Discovering new winter sports in the Italian Alps

Written by on March 6, 2021 in Blog

river running through the along the snowy mountain tracks - Discovering new winter sports in the Italian Alps

Discovering new winter sports in the Italian Alps, Aosta Valley

The recent announcement that the Italian ski resorts are now going to remain closed for the rest of the 2020/21 season due to Covid is obviously a big blow. For us as a family that lives in the Italian Alps and who love skiing obviously, but much more importantly, for everyone here who makes their living, or part of their living, from the winter sports industry.

On a personal level it has ruined our winter routine. No friends over to stay on their holidays, no family weekends skiing up in Pila, none of the 8 weeks Interski instructing work with the UK school groups etc. 1st World problems of course but these are the kind of things that normal lives are built on around here in the Aosta Valley. Take the skiing away and things feel a bit empty, to say the least.

Fortunately the boys’ ski clubs are still able to train up in Pila thanks to special arrangements with the resort company that keeps one lift going and a few of the training pistes open just for them. But for Anita and me and the rest of the ‘ammatori di sci’ community, nothing doing.

ski club children lining up for a photo

If I had been left to my own devices I probably would have just sat at home in a sulk but fortunately Anita is made of better stuff. Whereas I have been getting more and more frustrated, angry, demoralised, suspicious, paranoid etc about the whole Covid saga, she has managed to stay serenely detached from it. She has remained positive throughout, helped by the yoga and meditation sessions she does at the crack of dawn while the boys and I are still asleep in out pits. Rather than join me in moaning on about how much she misses skiing and getting angry about how ridiculous and unfair the whole thing is she has chosen to see it as an opportunity to try things we wouldn’t normally have done if the ski resorts had been open.

So since December she has been regularly dragging my miserable arse out of the flat and taking us into various parts of the beautiful Aosta Valley mountains to go hiking or to have a go at other winter sport activities like ‘ciaspole’ – snow shoeing, ‘sci di fondo’ – cross-county skiing and ‘sci alpinismo’ – ski touring.

We have probably averaged about one adventure a week. And I have to admit that each one has actually been wonderful. An uplifting day of healthy physical exercise out in the fresh air, always somewhere stunning and in the company of some very nice, positive people. A giant dose of nature’s vaccines, pure and simple!

hiking in the snow

Simply going hiking where there is snow on the ground, which there is here above about 1,000 m throughout the winter, has been my favourite discovery. Sticking to the main paths, or going up the side of the ski pistes, the snow is usually compacted enough to walk normally. A pair of ski poles do help with the balance coming down and for a bit of an extra arm shove on the way up. As long as it hasn’t been snowing overnight that is. We did one hike with Tom & Lorna up in the woods above Saint Nicolas, where we found ourselves wading through some quite deep snow, with the feet sinking a good half a meter with each step. This was hard work and was crying out for a pair of ‘ciaspole’ – snow shoes.

Anita got a pair of ciaspole from me last Christmas. Romantic or what! We went on a night outing to see the stars in Vetan with Bill & Ella during their holiday with us this time last year and a few days later we did the ciaspole tour to the old mineral mines in Saint Marcel. Actually it was on the day that all the Italian ski resorts were first shut due to Covid, 7th March 2020. This year we have been on a snow shoe hike up in Pila, from the Leissee car park to Grimondet and back. Where the snow is compacted the snow shoes are of little benefit, they just make you a bit ungainly really. But over the softer, deeper snow they are brilliant. They do still sink a little bit but as we found out in Saint Nicolas, they allow you to go where shoes alone just disappear.

hiking on the snow tracks - Discovering new winter sports in the Italian Alps

Two of our hiking expeditions this year have been in the beautiful Saint-Barthélemy valley above Nus, on the paths leading to the famous ‘Rifugio Magia’, located up at 2007m altitude. The first time it was just me and Anita and we got about half way there before having to turn round and head back to go and collect Marty from somewhere. Then a couple of weekends ago on Valentine’s Day we went back with Olympia & Christian, Mirko & Atiglia and the kids to do the full 3 hour walk all the way to Magia. We had lunch and then dinner there and all stayed overnight before walking back in the morning. It was an unforgettable experience.

Saint-Barthélemy is one of the main sci di fondo centres in the Aosta Valley. The walks we did there were alongside some of the beautifully prepared ski trails and sharing the environment with the skiers added to the fun. So when our new friends Andrea & Marisa invited to go and try sci di fondo with them at half term we jumped at the chance.

Instead of diving in the deep end on the 30+km of serious up and down pistes of Saint-Barthélemy, or at the local cross country skiing Mecca of Cogne, we headed to the peaceful, out of the way village of Degioz, in nearby Valsavarenche. Here there is a very friendly and reasonably priced ski hire shop right next to a gentle 3-4km loop that runs alongside the river that is ideal for novices like us.

boy doing cross country skiing

I was quite surprised about how enjoyable and straight forward it was, sliding along on these feather weight, ridiculously narrow skis and in these soft, flexible and very comfortable boots. Unlike the heavier and wider touring skis which I will get onto later, these cross-country skis feel eager and energised on the flat. And on the uphill bits, as soon as it gets a bit too steep to push, you just put them into a snowplough and sort of walk up. The downhill bits were fun too, straight down in a snowplough, trying not to think about edging, just concentrating on holding the shape and staying balanced until the slope runs out by itself.

Andrea is a bit of an expert and it was interesting to see him mix up his styles, sometimes skating gracefully and powerfully and other times sliding easily forward, one ski at a time in parallel as we were trying to do. I had a go at a bit of skating myself and was sort of getting the hang of it but still felt pretty unstable going from foot to foot.

Sure, this was only a gentle introduction to sci di fondo on a very easy track. It was more about having a laugh with the kids and stopping for a picnic than doing anything athletic. But I am definitely looking forward to having another go. I liked the fact that we were doing it in the forest down near the bottom of the valley and that we were travelling from one little village to the next, beside a beautiful river. It was easy to hold a conversation without getting out of breath and the constant variation between the flat, uphill and downhill bits means it is always interesting. As opposed to one long uphill slog followed by a short ski down which is what sci alpinismo entails.

sci alpinismo

Anita had tried sci alpinismo already last season, both in Pila and in nearby Gressoney and really took to the idea. This year she has been lent a spare pair or touring skis by Lorna’s Dad, Ken. They are the kind that you can use with your normal ski boots. My mate Richard from the Interski course is letting me use a pair of his touring skis which he left behind in our garage when he headed off to his ‘wee farm’ in Portugal in March last year. They need the special touring boots with the holes in them which you can hire from Technosport one day at a time for about euro 10.

So far this year we have done two mini-tours in Pila with Tom, Lorna and Ken and a couple more on our own. Going through the woods from the top car park and then up either the Grimod or Nuova piste, both of which take about 1 ½ to 2 hours. I have enjoyed it. It’s a nice sensation, sliding one ski forward at a time over the snow in what feels like a quite natural walking movement. Although compared to the cross country skis, the wider and heavier touring skis feel a bit sluggish, partly also I imagine because of the friction created by the full length skins that they have on them to stop you sliding backwards when going up hill. You get into a steady, plodding rhythm and don’t really notice the changes in gradient too much, at least you don’t when you are going as slowly as I am. When it gets a bit too steep you just zig zag to flatten it out. And it’s interesting to experience your regular skiing environment from a different perspective. The resort looks and feels very different when you are pointing uphill to the one that you are so familiar with from the vantage point of a chair lift or from skiing down the runs. But of course the real payback with ski touring is that you get to have a ski down, albeit only once.

sci alpinismo going up the hill -Discovering new winter sports in the Italian Alps

I am certainly not going to say that the lockdowns have been a blessing in disguise because that is nonsense. They have been awful and I pray that they will never, ever be imposed again. But it is fair to say that because of them, or rather thanks to the positive response to them by the people around me, I have been forced to widen my repertoire of winter sports. And my appreciation of the beauty, traditions and culture of our adopted Alpine home has increased enormously.


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