It has been a subject of fierce debate in the Pyrenean ski resorts of la Mongie and Barèges for the last few years between local freeriders, guides and politicians. Should the restrictions on riding the Pic du Midi be lifted? Despite rumours of a relaxation in the rules only skiers or snowboarders accompanied by a guide have been able to use the cable car and descend the vertiginous slopes.
Snowboarder under the Pic du Midi cable car
Towering over 2000 vertical meters above the plateau de Lannemezan the Pic du Midi de Bigorre is an emblem for the Pyrenees massif. The mountain is home to a century old observatory but at the end of the 1990s the costs of running the cable car link between the summit and ski resort of la Mongie were proving prohibitive. Local mountain guides and the council decided to develop the site as a tourist destination with museum, restaurant and the possibility of skiing the peak, previously the reserve of ski mountaineers. Before opening access to the summit, the town council made fact finding missions to la Grave and Chamonix and spoke with legal experts. In the end they felt that the Pyrenees did not have a well developed ”freeride culture” and decided to restrict ski access to groups accompanied by a guide or suitably qualified ski instructor. A decision that has long grated with local off-piste enthusiasts.
A local by-law has just been passed by the Mayors of Sers and Bagnères, Jean-Louis Noguère and Rolland Castells setting out the modalities for opening the Pic to a wider public. The only restriction will be to under 18s who are not accompanied by a legal guardian. The resort is worried that “young kamikazes” will be tempted by some of the more extreme routes, such as the Couloir du Poubelle which ends in a 50 meter cliff face. Echoing the words of JF Lamour, the government minister in charge of skiing M. Castells says there is a world of difference between an expert resort skier and an expert all mountain skier. The Pic du Midi is an extreme ski area with the difficulty of judging snow and weather conditions and sometimes complex route finding.
Warnings on the Pic du Midi
The resort is hoping that information, available in Spanish and English to cater for a growing international presence as well as French will inform skiers of the risks and perils. At the ticket office riders will be given a booklet explaining the dangers of skiing or snowboarding outside of marked and secured ski runs and the necessity of carrying an avalanche search and rescue gear as well as a belay rope, crampons and ice-axe. Only after having read the booklet will a skier be allowed to sign a waiver indicating that he will be entering a high mountain zone and skiing at his own risk. The two mayors and head of piste security hope this will avoid any legal action in the event of an accident. La Grave was sued successfully by the mother of a snowboarder who skied over cliffs. In that case the court found that although la Grave was an off-piste domain the fact that a lift operated and accepted skiers put an security obligation on the mayor. Our legal expert believes that the legal waiver will be taken into account by the courts. Skiers will be reminded of the dangers by sign posting at the ski lift stations. After autumn maintenance the Pic du Midi is scheduled to reopen on the 8th of December.