Peio Gaillard: Sentinel of the Pyrenees

In the first edition of La Sentinelle Bruno and Minna were counting on the advice and support of this relentless scaler of the Pyrenees. Ambassador from the outset, Peio has agreed to share some of the beauty of his region in words and photos.

Peio Gaillard


Black crows: where do you live in winter and what is your main activity?

Peio:Now I live all-year-round in the plains of Nay at the base of a remote little valley called Ouzom valley. This is a really nice base camp for me as it’s easy to reach the valleys of Hautes-Pyrénées and Pyrénées-Atlantiques. I worked as a patroller and mid-mountain guide for many years. Now I am lucky enough to spend all year in the mountains just for the pleasure of it. I work in photography and on guide books for magazines and associations. Alongside that I work with the young people from the area on projects relating to getting to know nature and the mountain environment.

Black crows: Can you tell us more about your role as an educator-mentor?

Peio:This role consists of mobilising young people from the area and working with them on topics such as climate change (Spitzburg project), deforestation in the Sahel regions (Northern Mali), irrigation problems in the Maghreb (Morocco) as well as things linked to sport (introduction to action sports, mountaineering initiation (Ascents of Mont Blanc and Toubkal in Morocco)). All these projects have allowed me to travel quite a bit and share some wonderful moments with youngsters who were never exactly destined to find themselves on an Arctic ice shelf or in the Sahel..

Black crows: What’s your scope of activity from your base camp?

Peio:I ski quite a bit in the Ossau valley, somewhere I’ve been quite attached to since I was a kid. This valley has some great spots towards the plains as well as deep in the range. Nowadays I love to move around as much as possible with good friends and find the best snow conditions. We are free and easy to adapt to the fronts. This is the advantage of the Pyrenees; you can easily reach the east or the west of the range. Spain is also close by so it’s easy to nip across and visit our Spanish friends, share some tracks and end the day with some tapas and local beers.

Peio Gaillard

<Black crows: How would you describe skiing in the Pyrenees? How does it compare to other mountains that you’ve seen across the globe?

Peio:Describe skiing in the Pyrenees? I shouldn’t go on too much about this otherwise we’ll have the whole of the Alps coming down here. No, seriously, the Pyrenees has a huge playing field to offer. It’s quite wild, authentic skiing and if you think a little bit you can get to some wonderful spots on a daily basis. The terrain is varied with lovely grassy slopes above the plains perfect for leisurely skiing and really nice north faces in the heart of the range that provide good tours. When you go over to the other side of the border there’s a really different landscape, a bit more arid but also offering some superb alternatives. People often consider the Pyrenees as a secondary zone with difficult snow conditions…But when I take stock of my season every year I realise that the multitude of different options the Pyrenees provides makes our range really special for good skiing…I’ve been lucky enough to travel quite a lot while skiing and I am still just as happy to come back to our area because it is so unique and authentic…
I’d find it hard to compare the Pyrenees to another range. On the other hand, these are mountains where human presence is really important, the shepherds, refuge custodians and the people who still work the land here- I think they are the people who make our place appealing and unique. You find this notion of “mountain folk” in many places like the Lesser Caucasus in Georgia, on the Kaçkar range in Turkey, in the Moroccan Atlas or even in Crete where we had the good fortune to spend some time with local herders…For me, they are the people who make skiing in these regions special…For me skiing is a great basis for coming into contact with the people who make the mountain.

Black crows: What area would suggest for a ski tourer who wants to explore the Pyrenees?

Peio:I’d say the Ossau valley and more precisely Haut Ossau. If they are a nice enough person, I’d maybe even show them round my secret garden on the faces of the north side of the pic du midi d’Ossau…but only if they are really nice…

Black crows: How have snowfall levels and conditions changed in recent years?

Peio:I only really ski tour, which doesn’t exactly make for an objective analysis. When you are ski mountaineering you are constantly looking for the slopes with the best snow to ski…So to be honest, we’ve been able to make the most with a good deal of success… I can’t say that we’ve had a bad season in recent years. When I look at last season for example, I realise that we really had a great time throughout the whole winter! I do know that resorts like Cauterets have seen record snowfall with snow depths of nearly 6m in 2013…

Peio Gaillard

Black crows: What did you think of the first edition of La Sentinelle?

Peio:When Bruno contacted me about this idea running round his head, I immediately signed myself up. In a society where everything is linked to competition and performance, what a joy to imagine that skiers coming from all over would be willing to gather around the single idea of sharing a “journey” in the heart of a massif. Bruno is someone who a lot of ski mountaineers identify with because he symbolises the “mountain spirit”. I think that all the guys at La Sentinelle were on exactly the same page, really happy to find themselves at such a gathering. The weather was sketchy for this first edition but in the end, as is often he case in the Pyrenees, the participants earned the right to their dream day.

Black crows: How was the route selected?

Peio:At first after having discussed it with Minna and Bruno I devised a really demanding route straddling France and Spain- a really nice itinerary that would take us right through the Gavarnie cirque. We thought about an itinerary that would prioritise the ascent as much as the descent, a “mountaineering-style” course in the Sentinelle spirit. The mountain decided otherwise though, putting down a big “paillat” of snow on D-Day. A nice backup route had to be set so that everyone could explore the zone safely.

Black crows: What role do photos take in your life as a skier today?

Peio:I take a lot of pleasure in taking skiing photos. It’s an approach that I really enjoy because it requires a real understanding with the rider you are shooting. Today it’s hard for me to imagine an outing without my camera…The guys who come with me show great patience and now understand what kinds of situations I am looking for.

Black crows: You’ve been an ambassador for a long time, how do you rate the evolution of the black crows range, what impact has it had on the progression of this discipline?

Peio:I’ve been skiing on black crows for 9 years. Back then the range was a lot more limited. I was riding on the Orb for touring and the skiers I met in the Pyrenees couldn’t believe it when they saw me with 90 underfoot…I followed the development of the brand, benefitting from having new toys to play with each season. The arrival of the Navis Freebird brought a really versatile ski that, for me, is excellent in all conditions. Now I must admit that my most trusty companion for the last three years is an Atris drilled with Plum, which is the nicest ski I was ever given to ride. I find this ski really playful and reliable in all conditions! I use it on a daily basis for climbs of almost 2000m.

Black crows: Do you have a recipe from your area? Bruno talks about garbure, is that nice?

Peio:You poor thing, of course that’s good! It’s a soup eaten by all proper Pyrenean families. It’s a cabbage soup base, potatoes, tarbais beans and confit de canard and ham hock…The special thing about garbure is that it gets better when you keep simmering it for some days!
Knowing Bruno, I’m sure he mentioned the garbure as well as Chabrot, when you finish your meal you pour some red wine onto your plate to finish your soup…Now that’s the Pyrenees!

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