Photos by Jeremy Bernard
The skin track zigzags up the remnants of an old ski run. A Poma lift on the left, a couple of out-of-commission snow guns on the right, and some crude grading is all that distinguishes this "piste" from the surrounding featureless alpine terrain. The only clue that this same run in Sestriere, Italy, hosted the world's best GS skiers in the 2006 Olympics, including Benjamin Raich, Hermann Maier, and Julia Mancuso, is a couple of start houses on the far right of the slope. During the 2006 Games, the entire ski world's attention was focused on this slice of mountain near the Italian-French border—by train about five hours from Paris and an hour from Turin, Italy, or by car, three hours south of Chamonix—yet today the surface lift rarely runs and the majority of ski traffic is uphill, a jumping-off point to the expansive back bowls and couloirs in a small pocket of the Milky Way ski system.
The group of small- to medium-sized ski areas, known locally as the Via Lattea, is comprised of over 70 lifts that connect eight different villages in the southwestern Alps. It's mid-March and I'm here with Kiwi Sam Smoothy and Chamonix-based photographer Jeremy Bernard. The region has been getting hammered by snowfall all winter, thanks in part to an extremely localized weather phenomenon known as retour d'est. The weather pattern, which literally translates to "return from the east," occurs when low pressure forms over the Gulf of Genoa, the large body of water off the Italian Riviera, and feeds continuous moisture from the Mediterranean to the Alps from the east. With no real foothills to blunt the impact of moisture, certain locations can see extended periods of heavy snowfall. This past January, a single storm produced over six feet of snow in the Milky Way.
When we arrived in Montgenèvre, a little ski town on the French side of the border, the immense snowpack buried huts and lodges. The town is known for having hosted one of the world's first international ski races, in 1907, around the same time its denizens built the first ski jumping hill outside of Norway, a claim disputed by neighboring town Claviere, Italy. While racing has always been a driving force behind developments—and improvements—we came here for different reasons: There's little hype, amazing tree skiing, and plenty of vertical to get one puckered in the area's complex alpine and sub-alpine terrain.
Up the hill ahead of me, Smoothy and Marco Eyadin, a local we had met through mutual friends, break trail. Eyadin, 34, has an easy stride and a well-defined sunglass tan despite the stormy winter. Even by Italian standards, he has a laissez-faire, we'll-get-there-when-we-get-there attitude, as he fittingly explains there's no rush to get to the top because there's no one behind us.
By the time we crest the top of the ridge, it's become apparent where Eyadin gets his casual attitude: Not only is there no one behind us, there's just a handful of tracks dropping off either side of the ridge, despite several days of clear weather that proceeded our arrival. We transition at the top of the Milky Way Couloir, which is more of a giant ramp than couloir, and take in the seemingly endless terrain options around us. It's as close to a perfect late winter day as the region had seen, with snow corning up on the south-facing slopes to our right and powder being preserved by the sun-sheltered north-facing slopes to our left. It would be hard to find a bad turn in any direction.
As we discuss who gets first tracks, Eyadin says, "You guys should go first, I ski here all the time." He doesn't sound like he's conceding something or caving to a responsibility of giving us the best snow, but legitimately wants us to have the privilege. Smoothy takes off and gives us real-time updates on snow conditions through a series of laughs and Kiwi-accented exclamations. "You've got to be shitting me!" he cries out in jubilation as his voice fades into the valley 2,000 feet below.
I drop in next and confirm the snow supports Smoothy's use of superlatives. It's not deep, but perfectly smooth and light, winding through a series of undulations and cliff bands all the way to the bottom. Despite trending toward mountaineering in recent years, Eyadin has a background in freestyle, which shows in his skiing. He floats as effortlessly on the way down as he did on the way up, and slowly opens up his turns on the apron, where he comes to a hard stop right beside us, smiling ear-to-ear like it was his first time skiing the run. Although what we do next seems to be a foregone conclusion, we discuss it anyway and all agree: same thing.
In terms of mountain passes in the Alps, the Col de Montgenèvre, the veritable heart of the Milky Way, is nothing impressive. There's no easily distinguished summit that reveals the upper Durance Valley to the west or the Susa Valley to the east. Save for going beneath a chairlift before entering a tunnel that bypasses most of the town, one could miss the ski resort all together.
Due to its lack of a topographical crescendo, the col has played an important role in military battles and human migrations for centuries. One of the most forgiving thoroughfares of the Alps, the pass has seen (arguably) Hannibal, World War II battles, and, recently, migrants from North Africa seeking work who use the groomed slopes that flank the highway to bypass border guards on their way from Italy to France. Often equipped with only sneakers and a light jacket, migrants opt for the more dangerous snow conditions versus the policed crossings on the nearby road. It's not uncommon for ski patrollers to find shoes, blankets, and even strollers on the slopes at dawn. (In April 2018, France's Interior Minister pledged to increase security on the pass.)
Sitting in front of the bakery in the early morning hours several days later, it's easy for a skier's mind to get lost in the mountains that surround the col. Montgenèvre's modest vertical drop (by European standards) of roughly 2,700 feet includes intricate couloirs, film-worthy mini golf, and steep ramps that descend all the way to the valley, accessed by a short hike from the summit chair. Retour d'est has been particularly good as well, delivering over 330 inches in town.
The town itself has a certain je ne sais quoi. When we didn't have cash our first evening and the only ATM was broken, our waitress shrugged it off and just asked us to pay in the next few days (we did). Four generations of locals dance to the same band each Friday night and everyone in town—from the baker to cinema operator—considers their job the most important one.
We've already fallen into a routine that can only be described as…French: wake up, put ski gear on, and roll down to the bakery to get an espresso and croissant. We get our fill of caffeine and second-hand smoke and head over to the lifts to meet Lorenzo Belmondo, a local skier and bartender.
A panic ensues precisely on cue shortly before the lifts open at Montgenèvre. Dozens of skiers are stepping all over each other with complete disregard for personal space, clad in skin-tight white pants and helmets with visors. For all intents and purposes, it's a bluebird powder day, which, for this crowd, means it's a bluebird piste day.
Beyond his powder skis, Belmondo stands out with his pack, helmet covered in stickers—many of which represent his motto, "No Friends on Powder Days"— and his well-groomed handlebar mustache. His English isn't perfect, but he speaks confidently as he lays out the plan for the day as we ride up the chair.
His plan is—how you say?—loose. Go around the corner here, poke over there, maybe walk up there. Which is part of the beauty of the Milky Way. Although one ticket gains access to the entire network of lifts, each resort has a unique feel and quality of terrain to entertain even the most dedicated skier. Although the lift ticket system and lift opening times require a thorough understanding of spreadsheets and a basic grasp of French and Italian, once understood it's easy to purchase a single, cheaper ticket based on the day's weather and snow conditions. Snowy and cloudy? Ski in the trees between Sestriere and Pragelato (ticket: $43). Sunny and calm? Ski Montgenèvre's north-facing side in the morning and catch the afternoon corn cycle on the south-facing slopes across the highway (ticket: $48).
Without the need for a plan d'attaque, we ski a couple of wide open faces and make our way toward Claviere. As we traverse toward a new but oddly dormant lift, Belmondo explains the complications that face neighboring resorts that are owned by different municipalities with runs that cross international borders. "There was a run here but now you're not allowed to ski it without avalanche gear," he says. "If the Italian police catch you without gear, they'll fine you."
The lift closure stems from a combination of erosion associated with grading, recent accidents, and the bureaucracy of international law associated with developing a run that starts in France and ends in Italy. It is now tied up in litigation, and we have to climb over massive drifts just to get into the top station.
While many locals in the U.S. would be up in arms about an unused, fairly crucial chairlift, Belmondo is unfazed, and perhaps happy that the only way to access the terrain is by hiking. "Here, you can make freeride without big danger with a short hike," he explains as he points out the different slopes, the repeat offenders, and what time to ski each run safely. Although the region has an ubiquitous casual vibe, we'd later find out that as long as people have been traveling in these mountains, they'd also been dying in them.
We leave the would-be top station and ski midday untracked powder under the lift. Over beer and pasta at a refugio, Belmondo introduces us to his friends around the deck. We visit more tables than we miss, and I wonder if "No Friends on Powder Days" is meant ironically.
As we make our way back to Montgenèvre, checking out a couple of WWII ammunition stashes that sit unceremoniously on the sides of the piste, I recall what Bemondo had said right before we dropped in to our run. "This is my mountain," he'd said, the tips of his mustache curling inward under a big smile. There wasn't a trace of cockiness in his voice, nor did he mean he's the man of the mountain, rather that the mountain is more than the place he skis.
The top of the bowl is an eerie place to be. The atmosphere of fog occluding the peaks above and the trees below amplifies the feeling, but it's something more guttural—similar to exploring an abandoned roadside building—that drives the point home. Smoothy, Bernard, and I briefly discuss how to descend north into the valley that divides Sestriere and the now-defunct resort of Pragelato. We decide to take a conservative route through the north-facing trees, sticking to ridgelines, and avoiding the massive avalanche path.
The birch trees' narrow branches are coated in snow that's so light it would take only a breath of wind to clear off the entire tree. We make a hasty plan, picking out untouched panels that vary from knee- to waist-deep powder. It's light-hearted, laugh-after-every-turn skiing. Although it's a Sunday, we feel no pressure from other groups and see only one group of locals the entire day.
The tree skiing itself is a bit of an anomaly by European standards. The deciduous trees—unlike their evergreen counterparts typical of many European resorts—allow snowfall to reach the ground in a fairly consistent manner rather than flakes getting caught up on branches. The Steamboat-esque glades reveal fluid skiing through steep terrain for hundreds of vertical feet.
We regroup when the pitch mellows out. The grayscale landscape of clouds, trees, and snow immediately bring back the uncomfortable feeling from before, this time accentuated by the skeletons of buildings we can see across the valley. What was once a small town now consists merely of a couple of stonewalls and crumbling arches. Although well away from the main avalanche path, the sheer destructive power of the slide path is apparent even from where we're standing. Not only does the path run partway up the adjacent hillside, but most of the lower limbs of the trees around us have been blown off, evidence of the slide's powerful, accompanying air blast. On the wrong day, it would be hard to find a truly safe spot in the valley.
At the bottom of the run, we enter a cozy refugio and order plates of steaming polenta and wild deer, beef, and pork. Over the hearty meal, the refugio's owner passes down a story from April 19, 1904, when 81 people were killed by an avalanche on the path we had just circumvented. He explains in French how workers from the nearby Beth Mine were swept up by the avalanche, with some of their bodies not recoverable until the snow melted that summer.
The mine eventually closed in 1910, he continues, and many buildings were rebuilt only to later be burned down by the Nazis in 1944. His stoicism and sense of pride is reflected in an Italian poem penned by a miner that hangs on the wall of the refugio. Two sentences in particular strike me, and I can't help but relate to them as a skier:
"The alteration of the seasons and of the years was printed on their sunburnt faces, injured by the blades of the cold. Every day their muscles flexed under the lash of fatigue, their hearts pulsed in harmony with the fire that fed the oven."
Of the thousands of people who pass through the Col de Montgenèvre every day on their way to better known destinations on the coast of France or the Piedmont valley of Italy, only a handful get eddied out. Just four families have lived here for multiple generations, whereas the majority of the population (about 480 year-round residents) consists of transplants from neighboring towns and the U.K. It's perhaps because of this lack of traditional localism that most people have such instant pride in the town; there's no prerequisite amount of time to prove one's love.
One such transplant is Ali Fairhead, better known as Monkey. With unkempt hair and an equally unkempt beard, Monkey is one of the most genuinely happy locals in a town full of them. The Englishman has traveled the world, from Alaska to the South Pacific, his nickname following him across different nations and occupations. He loves beer and laughs about how he doesn't bring his wallet when he goes out to avoid spending money, only to find out the next morning that his friends create bar tabs for him and treat themselves. He is fast friends with just about everyone, and goes as far as inviting all of us to his wedding even though we'd just barely met him.
We meet Monkey, his Czech fiancé, Klara Valentova, and co-worker Sylvan in front of the ski shop where they all work. Slightly hungover, Monkey reluctantly agrees to a short hike to the top of La Plane, a several-thousand-foot run similar to Snowbird's North Baldy just outside the resort.
The hike is casual, and I talk with Valentova about the simplicity of life in town, her female ski posse, and the constant entertainment of being engaged to Monkey. We don't set any records on the hike up, our pace more consistent with an island vibe than a French ski resort. From the top we have a beautiful view of town, and Monkey elaborates on retour d'est and the col.
"The same storm can hit us two or three times. It comes in from the east, gets pushed back by winds from the west, and can even come back one more time if the conditions are right," he explains. The ridgelines that surround us, with cornices on both the east and west sides, backup this claim that seems too good to be true.
Monkey's skiing style isn't reflective of his personality: It's aggressive and hard-charging, accentuated by his full-face helmet. Valentova and Sylvan undersell their skiing ability—they're both fluid and natural. At the bottom, it's hard not to be bewildered: Here's a near perfect run, in plain view of a major highway, a short hike from the top lift, and five days after the storm we're still within the first 50 people down it.
Walking around town that evening, we meet one of the oldest couples in the village, Henry and Simone Mignon. Henry is one of the few octogenarians born in Montgenèvre that still lives here. They invite us in their home and he gives us an elaborate oral history of his life. With bushy gray eyebrows and a mouth framed by large joules, the 84-year-old recites his story through labored but purposeful sentences. He tells of learning to ski when he was 4 years old on what was then called "the lift." The Italian occupation came in 1940, and he was taken away on a train destined for a work camp. He was then rescued from that train by Red Cross just short of crossing into Germany. In a raspy, "Godfather" voice, he recalls how he returned to Montgenèvre in 1945 only to find it completely razed during the war. He helped rebuild it before a career as a customs officer took him throughout France. The town and skiing brought him back for good in 1994.
When I ask what keeps him here, he looks up with a thousand-yard stare of someone trying to find words that are just out of his grasp. It's a look that's become familiar this trip, but the answer eventually comes to him. "I was born here," he says. "It's where I saw the light for the first time and it's where I want to see the light for the last time." For once, no further explanation is needed.
This story originally appeared in the October 2018 (47.2) issue of POWDER. To have great stories like this delivered right to your door, in print, subscribe here.