The guys behind me on the conveyor belt look like they have done this before. They have serious expressions and hoodless jackets. Their skis are very short. At the top of the shallow pitch, we step off the rig and have to walk (walk!) to the tram dock, where we waited with the Polizia.
We were midway through the Sella Ronda, a chairlift circumnavigation of the Sella massif through four valleys in the Alta Badia region in Italy's Dolomites. We skied clockwise from the sleepy town of Corvara. About 20 chairlifts, 25 miles of intermediate groomers, and a few strudels later, we followed the orange arrows back into Corvara.
On the first run, a dozen older Italians stroked synchronized toe touches and arm windmills to warm up for the big day on the hill. As we skied along lazy groomers and cat-tracks, one mountain village to the next, dodging those on the crowded slopes, we eyed the couloirs snaking down the huge walls of the Dolomites. Those would have to wait.
It was during lunch that I realized North Americans ski too much. All this bell-to-bell and hiking. You guys can go get rad while I take another bite of strudel. That's what I had for lunch, in addition to an espresso and a cigarette, which I smoked while basking in the sun in front of a Tyrolean hut that was probably built five centuries ago. I felt fantastic.
Sometime after my nicotine buzz dissipated, we ended up on the final turns of the Val Gardena Downhill. My "fat" skis didn't quite hold an edge. As we descended into the historic village, I felt like a voyager, finally discovering the archetypical European ski town. But we couldn't stay. We had to get back to our car in Corvara before the lifts closed. So we crossed the street and grabbed the next chair, steep, world-class climbing walls surrounding us, Val Gardena disappearing behind us.
The finish line was anticlimactic. I wanted balloons and a crowd. Instead, a transfer lift with skiers riding both ways brought us past a trailer park and back into Corvara. We high-fived and celebrated Groomer Fest with a radler (two parts pils, one part lemonade) and the best pasta in the world at a restaurant down the valley where the servers wore tuxedos.
Europeans invented skiing, and they still do it better than anybody else. Pass me another smoke...
The Chairlift Tour di Dolomiti behind us, my partners decided we should do some actual touring. Or at least some skiing that demanded actual work. All I wanted was another strudel, but I went along anyway.
From Corvara, we drove 45 minutes past a couple of castles to the end of the road at Pederu at 5,078 feet. As darkness set in, we strapped on headlamps and skins, brought a gluhwein for the road, then skinned 2,300 feet up a cat-track to Rifugio Fanes, where a snowcat had brought our bags.
When we approached the Fanes Hut, aglow at the base of the Tofane mountains, we walked through the heavy wooden door in the stone basement marked "Ski Room." The hut is near a scatter of buildings in a village called Marebbe, which hosted recreationists before World War I. Brothers Fritz, Rudi, and Alfred Mutschlechner build the hut in 1928 to offer a base for the growing number of skiers and mountaineers in the area. Alfred ran the hut until 1978, when his son Max took over.
Max's rosy cheeks matched his inviting, warm personality. He wore an old U.S. Teleskiing fleece and worn denim. He no longer skis because of achy hips, and doesn't speak much English. But he smiles a lot and will share a beer with you anyway. His hydro-powered hut, which sits at 7,126 feet in the middle of the Fanes-Sanes-Braies Nature Park, is one of the most efficient in the Alps.
In Tyrolean style, it's probably one of the most gemutlich, too. Flower boxes hang from the deck on the second story. On the sun deck, crimson shutters parallel each window. A goat's ass protrudes on one wall, his head coming through on the inside. In the Stube, where hut employees serve meals characteristic of the local, simple, and fresh Ladin cuisine, everything is wooden. In the middle of the room sits a brick oven with a white and blue majolica. Old telemark skis and other relics adorn the walls, demarcating a long and rich history of alpinism.
The next morning, a guide led us about 3,000 feet to one of the highest nearby ridges. At the top, a steel cable aided those who wanted to scamper up another 100 feet of rock. On the opposite side of the ridge was a cliff, hundreds of feet high, to the valley floor. To our side, nothing but mountains and mountains, some with crazy striations, others with exciting-looking couloirs. In the distance, Cortina.
With the exception of a few soft, smooth turns, the ski down demanded on point navigation of hairy death crust. The Italians in the group kept it loose, sending it anyway. We all enjoyed a care-free ski down. Back on the sun deck, the radlers refreshed us, and in the stube, the strudel took me exactly where I wanted to be.
How to get there: Fly into Munich and rent a car. The drive to Northern Italy is about three hours.
More Information: Check out RifugioFanes.com for hut details and SellaRonda.com for maps and information about the Sella Ronda tour.