Personal log of a novice backcountry skier in his backyard
My relationship with skiing is somehow strange. Of all the sports I still practice today, skiing is by far the one I’ve started the earliest… although at times I’ve gone for 10 years without touching the snow. And yet, in spite of all the hours I’ve spent surfing –as much as possible for the last 20 something years- I’m a much better skier than surfer. It all comes down to the fact that I took up skiing when I was a young teenager, while I only took up surfing in my (very) early 20s. Oh well…
No one in my family skied but some friends from my school in Manresa (60 kms inland from BCN) did. Manresa is only about 1h15m drive to Masella/La Molina- that is since they built the Tunel del Cadí in the late 80s. And Masella is the closest resort to Manresa that gets good snow cover as it faces North (although very often man made snow). Back then, when I took up skiing, the aforementioned tunnel didn’t exist and travelling to La Molina or Masella meant enduring over 3h in a bus, in the dark (we’d leave Manresa at 6am) and trying to fall asleep as soon as possible to avoid motion sickness at La Collada de Toses, the only way to access to the resort before Tunel del Cadí. Most kids like myself (whose parents didn’t ski) learnt through the MAN (Manresa ski club), that organised this one-day trips by bus. Sometimes we’d go to Andorra (Pas de la Casa, Soldeu…) or to the French Pyrenees (Porté Puymorens) but most of the seasons La Molina was our staple.
I studied at Barcelona University –farther away from the mountains and closer to the sea, and discovered surfing. This new passion took most of my free time and money, so during those years I hardly skied at all. Right after uni I had to do the 9 months compulsory military service (back then, and until it was abolished in the very late 90s, it was compulsory for all Spanish men aged 18 – 28). I applied for the Navy (my logic was that being closer to the sea would increase my chances of surfing during my free time), but I was sent to Jaca, in the Pyrenees. Then, and after the 3 month compulsory instruction period, I joined the Compañía de Esquiadores y Escaladores de Candanchú (CEEC or also known as the Tigres de Candanchú) and was sent to Candanchú, Spain’s oldest ski resort in the Aragon region. This resort was founded by the military in the 30s, later becoming a “normal” ski resort, but the military retained some barracks up there and that’s where the hundreds or so Tigres were lodged. We arrived there right after Christmas leave and were told that because of an agreement between the ski resort and the CEEC, the best skiers of our group would work as ski patrols during the whole season in a group called Equipo de Socorro (Rescue Team). Imagine how low the skiing level was that I managed to get in… in spite of having only skied two or three days in the previous 6 years!! For the next 5 months (the resort shut down on May 7) all we did was patrol the resort with our walkie talkies and assist the professional ski patrol crew with rescues, organizing the station, etc with no day offs for 5 months. Then, every afternoon, once the resort shut down, we joined the rest of the CEEC for all the nocturnal activities (night watches, igloo practice nights, etc…).
That winter (94-95) was a milestone in my skiing… and all that thanks to the Army! Not only my skiing technique improved lots (I only missed 6 days in those 5 months due to flu), but I improved my skills in all sorts of snow and ice, narrow runs and low visibility: Candanchú is the closest ski resort to the Atlantic, so it gets a lot of bad weather and the geography is quite vertical. But everything has a downside. In this case 3 of them: (1) we were not allowed to leave the resort, so no off piste skiing at the back of it; (2) skiing for free and without having to queue at the lifts for a whole season spoiled me and (3) because we were stuck with resort duties, we missed the great touring and backcountry experience that the rest of the CEEC were learning. Still, I remember fondly one day when four of us ducked under the rope and did the Loma Verde, a classic off-piste area at the back of the resort. There were 2 or 3 inches of new dry snow on top of a firm base, and I enjoyed every single minute of it on top of my GS 205cm Atomic. Obviously we were discovered and punished without afternoon leave for I can’t remember how long, but it was worth it. Another time, roundabout mid-late April, the resort received the gift of a late season 30 inches snowdump in 24h. The next day, seeing that our sergeant was keeping an eye on us to make sure we didn’t duck the rope again, with a resort worker and good friend I “patrolled” some runs that hadn’t been groomed and that no one else was bothering to ski. It only lasted a couple of hours (the snow got heavy very soon with the late April sun) but it was great!!
Once the Army over (August ’95) came another period were I hung my skis. Lots of travelling and overseas working experience (Australia, Ivory Coast and South Africa) and surfing took the best of me again. Move forward to 2005 and I met a lovely Scottish girl back in Barcelona. She was (and still is) cute, sexy, very smart and a huge skiing fan (she had even spent one whole season in Tignes just skiing, giving up her very well paid job in London to do so). We started dating and she asked me about skiing in the Pyrenees. She had just moved to Barcelona and knew very little about it, as most of her skiing had been done in the Alps or Canada. I blame her for taking me back to the mountains. With the camper van I had just purchased, the winter of 2005-06 saw me back on top of skis. We would spend the weekend in Vaqueira Beret (probably the best resort in terms of snow in the whole Pyrenees), 3h and something drive away from Barcelona, sleeping in the van and having lots of fun. When the snow wasn’t so good we would do one-dayers to La Cerdanya (Masella again) or to the French Pyrenees, both much closer to Barcelona than Vaqueira. We would choose the resort according to the weather, as the snowdumps can come from different directions and affect the resorts differently depending on their orientation. We had lots of fun but after a few days I was feeling a bit bored on the slopes with the crowds and all that. I would constantly look for little stashes in between two runs while my girl – a great carving fan- would stay on the groomed part. And I would admire the tracks left by backcountry skiers in the virgin faces and peaks around the resort.
Side-piste @ La Masella 2006
Anyway, when it looked like I was set for another intense run of skiing, a shift in my career made me leave Barcelona and took me to the Basque Country, one of Europe’s best surfing areas. The Scottish girl came along and I got heavy into surfing hunging my skis again.
This takes us to the present. Last year, the Scottish girl (now my wife) suggested that we went to Tignes (French Alps), to take up skiing again but also to celebrate her birthday exactly 10 years after her Tignes season back in the day. She had never been back and wanted a bit of nostalgia. I said why not, bought a new pair of boots (last ones got stolen – long story) and in early March we spent a week in Tignes. The snow wasn’t great (for the Alps) due to the heat wave Europe suffered during that week and I resented the crowds on the runs, while I was aware that now well into my 40s, my skiing peak (in terms of fitness and boldness) was well over. The idea of taking up backcountry skiing germinated into my mind and I decided that better try now than wait for another 10 years!
As the header says, this is a personal log from a novice backcountry skier. I’m not planning to jump cliffs, ski 50º couloirs nor cross the Pyrenees with my skins and a 40kg backpack. I leave that to the brave, bold, dedicated, fit and excellent skiers out there. My aim –right here and right now, because who knows what the future will bring- is to learn the skinning technique, do short off-piste runs within or from a resort, try a couple of Pyrenees classic backcountry routes and enjoy skiing in a different way from the only one I’ve known so far.
See you out there!
Morroi*, April 2012
*Morroi: farm worker in Basque. Usually stern hard working dudes… which is exactly how I feel when I’m sweating buckets going up the mountain!