A long-planned weekend in Andorra with my three boys. In January? Expect snow.
I’m posting this report reluctantly because it reveals my dubious decision-making. On reflection, I perhaps should have called off the trip at the start, given the weather. But with a no-refund hotel booking and boys who would have been bitterly disappointed if unable to go, my judgment was biased towards proceeding.
We borrowed snow chains from a friend and headed off, knowing that it was already snowing in the hills and the forecast was for that to continue. The road from France goes up to a tunnel to Andorra at 2050 m altitude. What would the snow be like up there? It turned out to be horrendous.
At about 800 m, near Ax-les-Thermes, snow was settling on the road and we fitted the chains. As we gained height, the snow got predictably deeper. I have not previously driven in snow like that. My only previous experiences of driving in snow were at lower altitudes. I’ve learned this weekend how different it is high up in the Pyrenees. At about 1100 m we had a 20-minute traffic delay – a car had slid off the road into a ditch and needed tow-truck rescue. There the police were turning back any vehicles without snow chains. The police officer said we could proceed since we had chains but she warned that it would be very difficult. The route is closed now – I guess it closed soon after we went over.
Some snow ploughs were out doing their thing but in those powdery and windy conditions, that’s not enough to clear the road. Everything is quickly obliterated. Despite conditions worsening, we determined to keep going as long as we could. Above 1500 it became very difficult. I did not fancy turning back or proceeding or stopping; I wanted to be somewhere else. I could not see the road well enough to drive it, and could only proceed by following another vehicle. Sometimes I could not keep up and had to stop and join the tail of a later convoy.
Being passed by vehicles coming down the road made me nervous. The road was effectively a single lane shared by both directions. Drivers of passing vehicles had to balance the risk of colliding and the risk of ending up in deeply piled snow at the side of the road. I became more nervous when one car passed downwards with its wheels locked in a long straight slide, guided more by gravity than by its driver. We continued upwards. Strong winds whipped up snow and caused whiteouts which left us unable to see anything outside our car; I could not even see the vehicle I was closely following. At those times I could only stop where I was and hope the vehicle behind was also stopped. Those complete whiteouts were brief and each time I was soon able to see enough to proceed again. But each time I had a claustrophobic sense of being swamped and going under. I vowed that if we made it to Andorra, we would find another route home – a lower and safer route.
I found it helpful to have Ollie as a co-pilot, giving calm encouragement and advice. He kept track of the GPS to give advance warning of each bend in the road when visibility was poor. We knew that our highest point was a roundabout beside the tunnel entrance, and the GPS told us the distance to that roundabout. With 800 m to go, we knew we could make it. And we did. We peeled off into the tunnel and soon emerged out the other end into Andorra. Of course, the snow was bad on the Andorra side too, but it was a relief to be descending and moving from the worst conditions into something better.
At the highest point, the car’s thermometer showed that the temperature was -9 degrees. When we were last there, in a summer heatwave, the temperature at that high altitude was an amazing +32 degrees!
At our hotel at La Massana, it continued snowing all weekend, getting steadily deeper. By the time we left this morning, there was 40 cm of snow on everything. Cars parked out in the open are barely recognisable as cars under that much snow. Yesterday I moved our car into a covered car park. This morning we drove slowly and cautiously south out of Andorra. Some distance into Spain, at lower altitude and further from the main mountains, the road became clear of snow so we removed chains and proceeded much faster and more easily. To avoid any mountain passes, we took a long loop through Catalonia on the return to Quillan – nine hours door to door. That part of Spain is spectacularly beautiful and I enjoyed the drive.
Great to be home and out of the snow. Here are a couple of things that I would say to someone contemplating a winter trip from France into Andorra. First, Andorra is beautiful at any time of year. I would happily go again in the winter but I would only go via Spain, thereby avoiding high mountain passes. Even then, snow might make travel difficult, so I would make flexible accommodation bookings that could be cancelled if bad weather was forecast. In that case, a few days holidaying in Catalonia could be an excellent back-up plan. Second, driving in snow requires particular skills, some of which can be learned and practised ahead of time. The internet provides plenty of advice on how to drive in snow. It also shows how to fit and remove snow chains. We would not have got through if I had not researched and practised fitting chains. Knowing how to deal with the chains is crucial because it is inevitably more difficult when the wheel space is clogged up with snow, the temperature is below zero, your hands are cold, the chains are tangled, and there is no-one around to help.
A few pics from the weekend follow: