Over 450 ski lifts under one lift ticket (not a typo) that stich together an entire region. Countless numbers of couloirs. 6,000 foot glaciated powder runs. Wide endless valleys. One could travel for weeks from town-to-town and valley-to-valley solely on ski lifts and not ski the same run twice. All with stunningly beautiful scenery and some of the World’s best cuisine. No, I’m not describing a mythical skiers nirvana. Just talking about the Dolomites, a very real place nestled in the South Tirol of Northern Italy.
I recently had the opportunity to scout a completely different type of backcountry ski experience. The journey began on the canals and waterways of Venice, Italy, about as an unlikely a place to begin a ski trip as could be imagined. In the bustle of the Piazza San Marcos I met up with my good friends Gregor and Erica from Reno, Nevada. Soon we were loading skis and bags onto a water taxi and were headed for Cortina d’Ampezzo in the heart of the Dolomites, a mere two hours away.
Cortina, home of the 1956 winter Olympics, has all the small town ritz one would expect of an upscale Italian mountain resort. It’s not uncommon to see paparazzi shadowing a celeb along the main pedestrian walkway. In fact, many people come to Cortina to simply idle away the days in the boutiques and sip Aperol spritzes in the cafes, with skiing being a mere distraction. However, scratch just under the surface and you’ll find that Cortina is a very real ski town with very real terrain and a rich history of skiing.
We packed everything for six nights into our 30 liter backpacks and purchased our 7-day Dolomiti Superski Pass which gave us access to 460 lifts (came out to about $45 per day). The next morning we launched off from Cortina onto the largest ski lift system in the world in search of good backcountry skiing (known in Europe as “off-piste” skiing). A world of couloirs, powder and adventure awaited us.
We immediately found ourselves in complete whiteout trying to find our way down groomed runs by braille. It was clearly time to head to the nearest high mountain hut, or “rifugio”, for lunch. The closest happened to be the Rifugio Averau, located at the top of a ski lift and known to be the one of the top ten mountain restaurants in the Alps (There was a Maserati in a clear plexiglass box just outside the front door). After enjoying what was one of the top three steaks of my life and washing it down with the local wine varietal known as Lagrein, we launched back into the howling whiteout. With a compass and a ski resort trail map we found our way to the top of the Lagazuoi cable car, our destination for the night. The Rifugio Lagazuoi is perched on the top of a large limestone cliff formation that was directly on the front lines of World War One. After enjoying more excellent food and wine prepared by a guy in a chefs hat we settled into our private rooms for the night and were lulled to sleep by the roar of the tempest outside the window.
One of the advantages of skiing in the Dolomites is that even in the worst of weather there is usually something to ski. No sitting around a backcountry hut with nowhere to safely go or moping around town waiting for flying weather. Due to the massive amount of marked runs and the extensive lift system you can still ski something. And as any experienced traveling backcountry skier knows, that is huge. So waking up to more whiteout the next morning we found ourselves skiing down one of the most famous groomed runs in the world that winds down from Lagazuoi into Alta Badia past towering dolomite limestone formations. And not one other skier in sight. The run just simply ends over three thousand feet below with the nearest ski lift a mile away across flat terrain. That’s where the guy with the horse lift comes in. For a mere two Euro you are dragged by a horse-drawn sleigh across the valley to the nearest ski lift in the tiny hamlet of Armentarola and are once again connected to the Dolomiti Superski. Pure magic.
We then proceeded to ski lift after lift (with a cappuccino stop of course) for the entire afternoon to our next destination, the small village of Arabba. Arabba is located within striking distance of our next quarry – the high glaciated off-piste runs of Marmolada. With the weather finally breaking and fresh powder up high we bolted first thing the next morning for the Marmolada cable cars, three of them actually, which whisk you up over 6000 vertical feet to near the highest point in the Dolomites. After a 26,000 vertical foot day skiing mostly off-piste powder up high we boarded our sore thighs onto chair lifts and traveled to our next destination – the funky Rifugio Fredarola at the base of the Sella Massif.
Fredarola sits perched on the side of a massive valley just off a offering cozy private rooms each with expansive views of Marmolada. I’m pretty sure I made out some of our tracks from the picture window of our room. The next morning we woke up to bluebird skies – it was game on. Skiing away from the front door of our refugio before the lift starting spinning, we made it to the Piz Pordoi cable car at opening. We opted for a morning run down the Val Lasties, a classic off-piste valley run that takes you towards the Sella Pass and deposits you at a roadside rifugio with great cappuccino and a friendly dog.
After the caffeine break, it was down a "squirrel trail" that spit us back onto a groomed run and down to the nearest chair lift. Eventually it was back up the Piz Pordoi cable car to sample one of the steep couloirs the Sella Massif is known for. We chose the “Canale Joel” or Joel Couloir, which has a nice steep entry at about 45 degrees, but quickly pinches down so narrow and with such steep walls on both sides that parts of it never see the sun even though it is South facing. Afterward, it was back to the Fredarola for a well-earned Aperol Spritz in the “ice bar”… a bar completely carved out of the snow and ice with a lively Euro-style après ski scene. Life you could say was good.
Another stellar day of splitter clear weather found us in the famous Val Mesdi, a long North facing valley that is accessed from the top of Piz Pordoi via a 30-40 minute skin or walk. The ski of the Val Mesdi takes you across the entire Sella Massif into another valley of the Alta Badia. On the descent we enjoyed some surprisingly great pockets of powder on the way down to the town of Corvara. Upon arriving in Alta Badia you notice a different feel. No longer is Italian the predominate language, German is spoken more freely and sign posts also show a third language unlike either German or Italian. The Sud Tirol Region in which the Dolomites reside was once Austria prior to WWI and today is a semi-autonomous province that keeps it a bit separated from Italy. To complicate things more, a third language, Ladin, is the first language of most people in Alta Badia (and other valleys) and is spoken by over 30,000 people.
After a week of traveling almost solely on skis with ski lift support we made our way back to Cortina. On our final day we enjoyed yet another fantastic backcountry off-piste descent that took us through a WWI tunnel and to yet another final gourmet lunch atop the lifts at Cinque Torri. This kind of living was getting too good, It probably had to stop. But now I know where I want to go when I die.
IFMGA/UIAGM Mountain & Ski Guide
We are offering the Dolomites Off Piste Skiing Adventure in March 2016