PHOTOS: Adam Clark
The wild boar in the middle of the snow-covered road was missing its stomach. The dead, hollow eyes gazed at the sky, at the toothy couloirs and rocky faces riddling the mountains. We skied past it toward the trailhead. A half-mile later, we passed the remains of another, this one with just a tail connected to a bloodstained spine.
By the time we arrived in Val d'Aran in mid-March, it had snowed so much in the Spanish Pyrenees that famine had killed boars and other wildlife in the mountains. Beginning in mid-January, an Atlantic system from the north settled into the endless valley, dumping snow 27 consecutive days. It snowed 360 inches that month and nearly 600 inches throughout the season.
For $100 a head, a helicopter dropped photographer Adam Clark, Bryce Phillips, Carston Oliver, and me outside the boundary of Parque Nacional de Aigüestortes. With skins on, we followed our guide to the summit of 9,294-foot Mount Montardo. He introduced himself in a dark bar two days earlier as Nacho Morales. "Like the guacamole," he said with a grin. He had maps tucked in his pockets, a mustache, and mountaineering pedigree. Which is to say that in the middle of a range none of us had seen before, we trusted him.
We came to the valley because it was rumored to have the best snow, tallest mountains, and biggest ski area in Spain. We didn't know much else. In the end, there's only so much Googling you can do when you want to go somewhere new, before you just have to go for it and book your ticket. We lucked out. We met Nacho during a record year, and he showed us that the skiing in Spain can be as good as anywhere in the world.
From Montardo's summit, we skied through a couloir, past a half-dozen lakes to Refugi Ventosa i Calvell. The dwelling, built in 1955, is part of a 10-hut system called Carros de Foc. Miguel Sánchez, the 57-year-old telemark skier who has been the caretaker of the Spanish Alpine Club-owned hut for 30 years, is a man of the mountains. He skis everyday and charges up the hill and down. The highest peak in the Pyrenees is nearby 11,169-foot Mount Aneto, which would be the 165th tallest peak in the Alps. Though the mountains here were smaller than the more popular range to the east, they appeared just as intimidating. The geology that made them left the range with precipitous spires, tight, twisting couloirs, and hanging snowfields.
"I think the Pyrenees are much wilder," says Nacho, who has guided here for 14 years. "In the Alps you can find bigger mountains, but in the Pyrenees you can find very wild places. That's good. Let's keep it."
After Miguel serves up bowls of his homemade mushroom soup at the refuge, we eyed a beautiful line that started with one couloir and ended with another, called Couloir de Pics de Comalespada. Nacho led us around the lower chute to the bottom of the upper one, where we carefully attached our skis to our backpacks on the 45-degree slope. As we bootpacked to the top, about 1,000 feet from the start of the couloir, sugary snow poured down and filled in our steps. The couloir's walls were 50 feet tall, and the run was so steep that our uphill knees touched the slope. My gloves were soaked. Wind had loaded the couloir with 18 inches of soft snow. I started to question Nacho's judgment. So far from anything familiar, I had little choice but to push on, hyper-aware of every movement.
On the summit, the vastness of the range came into view. Huge faces and jagged peaks spanned the horizon. The last sunlight of the day cast a pink hue on 9,110-foot Tuc de Llucià. After down-climbing through rocks, Oliver dropped in, making a right-hand turn on the 50-degree entrance before cutting hard left with the chute.
Dropping in to the second couloir, a steady wind swirled powder from our skis over the rocks above us. Its technicality and aesthetics, and the quality of the powder, made it the best line of my season. Maybe my life. At the bottom, we were all on a high, having safely skied the striking couloirs. We slapped skins onto our skis and walked to the hut as darkness settled in, just in time for a four-course meal and a few bottles of wine, courtesy of Miguel. Nacho pulled out maps and indicated all of our options before us. Just before going to bed, in the dim glow of our headlamps, he congratulated us on the day's descent. Then he told us our journey had only begun.
“Aran" is an old Basque word that means valley. So "Val d'Aran" translates to "valley of valleys." Aran is an autonomous region--meaning it has its own language, cuisine, culture, and president--within the autonomous region of Catalonia. Which itself has its own language, cuisine, culture, and president, within the borders of Spain. So locals here speak Aranese, Catalan, and Spanish, in addition to French, since France sits just a few miles to the north.
Until 1964, the valley was disconnected from the rest of the country, but now a three-mile-long tunnel, four hours from Barcelona and the Mediterranean and nine miles from the monolithic ski area Baqueira-Beret, connect the world to Vielha, a classic European ski town. Ski shops line the main drag. In the Old Town, beyond the 12th century church common in each village around the valley, a maze of narrow cobblestone streets split the decaying buildings built 600 years before America declared its independence.
One afternoon after skiing all day, Nacho introduced us to Jose Moga. In the 1940s, his dad was a hunter who needed to move quickly through the snows, so he cut down trees and made skis. Jose Moga went on to race in the 1956 Winter Olympic Games in Cortina. He started the first ski school in Aran and taught the king of Spain to schuss. Now 80, Moga owns three ski shops and a hamburger parlor in Aran. When I asked if he still skied, he said, "Faster than you."
Moga smuggled cigarettes, coffee, and booze through the mountains before the tunnel was built. "There was nothing--cows and shepherds," says Moga. "When they opened the tunnel, there was an economic and industrial revolution in Val d'Aran."
After it was completed, residents pooled their money, and eventually, in 1964, built Val d'Aran's first chairlift, paid for with cash. The only ski area in the valley, Baqueira-Beret has several access points that go by different names (Baqueira, Beret, and Bonaigua), and a strong community of locals--year-round residents here pay just 30 Euro for a season pass. One lift ticket accesses 33 chairlifts and about 4,700 acres, nearly twice the size of Jackson Hole. And like Jackson, the best skiing is beyond the ski area boundary, where few people venture.
On our first day at the ski area, at the top of the Jorge Jordana chair, we went outside the boundary and walked along a ridgeline, sheer cliffs on either side of us, for about five minutes. We then walked carefully to a permanent rope and down-climbed a steep but short 30-foot arête. When my feet were back on firm ground, I turned around from the rock to face the remaining hike; I was struck by the magnitude of the landscape. I expected small, straightforward mountains in Spain, but instead I saw steep and rocky ridgelines, couloirs, no-fall zones, and a sea of rugged peaks and skiable faces that looked more like the Monashees. When we skied the open flanks below us, the snow was smooth and creamy, so we headed back for more.
That afternoon we followed Nacho to his office in the village of Salardú. Our rental van's side mirrors nearly scraped houses bordering the narrow street. Along the way, Eth Bot, an 800-year-old decaying, cracked barn that is as emblematic as anything in the valley, hosted an après crowd. Inside, a 100-pound yellow Labrador greeted visitors while a bartender served lagers to skiers in a dark space that once housed cattle and sheep. In the alpenglow light, the outdoor tables were full of young Spanish locals, cute brunettes, and French tourists smoking cigarettes, reflecting on their day on the mountain. From livestock to skiers, the location is the embodiment of how the economy shifted once the tunnel went in and skiing arrived in the valley.
One lift ticket accesses 33 chairlifts and about 4,700 acres, nearly twice the size of Jackson Hole.
The next day, we skied from Dossau, a three-minute hike to a cone just outside of the northwesternmost edge of the ski area, to Montgarri, a snowmobile-accessed village. The first few turns at the top of the run held two feet of snow where the wind loaded it, and I took the opportunity to get a couple of face shots. After 1,500 feet, we picked our way through a copse of pine trees until we arrived at Rio Pallaresa. There, we skied across a bridge, over the river, and under the arch of an old stonewall to the village. All that was left were ruins, a church built in the 1100s, and a refuge, which naturally meant lunch.
The typical Aranese meal starts with red wine and toasted bread. The custom is to take a clove of garlic and rub it on the bread, then split a tomato in half and rub it on the bread, too, then spread local pâté and drizzle olive oil on top. The next course is olla aranesa, a local soup that varies in ingredients but always includes veggies, veal, blood sausage, chickpeas, and potatoes. The main course in the refuge was a plate of two-dozen sausages and a rack of lamb, all cooked over the fireplace in the corner of the stone hut. After the meal, we drank espresso and sampled a few bottles of aperitifs on the table. I drank the one that tasted like pine trees, fitting after our last run through the woods.
The next morning Vielha was white. Half a foot of fresh sat atop our van and the ski hill reported seven to 12 inches of new snow. It was cold--14 degrees--and still dumping. We followed Nacho to a completely new area, the ski resort so huge and the visibility so poor it was confusing. We ducked a rope and skied toward the trees. Our first turns were blower and deep. Oliver worked a small, treed ridgeline before playing off the sides of a 1,000-foot gulley. As we worked our way down, the south-facing slope became thin and crusty and full of avalanche debris. We skied along the highway back to the gondola.
That evening, Clark, Oliver, and I walked to the town square. It was still snowing hard and the orange glow of the streetlights illuminated the fat flakes on the snow-covered stone church. We wandered the tight maze of cobblestone and looked into the many dark watering holes. It was quiet compared to the night before, when every bar was standing-room only, patrons' eyes fixated on television screens. FC Barcelona, the soccer team so intertwined with the identity of Catalonia, snapped a rare three-game losing streak. They beat AC Milan 4-0, becoming the first team to overcome an 0-2 hole in the home-and-away series and advance in the Champions League.
Later that night, we went to Edu Miscal's place for dinner. The 34-year-old runs a ski school and an events company. He wore Armada clothing from head to toe, both on the hill and at home, and his two French bulldogs are named Tanner and Seth after his favorite skiers. In 1995, Edu broke his arms, face, and destroyed the nerves in his right arm and the right side of his chest in a motorcycle accident. Before the incident, his father discouraged him from pursuing skiing. Afterward, Edu vowed to be what he always wanted to be: a skier.
"When I was 14, I accepted my father's opinion, but when I had the accident, I decided to be my own leader," he says. "I gained confidence in myself and I learned that you can do everything you want if you really wish it. I learned that life is short and we should not miss the opportunity to live with the people we love and doing the things that make us feel full."
At dinner, Edu told us about competing in the 1998 Nagano Paralympics, then he and Nacho talked more about the history of the region. Until the late '70s, Catalonia was an oppressed area of Spain. After losing the Spanish Civil War in 1939--a two-year, eight-month battle that claimed upward of 200,000 Catalan lives--dictator Francisco Franco tried to forcefully assimilate Catalonia into Spain by banning their language and culture. Residents couldn't name their children traditional Catalan names, and books about Catalan culture could not be legally printed. Three years after Franco's death in 1975, Spain voted to adopt a democratic constitution, which granted Catalonia political and cultural autonomy.
Of course, its autonomy, and that of Aran, does not make these regions immune from the economic depression that has plagued the country. Since 2008, the unemployment rate in Spain has increased from eight to 26 percent--that's over 5.9 million unemployed residents in a country that would be the U.S.'s third biggest state. It's worse for people under 25, as nearly 53 percent are without work. Others, even government employees, often do work without getting paid. As a result of the depression, Edu says his businesses developed cheaper services, like collective lessons, and are trying to attract visitors from Russia, Great Britain, and France. Nacho, who grew up coming to the valley every year since he was 6, and moved here in 1999, says most of his clients are Spanish, but those that could afford guided mountaineering trips still can.
The morning after dinner with Edu, Nacho drove us to a trailhead near his home in Salardú. A couple of old snowmobiles loaded with supplies pulled us through the fresh snow, three miles toward the boundary of the Parque Nacional de Aigüestortes to Banhs de Tredòs, a lodge with hot springs. The original lodge was built in the 1700s. When Nacho came to the area with his parents in the '80s, they would picnic next to its ruins along the river. In 1996, it was rebuilt.
We drank cortados--espressos with milk--in front of the fireplace, and then applied our skins to our skis. We walked behind the lodge toward a ridgeline, about 2,500 feet up. Nobody spoke on the way. All I heard was the swish of pants, bindings clicking against skis with each step, heavy breathing, and an occasional direction from Nacho. It was a storm day and we were focused. Once on the ridgeline, unprotected from the elements, we felt its wrath, the snow pounding, wind howling, and visibility gone.
We pushed for the trees. Nacho led us to an open lane within the forest that ran all the way to the valley floor. The slope was steep enough, and the snow so light, that when Oliver dropped in, he took two feet of slough with him and became a blur of white. He slashed turns on the sides of the gully, then cut into the gut with speed, plowing through the running snow. Phillips followed suit, finding plenty of powder for himself.
We came out of the trees to a big, wide-open flat meadow with nothing but fresh snow. We were sweaty and smiling, because we had just skied two feet of untouched cold Spanish smoke for a couple thousand feet, and the flakes were still coming down hard. We knew how lucky we were by the reactions of the locals, who laughed in dismay at the quantity of snowfall. We trudged through the field and then along the banks of the river. The rocks in the water held a foot-high pile of fresh snow on them. We passed by a little wooden shelter in the distance with a cross at its apex, then arrived back at the lodge.
After another meat-heavy lunch and a couple bottles of red, we ran barefoot through the snow, now up to our knees, to an indoor hot spring. After a soak and a sauna session, we put our gear back on and skated and skied the three miles back to Salardú. It was dark by the time we approached town. The lights of snowplows blinked in the distance as they snaked up the mountain road. Church bells rang. The town glowed in the foggy, dusk light, snow still falling.
How to get there: Fly in to Barcelona. DoYouSpain.com has the cheapest car rentals. The drive to Vielha is four hours from Barcelona.
General Info: Nacho Morales is as professional and knowledgeable of a guide as they come: NachoMorales.com. If going to Val d'Aran, be sure to acquire an international driver's license. The Aparthotel in Vielha has big, affordable rooms, great breakfast, and excellent customer service: LaVallBlancaVielha.com. Go to RefugiVentosa.com for information on Miguel's hut. Pyrenees-Heliski.com/en/ in Val d'Aran offers a reliable heli-skiing service.
This story was originally published in the November, 2013 (42.3) issue of POWDER. To have our award-winning magazine delivered to your door, subscribe here.