La Sentinelle

Bruno Compagnet tells us all about La Sentinelle, the pagan festival of big mountain skiing co-organized with Minna Riihimaki, after the first edition was held in Gavarnie in Haute-Pyrénées.

I turn off the engine, open the van door and hop out to finally stretch my legs after ten hours or so on the road. The air is surprisingly cold for the start of spring.

Higher up on the mountain, winter has been well preserved. The Gavarnie cirque doesn’t just dominate its namesake little village but seems to be crushing it; the high walls are so close and loaded with snow that it looks ready to swallow it up. The Swan couloir fixes my gaze and whets my appetite…There’s still that little rappel at the bottom…To live here is to live with the mountain. Its presence is so penetrating that most villagers don’t even feel the need to go and walk around it.

With a dry, wooden clack, a cat has just been dispatched by a closing door. It lands in a pile of snow- not happy at all-and with a shake of its paws, it slopes off to join its peers who, for the moment, appear to best represent the population of the village. Thor says that it reminds him of La Grave and I seem to remember pointing out that there was an obsolete telecabine missing and that the capital of Oisans would seem like a seaside resort with kicking nightlife next to this hamlet nestled at the end of a cockeyed valley of the Pyrenees.

The only way to access these dream-worthy faces is on foot, and skins or bootpacking for the couloirs and steeps. This is probably the reason why that, despite detailed, thorough examination, I can see no ski tracks. It’s no coincidence that this incredible place for high-mountain ski captured my attention. Despite the good snow cover, the ski resort has been closed for over a fortnight already. When I expressed my astonishment to the newsagent when I went to get an IGN Map top 25 Gavarnie, I got a clear and concise response.

  • “And why and for whom would it be open? There’s no one here any more, we’re not going to open just for the crows…Do you know how much it costs to run a ski resort?
  • Er…
  • “Did you come here for ski touring? Then you should watch out because it snowed half a metre in the last two days.”

Pascal Tournaire, Sentinelle17

I join the others in the little grocery store that was still open. Tourism in Gavarnie is mostly a summertime affair and for now the mountain is deserted, our impressions from the preparation week around the cirque were confirmed as, despite the good conditions, the only skiers we saw were the two custodians of the refuge de Gorriz. You are left in peace; there’s little chance of the line you have in mind being skied on the day you decide to go. Peio Gaillard, one of the most active guys on the north side, can back this up; the lines that he’s skied over the last several seasons have all been done in peace. This is one of the major advantages of these mountains.

After dumping our equipment, we headed to the home of Eric Barzu who, as well as helping up out with the organising, invites us to eat a ‘garbure’, a traditional Gascon cabbage and vegetable soup at his house in Betpouey.

Reconnaissance

11 o’clock in the morning. Parked in the partially snow-cleared parking lot of the Gavarnie ski resort, Layla and I are preparing to spot the route. There’s no more wind and the sun is shining. The air is still cold but as is normal for spring in the Pyrenees, everything can change in the blink of an eye. Nearby a group from the ‘third age’ are preparing an outing on snowshoes. It’s hard not to notice them because they are speaking loudly. My bag is heavy: as well as the 60m of rope is a hand drill, some hangers, a few friends and some pitons…This was the result of conflicting info and the necessity to prepare the itinerary properly. I also have 5 books. The idea is to leave them at the key passageways (the breche, refuges or cols) so that Sentinelles can tear a page out to validate their passage.

Warmth and emotion.

Crossing loaded slopes with a heavy bag and Layla watching from underneath me is not the most comfortable mental exercise. It’s almost worse when it’s me who is waiting for her. I feel better once we arrive at the refuge at the breche after passing the waterfalls. Before considering the next face just above the refuge, we drop off a book, and a burner and gas for the cameramen.

Crossing onto the Spanish side, we let ourselves glide on the soft, sticky snow of the High Aragon, without missing out on a little detour to the Castaret ice grotto. At the end of the afternoon, Ivan and Igor, the two custodians from the refuge de Gorriz give us a warm welcome.

Pascal Tournaire, Sentinelle17

I am really happy and reassured, the itinerary is wonderful, the balance between skiing and exertion is perfect, the landscape grandiose…I think about all the skiers who are coming from so far away and I now know that this route justifies their journey.

Returning into the valley, it warms my heart to see Minna coming to meet us on her bike. After months of not riding after a big ski accident, it really seems as though she’s living again. We quickly exchange a few bits of info: the route is great, snow conditions are top-notch, logistically, we are ready…One little downer on things is the really shitty weather forecast for the weekend. Well, what can you do? We could postpone 24 or 48 hours but that would make it really tricky for the cameramen.

Time and weather.

Time passes by, punctuated with the pleasure of reunions and meeting new people. Delphine and Christophe who are looking after our base camp- Oxygène gîte- are expert hosts. The Sentinelles hold discussions in the large living room serving as the event’s headquarters and the place has a delightful buzz. The Italians provide some atmosphere and no one seems stressed about the changeable weather they’ll have to deal with.

After lengthy checks on the forecasting sites as well as loads of calls to one of Peio’s friends who works for Meteo France, we decide to postpone the start until Sunday morning. This makes it tricky for the cameramen who have busy schedules and this upsets the programme. But everyone knows about the whims of the weather, something beyond our control.

A breach in space-time

3:45am, I’m walking in about 15cm of fresh snow, half-asleep and a little bit bewildered by the forecast predicting cloud cover with nice sunny spells in the afternoon and fine weather on the Spanish side…In other words, we should have been able to give the go ahead. I push open the door to the gîte, everyone is around the breakfast table.

Pascal Tournaire, Sentinelle17

The decision was quickly made. After years in the mountains with Minna, we don’t need many words before we agree. With what’s coming down it’s impossible to begin in the night and we decide to delay until 6:00am.

Paulo, Damian and Didier will go up to the resort to take a look…On Paulo’s request, the guide Capa also joins them, but the Italians work as one so the whole delegation goes on the reconnaissance mission.

7:30am: not good news: wind and bad visibility, we cancel the day until the next with its good weather forecast. This is a tough decision as we know that some of us cannot stay.

9:00am: we drive up to the ski area for a little excursion in the storm just to get some air and ski between the windslabs.

 

Council of War.

In the evening we link up with Minna and the guides to prepare for the following day. The new snowfall and wind have changed things up significantly. Despite predictions of bluebird skies, Paulo and Damien think it would be a good idea to change the route. Two exposed passages, the waterfalls then the slopes above the breche refuge have them erring on a less ambitious, safer itinerary that’s just as nice. Deep down I say to myself that we can maybe give it a go…but I don’t push it. I know they are right. It would be terrible if a participant got caught out in the very first edition…Or any of the rest for that matter…

The day.

I’m walking alone in Gavarnie under a vault of stars twinkling in the cold air. Layla is finishing off her preparations in the van. I could have done with a few more hours’ sleep but today is the day and when I push the gîte door open the energy immediately dispels my fatigue. Delphine is floating around the long tables, filling up black coffee, reloading plates with crepes, bread and jam. Some people are already outside sticking their skins and putting their skis on their backpacks using just the light from their head torches.

Minna hands out the electronic tags so that we don’t lose anyone on the unmarked trail. At the designated time, I blow into a shell (that I found about twenty years ago on a deserted beach in Mexico) and the sound, a primitive vibration from the depths of time rouses the troops and sets them in motion.

La Sentinelle is off. I join up with the peleton to take on the ascent to the refuge des Espuguettes…The pace is decent but still allows for conversation. I smile as I look up at the snake of light stretching between the long switchbacks of the path.

Layla Jean Kerley

Around 7am the sun hits the top of the highest peaks. The snow that fell the day before is cold. We couldn’t have asked for better conditions. I feel right at the centre of this group of friends, some of whom were strangers until just recently. I’d already had some powerful moments in the mountains with quite a few of them so I felt quite a lot of pressure on me to make this event a success. Also because with Minna and all the people involved, we wanted to create something that resembled how we live in the mountains or when we travel. This morning, the area’s true beauty would be revealed in all its glory and I took special pleasure in witnessing the faces of people seeing the Gavarnie range for the first time.

Didier breaks the trail of ascent with the leaders. The angle of attack and rhythm are good…There would be a lot to learn about the art of trail breaking, general discussions and a whole load of little technical points that these ski mountaineers have developed in competitions.

Big faces, ridgelines, skiing for fun, alone or in a gang but always with the feeling that you’ve shared a great day’s skiing with others. The different choices of aspect and terrain gave each person the opportunity to express themselves in their skiing. The different snow types but, most of all, modernisation of touring skis allowed us all to lay down some great turns. The effort put into the ascent started to take on its true meaning. I watch as Thor, my friend from Tromso, crosses the border from France in to Spain on skis at the col de Tucquerouille. That will make a good story to tell his grandchildren…As always in this sport, the question of balance is at the centre of our discipline…The relationship between the effort of going up and the pleasure of the skiing down, balanced on the snow.  Everyone has their fair share of memorable moments and as we pass the last col and head down to Gavarnie, all I can see is smiles. It seems like a long time ago that the Italians were seen as the sole guarantors of merriment and high spirits

Layla Jean Kerley

But I do always wince as I think back to Patrick’s injury, a smashed ankle just 200m before taking his skis off…Nostrils pinched and face white, I can still see him accepting his misfortune as he turns around to see if the others are following. A moment’s lapse of concentration and he crashes into that fucking compact ball of snow causing a pretty bad ligament tear and some other little issues. He is solid though and he even had the strength to smile and reassure us that everything was OK, no need for a helicopter. A guy capable of killing a wild boar with a bow and arrow doesn’t give up that easily.

At the end of the path, the sunny terrace of a bar on the other side of the stream waited to serve us the pint we were all dreaming of…We cross the river in bare feet to finally quench our thirst and celebrate the day. Later on, Minna joins us on her bike to tell us that Julian has lit the BBQ. Lamb chops await us and we all pass the finish line together. Moo and Carlsberg were very generous with their supplies! Gathered around a fire as the sun goes down, everyone empties their beers as the day gets retold from all different perspectives before the food prepared by our friends moves me beyond words…

I sincerely thank Minna for all the work she has done. I also thank Layla who, as well as being the only girl at the start line, had done the course twice and supported me in all senses of the term for some years now…

Completion

Autonomous high-mountain skiing is an extremely enriching experience that extends far beyond leisure or escapism. The development of this discipline came about naturally and it’s this type of experience combined with a desire to explore new mountains that led me to create La Sentinelle. Bringing together passionate members of a community around a wonderful mountain course, which is both technical and physical, was also a challenge that we wanted to assume with Minna and Layla. Performance is no longer translated in terms of times or rankings but in the completion of the course. It’s really been wonderful to be able to share that with friends and with people I’ve just met, who, after several hours of effort and wonderment, have become just as close as family.

Of course, sometimes it’s hard to wake up at three in the morning, take on the cold, fatigue and sometimes suffering, but there’s also the delights of having a great adventure and the pleasure of skiing some good snow together in a wild, natural setting.

So, we’ll see you next year.

 

Chamonix, May 7th 2017

Layla Jean Kerley

A big thanks to our partners:

Norrona
Black Crows
Petzl
Gore Tex
Moo bar (Calsberg)
Sueme
Marie de Gavarnie
OT de Gavarnie

As well as Caroline Gonin, Peio, Paulo, Eric, Oli and Julian.

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