tom repeatedly launched a cornice in the clear afternoon light. Though dozens of mountaineers had headed up on the Aneto that morning, we were alone, enjoying Alba’s meditative silence. Jane dropped her line first, ice axe in hand. Ready to self-arrest, she linked a long series of tight radius turns before opening it up at the bottom. Chris, who’d been scoping an even sketchier line, came on the radio.
From where we sat in the cirque below, it was apparent that any miscalculation would result in him rag-dolling off a 100-foot cliff at the bottom. Through toy-sized walkie-talkies we weighed it out. He was confident and psyched, though realistic about the bulletproof snow. Having climbed a good five hours from our base camp, we were a long way from help. Karmic indicators were mixed. That night in Benasque, we bloodied linen tablecloths with rare rabbit, replete with the most sublime olive-skinned waitresses you could ever dream up. Now this was how we’d envisioned it.
*** Depending on one’s perspective, the weather either shut us down at this point or was manna from heaven. It began to storm, and predications were for significant accumulations above 2,500 meters. With glazed, springy conditions at higher altitudes, avalanches would become a growing concern. We decided to hang loose for a day and see if the blizzards materialized. When rambling around the planet on a snowboard trip, it’s important to remember that riding is merely icing on the experience. If you obsess too much about the snow and the sliding, and overlook the world around you, you miss the whole point. This crucial lesson was just starting to sink in.
Rover groaned up the narrow, steep grade to Tella, a village time forgot. This eleventh-century Spanish enclave has a dozen habitants, not including livestock. Built into a hillside, the rock structures with thick, stone-shingled roofs endure. Passing a leather-faced local, you see human essence without all our self-imposed complexity. Up by the church, it began to spit. By the time we looped back through the woods, a horizontal snow squall bore down from the north. Tella went opaque. As we scooted for the French border and the teat of Luz St. Sauveur, the storm intensified. Cargo trucks, stopped dead in their tracks, spun wheels in the soupy snow. It looked like we were officially aborting our three-summits plan-feelings were mixed.
It dumped all afternoon and much of the night. Toward dawn, the skies broke andwe awoke to an azure day. The disappointment of having to blow off our mountaineering objectives wasquickly replaced by our giddy scramble to get to Luz Ardiden, a nearby ski station the locals said was thecall. It was a day of rabid stoke amongst the snow surfers of Luz. Mickey, proprietor of Luz’s happeningsnowboard shop, was out raging with his buds. Phil, a local hottie and our French connection, was there, sporting his signature grin. All were intent on tracking out maximum fresh. After a high-vert morning on piste, we took to hiking. Just beyond the highest lift lay a basin choked with creamy lines. Chris and Jane flowed some smooth tandem runs while Tom and Phil nailed cliff drops. The light went magic-a twist of fate, forsure. But powder is powder, no matter how you get it, and we weren’t questioning a thing.
*** You could tell by the smell of his boots that he’d been with sheep. His ruddy complexion and clear eyes spoke of man born of the Pyrenean landscape. Around our festive supper table at Les Cimes, he broke into song-loudly serenading us, our hosts, and the mayor. Cathartic warmth on our faces, Theil’s passion filled the room. He’d dropped by to see how we liked the lamb-his progeny. With Thierry’s culinary prowess and the richness of Theil’s humble livestock, we were elbow deep in Epicurean bliss. Tonight, our motley crew had somehow morphed into dignitaries. We dined with Claude, the Mayor of Luz St. Sauveur, and Bernard, the head of Luz’s Office de Tourisme. There are surely few places on the planet where a bunch of snowboard skids get royal treatment-but the quaint hamlet of Luz is a rare place indeed. In the spirit of celebration, the mayor had the Coco Loco discotheque opened especially for the occasion. We boogied well into the a.m.,swilling fluorescent gin and tonics-literal glow-in-the-dark cocktails.
*** We awoke to a gray, low-pressure morning. Mustering all my strength, I tilted my head sideways and peered out onto the tiled roofs of Luz St. Sauveur. A fresh laminate of damp powder lay atop the town. Though much was foggy, we couldn’t stray from our mission. Despite residual Bombay gin coursing through our bloodstreams, we made first chair at Bareges, the largest lift-served area in the region. Two-day totals were in the 60- to 70-centimeter range. By tomorrow, we’d be pushing a good meter of fresh over the three-day storm cycle. One of the uncanny aspects of our trip to the Pyrenees was the utter lack of people we encountered. Granted, the lousy-snow winter had made itself known throughout the European media, but folks apparently counted this one out too early. Quality fluff continued to pile up at an extraordinarily generous rate, and no one was home. Snow stacked on our shoulders as we made our way around the mountain. Richard took us on a rolling hike through the woods that led to bizarre set of train tracks at what appeared to be a 45-degree incline.
He suggested we wait for the funicular-part choo-choo, part gondola-to take us up the mountain to a restaurant and bar. We all gave a shrug that without words said, “Whatever” … qu’importe. A few minutes later we heard the chugging contraption as it turned the corner and came into view. The conductor hung his head from the lead car and informed Richard that the top of the mountain was closed to boarding and skiing due to strong winds and the intensity of the storm. No worries, I thought, a train ride and a croque monsieur sandwich sounded fine. The funicular crawled up the steep hillside, and with each meter of vertical, the snow got deeper and drier. By the time we topped out, we were a lot less interested in food and a lot more keyed on poaching a run. But we didn’t have to. Exiting the funicular, Richard assumed the role of diplomatic liaison. He politely informed the attending boss that we were guests of the mayor of Bareges from a respected American snowboarding magazine. In that moment of anticipation, we got the all-important nod.
*** Sometimes you’ve got to bank around a few misadventures before you tap the nectar. As our trip played out, what defined our experience wasn’t what we’d come for in the first place. We hadn’t come for the people, but the characters we met-the friends we made-were ultimately profound. We certainly hadn’t come with expectations of deep, unfettered snow, but oh how we swam in it. As we’d learned, core experiences often lurk on the dark side of premeditated notions. Want to go? Bridging the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, the Pyrenees offer a fresh, off-the-beaten-path option for snowboarders touring Europe. Unlike the Alps, the Pyrenees afford a rawer, less tamed experience for those seeking an alternative hinterland. Though there are a number of cities and airports that can serve as jumping-off spots for the Pyrenees, we flew to Toulouse, France by way of Paris. Better yet, fly or train to Lourdes and you’ll be a mere 25 kilometers from Luz St. Sauveur. The success of our trip was made possible by the knowledgeable, well-connected people at Pyrenean Mountain Tours. They can arrange everything from transportation and lodging to guides and gear.
If you want to poke around in the backcountry, do some climbing, or try your hand at their Three-Summits tour, these folks can buff out the details. Richard Dupont, PMT’s head guide, is UIAGM certified and the mountaineering hard man in the region. You can reach Pyrenean Mountain Tours by calling 33-5-62-92-33-18 or sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also get more info online at www.leevalley.co.uk/pmt Though there are a range of hotel and lodging choices in Luz, our stay at Les Cimes was a highlight. Marie-Helen is the true spirit of the place and took us in as her own. Her sincere warmth is complemented by Thiery’s awesome cooking. Gallup noted he’d never had better meals in all of Europe. A final note on equipment. Randonnée or Alpine touring gear is the preferred way to travel on snow in the Pyrenees and throughout Europe, particularly with consolidated, spring conditions. For snowboarders, that means ditching snowshoes in favor of short, firn-style skis. With skins and ski-crampons, they make climbing and traversing a lot more pleasurable, and allow you to preserve your energy for the descent.y make climbing and traversing a lot more pleasurable, and allow you to preserve your energy for the descent.