Andorra: memories in the snow
The natural landscapes of Andorra are perfect to enjoy the wildest face of snow. For the photographer Nils Preston SchlebuschIn addition, it means returning to the stages of his childhood and giving free rein to memories and his love for the mountain.
In 1937, Alexander and Olivia Hallik, my maternal grandparents, crossed the Pyrenees from Toulouse to settle in Andorra. They met in France, a country my grandfather fled from his native Estonia before the Russian invasion of the 40s. My grandmother had lost a lung as a result of tuberculosis and doctors had recommended the altitude and pure air of Andorra .
In their frequent visits to Toulouse they were forced to travel, both back and forth, through the passage of Envalira (2,408 m), the only one opened from the Pyrenees to the north - in 2002 the homonymous tunnel was opened, 2,879 meters long, the highest in Europe-. While summers did not present significant challenges, winters could be extremely hard in this remote mountainous region. Heavy snowfall prevented traffic, forced roads to close and isolated the passage for months. And under those conditions, my grandfather Alexander, the strong and stocky Estonian, it felt like home. I remember hearing the stories of when he challenged his childhood friends to see who was able to stay for longer in a sauna and then dive into a frozen stream.
At that time, tobacco smuggling through the mountains was commonplace and my grandfather Alex used the same roads - and the same techniques - to supply his appliance business, bringing supplies from Toulouse. With their skis lined with animal skin up the mountain up the Andorran side and down skiing on the French skirt and then back to Climb and ski back home with merchandise well hidden in your backpack.
Andorra in other times © Andorra.indd
In those times, the ski out track was neither a specialty nor a preference, but a need: there was no other option, and the mountains were considered ruthless giants who intimidated its inhabitants. The resorts, the ski slopes and their ski lifts did not appear until 1956, so every Sunday Alex packed the children and their friends in the car and took them to the nearest hill, from where they walked up the mountain to enjoy the joy of descending sliding down the slopes. Today, thanks to technical innovations, off-piste skiing or freeride has become the fashion renegade. And in Grandvalira, Instead of banning skiers who want to climb mountains without ski lifts and enjoy the snow away from the slopes and resorts, as they do in many seasons, they have opened their snowy arms to this growing market, designating specific areas for their practice in the sectors of The Tarter Y Grau Roig.
The first step was to improve security, providing free checkpoints for ARVA, some electronic devices used to locate and be located quickly in case of avalanches, and build a wooden ascent path in the Grau Roig sector that allows walking and skiing uphill, using specific off-piste equipment, and ski down the slope on conditioned slopes.
The ski and snowboard school also has a section, the Freeride center, especially dedicated to teaching this modality where they pay special attention to the practice of security protocols and this season, in addition, they have hired a group of mountain school professionals Grandvalira GMG Mountain Guides to accompany skiers who require it at more remote rural areas, not only in the surroundings of Grandvalira, but throughout the principality.
Andorra and its memories © Andorra.indd
I meet Marc, one of the association's guides, in his new offices, in the ski school building of the station. He is a skinny, fibrous man, with the appearance of power with everything. He is responsible for organizing our excursion for the next two days and now finalizes every detail of the equipment with surgical rigor. I carry a backpack with photographic material and Marc adds Dynafit boots and a pair of skis of the same brand with carbon fiber layer, what makes them more resistant during slaloms (the descents), while lightening the increases (only weighing a kilo).
I recognize my skepticism about the value of such a light team compared to mine, but I swallow my words as soon as I venture into the wild nature of Andorra. Marc adjusts my skis and we make sure they fit the skins and the backpack. We also check my ARVA and the rest of the necessary safety equipment. Although some avalanches have been reported, the weather conditions are better than expected.
The temperature and the excellent snow conditions make Marc change plans and decide to take us along a more demanding road, near the French border, which will force us to spend the night in the Borda de Sorteny refuge, recently renovated. In two days we will save an unevenness of thousand meters in just five kilometers.
The natural sites of Andorra © Nils Preston Schlebusch
First thing the next morning, Marc and his partner Daniel, our second guide, pick me up at my hotel, in the city center. In just half an hour of road we reach a remote valley called Ransol Although the peaks of the mountains are lit by the sun, the rays have not yet touched the valley, so the snow surface is completely freezing. After putting on our boots and placing the skins on the skis, we start up through the beautiful valley flooded by snow waves. As soon as we reach the sun we begin to part with layers of clothing and take advantage of every stop to recover energy by drinking a sip of water and nibbling on our energy bars.
Daniel gives me a few tips to find my ideal rhythm. "The secret is in taking smaller steps and slower walking”, He assures me. I run out of breath too easily. But once you find your rhythm the breath deepens, it calms down and the road becomes easier. Now I can continue ascending without stopping.
Ski down the slope down the slopes of Grandvalira © Nils Preston Schlebusch
An hour later the valley opens like a bowl, with the summits of La Serrera aside and The Cabaneta the other. The stage makes me think of my grandfather. I imagine doing a similar route to reach the border with France. I have a photograph of him sitting in the snow and loaded with a heavy backpack. Instead of our technical equipment of advanced technology (carbon fiber skis and breathable fabric windbreaker jackets), my grandfather carried huge wooden skis and bulky wool jackets, very heavy, especially when they got wet.
Perched on the north face of La Cabaneta we see four mountain goats, known locally as isards, heading towards greener pastures. We zigzag through a steep corridor to access the ridge just below the top of La Serrera. At this point I feel my lungs go out of my chest. I already have laces. I need to rest before embarking on the other side of the mountain. While we rest, we meet Xavier Bertrand, a local firefighter, and his dog Brac.
Sport in the high mountains of Andorra © Nils Preston Schlebusch
Happy to walk loose through the snowy mountains, Brac runs down the hill behind the snowballs that his owner throws and up the hill to see if, of prize, there is luck and we share with him our appetizer. It even seems that he says goodbye posing for my camera as he rushes behind Xavier, who goes down skiing on the same slope that we just passed. To be more comfortable, Marc, Daniel and I take off the skins of our skis, change our fixings, adjust the boots, warm ourselves and analyze the safest way to ski, without rocks and without causing avalanches.
Marc takes the lead and opens the path along the steep slope, facing south, where snow conditions vary. It is the ideal terrain to practice sliding movements and emergency stops. Fresh snow is a tempting invitation and we glide over potholes and between large rock formations. In front of us there are only valleys and white mountains. Upon reaching the altitude where the trees begin to grow we ski through forests and over streams to face a final final stretch before arriving at the cabin where we will spend the night: the shelter of Borda de Sorteny, managed by Carmen and Nerea.
They receive us on the porch, where they are from desktop enjoying the sun. The shelter's pet is a big wolf dog that watches the comings and goings of the visitors without flinching. Those who came to spend the day, with snowshoes and skis, leave shortly after and we stay as only shelter guests, which allows us to choose between five rooms and more than 30 bunk beds.
Bull carpaccio in La Massana © Nils Preston Schlebusch
Carmen prepares the dining room for dinner with the help of Oriol, an Andorran chef who comes every day from the city to prepare delicious dishes. Late in the afternoon we are joined by two groups that have walked uphill from the parking lot, half an hour, just to enjoy a delicious dinner in nature before descending back into the darkness of a night only illuminated by a moon that bounces the silver color of the surrounding mountains.
We wake up with new energy and ski a few hundred meters down the hill before ascending again to the rhythm of walking through the Estanyó valley. After three hours zigzagging between rock formations, we reached the top that I thought was the summit of the mountain. But to my surprise, Daniel and Marc put the crampons back on to climb the steep slope that separates us from the true summit. I wonder if my grandfather Alex would have chosen an easier way. Maybe he's sending me a signal to give up and turn around. I doubt it: it was not one of those who fall asleep. Minutes later, with skis on my back and tied to Marc, I put one foot in front of the other, treading safely to avoid slipping.
The effort of overcoming is rewarded with a breathtaking view of the Andorran eastern mountain range and, beyond, the mount Casamanya (2,740 m) on the left and the Pal ski resort in the distance. A quick stop allows me to enjoy the panoramic and recover before continuing to the ridge, from where we will ski down the western slope of Casamanya. A field of detritus caused by a recent avalanche - the day before? - reminds us that never underestimate the force of nature. And so, with extreme care, we ski as fast as our scarce forces allow us and, even in full rush of adrenaline, we return to civilization.
One of the terraces of Grandvalira © Grandvalira
I turn around and look up to see the mountains. I can't contain my joy for having skied a vertical slope of 600 meters of virgin snow In a place that means so much to me. But there is still day ahead. We venture into the city of Andorra la Vella. Ten minutes from the Plaza de la Rotonda, upstream, I am in front of the thermal complex of Caldea, in the old quarter of Escaldes- Engordany. Here sprout numerous hot springs whose medicinal properties were already known to the Romans.
Today, the sources flow within a ultramodern glass building which offers massages and all kinds of bathrooms. Although walking and skiing in the mountains was a pleasant adventure, My aching muscles desperately need the soothing caress of the warm waters. An hour of deep massage and unlimited time to soak in Inúu, its center of wellness, they manage to revive me.
I dedicate the following days to discover the modern ski resorts of the principality, enjoying the perfect slopes and the ski lifts of Pal, Soldeu and El Tarter. Also from après ski, something relatively new in Andorra. Today, one can choose between having a glass of wine in Abarset, a bar with good music on the edge of the base of El Tarter, or taking a hot bath in the spa of the luxurious Sport Hotel Hermitage as if you were in Aspen or in Gstaad. If you decide to stay in the mountains, make sure you book one night at the Igloo Grandvalira hotel, on the slopes of Grau Roig.
The Sport Hotel Hermitage as if it were in Aspen or in Gstaad © Nils Preston Schlebusch
After walking around the town of Country House I'm with Prisca Llagostera, the manager, in the ice hotel. Prisca smiles as she explains that, in 1950, her grandmother made an auto-stop to arrive in Andorra from England and that, when she settled, she had the opportunity to meet my grandparents. Prisca shows me the dining room, the bar and two of the civisita in the hotel a group of friends call me, part of the crew of a luxury yacht docked in the port of Barcelona. Several of them are spending a few days in Andorra before embarking again. They offer to share drinks and we sit on a block of ice, warm with skins, and enjoy the brandy and good conversation. On the last day in Andorra I meet Marc Font, son of my mother's best friend, who used to participate in ski trips with my grandparents.
Marc has taken over his father's hunting and sports shop in Baixada del Molí, a business he has expanded with a second store in Pas de la Casa, near the French border. Together we visited a good friend of his, Joan Albert, owner of a farm in Sant Julià. There grow tobacco that exports to the US and produces wines at 1,200 meters altitude. Joan, Marc and I enjoy the sun and the views and toast with your precious Escol Riesling wine.
I am happy with the rediscovery of my roots. My feeling of satisfaction is deep and true. Months later, back in New York, where I live, I listen to Pete Seeger on the radio singing the joyful folk chords of Andorra, an anti-war song written by activist Malvina Reynolds in 1962, after learning about the military budget of the small Pyrenean principality : 300 pesetas (€ 1.8). I also "I want to go to Andorra. ” At least once a year.
* This article is published in issue 81 of the February Condé Nast Traveler magazine. This number is available in its digital version for iPad in the iTunes AppStore, and in the digital version for PC, Mac, Smartphone and iPad in the Zinio virtual kiosk (on Smartphone devices: Android, PC / Mac, Win8, WebOS, Rim, iPad). In addition, you can find us on Google Play Newsstand.
- Andorra, fashion below zero
- Andorra on all fours (that is, on horseback)
- Andorra without skis in seven steps
- Andorra in cut-out toy
- The seven villages wonders of Andorra
- 33 things to do in Andorra
Andorra: Memories in the snow © Andorra.indd