Houston, we got a problem
Despite lack of snow, the 2nd Edition of the Rendez-vous des Etoiles was a fun event which enabled us to learn more about the fascinating Pic du Midi and watch some of France’s best riders.
The Pic du Midi may not be the highest summit in the Pyrenees but it is certainly one of the most impressive. Approached from the North the peak is stunning, rising 2847 meters straight out of the plain.
We were here for the 2nd edition of the Rendez-vous des Etoiles. 53 weeks earlier the first event had been held under blue skies with incredible snow. It had already been possible to ski down to Artigue valley, something almost unheard of. The snow fell in such quantities last season that it would cause problems for the resort during the February school holiday period. This year was quite different. The weather patterns were coming from the south giving excellent skiing conditions on the Spanish side of the frontier but snow drought to the north. Friday saw rain over much of France and everyone involved waited anxiously for much needed snow.
The theme of the event was to mix mariners with free-ride skiers and boarders. Riders of the snow and waves as the press pack told it. We didn’t really understand the concept but put this down to our practical anglo-saxon routes. We could see that sailors would be interested in the star gazing opportunitues offered by a night in Europe’s best observatory but we had difficulty envisaging a meeting of minds between experienced and mature seamen and a bunch of shaggy haired pro-riders barely out of nappies.
Of the sailors we recognised the Berque twins with their flowing blond locks, these boys stand out in any crowd. They had recently sailed from France to Gaudelope in a 300kg wooden outrigger canoe that they’d built themselves. No mean feat, plus they had navigated without any instruments using their intimate knowledge of the oceans. The could probably teach the astronomers of the Vaisseau des Etoiles (starship) as the Pic du Midi observatory is called, a thing or three.
Olivier Guyonneau, the Pic’s marketing director told us a little about the history of the observatory. From the cable car we could see two other refuges. One by the lac Oncet, a ruin. Originally astronomers would live in those buildings and climb to the peak to make their observations. The observatory was built in 1868 and has a long and illustrious history. In 1963 Nasa commisioned it to make detailed Luna maps for the Appollo landings. However times changed and land based astronomy moved to the high mountains of Hawaii and the Canary Islands. In 1992 State funding ended and the peak was abandonned and there the story would have ended if it were not for local enthusiasts who saw a touristic potential for the location.
With a new cable car built in 1999 and astronomy more focussed on the potential offered by the mountains, they are world leaders on solar observations, things were back on a surer footing.
So to action, first stop was the intermediate station where the pro-riders were presented and descended from a small summit down a bowl or along a ridge to the road below. There was around 10 cm of fresh, already turning crusty in places under the sun. No the easiest conditions. We took some photos then hopped into the cable car to the observatory. The riders had to climb back up on foot. Not enough snow to ski to the valley on these slopes.
At the summit we took a look at the famous Poubelle - couloir Nord as it has been renamed for marketing purposes. This 800 meter chute is inclined at around 40 degrees, 45 in places. It ends in a 15 meter rock face. With the right snow the best riders can jump this, otherwise it is a rappel with harnesses and ropes. It looked skiable, the organisers had pushed snow into the couloir from the terrace. Bruno Compagnat, tossed a block of ice onto the slope. It bounced off and skittered down to the valley below. Too hard, no point killing yourself for a couple of photos, plus there was a whole season to look forward to.
Franck Bernes-Heuga finds some skiable snow
Instead Franck Bernes-Heuga, from team Zag amused us with a few jumps off the roof. The noise woke some sleepy astronomers who grumpily told us to go elsewhere. So somewhere else Margot Roisez showed how to ride down a narrow wooden rail on her board and we also watched a snow-skate demo. A snow-skate is a skateboard with the wheels replaced by a single pivoted ski. They looked like excellent fun.
Margot Roisez on the balance bar
Finally it was time to ride down from the peak to the Col du Tourmalet. Before leaving Bruno spoke with journalists and highlighted the safety aspect, it is not sufficient to have an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe. A good knowledge of backcountry conditions and travel is a must. We met the riders at the bottom, not ideal conditions, at one point they’d had little more than a ribbon of snow to ski over.
Despite the conditions the pistes that were open in the resoft of La Mongie and Bareges were well prepared and pleasant. In the evening the riders did some stunts on a floodlit piste in the resort before finishing in the Brummel for a party.
It must nerve wracking to organise events this early in the season but Marie-Laure and Bernard gave us a warm welcome and did well to work around the conditions. We hope for more snow next year.
additional reporting IanG