I meet Marc, one of the guides at their brand new offices, located at the Ski School build- ing of the ski resort. He’s a skinny but strong-looking man who is serious about planning the outing that we have scheduled for the next two days, and preparing and organizing every detail of the equipment we are bringing. While we get acquainted, we talk about the equipment I have with me, such as the backpack filled with camera gear. He fits me with light Dynafit boots and a pair of Dynafit skis that have a Carbon Fiber layer, making them strong downhill skis and, at 1 kg. per ski, very light and ideal for uphill touring. My first thought is skepticism of the value such lightweight equipment will bring, in comparison to my regular downhill skis and boots.
But I am proven wrong not long after the first steps into the Andorran wild. Marc adjusts my skis and we make sure the skins fit on the skis and into my backpack. We also make sure my beacon, an emergency item to locate and rescue skiers or mountaineers buried in an avalanche, works and that we have all the safety equipment needed. Even though some avalanches have been reported, the conditions are better than foreseen. Better weather and better snow conditions mean that Marc has decided to take us to a more challenging route near the French border, which includes an overnight stay at a recently renovated hut, the Refugio Borda de Sorteny. Both days include an average ascent of 1000 meters over 5 km. of touring. My previous experience has taken me to the Chilean Andes and into the Canadian backcountry but I am a little nervous about the unknown terrain as well as the length of the hike.
Marc and Daniel, a good friend and second guide, pick me up from my downtown hotel early the next morning. In a short half-hour drive, we have left behind the city of Andorra la Vel- la and arrive in a deserted valley called Ransol. The tips of the mountains are lit up, but the sun has not touched the surface of the valley yet, making for a very icy and cold snow surface. After getting our boots on and skins on the skis, we set off, upward and across the beautiful valley that is full of snowy, white waves that cover everything except a few rocks and trees. Once the sun reaches us, we quickly start shedding layers of clothes, and take advantage of each stop to re-energize with water and Power Bars. Daniel gives me a few hints to find my hiking rhythm, since I am out of breath after just a few steps. Once I find it, my breath deepens. The secret is taking smaller steps and slowing down, now I can continue the ascent without having to stop. An hour into the hike, the valley opens up into a bowl, with the peaks of La Serrera to one side and La Cabaneta to the other. Here, I imagine my grandfather touring up a similar hill to reach the French border. A photograph of him sitting in deep snow with his full pack on his back is etched in my mind. Instead of our technically advanced equipment, like carbon-fiber skis, boots with hiking mode, and jackets made from breathable materials, he had leather ski boots, long wooden skis, and a big, bulky woolen jacket: a real mountain man. On the north face of La Cabaneta Marc points out four mountain goats, locally called “Isards”, that are making their way down to greener pastures. We zig-zag up a steep couloir and finally arrive at a ridge just shy of the top of La Serrera. At this point, I can feel my muscles burning and my lungs pumping, and decide to opt for a rest to prepare myself for the downhill section on the other side.
While resting, we chat with fellow Andorran tourer, Xavier Bertrand, a local firefighter who has just skinned up with his dog Brac. Happy to be out in the wide-open, snowy mountains, Brac runs down the hill, flying after snowballs he himself has loosened up and then runs back up to beg for some of our snacks. He even poses for my camera and says goodbye as he runs after Xavier, who has switched to skiing mode and is heading down the trail we just climbed.
To get ready for our descent, Marc, Daniel and I take the skins off our skis, switch our bindings, buckle our boots, put on our heavier layers, and discuss the line we will ski down so we stay away from any harm that rocks or avalanches might cause. Marc takes the lead and heads down the steep, south-facing slope that includes some changing snow conditions that make for a few slide-and-stop motions, but is also a real treat of fresh powder where we glide over some bumps and in between large rock formations. All we can see is white mountains and val- leys in front of us. As we descend to tree level, we ski through the woods and over creeks for a final long, straight line, soon arriving at our overnight home, the refinished hut of Sorteny, which is managed by Carmen and Nerea, two local friends. They greet us on the outside deck, sunning during their “sobre mesa.” We chat and enjoy the afternoon light warming us and hitting the sur- rounding mountain tops. Their house pet, a big wolf-like dog, is lying on the roof, surveying the coming and going of the guests. People who have hiked up for the day, with snowshoes and skis, leave shortly after and we are left as the sole guests of the hut with the choice to pick from the 5 rooms and 30-something bunk beds to call ours for the night. Carmen sets us up for dinner with the help of chef Oriol, a local chef who travels from the closest town to prepare delicious lunches and dinners. For dinner, we are joined by two groups of guests who hike up an hour from the road to enjoy a well-earned dinner before hiking back down in the darkness of night, only illuminated by the light of the stars and moon bouncing off the snowy surrounding mountains.
The morning comes with new energy and we ski down just a few hundred meters to switch to touring mode and ascend the valley of Estanyu, which is the view opening in front of the hut. After three hours of switching back and forth in a zig-zag formation, we arrive at a crest that I first believe to be the top of the mountain. But to my dismay, Daniel and Marc start putting on crampons, spikes for snow and ice that go over ski and climbing boots, to help us climb the steep face that is left before getting to the top of our climb. I wonder if Alexander would have chosen an easier route? Maybe he would send me a sign, telling me to give up, turn around, and save myself? Or maybe not? Minutes later, with our skis attached to our packs and roped to Marc, I set one foot in front of the other, stomping deep into the snowpack to make sure not to slip. The effort of the climb is rewarded with a breathtaking view of the eastern mountain range of Andorra and beyond, with Mount Casamanya to the left and the ski resort of Pals in the distance to the right. A quick stop allows me to take in the views, recuperate from the climb, and reenergize with water and food before heading toward the ridge where we will ski down the western face of Mount Casamanya. An avalanche debris field from the previous day reminds us that it is never a good idea to underestimate Mother Nature, and, so, we carefully ski past it as fast as we can, without any unnecessary stops. The adrenaline still pumping high, we return to civilization, passing a farm house, a hut, and a dirt road; finally, we stop next to a small stone bridge on the side of the road.
I turn around, looking uphill, and can hardly contain my joy of having skied down about 600 vertical meters (desnivel) on virgin snow on a bluebird day in a country that means so much to me.