Peyragudes has been in our sights for some time, but until now we haven’t managed to see and ski it for ourselves. Even so, it’s clear from the reports of sustained heavy investment in visitor accommodation and state-of-the-art high-speed chairlifts that this is a ski area with attitude. Added to which, impressive-looking webcam images have long intrigued us. So when the opportunity finally arrives to drive back down to the Hautes-Pyrénées we don’t need any encouragement, particularly since the A65 autoroute has shaved almost an hour off the previously tedious journey beyond Bordeaux.
The right approach…
The new road is an impressive model of efficiency, but scenery-wise it’s the onward run to our destination via the more conventionally-beautiful Vallée du Louron which will haunt us. The sheltered spot has a huge, man-made lake and recently acquired a traditionally-styled tourism village overlooking landscaped parkland, the setting for the more contemporary Balnéa spa centre. From the village we follow the signs up the nearby mountainside towards the Col de Peyresourde. The final approach road was purpose-built to provide easy access to the ski village, whose bright, cheerful skyline soon comes into view.
Minutes later, after parking the car, unpacking our skis and changing into our ski gear, we take one of the pedestrian lifts which simplify getting from car park level up to the front-de-neige. From here the ski lifts are just metres away, our choice being the Sérias high-speed 6-seater chairlift, which takes skiers direct to the Col de la Flamme (1967m), for a choice of blue and red-graded runs either back down to Peyresourde or – our choice – over into the Agudes sector. As we plan to head still higher our first run is a short one, and we soon join the Flamme fixed chairlift for a ride up to 2085m.
Once off the lift we ski the top section of the blue-graded Val des Agudes piste before peeling off onto the steeper (red) detour of Chevriers. The snow quality has benefited from the sector’s early morning sunlight, and our bracing plunge down to the liaison with the gentler Passe Bleue piste (which in turn feeds back onto Val des Agudes) is a lot of fun. Soon the outline of Les Agudes appears below us, growing larger until we reach the departure point for no fewer than five ski-lifts. It’s surprisingly quiet over here, and the architectural style of the purpose-built ski-village speaks of an earlier period than that of its still-youthful counterpart on the other side of the mountain. But Agudes shares the same doorstep skiing concept, and as a bonus catches the morning sun.
Steeper, but also wider…
Terrain-wise, things are also noticeably steeper over here, with a big-mountain feel to the ski area falling away below while the six-seater Cap de Pales chairlift powers us smoothly back up to the top of the mountain in single haul. At the top we ski off the lift to join the other skiers who have converged on the 2233m Belvédère. The meeting-point for three chairlifts has something of a party atmosphere today, as our visit coincides with Spanish national holidays, boosting skier numbers and ramping up the energy levels several notches. Fortunately the present gathering of skiers is clearly about to spread out in several different directions, so the nearby pistes look set to remain unpressured. Sure enough, we have the blue-graded Gourgs Blancs cruise virtually to ourselves on the run over to the exit-point for the red-graded Vallée Blanche. Sadly, large barriers inform us that it’s closed until the next snowfall tops things up lower down, so we continue on the gentle, open blue run down to the base of our next lift. The Serre Doumenge six-seater replaced two previous chairlifts, and its environmental credentials include small on-chair bins for cigarette butts and other debris (which self-empty discretely as they approach the lower station), helping keep the mountains cleaner.
Aiming high in Peyragudes
At the top are both black and red-graded runs, plus the Traverse des Isards, a top-of-the-world gateway to a long blue cruise all the way back down to Peyresourde village. The first section is Aigles, a wide, gently-curving run which crosses Rhododendrons, a red-graded piste which we now follow as it threads its way between a snowpark and a boardercross run to terminate conveniently at Le Cabanou mountain restaurant/bar. We’ve already covered some distance, so it’s a welcome sight. Forsaking the currently-empty panoramic sun-terrace, we head inside and check the piste-map while recharging energy levels with vins-chauds. When we finally emerge we skate our way over to pick up the Combe de Magnéras for a gentle blue cruise down towards Peyresourde.
Things are looking a little livelier now on the front-de-neige as we head for the base of the Privilège chairlift. The powerful four-seater hauls us back up to Belvédère in under seven minutes (a journey which previously required no fewer than four fixed-chairlift rides). Not surprisingly, travelling at around 5m/sec adds a degree of wind-chill, softened today by the still sun hanging in a near-cloudless sky, as it so often does here. The en-route overviews of the mountain include freestylers in the snow-park we’d passed earlier, and the first hungry skiers taking their places on the snack bar sun-terrace.
Last run before lunch
Not surprisingly, by the time we reach the top of the lift we’re also feeling more than ready for a lunch break, so from Belvédère we take the Cap de Pales red piste and pick up the blue-graded Combe de la Flamme for another excursion into the Agudes sector. This time it’s a relatively brief one and we only ski the upper terrain – after reaching the base of the Flamme chairlift the run then veers sharply left, passing over the Col to re-enter the Peyresourde side. From here there’s a choice of red and blue return runs back to the village, our route finally taking us beside the ski-school area, where novices are making their first turns and riding the magic-carpet lift for further gentle runs.
It’s the perfect calm and secure starting-point for tomorrows skiers, who as yet have no idea of just what lies in store for them as a reward for their efforts. They won’t have long to wait, and when their very first big lift-ride finally reveals just what lies further up the mountain right here in Peyragudes, they’re going to be amazed. Just like us, in fact.
Feature by Roger Moss, © 2019