Sketches of Spain

Places to go fast, places to scare yourself, places to take it easy, and places to rattle your teeth out (Volume 11, Issue 3)

In celebration of POWDER’s 45th Anniversary, we are releasing select stories from every volume. This story originally published in POWDER’s November 1982 (Volume 11, Issue 3).

Story and photos by Steve Barnett

Switzerland is the most mountainous country in Europe. Next in line is not Austria, France or Italy, but Spain. Yet when it comes to skiing most people would rate Spain somewhere between Iran and Fiji, i.e. nowhere at all. It deserves better. Those mountain are covered with heavy snow in winter. There are downhill areas in all parts of the country and since Paco Ochoa’s surprise Olympic medal in 1972 the sport has become popular.

Two of the downhill areas standout enough to be worthy of international notice. One, Sol y Nieve (Sun and Snow), is in the very south of Spain almost at the Stars of Gibraltar. The other Baqueira-Beret, is in the Pyrenees Mountains which divide Spain from France. It is an outstanding ski resort because of its beautiful terrain, its reliable snow, and it’s great touring possibilities.

I first went there from Barcelona with Quim, and intense Catalan mountaineer whom I had met in the U.S. We drove for five hours on a road twisting slowly through the arid and sparsely populated front ranges of the Pyrenees. It might have looked like the American Southwest but for the Romanesque churches and ancient villages.

The arid mesas finally gave way to snowcapped peaks, then we passed through a very long tunnel and popped out into the Val D’ Aran, home of Bacqueria, a rich valley encompassing 39 villages (Quim said that the relative properties of a Pyrenes valley would be told by the number of its villages). Val D’ Aran is a political anomaly since it’s on the north side of the rance (hence its lushness) which for the most part is French, and thus it is quite isolated from the rest of Spain. The inhabitants speak neither French nor Spanish as their home language but Aranese, a variant of the almost extinct Langue D’ OC of southern France.

While staying at Baqueira itself is moderately expensive, there are many places to stay in the valley towns that are, by U.S.standards very cheap (from $4-5 a night and always clean). This is typical of Spain. We went to the Rifugi Rosti in the old village of Salardu, a rustic hostel popular with Catalan mountaineers. It was a ‘family style’ place with drawn out communal meals filled with much conversation was almost all in Catalan, the real language of northeastern Spain and I couldn’t understand a word. Most spoke some English though and at least tried to straighten me out about which end of the porron was for holding and which for pouring wine.

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Franco tried hard to extinguish Catalan nationalism and even the language itself but obviously had made little headway. With his death, the intense regionalism of Spain had reemerged full strength, especially in the Basque Provinces and Catalunya, which also happen to be the industrial and financial centers of the country. Politically this create endless problems but for the traveller it’s endlessly fascinating to see so many languages, customs and so much regional pride packed into a relatively small area.

Once we got started skiing, and once Quim had determined that is was possible to get down a slope on those skiing 3-pin boards in that funny American fashion he proceeded to show me his favorite side of Baqueira runs faces northwest but is possible to go off the summit to the north, the east, and the south as well and these odd directions hold some of the most interesting runs. The most famous of these off-beat runs is De Escornacbres which translates to “dehorning the goat”, one of the great names of the ski world. De Escornacbres is the run that skiers at Baqueira use as a badge of achievement– it marks a step forward in their careers when they can say “I skied de Escornacabres today”.

It’s perfect for the role since it’s a fearsome looking couloir that in reality has a worse bark than bite. It heads east down a steep little funnel that leads into funnel that leads into a shelf at the head of the couloir itself. The trick is that from the top of the run the entrance into the couloir looks vertical.

You can see where it goes, only the vertical walls surrounding the shot. Thus to drop into it the first time takes a bit of nerve, to be followed by a sigh of relief when the couloir actually proves to be only 35 degrees or so, still steep but not the death plunge it looked like from above. Below the chute, the run opens up into beautiful rolling drops through open trees. These hold unpacked powder, protected from the sun by the north exposure.

De Escornac Bres was so much fun that Quim was encouraged to introduce me to the truly steep north facing slopes of Baqueira. As a ski mountaineer, he has a taste for the extreme He used the line “We’ll just take a look”. Then once we were checking the snow, he’d say “Why not?” and drop off the edge tipping sweeping turns through the breakable crust. The slope must have been more than 45 degrees. It was a thrill all right—but I wasn’t sure how to turn in the stuff. Each turn seemed to leave more of a gash, ripped out plates in a foot deep trench, than a feathery track. No wonder it was untracked.

In a few weeks I would get to see the north side runs in a better state. Still it was enough of an exposure to the area to see that Baqueira had terrain to challenge any skier; places to go fast, places to scare yourself, with places to take it easy, and places to rattle your teeth out. It’s a mountain beautiful to look at, with rolls and sops, half in the trees and from its white neighbours. It’s situated in a region of heavy snowfall, has a fully usable 3,000 ft. vertical and is run with the efficiency of a good American resort, but costs the skier only half as much ($11 ticket).

Several weeks later I returned to baqueira. I had met Bernat and Ignacio, two instructors , and was teaching them telemark turns. For their part they showed me their favorite secret places on the mountain. The bes was the Marconi. It’s located on the long North face of the mountain, where there are no official runs at all. The unofficial ones are truly steep, mixing open trees, chutes and cliffs and are skiing delight when there is a bit of powder on them (which is often because of the north exposure and the very sparse traffic). Again I feared the old “blow away the visitor” game and had a vision of struggling down some icy horror on 3-pin skis while sharp rocks awaited below. Fournealty, their assurance all rang true and the skiing was pure pleasure.

As soon as Bernat and Ignacio saw the telemark turns on such wild slopes they wanted to learn for themselves. Much like American skiers and unlike the Central Europeans, as soon as they saw this technique, they said, “We must learn that turn.” The Pyrenees are a large range, much less developed than the ALps and the combination of mobility and downhill control provided by telemark skiing would be just as useful there as in the American West. To complete the connection the tour I did there with them was to a ghost town, Montgarri, notable for its Romanesque church rather than its abandoned bars. Sarin From a lift we got in plenty of downhill practice on the way. Each time they made a successful turn, Bernat and Ignacio would exclaim, “Es la ostia”, slang for “It’s a miracle.”

The Pyrenees were, in general, an outstanding range for ski touring. The mountains around Baqueira were, to me, reminiscent of the California Sierra Nevada, with wide-open forest, huge above-timberline bowls topped by granite peaks. Further west, around the Monte Perdido, is an area of limestone peaks, completely different in topography. There hugh desert-like canyons lead up to open Alpine areas below the glaciated peaks.

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Culturally Baqueira does not seem particularly SPanish, the Catalan and French influence is too strong. To go skiing in the “real” Spain one should go far south of the Pyrenees, almost as far south as it’s possible to go and still stay in Europe. Just 30 miles north of the Mediterranean, almost at the Straits of Gibraltar, rise Spain’s highest mountains the Sierra Nevada (11,160 feet versus the Pyrenees top at 11,160 ft). The ski area Sol y Nieve (Sun and Snow) is built on the north side of the range reaching the top of the second highest peak, the Veleta.

Sol y Nieve is not the ski area that Baqueira is. Its greatest claims to fame are its location in the enchanting province of Andalusia and its position as Europe’s southernmost ski area. Still it is not a toked ski area It is v4ry large with almost 4,000 vertical, all above timberline. The slopes are so smooth and so wide that is difficult to speak of well-defined pistes. It’s a great place for mile-wide turns and limitless cruising at high speeds, if the snow permits. That’s the rub. The sun is strong and the range is a single, isolated ridge crest, exposing the upper slopes to frequent strong winds. When I was there skates would have been more appropriate than skis.

Of course a little later on and it all would have been corn snow; a little earlier and it would have been powder. Isn’t that always the story’s should have been here last year!” There was still some good skiing, especially away from the main slopes (the Borreguiles area) and into the area around the Lagunas Yeguas. This short traverse from one of the high lifts and has much steeper and more interesting terrain. It also had better snow. From the top of Sol y Nieve you can, on a very clear day, see the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Looking down the slopes you view passes beyond the slow line, down to the city of Granada, and then off into the hills and plains of central Spain.

If you ask people there why they’re skiing at Sol y Nieve the world you will hear is “ambience”. They come from all over Europe for the inter sun and for the ambience of Andalucia. The Costa del Sol is close at hand and Granada is reputed be Spain’s most beautiful city.

Sierra Nevada itself does not reflect Andaluc ambience jumble of shops and hotels, scattered too much up and down the mountain. If you stop there first upon arriving in Andalucia, you’ll be shocked when you finally get down to Granada. To learn why Granada is special, arrive there late in the afternoon. The streets, quiet an hour earlier, are filled with crowds of strollers. Soon it seems like the whole city is out of doors, shopping and socializing. Groups of young girls and of old women walk arm in arm. Above the city rise the solid while wall of the Sierra Nevada. Walk past the Alhambra to the Albaicin, the old Moorish section of the city.

All of the houses are white thith black grillworks and with hanging plants dangling over the windows. Winding alleys will take you to a plaza where not unlikely someone will have a guitar and will be singing Andaluz folk songs. Nearby kids are playing futbol on an empty field. If they see you are a foreigner, they’ll surround you and demand that you take a picture of their brother making a goal. Hungry? You’ll have to wait till 9 or so to start dinner anywhere in Spain. But then you’ll be able to get a decent one in Granada for the unbelievable price like $3.50 for a full course meal. Not gourmet, but solid.

Granada was the Moor’s last stronghold in Spain. They were there for 700 years and their influence is still strong in the faces and customs of the people. The most renowned tourist monument there is the Alhambra, the old Moorish palace. It’s set right beside the palace built by King Charles V after the Christian conquest of Granada. The two places tell a story. One, the Alhambra is made for pleasure with fountains, gardens, and the most delicate and beautiful decorations. The other is made to impose. It is colder more grand, and more austere.

Many of the houses retain the old Moorish customs. For all the public life outside, the tightly packed houses of the Albaicin are very private. High walled internal courtyards take the place of our more public lawns and backyards. Some of these are lush inside, with the same mix as the Alhambra of fountains, gardens and decorative tilework.

The Northerners (Basques and Catalans) will tell you that the people of Andalusia are very different culturally than themselves, more easy-going, passive, and poorer. When you travel in the villages of the Sierra Nevada you see the how poor the land ism and how nevertheless the villages are maintained absolutely clean and white. The memory I have is of the women, dressed in black, sweeping continuously, sweeping both their houses and the streets.

The reason to go skiing in another country is only rarely to get a superior skiing experience than we can get here. The skiing in the American West is hard to beat. It’s to visit, observe or even to immerse yourself in another culture. Spain may be only the second most mountainous country in Europe, but in terms of its cultural and skiing diversity, its low prices, and its sun, it’s a destination of choice for the adventurous traveller.