A Snowy Spring Ascent of the Col d'Aubisque (1709m) - Where Summer and Winter Collided on the Pyrenean Slopes

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Thursday 12 March 2015

A Snowy Spring Ascent of the Col d'Aubisque (1709m) - Where Summer and Winter Collided on the Pyrenean Slopes

Along with the Col du Tourmalet, Mont Ventoux and the Col du Galibier, the Col d'Aubisque at 1709m is another one of the most well known and legendary climbs of the Tour de France. First appearing in le Tour in 1910, it has since been used, on average, more than once every 2 years including several summit finishes. The steeper ascent from the west, starting in the town of Laruns, winds it's way up towards the head of the valley passing the ski resort of Gourette at the base of a stunning cirque of sheer rock faces that transform into winter pistes. Our own ascent of this route, in early spring, saw plenty of snow still on parts of the road alongside rivers bursting with the melted snow packs, creating a wonderful contrast between sections of summer beauty and winter wonderland.

From Laruns the climb is 16.6km long at an average of 7.2%, a climb of 1190m. The average statistics, however, hide the fact this climb is split into 3 distinct sections. The opening 7 kilometres through the thermal resort of Eaux-Bonnes are relatively easy, hovering around 5%. But after this the road then kicks up much more sharply, starting with a 13% section to wake you up before continuing at a relentless 8% all the way to Gourette at 1400m. There is then a very brief respite in Gourette with a few hundred metres of flatter road before the final steep 4km drag to the summit at 8% and some more 10% sections near the top.

Our decision to tackle the Col d'Aubisque on March 11 was not taken lightly. When we first arrived in Louvie-Juzon 4 days beforehand we were told the road from Gourette was still closed due to snow and avalanche risk. Fortunately (I think) the section from Gourette to Site d'Aubisque was then opened yesterday (March 10) giving us the option to try if we felt safe enough, although we actually had no idea where "Site d'Aubisque" was. All we knew was that we could go quite a long way up the climb if our legs could carry us but after our chilly experience on the nearby Col du Pouralet we were still doubtful.

But after much deliberation curiosity eventually won the day. We decided to cycle the 10km to Laruns once more from our campsite, Camping Le Rey, just outside of Louvie-Juzon and start the climb, planning to turn back if it got too cold or we felt unsafe with the snow.

After our cruise to Laruns and a pause in the sunshine to gather our strength we started out on the lower slopes of the climb in the early afternoon sun. After expecting a chilly ascent we found ourselves surprisingly warm very quickly since, as we were to discover, much of this ascent is on the south-west side of the valley in the afternoon sun, unlike the Col du Pouralet which had long shaded sections.

Tapping out a decent rhythm on the 'easier' 5-6% slopes up to and through Eaux-Bonnes we felt strong and decided to power on through as the harder climbing began with the 13% section. Pushing a bigger gear than we expected the thrill of the ride was now motivating, plus the hot sun was on our backs most of the time and it really felt more like a late summers day rather than a chilly spring.

Passing 1000m the snow patches started to appear, soon growing to huge ploughed snow drifts by the roadsides as the cirque of mighty snowtopped mountains at the valley head came into view. We also began passing huge concrete snow shelters protecting the road, with gushing torrents of snowmelt pouring over them.

With the gradient staying at a relentless 8% our legs were aching and the sweat was dripping from our noses, but as the town of Gourette swung into sight with several active ski lifts running we got a renewed kick of energy to reach the town. Passing ever increasing snow piles as we pedalled into the chalets and bars of this still bustling ski resort it felt odd to be wearing bibshorts and lycra while passing others in full salopettes, goggles and carrying their skis over their shoulder. Like 2 seasons colliding.

After Gourette we were in unknown territory. We still felt warm, although a little nervous of the avalanche warning signs, so decided to push on towards the top to see what the pass was like and we are very glad we did. The final few kilometres of ascent were breathtakingly beautiful. The road, which sloped away steeply behind us, fell away into a magnificent bowl of rock, ice and snow that ringed the valley head before stretching away in a sharp ridgeline to the west. It was a truly wonderful scene to be cycling through.

We knew it was 4km to the very top of the col and we were just beginning to think we'd make it after all when, swinging round a bend at 1600m we ran straight into a pile of snow several feet deep stretching away as far as we could see. We had discovered what the "Site d'Aubisque" was after all....a cafe at 1600m on a promontory of rock. We couldn't continue to the very top of the col after all, even though we were within touching distance with just another 100m of climbing left.

But the frustration was fleeting as we paused to feel the warmth of the sun and gaze out from this ideal viewing point over the valley below and the snow capped peaks all around us. Standing together on the ledge by the cafe we felt immensely proud of this unexpected ascent. We really had anticipated turning back on the lower slopes, either through cold or fatigue from previous days on the bike. But instead we felt alive and invigorated, full of boundless endorphin fueled energy. We just wanted to climb some more!

Our time at the top was magical and it was hard to leave, but knowing cloud was forecast for late afternoon we knew it was time to go. Needless to say the descent was a chilly affair and, since the forecast cloud decided to materialise very rapidly during our descent, we arrived back in Laruns feeling so cold it was hard to remember how warm we had been just an hour before when going up.

As we powered as fast as our tired legs would carry us back to Louvie-Juzon, trying to work up a sweat simply to thaw out, we knew that this would be our last experience in the Pyrenees for some time. Tomorrow we really have to hit the road north and say farewell to the mountains for now, but what an amazing experience to say goodbye with.

Cycle Information:
Motorhome Base: Camping Le Rey, Louvie-Juzon (there is an aire at Laruns)
Start/ End Point: LouvieJuzon
Distance: 29km one way (16.6km from Laruns)
Ascent: 1190m (from Laruns)
Average Gradient: 7.2%
Max Gradient: 13%

Looking down at ski station Gourette from Site d'Aubsique

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