Steep Skiing in Italy

Photo: Marka

At Italy’s Alagna, the history is deep and the ski mountains are steep.

by Patrick Thorne

At Revelstoke, you can drop a mile in elevation in a single run. Across the pond, Chamonix offers up nearly 9,000 feet. But if you like to get your vert quickly (and steeply), you’ll be looking to Alagna, Italy’s not-so-famous king of the hills.

Tucked up near the French and Swiss borders, Alagna came onto the scene some 55 years ago, with a (then) mind-boggling three-stage cable car — from the village at 2,980 feet up to Punta Indren at 10,696 feet — and up a further thousand feet by tow lift for what is still one of the world’s biggest lift-served verticals. In later years, helicopters opened up the very top of the hill for a full 10,000 feet of drop.

But for all the thought that went into uphill, the downhill was left largely to its own devices. The result — a free-ride nirvana — was an Italian version of La Grave, and by the 1980s tales were circulating through the ski world of locals tackling 60-degree pitches before breakfast.

But lifts get old, and a new generation of on-the-edge skiers wasn’t going to let such amazing terrain languish. In the past decade, those old cable cars have been replaced with gondolas and chairlifts that connect Alagna to the Aosta Valley villages of Gressoney and Champoluc to form the Monterosa ski area — marketed, rather unimaginatively, as The Italian Three Valleys. Last winter, while the rest of the world’s ski industry was tightening its belt, Alagna spent tens of millions of euros on a final few state-of-the-art lifts, and the last link — a new surface tow — put the lift-served peak at 10,744 feet.

Interestingly, those improvements didn’t include many new ski runs, so the masses of destination skiers are still not booking packages to Alagna. That side of the Monterosa can still offer only the two extremes — some low-lying and low-excitement groomed runs, and phenomenal plunging black pistes and free-ride terrain. The steep slopes are largely deserted midweek, and those centuries-old, dark wooden Walser houses remain largely unmolested by condo creep.

Alagna’s lack of mass-market appeal means that the lodging is as rough and ready as the slopes. The fashionable Milanese (and the few North Americans who venture through) often opt to stay in one of the neighboring villages. On the more user-friendly Aosta Valley side, the villages draw bigger crowds, and a few luxury hotels flourish. One such is the boutique Hotellerie de Mascognaz near Champoluc, noted for its Monterosa Suite — an incredible space of stone and wood carved by local artisans, and appointed with luxurious fixtures. It’s the perfect base camp for exploring the wider region, if perhaps not for generating the self-motivation to get yourself out on the slopes. But for the complete Alagna experience, travelers must make the trek to the 130-year-old Guglielmina mountain refuge — 9,449 feet above the village — which was built by shoemaker Giuseppe Guglielmina to house visiting 12th-century celebrities, many passing through on grand continental tours. The construction was partly funded by public subscription, including an important 1,000 lire donation by Italy’s King Umberto I of the Savoy royal family, whose wife, Queen Margherita, was a frequent visitor. Not surprising for Alagna, the refuge is still run by later generations of the family that built it, and they remain prepared for another royal visit. Alberto, great grandson of Giuseppe, maintains a fine cellar of some 6,000 bottles, but the signature drink is a warm Bombardino, made from VOVY blended with cognac and cream. But there is an even higher class of lodging at Alagna. The dramatic Rifugio Margherita (named after the queen, who did make it up there for its 1893 opening) sits at an edema-inducing 14,948 feet. From there you can look across to the peaks of the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc and, deposited there by helicopter in the morning, begin that incredible 10,000- foot vertical descent back to Alagna, down pitches of up to 50 degrees through wild, icy terrain. It’s for serious skiers only. But if you weren’t a serious skier, you wouldn’t be in Alagna.

SNOW Tidbits:
*VOVY is a drinkable version of the dessert zabaglione — mostly marsala wine blended with egg yolks. It’s the Italian interpretation of the drink Advocaat, a yolky concoction with as many variations as there are cultural enclaves in Europe. The Belgians have a thick version that they are known to eat as a waffle topping.

*Alagna Tourist Office, +39/(0)163 922 988; alagna.it
Hotellerie de Mascognaz, +39/(0)125 308 734; hotelleriedemascognaz.com/
Monterosa Ski Region, +39/(0)0125/303.111; monterosa-ski.com/en/
Refuge Monterosa, +39/(0)348 1415490; rifugimonterosa.it