Skiing in the Picos D’ Europa
Whist the Alps and Scotland have been battered by endless storms and unprecedented snowfall this winter, I headed to Spain to the Picos D’ Europa with a couple of friends in search of some stable conditions and a slightly less schizophrenic snowpack. It was the first time in a decade that I’d been to this remote mountain range on the edge of Spanish Basque country. One of the last wildernesses left in Europe, bears and even wolves remain there, protected by the complex and inaccessible limestone towers and walls that dominate the range. Things hadn’t changed much in the intervening years since my last visit, which wasn’t surprising, as not much has changed in the Picos for the last 400 years.
The Picos can have a truly hefty snowpack by springtime due to its favorable maritime position catching the storms rolling in from the Atlantic. From the summits of many of its peaks the ocean often dominates the horizon. But in late January this year the pickings were slender on our arrival. Valley temperatures were up into the mid-teens each afternoon allowing us to have our post ski tapas and cold cerveza outside on the terrace, fun, but not quite right. The valley smelt of April not January as recent heavy rainfall had washed away our hopes of gladed tree skiing, and stripped out all the low laying snow. The goods were up high and hard to get too.
With the snowpack in a full spring freeze / thaw cycle, snow stability couldn’t have been better and this allowed us to push into bigger terrain and more consequential lines that the Picos has its’ fair share off. The whole region is crossed with complex network of 4WD dirt tracks that meander steeply through the scrub forests up to 1800 metres, that in past generations afforded access to remote zinc mines. Keys for a twenty year old Land Rover were provided by our guest house owner Mike Stuart, and along with his intricate local knowledge of the best backcountry ski itineraries in the region, we had our hands full for the week, linking together steep, remote and unlikely ski lines; steel hard frozen snow turning to creamy peanut butter skiing each afternoon, accessed by the old Landie.
With ski’s strapped to our backs as often as they were on our feet each day due to the sparse snow cover, a lighter ski was an obvious choice for this trip. But for me ski mountaineering has always been about the skiing and not the mountaineering. I’m loathed to travel on too light a ski. If I’m going to sweat for three hours of kick turns and booting on the up, I’ll be damned if I can’t reap the reward of fast stable carving turns on the down. For the last three seasons the Dynastar Mythic been the go to ski for like-minded skiers, gaining an almost cult like following in its devotee’s. The Mythic is a true backcountry quiver of one, and master of all with its Goldilocks proportions of size, stability and carbon fibre trimmed weight. The Picos like the Mythic is a left of field choice that rewards those willing to hunt it out.
Mike Austin is an AMGA Assistant Ski Guide. He is the co-owner of Avalanche Geeks an avalanche education company that provides courses and training for the public and mountain professionals in the European Alps & Scotland.