Through the memories of a trip to Andorra, Bruno Compagnet returns to the feelings which accompanied him, the links to those alive or dead, and for the mountains of his Pyrenean childhood,he forged his imagination on stories of shepherds, hunters and smugglers, then there is his passion for skiing in the region where rugby reigns supreme. An intimate text which transports us well beyond the beautiful possibilities of skiing in the Principality of Andorra.
The Andorran mountains possess a rich history of smuggling. A few centuries before the first skiers arrived, the inhabitants of this valley, on the southern side of the Pyrenees, roamed the mountains loaded with alcohol or tobacco. There are still many traces, notably of ruined buildings where men and animals came to rest. For them too, the bad weather could be an invaluable ally. Nowadays, it is especially the leisure activities and business which accounts for the attraction of Andorra. However, with the sharp rise in of the price of a packet of cigarettes in France, the smuggling of tobacco on men’s backs via the border passes has recommenced. Today, cartons and packs of cigarettes are being sold under the counter in the streets and squares of Toulouse.
The wild border
I was born with a certain passion for the cold and the snow. Summer never passed fast enough. It was necessary to cut the grass, undergo the horsefly attacks, blue smoke of the motor mower and the heavy smell of diesel oil. I supported all this while hoping that my father would take me to see the ewes in the mountains; look after those with foot rot, clean the wounds where the flies had laid eggs and which filled with maggots…. And then after having given them salt, he picnicked with his friends, drank wine and sometimes sang. The cold spells in November were only the promise of what was going to follow, winter soon set in there and, through the classroom windows, I watched the summits turning white, patiently waiting for the moment when I could once again become a skier. Skiing on the Pyrenean beginners slopes heavy with snow, or icy, was neither an exploit nor an act of courage, it was simply a way of distinguishing oneself in a massif where free skiing did not attract many people.
In February 2015, while the world of skiing and the mountains go to Munich and its famous outdoor activities show, I take the plane from Geneva to go to Granvalira in Andorra, via Barcelona. While waiting for my flight I buy Powder Magazine and discover an article all about JP and Andreas. As I read the pages tears come to my eyes. The memories, moments and phrases, everything comes back to me and tightens my throat. I blubber for a large part of the journey faced by their youth and their talents and the bloody great hole which they leave, they who dedicated their lives to challenges …
My neighbour on the flight has the air of being a little embarrassed when seeing this bearded guy crying hot tears while reading a ski magazine. I am hypersensitive. American Dave died a couple of days ago, carried away by an avalanche in Italy. I’m sad that I can’t go to the small ceremony which is being held in his memory this evening in Chamonix. But, despite my sorrow, I am conscious of the magic and the mystery which surrounds our lives. It is also for this reason that my narratives sometimes speak of dreams, premonitions and coincidences.
The guys who meet me at the airport don’t have snow tyres. The storm and wind meets us the moment when we reach the last few kilometres of the ascent and we have to resort to fitting the chains in the darkness, cold and spatters of wet snow and salt from other vehicles. Towards midnight, I arrive at the hotel hungry and completely exhausted.
A white-out day
I have joined Joaquin Vena, my Argentinian friend who has lived a perpetual winter for several years, moving every six months from one hemisphere to the other. In the course of my Andorran escapades, he has become my friend on the snow and a robust party companion. The photographer Daniele Molineri joins us the next day accompanied by Roberta Castelli, his charming fiancé. An apocalyptic storm has been beating down on the massif for several days now and we no longer even hope for a window in the weather . . We concentrate on the wooded and more sheltered zones away from the resort. But the snow cover is hyper-unstable and three times I am engulfed by small heavy avalanches.
We down quite a lot of beer while looking at the 1:25000 map and eventually set out hearts of a little frequented valley, not to say abandoned, but with great potential. Orientated north south and relatively protected form the wind, where, with Joaquin, we had dragged out our skins several years previously.
We jump in to the car to attack the white road obstructed by carloads of either distraught or joyful tourists. Finally, it all depends how you see things. There is a deserted parking lot partially devoured by impressive snowdrifts welcoming us not far from the main axis. Some few moments later, we attack the valley following a stream of black water which cuts through the white fluff around it. I listen to meringue sound of our steps breaking the crust of the wind blown snow covering of the old communication route. More discreet and out of the way, it must have seen numerous caravans of mules loaded with smuggled tobacco.
To the left, a dense pine forest, scattered with beautiful clearings and and attractive rows attracts our attention. I had spoken about it to Julien Bataille who is a ski patroller in the Granvalira domain and who knows the sector well. He told me how very happy he would be to join us and to get acquainted. I am a little bothered because I have never liked the pro-skier label, even if I have always been proud to be a skier. And, then I am wary of the image which we convey. What matters, are the actions.
Now we are leaving the valley bottom. Progression is easy. We cross a stream on great mushrooms of snow to attack an epic ascent in the heart of the forest with snow coming to above our knees. Without the evolution of skis and equipment, this type of route would be far too difficult. With my little corvus freebirds, I have the impression of having snow-shoes on my feet. Progressing through this magnificent pine forest, with surrealist sounds and visual atmosphere, transports me to another world.I feel the presence and watchful eye of animals, real or imaginary. I have the impression of being far, very far from everything.
At this moment, I am overwhelmed by a surplus of emotions. These last few days, I have experienced extreme sensations and, to find myself here, in the teeth of a storm, at the top of a mountain, with the snow of one’s dreams and surrounded by friends with the same passion for skiing, is almost too much. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. But, finally, what better therapy than that which I am experiencing. The wind blows in gusts agitating branches which unload large packs of snow which crash gently all around us.I feel spontaneously responsible for the group, the ascent of this slope in full wind and charged with large accumulations of snow makes me feel nervous. I stop often to chose the safest route. Sometimes I make my analysis out aloud and we share our points of view. As Joaquin and Julien are both experienced skiers their opinions are precious. We share our points of view and how we feel, then we head off again silently in the storm and deep in our thoughts.
Reaching the crest, swept by a violent wind, does not finally take us too much time. It is difficult to imagine the quantity and quality of the snow waiting for us dozens of metres below.
The head empty and the face slapped by the snow torn away from the ground and the trees, we try to remove skins, and change into descent mode, as quickly as possible. What follows is a slide of some hundred metres along the crest to reach the entry of the gully which we had previously spotted. This entrance was really not obvious, but we eventually found it between the trees. At the time, a feeling of confidence came over me. I knew that the descent would go well. As if something benevolent was watching over our group.
Joaquin attacks the first slope. His skis are fast and radical and his turns are surgical, totally exploiting the capacities of his Atris which dispatch enormous flying powdery sheaves . I try to put on a good show with a fluid and flowing style , it is, I think, a good adaptation to the ground. When Daniele is not shooting, I let go of a lot of the reading and improvisation. It’s instinctive skiing which I adore, where the thoughts stop and are replaced by action. Then it is Julien’s turn; his style is all about the power of clearing something safe and confident. We exploit the wooded valley practically to the parking lot. The snow has not been touched by the wind and is incredibly light. Upon reflection I think it was one of the best powder sessions of the winter. We took many photos on the lower section, and when I look at them today, I realise our luck of having been able to enjoy snow of that quality.
Arriving at the parking lot, I feel the biting cold and fatigue getting to me. We thank each other mutually with big hugs. Then we drive to the Mountain Hostel Tarter to find the smiles and kindness of Mar and Marc. A big fire is lit and , after showering, we profit from the warmth of the place to chat while drinking a few beers. This young Catalan couple have completely renovated this ancient barn and transformed it into a warm guest house. It is a place of simple and pleasant life like them.
The following days, the storm dies down, allowing us to ski flat out. No need for enormous mountains to have fun. I feel better and better thanks to my mates and all the good moments we have shared. The, the wind gets up and, overnight, all the powder and our fluffy dreams are blown away.
This abrupt change is almost more troubling than frustrating. It is like meeting the women of your dreams, falling in love and, the morning after discovering that she has disappeared. Then nothing. It is a double edged pleasure, almost painful.
In the morning, I make myself a coffee while watching the sun rise on Grandvalira. My eyes come to rest on a small church which faces the guest house. It is then that I felt it again; something indescribable come to inhabit me.In Latin mythology, one speaks of the “Duende”, I believe that I have discovered that in a book by Carlos Castaneda. Basically, it’s an mysterious power that we probably all feel, but can’t define.
Thanks to Kari, Joaquim, Mar & Marc, Daniele & Roberta, Julien and all the others.
Definition : taxation. Given permission to enter without paying the grant, goods in a city where they can not be sold, nor discharged, and that they will only cross to be carried to their destination.
Etymology : passer debout (passing upright), because these goods cannot even be unburdened during their passage. By extension we speak here about the one who crosses without fulfilling customs duties, a smuggler.
See Paul Barberan’s very good book on this matter “Le passe-debout” which tells the story of the last great Pyrenean smuggler.