If you haven’t tried ski touring but like mountains and have skied before, even badly, I would thoroughly recommend it. It’s a cross between Nordic (on the flat) and alpine skiing. Where possible you ski in back country on unmarked trails, so you need a guide or a very good map and sense of direction. On our ski touring in the Pyrenees the snow wasn’t good enough for our group to go properly off-piste but we weren’t in a resort to attract would-be ski Olympians. So there were gentle runs to be enjoyed without experts flying past.
Who does it suit?
Almost everyone who has done a little skiing and any age. It can be as strenuous or as gentle as you make it.
My Ski Touring Adventure
This is intended as a call to arms for those like myself who are unfit and out of practice. Read and struggle on! Sure I’d been slogging up hills in London (hardly hills, but needs must), and standing against a wall crouching down and staying there until my thighs ached, then doing it again 20 times.
Easy I thought.
How wrong can one be?
A perfect short break
I was on a short break organised by Purely Pyrenees, intended as a gentle immersion in the sport. An early Saturday morning Ryanair flight left Stansted at 8am and arrived at Lourdes at 10.55am French time. The plane appeared to have 2 categories of flyers: those going skiing or mountain trekking and those crossing themselves on taking off and landing who were clearly going to Lourdes on a pilgrimage.
The start was easy with Sally Simmonds from Purely Pyrenees and Laurent Cavaillès, our guide for the next 3 days, meeting us at Lourdes. It’s a 40 minute or so drive to Luz Saint-Saveur where we were based. You’re in the Pyrénées National Park in the Hautes-Pyrénées and Pyrénées-Atlantiques departments, and in the relatively new and huge Occitan region of France.
Luz Saint-Sauveur is a pretty town, at its height in the 19th century when Napoleon III and his wife Eugénie discovered the Pyrenees, thermal waters and Luz. There’s a delightful 13th-century, sturdy little Templars church protected by walls and lit up at night; Napoleon’s formidable bridge over the Gavarnie Gave river (there’s a good 3km walk built around the Emperor), and just outside the town, Château Sainte-Marie. Rebuilt by the English in the late 14th century (yes, they got this far), it’s perched on a small outcrop as protection for the town.
More usefully, there are plenty of ski equipment and clothing shops and a good tourist office.
We get kitted out
The first stop was Oxygène Ski Montagne to get kitted out.
Ski touring boots are slightly different from those used by alpine skiers. Choose a boot where your toes just touch the front end but when you tip the boot up as if you’re going uphill, your foot slides very slightly back.
Skis are different as well: lighter, shorter and wider. Your boot locks onto the ski at the front with 2 small bolts that fit into the boot and click shut. You then ram down your heel to get it into the back lock. When you’re walking uphill, you unlock the back of the boot which needs to be free so you can easily glide along and uphill.
An uncertain start
We started that afternoon, driving from Luz up through Baregès to the Station du Grand Tourmalet. It was for a couple of hours’ skiing so Laurent could assess the different levels of skill of the group and plan accordingly.
I put on the rigid boots, and asked Laurent to help get my boots into the notoriously difficult skis. I felt supremely confident…then fell over on the way to the ski lift and had to be helped ignominiously to my feet.
I spent the rest of the afternoon on the magic carpet getting my admittedly pathetic ski legs back, and great fun it was too.
You step onto a moving walkway (remember to bend forward; it moves quite fast), then emerge at the top of a slope with enough space for the ski instructors and their pupils, anxious parents and apprentice skateboarders to wobble their way downhill.
After five descents I felt like a pro.
Two days of ski touring
The next two days took us around the Domaine du Tourmalet then on the second day to Gavernie Gèdre, around 2,000 metres high up in the Haute-Pyrénées.
The Col du Tourmalet at 2,115 m (6,939 ft) is the highest paved mountain pass in the Pyrenees and is one of the most famous passes in the Tour de France (it’s featured 87 times in the world’s greatest cycle race). The Col itself is closed in winter, but you ski around it on the western side through part of the forest of Lienz. In summer the high pastures are full of cows and sheep brought up at the transhumance in May or early June and living off the grass until October. In winter, snow covers the rocky landscape and the streams and waterfalls are silent. You catch glimpses of the Pic du Midi de Bigorre, 2,877 metres high and dominating the surrounding 300km.
But before you start climbing
Nothing is easy. We had to fit ‘skins’ onto the skis to walk uphill. You put them on at the bottom of the slope, slog upwards, then take them off at the top before skiing downhill. It’s all part of ski touring in the Pyrenees.
Gavernie Gèdre is due south from Saint Sauveur close to the Spanish border. The Station is delightful, with enough climbing upwards to keep you fit but not steep enough to put you off. The downhill slopes are forgiving. Hey, ski touring in the Pyrenees turned out to be great fun.
You’re not high enough to look down onto the famous Cirque de Gavarnie. So do what we did, take a picnic lunch in the little village of Gavarnie then walk beside the river as far as you want to. To get close up and to the Hotel du cirque et de la Cascade takes about an hour. We walked for half of that but got close enough. It was getting late in the afternoon and the sun was falling behind the mountain.
The Cirque is a natural phenomenon, carved out over millions of years by glacial erosion. It’s an extraordinary site, an amphitheatre for the gods, described by Victor Hugo as ‘nature’s Colosseum’. 800 metres wide at the bottom and 3,000 metres wide at the top, the rocky surrounding walls rise up to 1,500 metres above the Cirque’s floor. The Gavarnie Falls are frozen during the winter, the waters cascading in spring and summer down a series of three huge vertical steps. Fed by Spanish rivers, the falls are the second highest waterfall in Europe.
The Brèche de Roland towards the top is a natural gap, bordered by slender walls over 100 m tall cut into the limestone. Its name comes from yet another legend, this time of Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew (another legend as he probably was not the great Emperor’s nephew). Fatally wounded in the wars against the Moors, Roland hurled his sword into the mountain, which miraculously split.
Apres ski touring in some great spas
Both full days of skiing were followed by a couple of hours in local spas. This isn’t part of the package, but you can add them on and they really do wonders. The pools are super heated (34 degrees), with jets around the walls and underground while water pours down periodically in the centre. Hammams and saunas are spacious and peaceful and showers copious.
Balnéo Cieléo in Barèges has excellent facilities which include a large pool, and a series of small baths or pools taking from 1, 2 or up to 10 people offering powerful hydro jets.
Luzea in Luz Saint-Sauveur offers smaller general facilities. But spend some time in the magnificent vaulted room where you lie on loungers looking out at the mountains. Easy to imagine yourself as Empress Eugenie (or Napoleon III) whose patronage put the small resort spa town on the map.
Where we stayed
The Hôtel de Londres in Luz Saint-Sauveur may only have two stars, but it’s an excellent hotel. Bedrooms are good sized; mine looked out over the river which gushed and gurgled over the rocks. It was either that sound or sheer exhaustion that sent me off to sleep so well. Bathrooms have good decorative touches like natural rocks making the floor of the shower and a large granite basin. Downstairs a terrace looks out onto that gushing river. There’s a spacious restaurant and a small bar with a big screen occupying one wall. We were there for the start of the 6 nations rugby matches. The bar was packed with French, English and Welsh; frogs legs were offered after France beat England which we graciously accepted.
We ate here on two evenings. Food is honest, plentiful and local. If you’re a charcuterie fan, take the platter of saucisson and hams. This is the area of the famed black pig of Bigorre so take advantage.
The hotel and all meals are included in the Purely Pyrenees package, but I recommend the hotel if you’re doing your own trip.
Hôtel de Londres
8 Rue du Pont de Luz
Tel: +33 5 62 92 80 09
Double/twin rooms are from €70 per night. Breakfast is €9.50; lunch is €15 and dinner €26 per person.
Dinner at an Auberge
The first night we ate at Chez Louisette, a 20-minute drive from Luz. The only problem was the last stretch which was cut off from the car park by snow. Laurent’s torch just about lit the way over the bottom end of a piste, but take your own torch and go well shod if you’re going there at night.
It was worth it. The auberge is large, still owned by the same family who started a cremerie here in 1905 selling dairy products. A roaring fire, large wooden tables and chairs, and specials chalked up on a blackboard set the tone.
Food, particularly in winter, is hearty with starters like charcuterie from Bigorre pork or smoked trout, followed by perhaps the local specialty of garbure (Pyrenean stew), or duck breast. This is not the place for vegetarians though they did provide a plate of vegetables when asked. My dessert of fromage blanc with slightly sharp red fruit proved the perfect end to the meal.
It’s also a great place for lunch if you take that particular piste down from the Station du Grand Tourmalet.
The day of departure
The flight from Lourdes to Stansted leaves at 3.35pm so there’s a last morning to fill. We were intending to go up the Pic du Midi, one of the great attractions of Occitanie but strong winds closed it. (Be ready for that; we learnt the day before and it happens quite frequently in winter.) The only good thing? I’ll have to go back.
Instead we spent the morning in Argelès-Gazost at the Tuesday market. It’s a small town on the way to Lourdes with an animal park devoted to the wild animals of the region: foxes, ibex, and marmots as well as wolves.
The town’s other main claim to fame is, rather bizarrely, the Maison Lagure boulangerie which was elected world champion of pain au chocolat in 2019. They are pretty good. Local producers fill the squares of the town, including a man making gâteaux à la broche, a Pyrennean rib sticking delicacy. Brioche are turned on a spit while he poured a liquid paste over it, solidifying the brioche into a shape of a pine tree. To serve, you cut slices off then add whatever you want – ice cream, jam, or cream.
For more information please visit the Purely Pyrenees website. The Ski-Touring Try-it Weekend is a guided tour lasting four days with prices starting from £712 per person. It includes transfers to and from Lourdes airport, all accommodation and meals, all equipment, ski passes, English-speaking tour/skiing guide and some sightseeing including the Pic du Midi (if open) on the final day.
Flights from Stansted to Lourdes by Ryanair cost from £74 round trip depending on when you book.
Good luck on your ski touring adventure in the Pyrenees and have fun!