Insight: La Mongie
Insight: La Mongie
The initial impressions of La Mongie can come as something of a surprise. Not only is the village visibly purpose-built but the location, towards the upper end of a deep and largely treeless valley, creates quite an enclosed feel. The upside of this is that it’s relatively sheltered – reassuring since a glance at the surrounding peaks tells you why in a typical season they can catch some serious snowfalls here. This was amply demonstrated during our own first visit some years ago, when heavy falls completely buried the signage which would have warned us not to park our car overnight in the very spot where we’d left it in all innocence. Next morning we were quite surprised to discover that the Municipal Police had removed it from what turned out to be a coach park and placed it somewhere more secure – and even more so that we hadn’t been fined for the misdemeanour. It’s a sign that things here are clearly rather more relaxed than is usually the case over in the Alps.
Another ski day begins…
The compact layout of the village means that just minutes after leaving our hotel we’re already heading up the valley on the Chapelle chairlift. The rapid, near-horizontal ride provides the perfect introduction to the layout of the lower pistes before dropping us neatly between two more lifts. One of them – Espade – would haul us straight up to the Col du Tourmalet (2115m), a pleasure we forgo while we head in the other direction to ski the northern sector. By the time you read these words the old Pourteilh gondola which since 1969 carried countless skiers up to 2248m will have been replaced by a brand new six-seater high-speed chairlift.
At the top it’s possible to ski a couple of long, Blue-graded descents (one of which divides before its mid-point) all the way down, or merely ski a few hundred metres and transfer to the Quatre Termes chairlift for a final. The onward rather leisurely haul takes you up to 2500m, the highest groomed terrain in the Grand Tourmalet ski area. Above lies the Pic des Quatres Termes (2724m) and below a long Blue-graded cruise on Bergers, one of the most memorable runs in the Pyrénées, not least since the wild, craggy upper section feels almost like skiing a relatively benign couloir. Some of the steeper turns can also develop moguls, putting this run on the upper limits of its Blue rating, but it’s great fun and we’re genuinely sorry when we reach the end of the descent. Given a longer stay, this is one we’d undoubtedly be skiing again.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the mountain…
Having got it out of our system, we’re now free to take the six-seater Espade chairlift up to the legendary Col du Tourmalet, of Tour de France fame. At the top there’s a stiff breeze (not unusual here) so we don’t spend too long taking in the spectacular onward views. In calmer conditions we might have turned right and taken a Green-graded run down to the Coume Lounque I and II draglifts, to reach a Red piste running through a high valley in the south-east sector below La Taoulet (2341m). Or maybe a long, Black-graded plunge via Coume l’Ayse over towards Barèges. That’s where we’ll actually be heading anyway, although in the present blustery conditions a rather less demanding Blue looks like the preferred option.
Below the Col the wind drops dramatically and our attention focuses on the views ahead. Things look and feel different on this, the Barèges side; the valley is much wider, and there are large tracts of forest on the mountainsides above the village, softening the landscape. Our run down Isards is made more entertaining than usual by the presence of icy, compacted snow beneath our skis, but lower down things begin to soften just a little, and we can finally relax and get back to enjoying the scenery. Beyond the loading area of the Tourmalet chairlift (which provides the return link to La Mongie via the Col) our run on Bastan, a lone Blue piste, begins to make us feel we’re now covering some distance, and there’s more to come.
A spot of cruising, anyone?
Around the half-way point we pass the Caoubert draglift, which provides a steep haul up to two Red-graded descents (plus a Blue) from around 1950m to satisfy hardcore skiers who can’t wait for the Piquette chairlift to come into sight. We reach it where our own run ends at Tournaboup (1450m), from which the possibilities are still far from exhausted. Snow-cover
permitting, it’s possible to ski from here all the way into Barèges on a gentle, Green-graded cruise visible from time to time from the route serving the Col – if not, you can simply take a shuttle-bus. Sadly we’re unlucky today; next time, maybe.
For now, though, our thoughts are more focused on the runs which lie among the forests on the mountainside to our left, so we take the Tournaboup 4-seater chairlift. As the novice area slips away slowly beneath us we head up through the trees and alight in a large clearing at around 1800m. It’s a fine spot for the La Laquette mountain restaurant and brings access to a choice of very different terrain. Head left and ski down to the Castillon four-seater chairlift and you’ll reach some fine Red and Blue descents in the Laquette sector, for an onward plunge into the valley of Le Lienze.
Alternatively, turn right and take a gentle Green-graded amble through the forest – which is exactly what we do, the reward for our curiosity being an unspoilt, away-from-it-all world normally only accessible to snowshoers. We don’t want this to end, so when we reach Le Lienz we take one of the two Etoile draglifts up to 2000m for another wooded run. Looming above us is the Pic d’Ayre (2416m) whose flanks appear to offer some interesting off-piste potential, but as time is now tight we take the Red-graded descent (although there’s also a Black, which is narrow and usually moguled) back to Le Lienze.
Working our way back to the Col du Tourmalet brings not only a new perspective on the landscape but also the skiing itself. In contrast to the quite gentle cruising which brought us through this sector, we find more of the kind of the up/down progress which is the rule elsewhere, underlining the kind of skiing on offer above Barèges. Once back over the Col, though, it’s simply a matter of relaxing on a gentle, uninterrupted cruise which gets us right back where we started.
Feature by Roger Moss, © 2020