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Skiing in the Principality of Andorra

Andorra

It’s no surprise that in Andorra, a mountainous country surrounded by 65 peaks that reach over 2000 metres in altitude, the main focus is upwards. And it’s no surprise that Grandvalira and Vallnord are the largest ski areas in the Pyrenees, with an average flow of 99,660 skiers per hour, 110 ski lifts, 284 kilometres of pistes and over a thousand snow guns, not to mention the funitels, cable cars and other high-speed lifts… The figures are as staggering as in the Alps, for better, no doubt, but also for worse: the huge Grandvalira project, completed in 2003, went all out to achieve its goals, at times leaving deep scars on the mountains.
Andorra: a slow start
The history of skiing in Andorra began in 1952 in Pas de la Case, with the installation of a tow drag that was initially cold-shouldered by skiers. Four years later, though, the first drag lift was built in Andorra. Stretching two kilometres in length, it worked with a lorry engine and linked Grau Roig to Pas de la Case. Other resorts opened soon after: Soldeu El Tarter, Canillo Encamp…all keen to attract holidaymakers, with more or less success. In 2003, they decided to join forces, giving birth to Grandvalira, an ambitious ski area project that rivals the Tarentaise resorts for flow of skiers and standard of facilities. Today, over 1.9 million skier days are sold between December and April in Andorra!
More about Andorra skiing
Grandvalira and Vallnord* merged under the name of Ski Andorra. The Ski Andorra pass allows skiers to ride through all the principality’s resorts. The two main valleys, Grandvalira and Vallnord, cover over 3075 hectares in total, with 284 kilometres of pistes, 110 ski lifts, and, yes, you’ve read it right, 1385 snow guns, in other words almost a third of the capacity of a major resort like Alpe d’Huez! Grandvalira and Vallnord boast 177 pistes: 31 green, 61 blue, 57 red and 28 black. In terms of equipment, the resort definitely thought big: a cable car with two 50-place cabins, a 36-cabin funitel, each taking 24 people, and 5 six to eight-pack gondola lifts.

*Vallnord is the second largest ski area in Andorra, taking in the resorts of Pal-Arinsal and Ordino Arcalis.
Grandvalira: an XXL ski area
Pas de la Case, Grau Roig, Soldeu, El Tarter and Canillo joined forces in 2003 under the name of Grandvalira, putting vast resources into developing by far the largest ski area in the Pyrenees. When you arrive, you may be surprised that, despite the very large number of skiers, the pistes don’t seem crowded and the wait for a ski lift is pretty short. Why? Well, as Andorra is basically a group of resorts spread across the valley, it has several departure stations. Above all, however, the capacity of the highly effective facilities means the flow of skiers is really fast, even when it’s very busy.
This profusion of virtually Pharaonic resources has obviously disfigured the mountain by the plethora of often unnecessary ski lifts. However, in reality, skiers will find the modern, fast and comfortable, detachable chairlifts blend in relatively well overall. The signposting is visible even when it’s foggy, so it’s easy to find your way around, and most of the pistes are accessible to a very wide public. On the other hand, you’re not going to find really challenging slopes unless you’re ready to walk above the ski lifts and explore the nearby off-piste opportunities, or even further if you’re not afraid of breaking trail!
Andorra: guaranteed snow
Snow is guaranteed in Andorra for two reasons. First of all, the winters are cold, and from November, the first snowpack creates persistent ground cover. As the area is exposed to the wind, many small valleys get really good, thick powder. The eastern winds, even tempered by their passage across the sea, can leave large quantities of snow behind (over a metre). Having said that, the unsettled, Mediterranean-influenced climate may lead the metre or so of snow that fell in 24 hours to disappear completely two days later. This explains why the domain has so many snow guns, and that’s the second reason. At the start of the 2010/11 winter season, when all the other European resorts were suffering from a lack of snow, Andorra successfully rode out the shortage.
What’s good for some…!
This efficient snow management comes at a cost: just think... 1385 snow guns! Such an aggressive snow management policy is unquestionably environmentally unfriendly. Defenders of man-made snow would rightly argue that you only need air and water to make snow. That’s absolutely true. But what about the energy needed to produce the air and spread the snow, and what about the water cycle that’s driven completely out of sync? On the other hand, man-made snow can boost the local economy in an area where natural snow may sometimes be in short supply. But at what cost to the environment? Only the future can say and we shouldn’t expect too many good surprises…
Gateway to snow in 2010: an unexpected environmental victory
Given the thousands of snow guns, the cranes rising high above the new building work and the state-of-the-art funitels and chairlifts, Andorra is accused of shamelessly sacrificing nature to the white ‘gold’. This is true to some extent. However, environmentalists still have a card or two up their sleeve.
In the long-term, the Grandvalira ski area aimed to link up with the French resort of Porté-Puymorens, with eight hectares of development built around Pas de la Case. However, these plans were scuppered by environmentalist opponents of the project who invoked the French law on water. For the first time in France, a new chairlift, built in 2005, had to be dismantled. There was much gnashing of teeth as many people saw their hoped-for profits evaporating before their very eyes; the trend nowadays is towards smaller structures and soft tourism, however and the area that was earmarked for development has instead become a haven for ski touring.
As a result, the small village of Porta, which signed the agreement in 1990, is now being harassed by disappointed promoters claiming 15 million euros in damages for their investments and lost revenues…
Magnificent and little ridden off-piste potential: a real Eldorado!
The Catalans and Spanish adore carved turns on the pistes and are great fans of slalom: that means that there’s plenty of virgin white out there for you to trail blaze! Some of the small fresh snow-covered valleys that you can see from the chairlift stay perfect for several days, an exhilarating playground for French skiers looking for virgin slopes!
As the mid-altitude relief is not too challenging, it’s true that some good skiers might get jaded pretty quickly in Andorra, but on the other hand, some of the higher altitude rides can really give you a spin for your money. Of course, the snow cover needs to be good because even if the upper slopes get good coverage on most of the runs, there may be treacherous stones underneath just waiting to core shot the base of your precious skis!
The Pic del Maia at 2614 metres
The starting point is just above the Costa Rodona chairlift. After climbing for an hour, you reach the summit of the Maia peak. Apart from some of the entrances (max 25°), the descent is not too steep and you end up in some wonderful ski fields.

The Baix de Cubil
It only takes 45 minutes to climb to an altitude of 2800m, which is pretty good going. You leave from the Cubil chairlift and then climb up to the top. While it’s a pretty straightforward route, the south-facing exposure means you need to take care. It’s a steep start but overall you’ll get a great off-piste ride.
The Negre D’Envalira peak, the Col Blanc peak from the Coma chairlift, the Encampadana from the Els Clots chairlift station (very popular, so quickly over skied), and the Alt de Cubil at 2933m at the top of the Enradort chairlift are the main long downhill rides in Andorra.

If it’s snowing or foggy, then try out El Tarter for forest runs between the pines.
Get a copy of the 1:50 OOOe Andorra Cadi hiking map.
And don’t leave without your shovel, a beacon and a probe, and always check the Nivo snow report first.
Andorra: yes but...
Let’s say straight off, the official runs are not the most exciting in the world for very good skiers who would be better off getting a map and exploring Andorra’s great off-pistes opportunities. The ski area is mainly designed for average skiers who prefer safer, well groomed and very wide pistes. It’s a pleasant and interesting area as long as you’re happy with green, blue and red runs. More ambitious skiers need to walk a bit but then they’ll be in their element!
Freestyle and freeride
Grandvalira already had a very good reputation with freestylers in the Pyrenees with 3 Freestyle parks for different levels: El Tarter ACG Snowpark for experienced skiers, Grau Snowpark for average skiers and Pas Snowpark for beginners. This year (2011), a new snow park is opening, the Peretol Snowpark. The artificial lighting system means it can stay open until 10 pm.

Vallnord has also built a freeride area in the Creussans sector of Arcalis at 2600 metres in altitude. The idea is to offer average skiers an ungroomed, signposted freeride trail that can be reached by chairlift, allowing them to discover off-piste skiing in complete safety.
Practical Andorra
Hiring equipment
The prices are about the same as those you find in large alpine resorts and the quality of the equipment is usually somewhere between good and very good. The organisation is excellent: some shops have branches in the different resorts, which means you can drop off your equipment where you want!

Lodgings
The best is to try to find a place to stay on Canillo or El Tarter. Soldeu is little more than a row of big hotels surrounded by expensive cars while Le Pas de la Case, which is very popular with the French, is just one big shopping mall. It’s better in Pas d’Envalira, and while the architectural style is maybe a bit over the top, it has got a genuine mountain village feel to it.
You can find other articles on Pyrenees resorts at Winter-sports.com. Check out the articles on Baqueira, Gavarnie, Luz Ardiden, Cauterets and Grand Tourmalet.
Photos: N Cuche, E Beallet, Skiandorra.ad
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