Dec/Jan 2004
breakthroughonskis.com   
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Courmayeur
ai piedi di Monte Bianco

at the foot of Mont Blanc

Skiers, like farmers, seem eternal hostages of weather. Farmers worry about their winter wheat, skiers about missed turns, the runs that got away. In Italy a leading mountain magazine, Alp, headlined: Quando il Bel Tempo è una Calamità (“When beautiful weather is a disaster”). And we were in Italy — pilgrims in search of snow, apprentice sorcerers hoping to turn the base metal of drought into the gold of powder, drinking lots of espresso, looking at wrinkled Michelin road maps of the Alps spread out on marble cafe tables, buying tokens, small brass getoni, at the bar to make telephone calls to different resorts: "How's the snow? Com’è la neve? Non c’è? Peccato.... There isn't any. What a shame."

Italy is no place to get discouraged. Italians. in fact, don't believe in it and never do. An infectious habit, so we didn't either. Memories of vagabond summers climbing in the Alps steered our queries northwest toward Italy's highest, and hopefully snowiest mountains. Fortune smiled: the disembodied voice on the telephone spoke of white pistes, lots of snow. We temporarily gave up on espresso and ordered two glasses of vino bianco which seemed like the right move before starting a high-speed, hair-raising, all-day drive on the autostrada. Courmayeur here we come.

Driving, like so much else in Italy, is nothing if not an adventure... The autostrada network funneled us across the top of the Italian boot at speeds well in excess of common sense. The speedometer of our rental car hovered around 140 km/hour while Alfas with Milano plates passed us as though we were standing still. At seemingly random intervals toll booths loomed up out of the winter fog, and we would fork out thousands of lire or receive computer punch cards like admission tickets to a self-piloted carnival ride. Flagging nerves brought us back to industrial-strength espresso, gulped down in freeway restaurants slung like floating cities across the screaming lanes of the autostrada. Einstein was right: the faster you go, the slower time passes. Or so it seemed as we turned north off the A4 and inched our way back up the Aosta Valley into the heart of the Alps — still driving faster than I ever had in my life.

“Aosta” is a centuries-old corruption of Augustus, Caesar Augustus. Here, stretches of Roman roads still nestle into the steep walls of the valley, Roman stone bridges arch across a river laden with glacial silt, ruined Roman walls and towers share the Aosta valley with medieval castles and modern factories; vineyards squeeze in between giant boulders, terrace their way up ridiculously steep hillsides. There's so much to look at, and the traffic on ever narrowing roads is so dense, that the drive becomes a series of narrow escapes. Finally we're locked in between two giant goods lorries (Euro-english for semi trucks). Their international TIR plates tell us they're heading (like us) toward Mont Blanc where (unlike us) they'll dive into the tunnel under Europe's highest peak, and rumble on into France and countries North.

The high-speed chase is over now; we heave a sigh of relief and settle thankfully into the inevitable traffic jam of modern commerce on winding mountain roads, crawling toward Courmayeur under gray skies. Is this an overdue storm brewing up, or just more north Italian winter murk? Will we see the seracs and glaciers of Mont Blanc towering over town, or only a wall of mist?

There are plenty of modern hotels in Courmayeur, but stone roofs of ancient famhouses in the small villages near Courmayeur, silhouetted against the towers of the Freney ridge of Mont Blanc, are what you are gong to remember.

Mist wins, but it turns out to be a real storm after all. And we have a few dripping days on our hands to explore Courmayeur, while the mountain gods toil high above us, painting the scenery new white for the next act of their long-running play.

Courmayeur is a town out of an old folktale nestled under a mountain out of a legend. History hangs heavy in these narrow streets. Old wood, old plaster, old stone...old stories. As you climb the hillside above town and squint down narrow lanes, the fish-scale patterns of thin granite roofing slabs, lozas, create a dense almost medieval design—an old granite town growing out of an old granite mountainside. Down below, at street level, Courmayeur looks a lot more modern, in a resolutely old-fashioned sort of way. They've done a splendid job, the city fathers and local powers that be, preserving and cultivating old architecture and old building styles. New construction on the edges of town dovetails neatly with the old streets. The traditional stone roofs have become such an important symbol here, that Aosta government money is now made available to replace less desirable “modern” roofs with these beautiful but expensive granite slabs. Altogether Courmayeur is one of the loveliest Italian ski towns I know of.

But it's hard, no impossible, to focus on winding narrow streets, when your imagination is constantly drawn up through the clouds to the stormy peaks above. The mists part for half an hour, and the black powder-dusted crags of l'Arête Noire de Peteurey, Mont Blanc’s black arête, loom into view.… High winds blow a bank of clouds momentarily aside, and the Grandes Jorasses makes a cameo appearance, a giant's comb of pale granite and ice, its teeth raking the sky....

A hint, a glimpse, is all I need, and I fill in the rest of the range from memory and myth. Mountaineers around the world look to these peaks like Moslems toward Mecca. This is where it all began. Where alpinists have always returned to push their limits, to risk the lot, to win or lose big. The legends that wrap Mont Blanc like an extra layer of clouds all revolve around alpinism. Climbers not skiers are the local heroes on both sides of this mountain, here in Courmayeur and over in Chamonix on the northern flank. On both sides of Mont Blanc the skiing is remarkable, but the drama of miniature climbers struggling up giant walls seems to have overshadowed the pleasures of speed and snow. So be it.

I first came to Mont Blanc in 1964, a young rock-climber just out of school and the army. In two summers I paid enough dues — spent enough nights on high ledges while avalanches roared down on either side, wondering how I was going to get out of this one — that today I'm happy to be here with a pair of skis. Re-living alpine dramas in memory, not in person.

We spend long rainy hours in the Café des Guides, sipping tea and brandy, reading convoluted mysteries, practicing patience. We walk back to the hotel past ghostly telepherique cables swinging up into the clouds. We console ourselves with the thought that somewhere up there snow is falling, piling up, even though here in town the cobblestones are glistening wet. We know that tomorrow, or the next day, or the next, we’ll be skiing against the most dramatic mountain backdrop in Europe.

Which is exactly the way it worked out. And it was well worth the wait.…

Queing for the telpherique out of town, when the weather cleared

Looking for fresh powder and finding it, beneath the Freney Pillars of Mont Blanc...

Italian skiing. Sci a l’italiana. The words “Italy” and “anarchy” have a certain parallel resonance, a fact one notices as quickly on the ski slopes as on the autostrada. This is not a land of orderly lift lines, nor of classical conservative ski wear. We join an excited, undisciplined crowd of skiers outside the telepherique terminal to Plan Checrouit — if you blink twice you might imagine yourself among a crowd of carnival revelers on the lagoon in Venice, except that there is considerably more day-glow fluorescent color in evidence here than in traditional commedia dell'arte harlequin costumes. As so often in scenes of authentic Italian chaos, everything works out just fine, and before long we're at the head of the crowd, inserting our lift tickets into a round ticket checking robot, a close cousin of R2D2, that flashes us back a green-light smile and a cheery electronic message: buon viaggio! Seconds later we're off into the sky, hanging by a thread.

A suave gray haired skier from Torino, jammed next to us in the cable car, winks: “The sun has been very lazy lately, isn’t it? But now…” somehow in this crush of humanity, his arm manages to describe a sweeping arc, “…everything has changed!”

It’s the promised land all right: newly lit by the reborn sun, newly whitewashed, newly draped in a blanket of powder, slightly heavy but definitely the real thing. Snow hungry explorers, come from afar, we set off on the obvious but unrealistic mission to see it all, ski it all, our first day out on the mountain. We fail valiantly. But our audacity can be forgiven if one considers that Courmayeur is only a medium-sized ski area by European standards, not a giant like Verbier or Val d'Isère. Yet with 25 lifts, it would be very big indeed in the States.

A frantic pace: lift-hopping up the mountain. Two lifts up then one run down—then on, then sideways around the corner, then off the back side. Always with one eye on the trail map, one eye on the surrealistic backdrop of Mont Blanc's Brenva Face, disengaging itself slowly, modestly, from the last shreds and wisps of cloud, cliff by cliff, glacier by glacier, legendary route by legendary route, frowning down at us across the empty space of the deep Val Veny below. We watch avalanches scour excess snow from the dark cliffs of Peteurey ridge; a distant roaring reaches us across miles of intervening space. Wow! And again, wow!

In the best Euro-tradition, all the main runs are tracked and packed by noon, but on either side, twisting arêtes topped with whipped cream remain trackless. We cut out into every untracked slot or face we see. This is, after all, the infamous snow-drought winter of ’89, so who knows when it will snow again? But today, there's no sign of a snow drought anywhere, no tell-tale patches of brown on any pistes. We definitely made the right choice. This year Courmayeur is the jackpot, and we’ve hit it. Run by long run, our powder fever dissipates. By evening we've made enough tracks in virgin snow, skied enough flanks of this big sprawling mountain (but not all, by any means) to know that we really like Courmayeur. That it's going to be a great week.…

Arguably, Courmayeur offers the grandest, fiercest alpine backdrop of any ski area in the Alps. Here a telepherique car lifts skiers toward open slopes against a backdrop of jumbled ice and hanging glaciers on the south face of Mont Blanc.

What else did we learn? We discovered the real reason that Courmayeur still had great snow, while skiers at other areas were ready to pack up and head for home, or just cry. It's not exclusively Courmayeur's high altitude, or the fact the neighboring Mont Blanc is so big that it tends to trap storms and “manufacture” its own weather. Artificial snow is a large part of the story. Compared to North America very few European resorts have installed snowmaking; Courmayeur is one of the notable exceptions. And while we weren't actually skiing on artificial snow, their snowmaking machines had built up a good base early in the season, so that this new spring snow had something to adhere to. In other Euro-resorts we visited in this particularly dry season, with little or no base at all, either natural or artificial, a one-meter spring dump of snow would disappear in less than a week, melting away from both the sun above and the warm earth below. But here at the foot of Mont Blanc, we were happily surrounded by winter's true colors, white on white.

And there was more. Courmayeur's snow-laden pistes and its smashing backdrop aren't its only claims to fame. There’s always a hint of la dolce vita in any good Italian ski vacation, and great meals seem just as important as great snow. We were only slightly shocked to discover that there were some 27 different, privately owned, mountain restaurants scattered about the slopes. Buon appetito! But these skiing lunches were just a pale hint of dinners to come. (See sidebar.)

And how about Courmayeur’s trees? Tree skiing? In Europe? Sounds like a contradiction in terms, here where the timberline is so low and the slopes so open and bare. But not in the Val d’Aosta, or more precisely on the flanks of the Val Veny, a steep alpine valley that runs west to east at the foot of Mont Blanc. This is the “back side” of Courmayeur skiing, the other half of the mountain, and it's something else. The slopes of the Val Veny are covered with melèze or larch, a needle-bearing tree that's not an evergreen, but instead turns red-gold in autumn, then loses most of its needles in winter. Thus, larch forests look far less dense, more open and inviting than slopes of evergreens. And they are.

We accepted the invitation with undisguised glee. A tree-skiing party in Europe, who would believe it? Dropping through widely spaced trunks into soft mother-of-pearl drifts, thinking fast to avoid small cliffs; dialing the radius of each turn to the perfect setting for this particular snow resistance, this particular steepness, this particular privileged place on a terraced balcony above the Val Veny, smack opposite the meanest, most awesome peak in the Alps.

"Look up there! That's the Pilier de Freney where Bonatti and Mazeaud struggled to retreat for seven days in a storm while their companions died one by one.…" Ugh, I shiver at thought. It’s time to forget history. Instead, I look over my ski tips at the garden of forking paths between the larch trees, drop twenty feet into the first turn, surrender to the here and now of powder snow, forget the legendary climbs and climbers, the triumph and tragedy, forget that beautiful/ugly, fascinating/frightening giant of a mountain across the way, and scribble a set of freehand tracks down another hundred meters of mountainside. Yeah!...

Early evening in Courmayeur: the last alpenglow has just faded from the ice cliffs of Mont Blanc; the street lights have just turned on; crowds are starting to fill the via Roma, the winding cobblestone main drag—a pedestrian street of course. Glowing shop windows display a garden of delights, earthly and unearthly. Il Salumaio is a still life for a thousand varieties of sausage and ham. The polychrome arrangements of fruits and vegetables in small green-grocers windows outshine the couture fashions from Rome and Milano next door. Jewelry by Cartier barely holds its own against old Valdostana pewter and carved wood in this nightly sidewalk sweepstakes. Streets, narrow cobblestone streets especially, are for walking, for crowds. Après-ski street theater for all comers. The night’s still young.

The cafes are full and getting fuller: the Caffè Posta, pink walls and dark wood, waiters in white jackets; the American Bar, a wine and crepe stop for young skiers; the Red Lion pub, full of Italians who like British beer; Il Baretto, the smallest most elegant cafe in town, lots of silver tea sets on small marble tables; le Café des Guides, dark and smoky, old ice axes on the walls. The talk rises to fever pitch. A hundred hands gesticulate, articulate each point, punctuate each phrase in a constant blur of movement.…

Skiers crowd the Plan de Chercrouit with Mont Blanc towering behind them.

A good friend of mine, photographer, writer and globe-trotter, Galen Rowell, (who died tragically in a plane accidnet last year) always claimed that the most exciting places on the planet are the border zones, cultural or geographic, where two worlds meet and mingle. The improbable life-zones between mountains and desert, the indistinct areas of fusion between one culture, one language and another. I thinkGalen was right. And Courmayeur and the Aosta valley are good examples of what he meant.

What country are we in, anyway? Italy, non è vero? Not quite. Aosta is an autonomous Italian province where the kids study French in school, and the locals speak an impossible patois, their own indecipherable home-brew of French and Italian. Here it doesn’t seem to matter if you say Mont Blanc or Monte Bianco. The signs on shops, the chatter in cafe, are randomly in one language or another. All the tiny villages clustered around Courmayeur, here at the head of the valley have French names: Pussy, la Villette, Dolonne, Entrèves, la Palud. The cuisine of region is a madcap mix of French and Italian influences. Pasta and polenta share the table with civet de lièvre. The cultural mixup is pervasive, stimulating, surprising. Yet the people of Courmayeur belong neither to Italy nor to France but to their mountains, the snowy border between two worlds.

Skiing too is a “border” activity here at the foot of Mont Blanc. Here if you want, you can slip seamlessly from normal packed-slope, ski-area sliding to extreme ski-mountaineering, second cousin to classical alpinism, exploring the wilder side of the Mont Blanc massif on skis. The precise border which, of course, is anything but precise, is glacier skiing across the valley from the ski area on the flanks of Mont Blanc itself. It's surprisingly easy to do, with a mountain guide from the Bureau de Guides downtown. And wickedly fun.

A couple of miles above Courmayeur the valley dead ends against a mountain wall. You can burrow straight through to France (via an 11 km long auto tunnel), or put your skis on your shoulder and take a series of not too modern téléphériques and télécabines straight up to the Pointe Hellbronner, a 3452-meter high balcony overlooking the Vallée Blanche on one side and a plunging view back toward Courmayeur on the other. From this concrete terminal in the sky you can ski the dramatic Glacier de Toula, or the longer but easier Vallée Blanche itself. Actually if you've never been down the Vallée Blanche, there's no real choice. It's simply one of the most esthetic days you'll ever spend on skis, gliding 24 kilometers through a no man's land of ice and snow, a chaotic fantasy of crevasses and seracs, a wilderness of shining peaks. But that's another story, for another issue of BreakthroughOnSkis.com.

The Courmayeur guides organize several group descents of the Vallée Blanche each week, and take care of all the incidental details like transportation back from France, and making sure you don't wind up in the bottom of a blue crevasse. Suffice it to say that a Courmayeur ski adventure can easily take you beyond the bounds of Courmayeur proper. You can, for example, visit nearby la Thuile (45 minutes drive from Courmayeur) and then ski over to la Rosière on the French side via lift-served pistes all the way, sans glaciers, sans crevasses.

Closer to home (if home is Courmayeur) are the lovely off-piste excursions from the very highest lift in the Courmayeur ski complex, the funivia to the top of the Cresta d'Arp. Incongruously, there is not a single ski route from this highest téléphérique back down into the ski area; it exists solely to give touring skiers a head start as they leave the ski area and set off (usually with instructor guides) on long, all-day runs to neighboring valleys: the Alpe d'Arp, Pre St. Didier, la Balme, and la Thuile. And this tiny cabin of a lift operates every day. Why not? This is Italy. Where conventional wisdom doesn't exactly seem to apply. Neither in ski area economics nor in life, and on balance, I'd say they're better off for it. We certainly were, during a memorable Courmayeur sojourn.

The disembodied voice on the phone hadn't lied. At the foot of Mont Blanc we found a virtually snowproof ski resort, had an incredible time, and when it was all over, couldn't really decide what we’d enjoyed the most, the skiing, the dining, the spectacular views, the romantic ambience? Courmayeur — the perfect “snowasis” in an almost snowless European winter.

This story is adapted from a magazine piece I wrote a few years ago. Last season wasn't really as dry as the one I described here. You can learn more about Courmayeur by visiting the resort's web site at > www.courmayeur.com

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 Dec/Jan 2004
 BreakthroughOnSkis.com 
photo at top of page:
skiing off-oiste with the Grandes Jorasses, one of the largest satellite peaks of Mont Blanc, in the background
photo © Linde Waidhofer
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© Lito Tejada-Flores unless otherwise credited.