Snow Stag Do: Pirates of the Pyrenees
Words and Pictures By Sam Baldwin
Published December 2007
Looking for a stag trip that was a little different to the clichéd piss-up and porno weekend in some up and coming Eastern European Capital, "The Hormone" - an old friend of mine, opted for a stag do in the mountains. The venue chosen for this trip was the town of Tarbes, a small, attractive and classically French ville about one hour's drive from the ski resort of Barèges in the French Pyrenees.
Despite being our closest neighbour, it's been several years since I've been to France, having leap-frogged the country to search out slightly more exotic locations such as Japan, Norway and Slovakia in which to snowboard (such is the life of a snow traveller). It was therefore a refreshing break to be back en France and dust off the old A-level French.
Upon arriving in the town of Tarbes and locating our hotel, La Croix Blanche, we met the first "inconvenience" of the trip; the hotel owner told our group of 22 males that we would all be sharing double beds. After a brief pairing session whereby everybody quickly aligned themselves with the person they believed was least likely to snore, smell and take up most of the bed, we dumped our gear and hit the town.
Le Big Ben
Approximately 120 metres from our hotel door, a bar named "Le Big Ben" seemed to win the vote of the group, so despite being in France, in true "Brits abroad" fashion we entered Tarbes' only English pub. However, the parallels with our native drinking holes stopped with the name on the door (and a straw boater hat randomly attached to the ceiling).
Overwhelmed with the size of the group, the landlord quickly ran out of pint glasses, which lead him to look for alternatives, the most amusing of which was a three litre glass pickle jar which was filled with beer and various other liquid additions before being awarded to the stag.
Due to it being a while since I touched down on French soil, there were some things I'd forgotten about France; firstly how expensive it was; at 6 Euros (£4.30) a pint, my first suspicion was that the landlord was pulling a fast one over a bunch of stupid ros-bifs, but it later emerged that the locals were coughing up the same amount.
Had Tarbes been in the middle of a luxury ski resort in the high Alps, the price tag may have been a little more understandable, but for a small bar in a small French town that wasn't a particular tourist hotspot it seemed a lot. Despite the high tariff, plenty of French amber nectar went down the hatch, the night continuing until we were unduly turfed out by the landlord at around 3am.
Snow Shoeing Without the Snow
It was an early start the next day, with a breakfast of a croissant and cup of coffee being quickly devoured before heading for Barèges, the largest ski area in the French Pyrenees and the second oldest ski resort in France, having been founded in 1935 as a military training centre. Linked to La Mongie area, the entire ski area is known collectively as the Domain Du Tourmalet with a respectable 100km of piste, 43 lifts, 70 trails and 173 snow canons - which were much needed this year.
As in the rest of Europe, the 2006/07 winter season had been dismal, and like everywhere else, the Pyrenees had suffered greatly. As a result, our pre-booked snow-shoeing trip, became more just a shoeing trip.
We began the hike in an area that normally at this time of year would be covered in deep snow and see hundreds of skiers and snowboarders on the slopes, but this season, both the snow and the people were absent; in their place, just grass, mud, rocks and silence.
Our two female guides, a local French lady and an Irish woman who once visited the area on holiday and never returned home, explained how badly the poor winter, (which meant that the area had been completely unable to open) had affected the local economy. We walked under ski lifts which should have been carrying hordes of skiers and snowboarders up the mountain, but instead had seen no human traffic at all.
In high, but hung over sprits, we commenced the long walk up the mountain paths and roads, occasionally stopping at small patches of snow to load up on snowballs and bombard those who were behind us. The favour would of course be returned when those at the rear of the group reached the snow patch, who would then rain down snowballs on their previous attackers, who were now ammo-less and would have to endure the mental torment of never knowing when the next snowball would hit.
We steadily climbed through rocky scree, scrub and dirt eventually reaching the snowline, several hundred meters higher than is normal for the time of year. Without snow shoes this caused a whole new level of hilarity as we would take a couple of steps on the snow surface and then suddenly a leg would plunge deep into the white pack, leaving the victim trapped and open to attack by snowball.
Over the three hour length of the climb, the varying fitness levels of the group caused us to be spread out, but as we approached the final goal, a stone refuge made for summer hikers, summit fever set in and the group began to bunch again. We eventually reached the top, shared some food, talked about times passed, before making our way back to whence we came.
Back in Tarbes, the night kicked off at a restaurant approximately 15 meters from our hotel door. The free shot of Pernod - an aniseed flavoured digestive, did not go down well with one member of the stag group, who instantly felt nauseous and only just managed to make it to the toilet before depositing the contents of his stomach into the sink.
This was followed by a trip to another bar (Le Big Ben was vetoed) and later - la discotheque. As we entered the underground club, we were told by the formidably muscular doorman that we were welcome to enter, but if there was any trouble, we would be thrown out and given a severe hiding by him and his team. The warning served its purpose and the night passed without violent incident; instead much drinking and dancing ensued with the Stag impressing the local mademoiselles with his signature dance move: "The Worm".
For those unfamiliar with this move, let me elaborate; the worm is a break dancing move. I first remember The Hormone performing the worm in the university library. I was studiously studying some finer detail of pharmacology when out of the corner of my eye, I saw something "worming" its way along the centre isle of the library; it was The Hormone, making his way out of the library on his a stomach, like a dolphin swimming on an ocean of carpet.
As far as a Stag Night goes, the Stag got off lightly; there were no handcuffs, no being humiliated by topless women and no being stripped naked and tied to a French lamppost. However, as the night progressed, the tunes rolled on, the beverages flowed, and as dawn grew closer it seemed less and less likely that any of the 22 strong group would be in any fit state to rise early and spend the day on the slopes.
The Jon Foulds' Five
To counter the threat of a wasted day, the Jon Foulds' Five was formed; a group of five hardened snow sportsman who decided that we weren't going to miss out on the chance of a day on the slopes. Leader Jon Foulds (a Racketlon champion), formed the backbone of this crew, installing the mandate that no matter how harsh the hangover, to the snow we would go.
Despite the apparent dedication of the Jon Foulds' Five, I had to admit, as I finally lay my head to rest at some early hour, I was very doubtful as to whether anyone would be going snowboarding in what was only a few hours away.
To my pleasant surprise, a short while later, the knock at my hotel room door from a Jon Foulds' Five member proved me wrong; we were up and out of the hotel by 10pm, heading to Tournaboup, one of the few areas that had any sniff of snow in the area, where we'd been told that a few runs were open.
Hiring some gear, we purchased lift passes and headed to one of only a handful of lifts which were open. The resort was in a sorry state, with little natural snow and just a handful of runs being kept open. However, the sun was shining and despite being extremely hung over and desperately tired, we had a good day cruising the slopes in the sugar snow.
At this point I must give a mention to the "Loci Kid" who impressed all, not just with his snowboarding skills but even more so with his attire; a pair of blue jeans and a ragged anorak that I believe he bought some nine years ago, saw him through the day on the mountain. Obviously the Loci Kid hadn't been reading up about the latest snowboard fashion recently, or maybe he is just a maverick ahead of his time?
The Snow Stag Do may not have gone quite to plan; but the lack of snow did nothing to rob us of an excellent and very memorable Stag weekend, which was refreshingly different to the stag-do status quo.
A big thanks goes out to The Hormone, Lyrical Illness, The Loci Kid, Muff Man, The Hulk, The Jon Foulds' 5 and Side Effect's biggest fans.
Quick Facts about Domaine Tourmalet
- Made up of two main ski areas - Barèges and La Mongie
- Highest point accessible by lift 2500m
- 100 km of pistes
- 43 lifts
- 70 pistes (23 red, 21 blue, 21 green)
- Nearest airport: Toulouse
- More info: www.tourmalet.fr