Quote of the day: My splitboard? The cheapest one. Every split board sucks, so don't spend too much money on them' - Colin Dorignac
It is only a half-hour drive from Saint-Lary to Piau Engaly. You climb from 860 meters to an altitude of 1860 meters (yes, that’s almost 1000 meters vertical). When arriving at an altitude of 1860 meters, it appears that you’ve arrived at the end of the world. Piau Engaly can serve as a decor for any science fiction film. The buildings look like they can wake up from their winter sleep and fly back to the planet they come from every moment. And that just might happen in summer. But hey, today we are the jedi's who are going to explore this area.
While we change into skiing gear at the car (and see people wondering why there are two surfboards in the boot while Morris hangs his wetsuit to dry), I get a phone call from Manu (No, this is another Manu. Three days, three different Manu's), who tells us that Colin is waiting for us. Colin is a saissonnier who’s originally from Bordeaux. He lost his heart to Piau Engaly years ago and he never left. This colorful local is the ideal guide to showcase the possibilities in Piau. He rides the hard and icy slopes of the resort like an alpine racer. At each lift he greets the liftie and every local gets a hug. This is France at its best. Colin tells us about the Derby des Pyrénées, a Chinese downhill in Piau Engaly. "A great event where Piau's entire vibe comes together." Asking if he’d compete once, he answered: "I've won the last two times."
Piau Engaly is a serious ski area. Due to its location, it gets more snow than in most other areas of the Pyrenees. The terrain is steep with many north facing slopes. They therefore have more than 90 points in the area where avalanches can be triggered. The lift system is really efficient. In fact, you can reach most of the area with just one chairlift that goes from the village to the highest point of the ski area (2528 meters).
From here, it is only a short walk to the Pic de Piau (2696 meters). From this point you can ride the Vallée de la Gela. This is a serious run with a few no-fall zones on a traverse. More laid back is the valley on the other side. There are some nice bowls in the Vallée du Badet that will bring you back to the ski area.
You can have lunch in Piau Engaly at the 'front de neige'. We lunch at Edelweiss and have a cheese fondue for only € 13,00 per person. That's value for money. In the afternoon, La Cueva del Diablo is the place to be. That's easy in such a small village. There aren’t many more places to go.
Piau Engaly is not just for the real experts. Beginning freeriders can find great terrain in Piau Engaly as well. There are four zones in the ski area where you can make your first powder turns. The most special point in the ski area is the chairlift Hourc. When you pass it, you honestly think this lift is no longer in use for at least ten years or so. But that’s not the case. Although the lift is already 50 years old, it passes the safety test every season, and this year it has been open for a month. "And for a reason," says Colin. "This lift opens when there’s enough snow and you’ll find the best treeruns of Piau here. The lift is old but it delivers."
It’s great to see how they manage the ski area in Piau Engaly. Plenty of facilities and high speed chairlifts for some more demanding tourists, but with the heart in the right place to guard the soul of the sport. Colin's comment puts everything in the right perspective. On the question of whether he sometimes uses a split board to reach the surrounding peaks he answers that he rather does not ride a splitboard, but sometimes he just doesn’t have another option. "So I bought the cheapest because they are all worthless."
Three days in the Pyrenees flew by. Time to go back to ocean again. We check the surf and it’s looking good. And so the choice is to drive home tomorrow or make a quick stop at the beach. Up to Hossegor!