It is a sport typically associated with the frozen wilds of British Columbia or Alaska, but FT travel editor Tom Robbins discovers world-class heli-skiing 100 miles from Barcelona in the Val d'Aran in the Pyrenees.
Filmed by Tom Robbins. Produced and edited by Josh de la Mare.
You work with the BBC?
No, Financial Times.
Ah, Financial Times.
Skiers are always looking to get away from each other. The best descents are those on untouched snow with no one else around. I've come to just such a spot, the Val d'Aran, a semi-autonomous region on the northern slope of the Spanish Pyrenees.
At the far end of the valley is a popular ski resort, Baqueira-Beret. Less well known is that you can go heli-skiing here, using the helicopter to access a vast area of wild peaks and virgin slopes. In other European countries, heli-skiing typically means you take a single trip in the helicopter to reach a permitted landing spot and spend as long as you can skiing down.
We're in Spain in the Spanish Pyrenees, and it's unique in Europe because 400 square kilometres is all owned by the local commune, and they permit heli-skiing wherever the guide wants. So you can drop off at the top of any mountain you want, ski down wherever you want, and be picked up again. So you can do a sort of skiing loop of the kind that you normally would only find in British Columbia or Alaska.
The season typically lasts from January until early April. I was there at the end of last winter.
Nice turns in there. Heli-skiing's heartland is British Columbia and Canada, but this is a surprisingly good place to try it the first time. It's ideal for a weekend. You can spend one day heli-skiing, one day skiing at the resort, and there's plenty of rolling terrain suitable for any confident skier. Woohoo.
Better still, when you've finished skiing, you can head for some fabulous tapas in one of the ancient villages that dot the valley floor. The other thing that's becoming increasingly popular here is heli-touring, and that's where you get taken up in the helicopter, dropped off, and then use climbing skins on the bottom of your skis to go further out into the back country and ski on for the rest of the day. And to do that so close to Toulouse, Barcelona, is quite amazing.
I have a lot of clients that wants to do heli-touring because it's very easy.
Ski touring is all about experiencing the peace of the high mountains, getting into a rhythm as you climb, which becomes almost like meditation.
So we've just finished a tour climbing uphill about 500 metres, and now the clouds are coming in, so we've got to quickly descend to the ski resort before we get caught in a whiteout.
We made it, got to the resort just in time. On the final afternoon, we swap Skidoos to visit an abandoned hamlet to the north of the resort. Once an important stop for traders, today nothing remains except the 16th century monastery and the refuge beside it. By the fire, Sergi, our guide, showed us the local way to eat bread and tomatoes before we ate steak cooked on the open fire, and idyllic way to end a truly unusual ski weekend.