Into the Brèche: Excerpt from ‘Ski & Board’ Magazine

Paul Jenner, co-author of ‘Landscapes of the Pyrenees’ recalls a ski tour that went wrong:

When the weather starts to turn bad in the mountains, you see the difference between the amateurs and the professionals. The amateurs still go out. The professionals don’t. The professionals in Gavarnie are the CRS, the Compagnies Républicaine de Sécurité. In Paris and any city where they have riots they call them the “CR-SS”, but here things are different. In the mountains, you can be very glad to see the CRS. Now, four days after the big storm, in sight of the Gavarnie ski lifts, we have been buzzed by a CRS helicopter and we can see a party of CRS headed towards us.

Our excuse was that when we set out even the CRS themselves gave a clear forecast. And the landlord of our rented rooms, an ex-mayor of Gavarnie, confirmed it. “From tomorrow,” he said, “it will be perfect for ski touring,” Gavarnie is to the Pyrenees what Chamonix is to the Alps. Its cirque is one of Europe’s greatest spectacles, a natural glacier-scoured wall of rock, curving like the inside of a giant tower, 1.4km high and 890m wide. And in the top of this fortress there is a slot, the Brèche de Roland, 100m by 40m, like the first of a series of embrasures that were never completed. Beyond the brèche, to the east, hidden among the crowd of 3,000m peaks, is the third highest summit in the Pyrenees, the 3,355m Monte Perdido.

Our plan was to climb Monte Perdido via the brèche, a five-day tour through some of the finest scenery in the range. There are two ways of starting. The direct but hard way is from the village at about 1,375m, climbing steadily along the floor of the Pouey Aspe valley, until after four kilometres and at an altitude of 1,900m, you begin zig-zagging the steep couloir that leads to the foot of the Taillon glacier and the Col de Sarradets (2,589m), just beyond which there is a refuge. We decided on the easier but longer route, taking the ski station lifts and setting off from around 2,000m all around the rim of the Pouey Aspe. The top lift stops just short of the ridge and as the two of us climbed the final metres to the valley rim and away from the crowd of downhill skiers, so there was the view of the cirque and the brèche, due south in a straight line, and the frontier summits, sharp-edged in the morning light. All morning we traversed west along the rim of the valley and all afternoon we traversed back east on the far side.

Late in the afternoon we entered the couloir, a broad halfpipe that seemed to drop vertically below us. It would be good for boarders. Two men were coming up fast from below, one of them stripped to a T-shirt. Cheerily, they overtook. Almost at the same moment, we saw two more figures above us, descending urgently. As they passed without stopping they shouted in French: “Go back! The refuge is closed.” We hesitated. In the French Pyrenees, where life may depend on it, some part of a refuge is always open. And yet, with darkness close, suppose these men were right? Anxiously, we quickened our pace. Clouds were building up and as we entered the Col de Sarradets, a fine grit of snow began to fall. Through the pass, we identified the refuge only by its symmetrical shape. The roof was covered by a metre of snow and the stone walls were visible only in places. One of the overtakers was trying to open an upstairs window. We saw him fall inside and, gratefully, a few minutes later we climbed in behind.

In winter there is no electricity, no water, nor heat in the Sarradets. But in the single room that provides emergency shelter there are beds and a table. As we stared out, the snow turned to soft white flakes the size of daisies. In the night we were woken by the sound of avalanches, roaring down from the tops and across the shelf on which the refuge stood. Occasionally the refuge itself shuddered. In the morning the snow was higher even than the upstairs window. We spent the day in our sleeping bags. The young men, JeanPierre or J-P (pronounced JeePay) and Eric, were experienced ski tourers from the Massif Central. They were also headed for Monte Perdido.

On the third day of our expedition there was a break in the clouds mid-morning. J-P and Eric were for pressing on. “Otherwise we’ll run out of food,” explained J-P. He spun their last egg on the table. They tried to persuade us to go. We tried to persuade them to stay. To ski off-piste the day after a heavy snowfall is madness, we said. “Anyway,” said J-P, “we have to go because we’re running out of time.” He described where their van was parked in Gavarnie. “If you get back and find our van still there, you’ll know we didn’t make it,” he said. Within an hour the weather had closed in behind them again. With my Minox I took a photo of the cirque, the snow blowing off the top with the filmy unreality of ectoplasm.

The next morning the sky was clear, the snow had consolidated and we judged it safe. Just below the brèche the snow was scoured away and the rocks exposed. We put our skis over our shoulders and strode the last few metres. Entering the brèche, all of Spain, it seemed, was laid out in front of us, white at first, and then line after line of green receding to where people were leading ordinary lives. The air was as clean and hard as chalk. Greedily we broke it off in chunks and swallowed it into our lungs.

We climbed down into another country, stripped the skins from our skis, put our skis back on and began the descent towards the next refuge, the Goriz, at the foot of Monte Perdido. Now it was the pleasure after the pain. We pulsed intimately over the skin of the mountain, like blood through the surface veins of weight lifters. This is as close to the Great Oneness as you can get.

In the mid-afternoon, happy with the sun and the long, long easy glide we came to the Goriz, a large, always-staffed refuge sleeping 100 or more. The guarda, Antonio Mateo, was away but his companera was there and made us tea. “There are only two others at the refuge,” she said, “and when they come back from Monte Perdido we will all have dinner together.” “Yes,” we said, “we know.” We slept. When we emerged, Antonio was back. He had skied in from the pista to Nerin, carrying supplies in his backpack, and he looked disappointed when we discussed what we might have for dinner. Finally, it was agreed that from the precious cargo we could have egg and chips. We waited. The valley bottom turned black, and then the sky too. The conversation became more strained. The two should have been back.

Finally Antonio went to the equipment rack, selected some gear. put on a head torch and went out. Within an hour he returned. In the moonlight, up along the barranco de Goriz, he had seen the unmistakable concrete rubble of a fresh avalanche. An avalanche such as they seldom have in the Massif Central.

This business of ski touring is a kind of rage against death. In this pure whiteness, constantly renewed, nothing seems to die, nor even decay. And yet two had died on Monte Perdido, killed by the very thing that had seemed so beautiful.

And so the CRS are coming out from Gavarnie to meet us. What separates two dead from two alive is just timing. The time to wait. The time not to go.

As we tramped back to our lodging, our skis over our shoulders, we looked along the line of cars parked by the church. A battered old van from Limoges was still there.