The Other Side
Breaking through the Italian side of Mont Blanc before it changes forever
IN A TINY VILLAGE CALLED LA PALUD, in northwestern Italy, a woman in tight jeans milled around an old stone structure. She wore an orange vest and a yellow hard hat that sat on top of her long, curly hair. Her name was Valeria de Vecchi, and she was at work. It was a cold, gray February morning. Built during World War II, the utilitarian edifice houses the base of a cable-car system, called the Funivie Monte Bianco. Next to it, a half-dozen cars sat in a parking lot, where a few skiers slipped on boots and tightened their harnesses.
The bright blue, steel tram—layered in peeling paint—holds up to 30 passengers, but on this morning, about half that many people filed inside. The gondola climbed 2,634 vertical feet to the Pavillon du Mont Frèty. Next to a restaurant and a sundeck, skiers waited for another cable car—similar in appearance and size. After the operator closed the doors, we took flight. A hundred feet below us, a foot and a half of fresh snow rested untouched. Above us, the mountain erupted in cliffs, glaciers, and couloirs—the navigation of which required a guide, or at least local expertise.
This is not a ski area, after all. On the Helbronner, the name of the point to which we were ascending, you won't find ski patrol, let alone avalanche control work, grooming, or boundaries. The funivie is simply a transportation system, for skiers and tourists, that climbs 6,765 feet up the Italian side of 15,781-foot Monte Bianco (or Mont Blanc, as it's known in French), the tallest peak in Western Europe. But the days of this relic are numbered.
It's on the second cable car that an American snowboarder asked de Vecchi, a native of Milan, when the old lift would be decommissioned, and the sleek, new $133 million cable-car system would open. A vertical mile below us, at the base of the valley, Italian workers hammered away in the depths of what looked like a holding station for a spaceship. The new cable-car system wouldn't be operational until spring 2015, de Vecchi told the stranger. After hearing the project was behind schedule, the skiers gave a small cheer. De Vecchi looked confused. "Why do you react this way?" she asked in English. "We don't want more skiers here," said another American.
De Vecchi explained that the new lift will mostly affect summer traffic. Nearby Chamonix, on the other side of the mountain, makes most of its money off summer tourists riding the Aiguille du Midi tram. The Italian side of the mountain wants to tap into that revenue. Plus, not many area skiers are interested in the off-piste here, which is all the gondola system accesses, she replied. "Yeah," agreed the original skier, "but it's the end of an era."
The car locked into its dock, dangling above a 200-foot cliff. We walked down a hallway and placed our skis in a basket, then started hiking up a steel walkway. In 2012, because of construction, the walkway replaced a third, even shorter cable car. After climbing 228 metal steps up a narrow corridor, we arrived at 11,072 feet on the Punta Helbronner.
YOU PROBABLY WON’T COME HERE. Chamonix is only 20 miles away. It has the legends you've heard of, the cosmopolitan bacchanalia, Swedish girls, and people who speak English, not to mention dramatic peaks, the Valle Blanche, the Cosmiques, and the pride that comes with having skied something that you and your friends read about in ski magazines.
Chamonix is where I woke up, after a flight into Geneva, Switzerland, and a shuttle ride to the birthplace of alpinism. But I was only there for a single lager. It was time for one last bus. Twilight lit Monte Bianco as we slithered up the mountain and then traveled through it in a seven-mile-long tunnel. We passed La Palud and drove another two miles to Courmayeur. Even on the Via Roma promenade, the streets are typically quiet. The cheese store and ski shop close down for two hours every day at lunchtime. The town of 2,500 (Chamonix has 10,000 residents, comparatively) is small enough that I simply walked around until I found my hotel.
Connecting the two alpine towns over the mountain was the idea of Count Lora Totino, widely regarded, in the middle of the 20th century, as an engineering genius. Initially, he tried connecting sleds to reindeer, but the animals had a hard time acclimatizing and hoofing it through deep snow. In 1948, the Funivie Monte Bianco opened to the public. (Italy originally built it during World War II, but French fighter planes destroyed the cables.) Eventually, a cable went in across the Valle Blanche (which is only operational in the summer), connecting it to the Aiguille du Midi and France. For all his vision, not even Totino could have foreseen what's coming to Monte Bianco next.
The new Helbronner gondola will make everything in the town look somewhat medieval. The first car will hold 80 passengers—the second 75—and both will slowly spin one 360-degree rotation, to ensure maximum sightseeing, as they travel 26 feet per second to the top of the mountain. The midway station, designed in the shape of a crystal, will have retail stores, cafés, restaurants, and a 120-person movie theater. At the end of the second cable, a 426-foot-long tunnel will connect to a 262-foot-tall elevator, which will access the new Rifugio Torino and the best skiing on the mountain. While the system isn't being built for skiers, it will affect them.
Dave Rosenbarger (who passed away last January, after this article was originally published) spent 16 winters in Chamonix. During the 2013-14 season, Italy got pounded with southerly storms, and because Cham passes now include access to Courmayeur and the Helbronner lifts, he spent four days a week on the Italian side, typically in the morning before driving back through the tunnel once the south-facing slopes heated up.
"The skiing on the Helbronner is so special," said Rosenbarger. "When you've got 7,000 feet of fall-line skiing, and essentially nobody ever there, it's some of the best lift-served skiing in the world."
Before walking into the first box, it's customary to have a cappuccino in the Café del Funivie. So that's what I did, accompanied by Liz Smart, a U.S.-born Chamonix-living UIAGM/IFMGA-certified guide, and her sister-in-law, Erin Smart, a guide pursuing her IFMGA certification. Inside we met Louisa, who's been running the café outside the base of the cable car for 30 years. Louisa's customers are almost exclusively skiers and snowboarders who come to ride here. She says she'll retire when the current system closes and the base area moves to Entrèves, just down the road, taking her clientele with it. The Helbronner rarely shuts down, maybe a day or two a year, but sure enough, when they announce that as a result of wind it won't open on this day, everybody scattered and we were the only ones left in the café. We finished our cappuccinos and headed out the door as Louisa rinsed out cups and saucers.
One advantage of the new base area, located closer to the bottom of the valley, is that it will be directly across the street from another gondola that accesses the Courmayeur ski area. The downside is that skiers will no longer be able to ski all the way back to the tram during times of lean snowfall.
The Smarts and I drove a few miles down-valley to Courmayeur and caught a series of lifts. Courmayeur has plenty of big lines in sight—they hosted a stop on the 2014 Freeride World Tour—but limited visibility and high winds hindered our options. Toward the top, we took the Youla—an eight-person cable car without an operator inside—and then the Cresta d'Arp—similar in appearance to the Helbronner cars. We traversed to a couloir, where the snow was icy and crusty and entered the Dolonne, a massive bowl that ends in a mini-valley, before losing interest.
The thing about skiing in Italy is that when the snow is bad, you can always take advantage of the second and third best domestic goods: food and wine. At Du Tunnel, in town, I sat with what appeared to be the grandparents and children of those running the restaurant. (I asked, but they did not speak any English.) I ordered an eight-Euro pizza with arugula and prosciutto; it was the size of a small dinner table, delivered unsliced, and probably the best pizza I've ever had. The whole staff talked to each other, having fun, in loud Italian. Back at the hotel, I had a glass of wine with the night-watchwoman, the 80-year-old mother and aunt of the brother and sister who operate the comfortable Hotel Berthod. I finished my glass as it started snowing and went to bed with no plans for the next day, knowing I'd need to find a guide or some friends to ski the snow that was piling up.
I WOKE TO A BRILLIANT LIGHT and the sound of snow blowers and snowcats. After breakfast—a spread at the hotel of meats, cheeses, and pastries—I checked email and Facebook messages to see if anyone was coming through the tunnel to ski. Photographer Mattias Fredriksson happened to be a block away and an hour later we stood on top of an untracked slope stacked with rolls and poppers, right under Courmayeur's Pra Neyron lift. Chad Sayers and Oscar Scherlin were with him, and I followed them down the slope. After a couple of soft turns, I jumped off a rock and let the mountain fall away, landing softly, slashing another turn to check speed, then rolling over a knoll before dumping onto the groomer.
The next morning, I made my way back to the Helbronner. Under royal blue skies, from the Rifugio Torino, I could see the summit of Monte Bianco, the Aiguille du Midi, Grandes Jorasses, and deep into the Aosta Valley below. On the deck, I met Oscar, 58, the head of security for off-piste skiing, which means he issues the avalanche forecast. Oscar had flowing thick white hair to his shoulders and a gray beard. The short, stout man wore shades and a beanie. The avalanche danger was a four out of five because of all that wind, he said. Regardless, groups of skiers covered the hill. I asked Oscar if he worried about an increase in skiers and avalanches on the Helbronner with the new cable car on the way. He scoffed at the question, his response reflective of the region's laissez-fair attitude when it comes to alpinism and avalanches.
As I downloaded the last cable car, I saw countless tracks down beautiful, steep, confusing terrain lined with trees, gullies, and cliffs. I watched a couple of skiers approach a zone where the skiing gets really interesting, threading through the powder toward it. We floated above them on the old lift, the shadow of our box in the foreground, and then beyond them.
There's an added pressure to ski something when you're on assignment—or maybe it was just that I'd been ogling the Helbronner all week. Nobody wants to read about downloading. But as colleagues warned me, and the Smarts reiterated, the Helbronner is tricky. It's south-facing, so the window to ski it before the slopes get too much sun is small, and something my guide was unwilling to test that day. I knew that I probably could have skied it, anyway, and what's worse, that I would have felt so much better than I do now after doing so. I also know that if I consistently skied conditions like the Helbronner had that day, I won't be skiing for very long. The odds catch up to you, especially in the Alps.
THE NEXT DAY, MORNING LIGHTcast a fantastic pink, fire-like glow on the Punta Helbronner, Monte Bianco, and the surrounding peaks and glaciers. With clouds moving in, we had no time to see Louisa. My guide, a credentialed Italian named Gianfranco, adjusted my harness, and we boarded the first car along with a couple other skiers and an enormous vat of water being transported to the Pavillon. We got out and rode the next car in silence. We exited and put our skis on a conveyor belt and started that ridiculously steep 228-stair walk to the top, our boots clunking on the metal steps. It was my third journey up these stairs, but the first time I would not be walking back down them.
I passed Oscar, who was chipping away at black ice with an axe. He wore an amazing rainbow-colored headband. I followed Gianfranco through the "Danger!" gates and around to the Colle del Toula, until we stood on a huge metal structure on top of a 75-foot cliff. He started walking down the steep, icy, snowy steps to the glacier. I followed but much slower and with my free hand on the rail. I got to a platform, the end, and wondered how to get the remaining 20 feet down. A jump? Rappel? Oh, a snow-covered ladder.
I down-climbed with my skis and poles balanced on my right shoulder, my left hand on the ladder. Everything was icy and slippery. I stared at my feet. Goddamn ski boots. Finally, we made it to the Toula Glacier. I took my sweet-ass time adjusting gear, then followed Gianfranco's lead. The snow was creamy and smooth, with areas of crud. We made it 500 feet down and stopped next to a field of enormous seracs that were probably a million years old, and the crevasses a million feet deep. I stared at the wild formations for a while before continuing in the thick, slightly packed foot of pow.
We skied past the Pavillon mid-station, cruising through the low-angle field, then worked our way around to Canale dell'Orso. We were the majority of the way down the 7,000-foot run, and our route was starting to get steep. The slope was easily the most difficult thing we'd ski—and north facing. I skied fast, opening up my turns. We cut right into a big, flat valley, still full of soft snow, not to mention big boulders and gullies to play off. Then we followed a path that wove through old homes, across streets, right back to Café del Funivie. I had an espresso and a croissant stuffed with Nutella. Then I grabbed my gear, said goodbye to Louisa, and headed out the café door.
Details, Details: Stay at the Hotel Berthod, where the spread of pastries, homemade marmalades, pâté and cheeses (the fontina!) makes you never want to have breakfast anywhere else. The hot tub cave is pretty nice, too, and rooms, at 100 euro a night, are affordable. Essential Reading: Courmayeur Mont Blanc Freeride, a guidebook by Rudy Buccella.