For many years Cauterets was known not as a ski resort but as a spa town. This, along with a slightly over-the-hill casino, still gives it a slightly genteel quality. But the town is on the up, with new construction integrating nicely with the old, as we observe while gliding slightly incongruously over the rooftops in the modern gondola lift, en-route to the ski terrain. It won’t be long until the season draws to a close, but the snow-line remains reassuringly low, and as we climb ever higher it becomes clear that conditions are indeed better than we’d dared to hope. The journey takes us to the 1850m mark, where we step out of our cosy Perspex bubble and into the now-familiar chill-factor of the Hautes-Pyrénées. As the sun slips behind the clouds we waste no time heading off to warm ourselves up on the run down the Sacca blue piste to the next lift, the Crètes six-seater detachable chair.
Cauterets ski area
The lift turns out to be a real flyer, hauling us smoothly above the rooftops of the town and up the mountainside to around 2300m. With little thermal-shock effect, we glide straight off and head down to our onward lift, the Brèches four-seater, for a ride up to 2415m. From here virtually the whole of the ski terrain is laid before us like a giant three-dimensional piste-map, but without a fold in sight. This is a defining feature of Cauterets: what you see is pretty much what there is, with few hidden corners tucked away to explore with a sense of going your own way. Over to our left we can see Touvarolles, another four-seater which is a particularly interesting lift as red pistes it serves offering the chance to rack up 640m of vertical drop in a single run. Sadly, though, the sector we’d been particularly looking forward to discovering turns out to be closed on this occasion due to steadily-increasing high winds.
Instead we content ourselves with the generally more sheltered bowl which makes up the remainder of the ski area. As the piste-map suggests, the scenic cruiser of choice proves to be the blue-graded Crètes, which provides even relatively timid skiers with a bracing top-of-the-mountain experience, complete with vast panoramic views. Along the way the run passes another three lifts plus clearly-signed departure points for a choice of blue, red and black runs dropping back down to the Cirque du Lys. We follow the main blue all the way, before climbing a few more times to enjoy a few of the variations set within the long, sweeping arc of our early run on Crètes. It’s clear that there’s a lot of enjoyment to be had like this, particularly for those who are still building their confidence before moving onto sterner tests. But we also get the feeling that there just might not be enough terrain on offer for more demanding skiers, who might be tempted elsewhere to satisfy their desire for fresh challenges.
Fortunately, the lift-pass also takes in a little more downhill terrain some 7km further up the valley at Pont d’Espagne (1450m). Here, in a hauntingly beautiful setting high in the Parc National des Pyrénées, we find another gondola designed to get even non-skiers into the heart of this otherwise remote spot. The downhill terrain at the far end is quite modest, but surprisingly is served by a pretty capable high-speed chairlift. At the top there’s a choice of red or blue-graded runs which wind their way back down through the silent pine forest. Sadly the lift is closed due to poor visibility during our visit, but since that’s down to steady snowfalls we’re happy to explore things on foot. We discover that Pont d’Espagne also has a couple of safer-than-safe débutante runs on the valley floor beside the welcoming Chalet Refuge du Clot, into which we eventually tumble in search of reviving chocolat-chaud.
It’s good timing, as the snow is falling hard now, visibility is dropping and even the beginner area is silent. There are still a handfull of skiers, though, skating determinedly along the ski-de-fond (cross-country) routes with broad smiles, which we return while noting that at least two of them are working hard in their regular carving skis. Although conditions have turning out to be far short of the ideal skiing weather, we’re really glad we came and chanced upon this very special place, and are in no hurry to get back to the car. Quite the reverse, in fact; we’re more than happy just walking in the mystical silence which only falling snow can produce, and decide to make the most of it by taking the long way back down…
Feature by Roger Moss, © 2018