It’s late. Too late.
A few hours ago it all made sense, but right now, bootpacking up a couloir in the dark, clearly isn’t as good an idea as Cristina and Gaizka had initially conceived.
What was intended to be a nice ski session into the sunset has now become a sketchy night skiing endeavour, with no visibility further than our headlamps. And of course, the snow is not the soft fluffy pow we wished for, rather a mixture of chalk, névé, and refrozen crust. Yay.
The goal was not even particularly hard or technical: we wanted to explore an area that we had scoped last season: Banhs de Tredós, in the Spanish Pyrenees of Val D’Arán. At 1750 meters, this plateau is the highest thermal water spring in Europe (also, one of the smallest), but we weren’t too interested in the water (or rather, water in liquid state). The goal was to ski the mountains surrounding the plateau: a succession of peaks plagued with snow-filled couloirs in any aspect lined by never-ending pine trees. Last season we visited one side of the valley and decided that next time, we’d explore the opposite side. That next time was now.
“Now” is still the beginning of the season, which in the Pyrenees normally reads as “not enough snow base anywhere, caution of sharks”, but the truth is, this year we can’t complain about how the season started. After 3 weeks of almost continuous snowfall, we’re living the season kickoff we’d been dreaming of for years. Even snow stability is remarkably good, as temperatures have been relatively stable and it has not snowed in the last week, allowing the snow to settle into stable layers.
Gaizka and Cristina are used to exploring the Pyrenees every weekend - their jobs allowing: he is a Creative Director and she works as a nurse, a particularly demanding job, especially in recent times. Cristina actually came out of an all-night shift this very morning, but instead of sleeping in, she decided to use the free day and go for a nice sunset ski tour.
After a 4-hour drive, we step into our bindings and slowly start striding towards the plateau. The path is just wide enough for a vehicle in summer, but during the winter it’s a mandatory walk through the snow for about an hour. A snowmobiling service is offered, reducing the journey to a matter of minutes, but both Gaizka and Cristina prefer to skin up, as the path is incredibly beautiful, meandering through the thick forest. Once at the plateau of Banhs de Tredós, we notice the shadow cast by the mountains beating them to the base of the chosen couloir. With no time to take a break, Gaizka pushes ahead. Cristina slowly starts to notice the lack of sleep of the previous night.
A quarter of the way up into the couloir, Gaizka is optimistic, the shadow has not crept up as fast as he expected. Almost surprised, he envisions the remote possibility of making it to the top before the sunset. That’ll mean increasing the pace. However, Cristina is now running on empty and clearly feeling it, struggling to keep up with us. She decides to turn around and wait for Gaizka at the Van, parked in the valley. As conditions are stable and the couloir is visible from the nearby Hotel, Gaizka and I keep climbing towards the top.
The easy-going nature of the first part of the tour has been replaced by a steep climb. First, he starts with kickturns to gain elevation, but as the inclination increases, he resorts to bootpacking straight up. It’s at this moment that he notices that the couloir is much longer than he thought from below, and it becomes evident to him that the race with the sun was irreversibly lost for the day. Nonetheless, so close to the top, and already having acknowledged that the ride back would be assisted with a headlamp, we continue onwards.
We reach the top just as true darkness sets in. Headlamps on full brightness, skins off, boots buckled up; we’re in downhill mode. Before dropping in, he takes a look at the seemingly never-ending silhouette of mountains that stood in front of him. The skiing is surprisingly fun, but not due to epic snow quality, but rather the experience of skiing in the dark and having to adjust to snow conditions that seem to change at every turn. It quickly becomes apparent that any snow that was touched by the sun during the day was now refrozen crust, particularly demanding to ski, but the few pockets that were spared in the shadow remained very enjoyable.
Not seeing further than the dim light of the headlamp, the ski to the valley seems much shorter than Gaizka anticipates. In a matter of 30 minutes, we are back at the van, happy to rejoin with Cristina and enjoy a hot dinner that is already steaming on the stove.
The next morning, the morning sun greets us on the same path where we had hasted through the day before. The bright light shines through the snowflakes and reflects as if they were passing through a landscape filled with tiny, reflective crystals. At times, the play between light and shadows surrounded by trees that still hold snow in their branches makes us think we are in Lapland. Maybe a Reindeer might jump out of the next bush? Let’s hope that it stays like this for the rest of the season.
With no clearly defined plan, and knowing that the sun-spared aspects hold better snow, we skin up a more moderate couloir to ski down the North face. This time we’re all feeling rested and capable to reach the top together. Weaving through the landscape one step at a time, we admire the views we couldn’t the previous night. We arrive at the summit almost without noticing the elevation. Taking the more gradual way up certainly paid off.
Skiing down the North face is as good as we had hoped for. Soft, enjoyable, and above all, consistent snow. The effort was worthwhile. The only downside of ski touring is how fast all the fun is over, and before we could notice it, we’re back in the valley, but this time with much bigger smiles.
The perfect prelude to a busy week at work and to start the preparations for next weekend’s adventure.
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Words & Images by | Philipp Klein
Words & images by | Athlete Name
Born into a family of passionate skiers in Germany, Philipp was lucky to start skiing at the young age of three. Half German, half Spanish, Philipp has lived most of his life in Spain, where he grew up studying Mechanical Engineering and a Master in Industrial Economics. Currently, he works in Project Management in Barcelona.
Read more about Athlete Philipp here