Insight: Piau Engaly
Insight: Piau Engaly
Passing through Saint-Lary Soulan en-route to Piau Engaly can sometimes be slightly unnerving for a powder-hungry skier. In late April, for example, it’s looking predictably leafy and springlike, but as we begin the final climb towards our much higher-altitude destination it’s not long before we hit the longed-for snow-line and breathe a heartfelt sigh of relief.
In fact, for the last weekend of its long season Piau still manages to deliver almost unblemished snow-cover, thanks to sustained late falls. Today there’s no shortage of skiers determined to make the most of it… all the regulars are here, some of them having crossed the nearby border from Spain to take advantage of the better conditions on the North-facing French side of the mountains. Our mid-afternoon arrival finds energy levels winding down, so we must wait until the following morning for the snow beneath our skis to be at its best.
Sure enough, as we set off the winter sun is just beginning to soften the overnight ice, although things still feel decidedly crisp at 2528m as we slip off the Pic de Piau six-seater lift. So for our first runs we play safe until things feel a little less lively under our skis. Coming in the last week of the season means that not all the lifts are open, and the springtime snow-line denies us the pleasure of sampling one of Piau’s longest runs, but fortunately there’s still plenty of choice. The pistes fan-out from the lift in different directions, before reuniting for the final cruise back to the lift.
Piau Engaly’s Big Blue
A few weeks earlier we’d have been able to explore the full 6.5km length of the Grande Bleue piste, which begins at the Pic and drops down to Piau 1750, along the way picking up the Paou and Forêt pistes and continuing down through the treeline to Piau 1420. The resulting 1108m vertical drop is the highest figure in the French Pyrenees. Next time, for sure.
Meantime, there’s plenty to keep us entertained, particularly the Perdrix red piste, which we tackle before the sun has thawed the overnight ice. Reactions suddenly awakened, we drop down behind the Pic to the different world of the Vallée de Badet. Half-way down I swerve to avoid a large marmotte casually crossing the piste, before the gradient eases and we have time to take in some of the amazing scenery of the Parc National des Pyrénées unfolding around us.
All too soon we see ahead of us the Mouscades I chairlift, which we join for the gentle return haul up to the village of Piau 1850. The rest of our time in Piau is spent repeating favourite runs like these and filling in the gaps in our knowledge by skiing those we missed. We also take a look at some of the local skiers testing their speed and balance by skiing onto a section of water created within giant inflatable walls. When the time finally comes to leave we do so with regret, aware that we’ve just laid our last tracks of the season. But there’s something else: we’re going to miss the mood of relaxed fun we’ve enjoyed everywhere on and off the mountain during our all-too-brief stay.
Feature by Roger Moss, © 2020