Two weeks ago, we were invited to try out some winter activities in the Ax-les-Thermes area, in the Pyrenees. Of course we jumped at the opportunity because we had never been to the Pyrenees at all and it was also a good excuse to enjoy fresh air of the mountain for a weekend. We came home with sore muscles, lots of photos, beautiful memories and most of all, some suggestions of fun mountain activities for your next vacation in the Pyrenees!
Canyoning in a hot water spring
In the collective unconscious, canyoning, which involves exploring natural canyons, is associated with hot summer days. The idea of walking through rivers and swimming in natural pools is generally more attractive when the thermometer cheerfully exceeds 30°C (86°F) and when one is desperately trying to get some freshness. What if we told you that it’s possible to go canyoning even in the middle of winter without risking getting a pneumonia? You’ll just have to be well equipped, replace fresh river water by hot spring water that can go up to 50°C (122°F) and voila! We were able to try out this unusual winter activity in the Pyrenees alongside Elsa and Christophe, two sympathetic instructors from Oxygen Aventure. The meeting point had been set on a small parking lot of the litlle village of Olette around 10am. The thermometer wasn’t showing much more than 5°C (41°F) that morning and it seemed unlikely to imagine that moments later we would be completely soaked. To be totally honest, having to strip outdoors wasn’t fun at all but once we had the neoprene suits on, everything felt better! After some explanations and recommendations from Elsa, we departed towards the start of our canyoning experience. We would have to go higher on foot and then get back down through the canyons to the starting point, where we had left the cars on the banks of the Tet. Although quite sporty, this little walk had the merit of putting us in leg and it allowed us to enjoy absolutely magnificent landscapes overlooking the valley of the Tet river.
When we got to the starting point, we contemplated what was going to be our very first rapelling descent, while feeling a certain apprehension. It was quite high but quickly, the excitement took over. It was our first canyoning experience and starting in such conditions was quite exceptional. Unfortunately, the snow had already melted a lot but the place still had a rather unusual atmosphere going on. We particularly loved the silence that was solely disturbed by the presence of our group. Elsa teached us how to correctly tie a rope to our snap hooks so we would be able to go abseiling without a hitch. After a few tests, it was already time to start. When the rope is tied to the carabiner and then trapped in your hands, which might be a little moisty, you’re gonna have to dare to sit at the edge of the void. And then completely tilt your pelvis in the void to end up swinging legs and butt in the void. Facing the rock face, you’ll then only be retained by the very same rope we previously told you about. Finally, to get down, you’re gonna have to slowly let the rope slip into your hands. And it is much more complicated than it seems! If at first we were frankly not at ease, it got better and better as we continued the descents and we ended up finding a real pleasure into it. As for the hot water, we weren’t really lucky because on that day the stream was made more of melted snow than anything else. We should have come a few days earlier. But we were able to find a small natural pool where the water was so hot (about 50 ° C, 122°F) that it was difficult to dive our bare hands into it! It was so nice to enjoy the hot water and the surroundings in total serenity! We made a long well-deserved stop there, and we would easily have remained there for some more hours if we hadn’t had to get back to the cars! It was all a very nice walk punctuated with slides, natural pools and abseiling. We were slightly disappointment when we found out that this route didn’t include any high jumps but, nevertheless, it ends in apotheosis with this huge 30-meters high (98 feet!) waterfall.
+33 (0) 4 30 63 83 12
Canyon de Thuès
Starting at 45€ (48$)
Starting at 12 years old
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Underground explorations by caving
The next day, we left for new adventures which would go on underground this time. We were meeting Agathe, another Oxygen Aventure instructor who’s a caving expert. She was going to make us explore the underground Vicdessos river. First things first : equipment! Neoprene suit, work overall, protective footwear, helmet and harness. We were starting to know the drill and it didn’t even bother us to put everything on while outside even though the low temperature of the morning. As the day before, the beginning of the caving activity first requires a small walk to reach the entrance of the cave. You have to go high first and then go down again, while being underground, towards the cars. The walk here was a bit harder than the one from the day before and above all, we had to be more careful because the ground was still well covered with thick snow that cracked under each of our steps. At one point, we got to a river which water was springing from ice and had no choice but to cross over it. We plunged our feet into the icy water without thinking too much and it was pretty damn cold! They say it’s good for blood circulation right? After that, the entrance of the cave was already standing in front of us and we had to say goodbye to daylight for the next 2 hours.
Once our headlamps were lit, we discovered with wonder our new environment and learned to evolve with caution and curiosity around it. Abseiling, narrow gutters, guts, slides, the route, which follows the route of the underground Vicdessos river, is really very varied so that one does not get bored. With each new obstacle, we had to stop, think and adapt to apprehend it in the best way possible. Feet first? Head first? Sideways? Every obstacle was different and that’s why we took so much pleasure to discover the course alongside Agathe, which was always benevolent and reassuring. It is truly an experience in itself that forces oneself to surpass oneself. Once or twice, a small claustrophobia surfaced and we sometimes thought “No, I won’t make it through, I’ll get stuck! “. When it happens, you just have to stop, breathe, believe you will go through and just move forward, always. We didn’t expect we would like caving this much. For 2 hours, we fell back into childhood and it was really nice. But don’t be fooled, it’s a very physical activity that requires a bit of flexibility!
+33 (0) 4 30 63 83 12
Canyon de Thuès
Starting at 45€ (48$)
Starting at 12 years old
Book your experience!
For our last winter activity of the weekend, we went to the plateau de Beille, in the Angaka nordic village. That’s where we would finally fulfill a childhood dream : go dog sledding. We were supposed to go dog sledding last year during our trip to Switzerland but unfortunately it had been canceled at the last moment. When we found out that it’s possible to do it in the Pyrenees, we immediately jumped at the opportunity, how unexpected! The Angaka nordic village is therefore located on the plateau de Beille, at an altitude of 1800m (5900 feet). It is a recreational village where you can practice a lot of winter activities such as snowshoeing, sledding or cross-country skiing, more infos on their website, here! On the spot, we met Cedric, our musher and his joyful pack of a dozen dogs. “But these are not huskies!”. Well no! You should know that huskies are only a small part of the dog sledding packs. Originally, it was mainly alaskan huskies that were then crossed with several breeds, which is the case of Cedric’s dogs. After a few explanations, it was time to take a seat in the sleigh and leave for a 30-minute stroll through the Aston Mountains. We passed some bumps and were pleasantly surprised to realise that dog sledding isn’t necessarily monotonous! Our sunglasses came in pretty handy since the very energetic dogs would throw lots of snow in our faces while runing! Of course, it didn’t prevent us from taking full advantage of this pleasant ride. The snowy and pristine landscapes were truly magnificent and the end-of-the-day light was perfectly sublimating everything.
When the stroll ended, it was time for Cedric and his dogs to go back to the kennel. Curious, we took the opportunity to improvise a small visit of the place while being as discreet as possible so that Cedric would be able to work in peace. He is incredibly gentle and benevolent with his dogs, to such an extent that one can easily perceive all the affection he feels for them. To him, they aren’t beasts of burden. They’re his dogs above all, his companions and he does everything in his power to make their life as pleasant as possible. It’s very important to us, who love animals, and it has touched us a lot. He explained to us that systematically locking and tying dogs doesn’t fit his way of working but that it is still a practice well widespread as we have seen in this kennel which is used by several mushers from the area.
Where to sleep?
So an adventure weekend in the Pyrenees is fun and all but it’s also important to find the proper place to chill out and regain strength right? Why not try out the apart’hotel option and stay at the Domaine de la Vallée d’Ax? There, you’ll have the intimacy and comfort of your very own apartment while enjoying hotel type services. We stumbled upon it when preparing our stay and it must be said that its strategic geographical location (in Ax-les-Thermes, at the same distance from the canyoning and the caving activities!) and its affordable prices immediately seduced us! We tried one of their 2-bedroom apartments and were very pleasantly surprised at the good price-quality ratio. The staff was very friendly and helpful, the apartment was very well furnished, clean and offered a beautiful view over the mountains! We definitely recommend this place, hands down!
+33 (0) 5 34 14 58 22
Chemin de l’Aouredou – Le Tourbillon, 09110 Ax-les-Thermes
Apartments for 2 to 12 people, from 50€ (53$) to 149€ (159$)/night
Fully equiped kitchen (oven, microwave, dishwasher…)
Balcony or terrace
Book your night!
This article is the result of a collaboration with Oxygen Aventure, Angaka Nordic Village and the Domaine de la Vallée d’Ax for which we did not, under any circumstance, receive any form of payment. All opinions expressed here are ours and have not been subject to the influence of any third party. Thank you to everyone for such a warm and kind welcome, we had a blast!
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