After several disappointing experiences at Bonascre (Ax-les-Thermes, Ariege) over recent seasons I have been reluctant to return. Mostly I recall very mushy conditions at the base. But given that my skiing is usually done as a day excursion from Toulouse, and Ax-Bonascre is now only 1h30 away on the A66 to Pamiers, a return was overdue.
In its defence, I should say that my negative impression of Ax is more related to poor snow and bad choice of day than anything else. Though there is also the bottleneck of the small 6-place telecabine to get up to the Domaine du Saquet from which most pistes emanate. (A consideration: the maximum weight posted in these cabins is 6x75kg. I hope this is a considerable underestimate of the real limit.)
My last visit to Bonascre was to break-in a pair of Garmont randonee boots (review to come) I had recently purchased from Telemark Pyrenees based in Ax-les-Thermes. This time the only prior requirement was enough snow. According to Meteo France falls were expected both on 28th and 30th Dec, so excursions were planned for both days. Arriving on Sunday I was impressed to see the new telecabine - rather ordinarily named “Ax-Bonascre” - that ascends from the Ax-les-Thermes town in the valley (720m) up to the Bonascre ski station (1400m). The buildings are well-designed and the cabins fast and comfortable - much preferred to the 8km drive up to the base station. In particular this link avoids the drive back down to Ax, being passed as usual on corners by drivers who seem to have an immortals faith in their braking ability. By riding this telecabine the aggregate driving time from Toulouse is reduced to 1h15. Just one issue is that the available parking is relatively limited and spread around the town.
This new lift arrives above the larger car and coach park at Bonascre with a short, and conveniently level, walk across to the bottom of the lower slopes. On the Sunday a strong wind was evident, even at this altitude and with the shelter of the 10-storey appartment blocks. But promisingly around 80% of the lifts and pistes were marked as open, and there were no queues to ascend the first Bonascre cabine up to 1800m. However, at the top we found that the wind was even stronger, and the driving snow made masks obligatory. (Poor organisation meant that we had only 2 between the three of us.) The wind had closed the L’Ours telesiege ascending to 2300m. (This same telesiege re-ascends in the opposite direction to return skiers to the top of the telecabine, and use of this short link was still permitted.) Fortunately the nearby 6-seater lift was open to the same summit. All this new snow had re-covered the upper pistes, though clearly the wind had scoured back to hard-pack the exposed areas above the treeline. We got back to 1800m and then decided to continue on down to seek protection within the forested zone.
The second trip on Tuesday followed a similar pattern, though now only the lifts in the Domaine de Bonascre were open. Given the reduced access, prices for the lift pass were sensibly reduced. No wind in the station meant that the starting conditions were more pleasant, and if anything the wind at 1800m was weaker then 2 days previously. Somewhat surprising, then, that we were so confined. We found a group of 3 randonee skiers who had actually descended through the forest and spotted others skinning up. Mainly it was a good day for families and children (ie. us) in the lower slopes, by now covered with ample snow more than compensating for the mid-December thaw.