This season, we’re already feeling smug as we managed to ski in St Lary on the very first day of the season. There was plenty of snow, lying in huge fluffy heaps in the car park, and we had a great day out despite the freezing temperatures and heavy snow conditions.
Now, though, on the 11th January, the season had started in earnest and it hadn’t snowed for weeks.
After careful inspection of both the weather forecast and the webcam, however, we decided another day out was due. The decision was confirmed by the fact that the weather in our valley looked set to be decidedly mediocre, and St Lary looked clear and bright above the clouds.
The from our house to St Lary takes about an hour and a quarter, but it’s a scenic route with plenty to see. Another point in St Lary’s favour is the access – they’ve recently opened a new gondola lift straight from the village to the slopes, and installed new facilities including a spacious car park. Unlike some other resorts, where you have to negotiate icy roads to reach the ski station, we can just leave the car in the village (700 metres up) and jump on the lift to travel the remaining 1,000 metres. For the third year in a row we’re using our Altiski passes – a discount pass scheme that offers reduced rates on a day-by-day basis. They’re easy to manage online and are also a great source of cheap ski insurance.
The snowline was much higher on this second visit, and there was none at all in the carpark, so as we emerged from the lift at Saint Lary 1700 (the resort consists of three small areas: 1700, 1900 and 2400) I was relieved to see that the pistes still looked reasonably well-covered. As we jumped on the Soum de Matte chair lift, however, to start the journey over to the best skiing area, St Lary 2400, a crocodile of children passed underneath us, their skis slipping and bouncing with a loud grating noise that showed just how icy it was.
On reaching the top of the lift, we started the journey across country along the blue piste Corniche, and I got to judge the conditions for myself. A light sprinkling of snow the day before seemed to have freshened things up considerably, and in spite of the hard, packed layer of ice there seemed to be enough powder to make the experience enjoyable. We started the day with a run down our favourite black, Terranère in the 1900 area, as it was currently in the sun and wouldn’t be for long. The surface was fast and exhilarating, although as I skied into a patch of shade my legs skittered away from underneath me on the ice and I almost lost my balance.
Most of the runs were open, despite it being a ‘cheap’ day, although our favourite red, Mirabelle, was closed for a competition. The run was set up as a slalom course, as we were hovered overhead on a chair lift we watch several skiers streak past in little puffs of snow, turning at impossible speeds.
After a quick lunch at Les Merlans, the canteen-style restaurant at St Lary 2400, we headed for the Corneblanque drag lift behind the restaurant. As we waited, a helicopter hovered overhead then disappeared behind the ridge. The lift wasn’t running, and we waited for a few minutes, then I asked someone who’d just descended what was happening. He explained that a skier had fallen on some loose gravel and hurt himself, but had refused assistance and tried to continue skiing down. In the process, he’d hurt himself so badly that they were now having to airlift him off.
‘He’s broken his ‘col de fémur’, he explained, a phrase which I hadn’t heard before and mentally translated as ‘collar bone’, although when I checked it in the dictionary turned out to be the far more severe injury of a broken hip. No wonder it had given way when he’d tried to ski on it!
Eventually the lift got going again, and as we skied back down Corneblanque we passed the fallen skier, surrounded by paramedics, being strapped onto a stretcher for the descent. The group was working out how to lift him, as the slightest movement seemed to cause the prone figure to yelp with pain. We skied quickly past, not wanting to get in the way.
Over on the far right of the resort, we noticed the Aulon chairlift was running – we’d never seen it operational before. At the head of the Combes d’Aulon run a small handwritten sign warned that the snow at the bottom of the run was ‘pas damée’, another phrase I wasn’t familiar with and one that turned out to mean ‘not packed down’ but might as well have meant ‘non existent’. The run started promisingly, but petered out halfway into a mogul field and a narrow icy corridor with the bones of the mountain showing through; we picked our way through carefully and took ourselves back to 2400.
After a few more runs in the 2400 area, it was time to call it a day. Although only 3pm, we’d had the best of the weather and it was now getting cold and icy. We also wanted to head back to Monty – he loves coming with us, but if we bring him it means one of us can’t ski, so we’d left him at home on this occasion.
We headed back to 1700 via the Lita chairlift and blue run, and were back at the car half an hour later, in plenty of time to drive home and walk Monty – although we had to wake him up to do so!