Last week I finally got the skis out and headed out ski touring with our guide David. We’ve had beautiful sunny weather pretty much all January and this day was no different with brilliant blue skies overhead.
We headed up to the Spanish-French border at Portalet which at 1800 metres and is a great place for ski touring or snowshoeing with a number of popular routes starting from there. David had some mega ambitious three-peak plan but he’s got 20 years on me and hasn’t seen my terrible skiing before – I knew we’d be settling for one or perhaps two peaks as a maximum!
Views from the summit of Canal Roya
We parked up and got our kit ready and were debating whether to take crampons and ice axes with us which we did. That was lucky as sunny, clear days in the mountains usually mean very cold overnight temperatures. Within twenty metres of leaving the car park, we had to take our skis off and put crampons on our ski boots to cross a short section of ridiculously hard ice. It wasn’t a difficult section but a slip would have taken us into a small ravine, best to take a few minutes getting the crampons on and to stay safe rather than rush and risk a silly accident.
Our first idea was to head up a summit called Cuyarelet (2291m). It’s a short sharp ascent with quite a steep section to the summit. As we started up on the skis it soon became clear that the snow was super hard and icy and even sections that had been in the sun for a few hours were showing no signs of softening up. We made a decision to switch our route to Canal Roya (2345m) which is a longer walk-in, hoping that would give time for the snow to transform a bit and get softer before we started skiing down.
Canal Roya is a lovely ascent in winter – not too steep and with superb views. It’s great on snowshoes too and it’s usually one of the highlights of our snowshoeing holidays. It took a little while to get into the rhythm of walking up with the skis on but I soon got into the swing of things again.
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For those not familiar with the concept of ski touring, it basically means walking up with your skis on and then skiing down. It allows you to access areas outside the ski stations which are wilder and much more natural. To go up, you put ‘skins’ on the bottom of your skis which allow them to slide up, but not slide back down again. They are called skins as traditionally they were made of seal skin. The bindings on the skis are also a bit different to alpine bindings and allow your heel to rise when walking up. When you get to the top, you strip the skins off and store them away, lock your heels in, and you’re good to whizz back down again.
As we went up, the snow showed no signs of softening up. In the end our skins and edges were having trouble biting into the ice and we had to fix little ski crampons onto the bottom of our skis to progress. I always take this as a bad sign as if it’s that icy going up, what is skiing down going to be like!
Anyway, with a bit of effort we made it to the summit. The views are just glorious. As you reach the final summit ridge the views ahead suddenly open up and the peaks around the Aspe massif just look incredible. In the winter the air is always super crisp and you can see for miles.
The summit was super windy and cold and we didn’t spend much time there. Couple of quick photos and then on with the helmets and we got ready to head down. I have to say I was concerned at just how icy things were and the first fifty metres were pretty awful with massive vibrations from the icy surface going through my ankles and knees. But as always, a few turns quickly got my confidence going and I almost started enjoying myself!
David’s an excellent skier so he was having no problem and just shot down. The gradient got less steep and for a few hundred metres where the snow had caught the sun we even had some nice softish snow before going back onto ice. Before we knew it, we were back down and headed back to the van. As the snow hadn’t really softened at all we decided against a second peak which was probably for the best.
Brilliant to get back out on the skis again. Thanks for an excellent day out David and look forward to heading out with you on the skis again – maybe we can persuade Juanma to join us next time for a Hike Pyrenees guides trip.