After all, where else on earth can you ski acres and acres of empty terrain (on one of the busiest weekends of the winter), without standing in any lift lines and end your day eating divine antipasti while washing it down with a phenomenally good obscure vintage that is available no place else on the planet? Yes, the experience is, to coin a word, “heavenly,” but it’s merely par for the course here in Monterosa, where we were lucky enough to sample a bit of heaven on earth despite our proclivities for sin.
Being from Colorado, it’s easy to dismiss traveling to ski. The state is home to two of North America’s best resorts, Vail and Aspen. It has great mountains, ample snowfall and rowdy après ski. But as nice as all of these things are — and they are nice — part of the skiing and snowboarding experience has and always will be travel.
For a group of Rocky Mountain skiers and snowboarders, this year the destination of choice was Monterosa Ski, a vast complex that includes the untapped freeride adventure zone that is Alagna, as well as the better-known ski areas of Champoluc and Gressoney. With their interconnected lift system and joint ticket, these three sectors anchor Monterosa Ski. They’re joined by Estoul, Bielciucken and Antagnod, three smaller stand-alone ski areas that share the joint pass but which aren’t connected via the lift network. With more than 30 lifts, the terrain on tap is phenomenal. But it’s the one-two punch of ample terrain and no one on it that makes Monterosa Ski a must-visit destination for the adventurous rider. Throw in impeccably preserved Italian villages, great food and even better wines, and it’s one of the best-kept secrets on the planet.
It’s also a fairly affordable place to ski, something that can’t be said about many European destinations. Lift tickets have always been cheaper in Europe than North America, and with recent prices for single-day passes in the U.S. reaching an all-time high, like Vail Resorts’ $108 adult pass during high season, even the weak dollar can’t hide the fact that despite the exchange rate to Euros, most European lift tickets are a real value by comparison.
Travel from Denver to Milan is easy via Lufthansa’s direct flight to Frankfurt. From that gateway city it is a short hop south to Italy. Tickets run approximately $1,000, and you can check two pieces of luggage (at up to 50 pounds each), including a ski or snowboard bag for free. From Milan’s Malpensa airport, we opted for a rental car (easier to haul skis and boards and to chase the snow) and headed north. In less than two hours we started to see mountains — big ones — and it wasn’t long before we were climbing out of the valley and into the snow zone. The season had started strong and conditions were still excellent.
We started our exploration in Frachey, a tiny village at the end of the road above our base camp in Brusson. At 1,623 meters, Frachey is low-key and humble. There is a small parking lot, a couple of chalets, a bar and a short funicular that accesses the terrain higher up. Once there, two high speed quads whisk you towards the Colle Bettaforca, a 2,727-meter-high point that divides the Champoluc/ Frachey sector from the Gressoney valley. On a map, it’s deceiving; Frachey’s Alpe Mandria lift serves a variety of runs that would be the envy of many a North American destination. Hidden pillow lines in trees, vertical chutes and groomed runs all vie for your attention. Jump on another, higher lift and suddenly you’ll find yourself face-to-face with the massive Monterosa itself, a glaciated behemoth that boasts numerous 4,000-meter peaks. On a clear day, it’s awe-inspiring, but you won’t want to linger long.
The descent to Stafal awaits.
It’s human nature to compare past experiences with new ones, to mark up emotions, moments and feelings with the pencil of history, to order and organize them in rankings and in importance. Some of the snapshots of one’s life experiences inevitably rise to the top of the list: Your wedding day. The birth of a child. Graduation.
Each indelibly marked and ranked. For skiers and snowboarders, it’s the same. But the watershed moments include other pieces of life: The first helicopter ride. An impressively violent fall that left the victim — miraculously — uninjured. The first season pass. A favorite snowboard. The ski boots that fit perfectly out of the box.
Thus shall the long descent from the Colle Bettaforca to Stafal be scored. Yes, you can ski down to the Stafal run on groomers. But you can also make a short hike and head beyond the manicured descent into a wild, untamed valley. On a sunny day with new snow, your first time in the Monterosa Ski, this will be the introduction that sticks in your mind, a thing of beauty and adrenaline. Then, after you take a hidden trail through the woods, dodging stumps and rocks, and suddenly pop out at Stafal, as snowshoers wish you “bonjourno!,” you will know you’ve arrived in Italy.
The problem, though, with descents like that one, is that they leave you wanting — no, needing — more. But that’s OK, the Gressoney sector of the Monterosa awaits. And then, after that, there’s Alagna, too. Each larger than the biggest ski hills in North America (and those places you’ve left behind do, indeed, seem like “hills” from your new vantage point high on the Passo Salati or the Col d’ Olen).
And perhaps that’s the best reason to travel, whether you’re a skier or snowboarder or even just going for the culture. Because each of these new places gives us a new way to bookmark our own places, to see our own mountains in a new light and to appreciate not only how good we have it, but how good we can have it.
So while God is an Italian, God also has a soft place for the wanderers, the travelers and the seekers, those who chase their passion in the high mountains of the world. And that’s why you will feel, like we did, blessed to be in Italy and blessed when you ski Monterosa.
Want to ski Italy? Of course you do. And despite what you may think, it’s actually pretty affordable. This journalist’s flight from Denver to Milan was approximately $1,000 round trip on Lufthansa, and includes a direct leg from Denver to Frankfurt.
Accommodations in Italy can be found on the Internet. Check out Internet Holiday Rentals (IHA.com) for self-catering options. The local tourist office’s website (monterosa-ski.com) also has a great overview of the area, including accommodations, weather and other news. And for general information on travel to Italy, you can’t go wrong by starting your research at www.italiantourism.com.
Finally, you can see a full array of webcams for Monterosa Ski at a cool website called Snow Eye (www.snoweye.com). If these cams as well as the others on the site (from ski areas across the Alps) don’t get you to resolve to go skiing in Europe, then you should probably give your skis to someone who will.