Ski like a local – Giulio’s Valleys
After a day’s epic on the Marmolada, and given our position directly underneath the legendary Sella Massif, it seemed appropriate to have a crack at some of the stuff on our doorstep, so Stokes and I headed to the Passo Pordoi to hook up with local steep-skier Giulio Lanzingher and his friend Diego…
I’ve long been a believer that the locals know what’s what, and this is probably why I’ve skied so little in Italy – it is hard to get banter with the locals when you basically haven’t even the most basic grasp of their language, and since I’ve an advanced bluffers’ French and German, I’ve always considered my chances of getting good, solid local contact in France, Switzerland, Germany and Austria… And indeed, the languages lead to relationships, so usually invitations, friendships and hospitality keep taking us back to places like Uster, Grenoble, Geneva, Chur, Feldkirch, Landl, Leysin, Chamonix and Courmayeur. Oh, and great skiing too :o)
But this year, I’m thinking I need to learn Italian.
The Dolomites had the best season of anywhere in the Alps this year – once in a lifetime snowfalls, with depths of snow in the churchyard at valley level in Arabba of around 3m even in late March when we arrived. It was the logical choice for us in considering how best to invest our time, and thankfully an old friend of mine, Carlo, had put me in touch with Giulio during an earlier trip to the same region. The rest of the crew were sick, tired, broken or ill, so the chance to go and ski some north-facing valleys, followed by a relatively rarely-skied line way over on the opposite side of the massif, round above Passo Gardena, was a most welcome invitation.
Having joined us up Piz Boé and for the first of 3 proposed descents, Andrew was having serious ski & binding issues, and so despite looking characteristically confident and well balanced as he charged down the Canale del Chiacciaio, he wasn’t feeling it, so descended with Diego (who had a prior arrangement) and left Giulio and I at finishing off the rest of the tour. Up the Val Médsi, across and up the Sas de Mésdi, down West via the Val de Tita to the foot of the Valun di Pisciadu, which we followed to the plateau again, at Sela de Pisciadu. From there, we crossed over and dropped in to the west-facing classic, wide, open Val Ciadin, down to the broad ledge of the Masores de Murfreit, from which point almost all the tracks went right into the Val Culea. But Guilio had other ideas…
The thing about the Dolomites which makes them so legendary is the combination of breathtakingly huge cliffs and gentle, easy plateaus. Such is the terrain that Via Feratta lines take you up mountain faces you would have to train for years to climb, only to find that from the top, your walk down is a mere meander across a meadow or down a relatively gentle zig-zag path which is the only apparent weakness in the otherwise vertical terrain. What this means in winter is that skiable routes are few and far between, and almost everything in between is death. In terrain like this, you don’t play around, you don’t follow a couloir hoping it’ll go – you know, or you don’t touch it (or, of course, you prepare yourself to hike out..).
Which is where you need a Guilio. A hydro-engineer to trade, Guilio works for the South Tirol hydro-board, monitoring and maintaining the various dams around the region – job which requires the precision which he takes with him onto the mountain and into the couloirs of that same region. So the day before, he had been scoping Canale Epsilon (Y Couloir, in English) from across the valley, taking photos from various angles to ensure it was complete, free from chock-stones and that we could find the entrance from the other side.
Still, traversing across the plateau on a sunny evening (it was well after 6pm by now), with magnificent views but looking into the various entrances which felt like they might have been the couloir we were looking for, I have to admit wondering what I’d got myself in for. Honestly, all of the entrances looked similar from up there, all of them steepened out of view, and all of them gave way to a backdrop some kilometres away, all the way to the valley floor below. The question was: which of these many entrances is the only one which skis to the bottom instead of turning into a massive, dry wall?
But sure enough, using some triangulation of maps, photos and the terrain around us on that perfect evening, we arrived at the top of the line to be comforted by the only two tracks in the fresh snow from 6 days before – and so the rope stayed in the bag and we dropped in.
Dolomite Couloirs have the reputation of being steep and narrow with gigantic walls stretching far overhead and cutting through otherwise impossible terrain. This couloir was exactly all of those things, but what I hadn’t been prepared for was the quality of the snow. 40cm of soft, stable powder on a near-perfect base, without a hint of ice in the top section, which had slope angle never less than 50 degrees and which was never broader than 5m. Normally, that’s pure jump-turn terrain, but the thing which made that couloir the finest I’ve experienced was that the snow was so perfectly consistent that even though it’s less than 3 ski-lengths wide, we could link powder turns, pretty much from top to bottom (apart from stopping to scream with delight and to cheer each other on… Giulio, GIULIO, GIUUUULLLIIIIIIOOOOO!!!)
And so, we exited the couloir around 7pm, and traversed across the apron of snow above the final set of impassable cliffs (as I said, the terrain is unrelenting) until we arrived at Passo Gardena, just as the sun was dipping behind the mountains above us. A couple of beers and a couple of Swabian phrases about being the best skiers on the mountain to the Stuttgart girls standing smoking outside the restaurant at the pass, and it was time for man-hugs and thanks to the man who gave me the Dolomite experience which defined the trip. Just amazing.
Armed with a satisfied smile and slightly lubricated legs, I skied past the VF lines we’d climbed with Christoph, Kirsty and Sarah back in 2009, and by the time I got to the legendary pizzeria in the ice-rink at Corvara, it was pitch black and after 8pm, so after hiking across town and no luck hitch-hiking on the quietest road this side of Wester Ross, I persuaded a friendly Bulgarian couple to give me a 10min lift to the top of the Passo Campolongo, from where I donned by head torch and improvised a valley-floor backcountry route back to Arabba, just in time to intercept the boys as they left the pizzeria with a warm, circular present for me, topped with parmesan and laden with prosciutto crudo…
Italy, I love you.
P.S. footage from this featured heavily in my “Britain’s Got Skiers” edit from 2014, “Still Searching”