For first-time visitors the road approach to Saint-Lary sends a clear message: whatever you were imagining, this is serious mountain country. It also confirms that the multitude of villages and hamlets located down in the valleys retain all their traditional charm, and everything apart from the mountains is on a reassuringly human scale. Welcome to the Hautes-Pyrénées.
Not surprisingly, then, the village of Saint-Lary looks unlike any ski station we’ve seen in the Alps, an impression underlined by the relatively few British voices to be overheard on the café terraces. Traditional Pyrenean timber and stone architecture, combined with a sheltered, sunny location, make this an attractive place to be, a fact well-known to generations of loyal French visitors plus those who regularly drive from across the nearby border with Spain.
On Saint Lary’s mountains…
In the village itself there’s no front-de-neige, and there few obvious signs of ski activity apart from a large cable-car station. Behind the thermal spa, however, is a powerful high-speed gondola lift, centrepiece of a recent 14-million Euro investment programme to streamline skier access from the valley up to Pla d’Adet 1700. The altitude is a vital asset, and at times when there’s little sign of snow down in the village a vast white landscape is suddenly revealed as you crest the final ridge on the haul up.
From the lift arrival point a brief uphill trudge brings us to the point where we can finally snap into our skis and glide past the debutant meeting points to the Soume de Matte chair-lift, which deposits us onto the blue-graded Corniche 2 piste. It’s a blast, as we sample some of Saint-Lary 1900’s rewarding intermediate terrain all the way down to the Tortes chair. This second onward haul up to 2320m provides the gateway to a wealth of possibilities in a vast sheltered bowl above the Vallon du Portet, whose terrain tops off at a respectable 2515m.
The Perfect Spot
While longer hauls are handled by efficient chairlifts, access to the highest terrain in this sector is by drag-lifts – a pity as it must curb less-confident skiers’ inclination to explore the area’s full potential. In fact, it’s well worth getting to the high points, not least to feel yourself on top of a sizeable chunk of the Parc National des Pyrénées. Not that any of the terrain here is exactly low, as a drop down through pine forest to the Lac d’Oule (1820m) proves. This worthwhile decent emerges beside the sunny terrace of the Chalet de l’Oule, whose location overlooking the lake (frozen for much of the winter) makes this the perfect spot in which to stop for a lunchtime refuelling break. We do just that and emerge in an ideal mood to contemplate the wooded scenery on the relaxed ride back up to the Vallon du Portet.
Once there we schuss onward to the Saboures chairlift for the ride over the ridge to Tourette (2320m). From here we take the wayward Balcon Moucades piste for a spot of enjoyable blue-graded cruising (with a narrow tunnel thrown in along the way) and an eventual connection with the red-graded Mirabelle II. The entertainment continues as we drop a little more steeply all the way down to the Espiaube area (1900m). It’s the kind of run which adds both distance and substance to Saint-Lary’s skiing, and one we’ll definitely ski again in future visits.
We’ve reached the terminus for the shuttle bus back to the village (via the Pla d’Adet) but we ride the Lita chair-lift back up to the Rhodos red piste.
It’s an exhilarating run, climaxing with a final swoop through the tree-line, and as we wind our way down on the wooded tracks with smiles on our faces we’re reminded of fun times skiing similar terrain in far away British Columbia. It’s an appealing image, and one of the high spots of Saint-Lary. Others include the vast mountain views which ramp up the entertainment value of even the most benign blue connector runs.
Overall Saint-Lary is a fun place – but we can’t help thinking it would be even more so with the option of a lift-pass to take in higher-altitude Piau-Engaly, which lies just a tantalizingly short drive further up the valley. While you’re here you really should ski both areas.
Feature by Roger Moss, © 2020