Words: Erme Catino
The stares are becoming hard to ignore. Romans, out for a sunny Sunday stroll in March, are thrown off guard as they try to board the metro. With our ski bags, boots, and luggage taking up the entire aisle, and Anna's blond hair and Italian vocabulary limited to "ciao" and "grazie," it is clear that we are either lost or not from around here. Unloading our train from Fiumocino airport at Rome's Tiburtina railway station, we walk through several landing docks where old men speak of the day's soccer matches, and an aroma of espresso fills the air. They look us up and down, probably thinking we missed the train to the Alps. However, we aren't heading to the Alps. Our destination is one I've dreamed about skiing for years since I first laid eyes on them as a child visiting my Italian relatives. "Abruzzo?" our bus driver says to me as we walk to another transportation dock. Si. "Perfecto," he responds, and he shows me the cargo hatch for our skis, outcasts no longer, and off to explore the Apennine mountains, a region completely off the radar for American skiers.
The Abruzzo region of Italy is only a couple hours drive from Rome, and typically sees most of its skiing traffic on the weekends from either Rome or Naples. Our home for the week is Rivisondoli, a picturesque medieval village with cobblestone roadways and views of the major ski area and town of Roccaraso outside our inn's window. A week ago, Roccaraso and the Alto Sangro District (the major ski areas of Aremogna, Monte Pratello, and Monte Pizzalto), hosted the F.I.S. Alpine Junior World Championships. Yet upon our arrival, the towns have again returned to their sleepy identity. We walk past huge piles of snow, cantinas with sopressata and capicola drying in the window, and are greeted with a magnificent welcome dinner with our guides and their families at a small restaurant called La Rua, where the cave-like stone roof dates back to 1200 A.D.
A gust of wind almost knocks us over. Our guides, Rinaldo Le Donne and Andrea Ciampaglia, glance over their shoulders. I think they are surprised we are putting up with the weather and staying on their tails. Yesterday's 70 mph winds haven't fully subsided yet, and the main lift to access the ridge from Pescocostanzo is closed. While all of Abruzzo is full of medieval villages, Pescocostanzo is the gem. Beautiful churches and homes from the Renaissance and Baroque periods sit at the base of a chair that accesses an enormous ridgeline that could keep you busy for a week. It's an affluent town, wealthy from the old sheep trade named "tratturo" that originated in the area during the Bronze Age. We ride halfway up to a shoulder then skin to the ridge. Although gusts of wind halt our progress several times, we opt to tour a little further to Monte Rotella at 2,110 meters. The ridgeline is teeming with options, all of them untouched. To the northeast, several lines and rock chutes beckon, Andrea points out a larger massif in the distance called La Majella. "Tomorrow we ski that," he says in broken English.
Dropping in one at a time, we carve up mascarpone cream cheese snow into an alpine ravine and descend all the way down to Rocca Pia, a small village of only 250 people. This sleepy town is a little further down the Altopiano Della Cinque Mille, a road built during the Napoleon era. We are greeted by Daniele Giallonardi , owner of our guiding outfit ProWolf, on the side of the road with our ride for the week, an aging Fiat van, anticipating exactly the route we would descend.
A third of the Abruzzo region is protected through parks and reserves, and contains 16 ski resorts and three National Parks (National Park of Abruzzo, Majella National Park, and Gran Sasso National Park). In addition, the area consists of another regional park and more than 30 nature reserves. It is the Yellowstone of the old country. No other region in Europe has more land set aside than Abruzzo, and the parks have brought rise again to the native wolves, and hold the last remaining Marsican Bears. While I may be carrying a U.S. Passport, I'm as Italian-American as they come.
My father immigrated to the states at the age of 19, and I grew up next door to my mother's parents--also from Italy--who refuse to assimilate, speaking exclusively Italian and maintaining their traditions and culture. We frequently visited relatives growing up and it was during a trip to visit family when I first saw the mountains of Abruzzo. I was 14 years old and we were on the way back from the Dolomites. My Dad decided to try a short cut through the mountains. With a trunk full of fragrant porcini mushrooms on the verge of spoiling, we got lost. I must have drifted off to sleep, but I remember waking up to the vivid outline of spectacular mountains. They were big and this image has stayed with me for years, with the hope of one day skiing here and visiting family.
At 2,205 meters, Monte Greco sits behind the ski resort of Aremogna. An all day touring affair would get you there from the resort, but ProWolf--a two-year-old guiding operation--has a heli. Danielle's partner Mario Mollo joins us and is sitting in the cockpit with the pilot. He points to another side of the Abruzzo range we have yet to see and will be skiing later in the week. Peaks averaging 2,300 meters complete with chutes and wide open bowls overloads my ski sensory. There is so much terrain and so few skiers here. With just a few days under our belts, I'm already feeling the area pull me in: the food, small town camaraderie, and local essence of Abruzzo have captivated me. A week here is not nearly enough, we could spend two to three weeks and not ski the same line twice. I feel the urge to check out and move here, ski lines with our new friends, maybe open a bed and breakfast. So long North America and your rat race for "sidecountry." Everyone can dream, right?
We warm up on Serra Chiarno, a relatively wide mellow face that has yet to corn up. As we pole across the ridge, we run into the Italian Forest Service radioing in the weather and avalanche forecast for the day. We then head to the goods. The East face of Monte Greco features a steep, rock-lined chute reminiscent of the Dolomites. Mario looks at it and shakes his head, saying he'll meet us at the landing zone. A wind-lip sits at the entrance, we smear to the right of it (the crux has a couple cliffs in it,), and ski chalky, stable snow as slough pours down to our right. The chute is one of my best runs ever, and we slash a few more turns, then watch Rinaldo air a spine before exiting the chute and cutting over to Lake Pantaniello, a glacial lake with rare lake crayfish.
Forte e Gentile. It's the motto of Abruzzo, and means strong and gentile. Strong are the mountains and landscape, a rugged yet beautiful area where medieval villages cling to mountainsides. Where years ago they housed their livestock on the first floor of houses and used the animals' ambient heat to warm the living quarters above, and where earthquakes have plagued the region for centuries, much like the one in 2009 that decimated L'Aquila, the capital of Abruzzo. Yet as they have time and time again, the Abruzzese rebuild and continue to move on. Like all Italians, the Abruzzese are a passionate group, and it comes as no surprise that we are treated like family here. Along with their perseverance, their simple lives are what create the strong and gentile motto, and after spending an evening with Gustavo, a local farmer and owner of a salumeria, we see firsthand how their agricultural traditions continue to thrive.
"It was the arrival of the train in 1897 from Naples to Roccaraso that was the big step for skiing here," notes Stephano Buccafusca an Italian journalist from Rome and member of a local ski club. Stephano's father, Emilio, born in 1913, was part of the first group of skiers here. Even prior to the first lift in 1937 (one of the first in Italy), which resembled a tow rope of sleighs, Emilio and his friends would take the train in from Naples and ski tour the area while staying in the Rifugio Aremogna. At that time, Roccaraso was becoming the Cortina of Central/Southern Italy. That all changed during World War II when the Nazis set up their headquarters in the town as a base between Northern and Southern Italy. The Nazis proceeded to blow up each building upon their departure, demolishing the area.
"The town of Roccaraso is now in its third life, and we now have over 100 kilometers of slopes between the three major ski areas," says Stephano. We're eating at the old Rifugio Aremogna, now called Rifugio Principessa Giovanna named after the Italian Royal princess that frequented there.
This season Abruzzo received a historic and debilitating snowfall. In February, after a rather weak start to the season, the area received two meters of snow from one storm. Doors were snowed shut, and small villages were cut off from their neighboring communities, as many roads were impassable. The town elders said they have never seen a storm of that magnitude, and while this region always holds snow they have received this much since 1956. In the hillside town of Rivisondoli, people skied through the stone laden alleyways that circle up the village, and by early March cold front after cold front blanked the Apennines with a base of 300-plus centimeters. We couldn't have timed our trip better, after one day of snow and wind, the skies turned cobalt blue, and a daily corn harvest began much like the farmers and shepherds who cultivated this land for centuries.
Rinaldo, who we later dubbed Randonee Rinaldo, has been ski touring these mountains for over 15 years. During one of our classic European days, which consisted of cappuccino and Nutella filled croissants, a short ride on an old chairlift, and a serene tour to another untouched line, Rinaldo points to Monte Porrara as we begin our skin along the ridge of the Majella National Park. Our eyes are fixed upon a west-facing banana looking chute with heavy exposure. He tells me the chute has never seen a ski track and typically does not hold snow through the crux. But this season is different, and it's easy to see how excited he is as he snaps off a few photos. He has been eyeing this line for years. With a long skin ahead of us, Rinaldo puts the line into his mental bank, and we continue towards La Majella. Later on that week, on the one morning he has to work and cannot ski with us, he bolts up Monte Porrara in the waning afternoon sun, and ticks off another first descent.
Upon reaching our destination of the Fondo di Femmina Morta, we are welcomed by stunning views of the Adriatic Sea and 2,912-meter Gran Sasso, the highest peak in the Apennines. Clouds begin to spill in from the Adriatic as we overlook five regions of Italy. Hoping to ski a chute called La Baccalà, due to its fish-like shape, we are turned away due to a missing bridge of snow. We spy a group of Austrian skiers, who happen to be the only others we encounter in the backcountry the entire week, not including the wolf and bear tracks during our trip to Abruzzo National Park. Apparently this season's big snow year caught the attention of skiers in the Alps, and Rinaldo explains to us that a lot of ski mountaineers from the Dolomites came to ski in Abruzzo this season.
The cirque easily holds another eight-plus chutes, in addition to other options along the ridge. One chute has a looming cornice and another has substantial avalanche debris towards the exit. We find a north-facing chute that holds decent snow, and then open up GS turns through aprons of corn s that tumble over multiple rollovers. We arrive at a final exit through the trees and past a 200-year-old shepherd hut. Rinaldo's wife picks us up in the Fiat van, and we drive back towards the village of Campo di Giove where we began the day, and celebrate with a well-earned beer at the town bar.
Just as Gustavo's pigs lives are cut short, to be harvested for prosciutto and other mouth-watering cured meats, our time in Abruzzo ends far too quickly. After ticking off descents all week in some of the most majestic and quiet terrain I've ever seen, we spend a few days with family, eating my grandmother's homemade pasta and picking artichokes, oranges, and lemons in my cousin's farm.
Returning to Rome, we hastily adjust our ski bags. Wedges of cheese flank our skis and our suitcases are full of wine. From behind, we hear a fellow passenger say, "I don't think they got very far with those skis here." We ignore the ignorant comment, the dream fulfilled: Forte e Gentile.
Getting there: Flying into Rome's major airport (Fiumicino) is the easiest and most affordable, however you could fly to Pescara, which is closer to Abruzzo. Either option requires a short and cheap bus ride to the major towns of Abruzzo. A car isn't necessary as you can bus to the major ski resort, and ProWolf (the recommended guiding company) sets up pickups for backcountry tours. Tourism info for the area. ProWolf.
Lodging: Villa Lauden B&B, located in Rivisondoli is 30E per person midweek. Price includes all the espresso/cappuccino you can put back along with other baked goods that are made daily. While you can also stay in Roccaraso, Rivisondoli is recommended as it offers more local ambiance.