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Italian Ski Tour - 2017

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Italian Haute Route 2017

We get started – Meeting in Aosta and touring day 1&2

This year’s Italian Haute Route is off to an epic start.  Forget about spring skiing, with a major dump the day we started we are skiing powder and loving it.
Meeting the group in Aosta is always a special occasion.  Aosta is not a tourist town and the culture and history makes every visit relaxing and fascinating. It is a short hop from Milan and waking up in Aosta is the perfect way to get over jetlag.  Out the door of the hotel and you can wander for hours in Roman ruins and wine bars. 

Day 1 Pila

We always have a warm up day so people can get on their skis and shake out the jet lag. Rising from the middle of town is a gondola that took us to Pila ski area. We were met with pouring rain in town and the crew was looking dejected, but the gondola disappearing into the clouds meant it was colder above.  With over 2000 meters of vertical to play with, rain in town means powder at Pila.  As we rose higher the powder got deeper and our first turns off the chair were waist deep.  Some warm up!  We didn’t do a lot of photography because it was absolutely puking snow. By noon the sun had come out and the snow was getting progressively hotter and thicker….time for an afternoon cruising the exotic shops of Aosta and getting ready to start our touring.


Day 2 Rhêmes-Notre-Dame

Spring skiing usually means hard snow in the morning and softer corn snow in the afternoon, but when surrounded with a world of powder what were we to do? That’s right, tree skiing! The deep new snow meant that the avalanche hazard was too high to get to our planned  first hut so after checking out of our hotel in Aosta we delayed a day at the head of the valley at the village of Rhêmes-Notre-Dame. “Picturesque”,”chocolate-box”, “charming”…. pick your own cliché, this place is the real deal.  Above the village there was safe skiing in the trees and a great day of touring was followed by a huge meal and the unexpected luxury of another night with a hot shower.  We were joined by Gianni Predan who is a local Aosta ski guide and perhaps better known as a guide for Aspiring Guides in the Wanaka summers.  The list of Italian guides and hut wardens who live in Wanaka for the summer is making this place feel like home!


 Day 3. Refugio Benevolo

The avalanche conditions were improving quickly so it was time to move to a higher hut.  In the morning we put our skis on at the door of the hotel which conveniently was the start of the trail (who plans these things?). The trail gradually wound through trees and summer farms buried in winter snow.  Just to top off the alpine flavour there were a few chamois and ibex along the trail.  This place is really really really nice…ok I am running out of superlatives but for good reason. We arrived at Rifugio Benevolo in the early afternoon.  The beautiful stone building is typical of the area’s mountain huts and the luxury of cold beer and a shower were abused.


Day 4. Rifugio Chivasso

Starting out before dawn with a cold cloudless sky it was a harsh wake up call for some (you know who you are), but as the sun came up we found ourselves in the middle of the Lavassey Glacier.  Surrounded by high passes the challenge was to pick the right one (get it wrong and you could end up in Val d’ser France).  Col Basei was our goal and with our lungs begiinning to feel the altiude (3100m) we topped out just as the sun began to heat things up.  This was the the first time we got a view from this height….. with Mont Blanc behind you and the Gran Paradiso ahead, the beauty of this route is obvious.  The run down from the Col had some tricky route finding but it is a fantastic ski down through cliff bands and couloirs.  Rifugio Chivasso gets much less traffic than the other huts in the area and it is always a special treat to visit.  The hut is a sort of alpine museum with everything from a massive library to stuffed animals.  Not only do you have Jesus watching over you but the plate of pasta in the photo is just the starter.
This is pretty much the pattern every day, a long skin up  to a high pass (4 hrs+-) and then a massive ski down to a high altitude refugio with cold beer, exotic cheese and meats waiting.  The ski days are not long and you need to get to the hut before the day gets too hot and the snow gets too sticky.  There is plenty of time to rest but the downtime is needed to maintain fitness over a long trip like this.  The most consistent hazard that I have found on this trip over the years is to remember drink water, once again I had to give up trying to live on only coffee and beer.


Day 5. Pont - Hotel Gran Paradiso

In the morning we were pleasantly surprised with a powder run right out the door of the hut.  At these high altitudes the snow on the northern aspects remains dry much longer than expected.  The days highlight was Col de la Pointe Foura whch is an obvious notch in a jagged line of peaks.  The climb to the Col was gradual but once you get there the descent looks intimidating.  However like most of the descents here, if you know the way it is not too bad.  Once in the narrow valley there was a lot of huge avalanche debris from the last storm to navigate. The down hill ends in the village of Pont where once again we had the luxuries of a hotel.  This is a welcome indulgence after the colder temperatures of the refugios.  This is how spoiled we got, just having someone serve us meals was not enough!  We want underfooor heating!  Anyway the hotel in Pont was great and I am sure their electric bill spiked because of my one hour shower.


Day 6 Rifugio Chabot

After  I had a breakfast of croissants, ham, cheese, some unidentifiable meat slices, yogurt, fruit, bread rolls, eggs, bacon, Café Americano, double expresso and a capuchino we headed off to our next hut.  Being at the lowest elevation of the trip we had a pleasant change skiing up through the forest.  This is the heart of Gran Paradiso National Park, which was established as the private hunting ground for the King of Italy in 1922.  Beautiful tracks and huts were built making this area easily accessible.  As you approach Rifugio Chabot the view of the Gran Paradiso (the highest peak in Italy) and the route for the next day came into view.  


The route from Rifugio Chabot to Rifugio Vittorio Emanuel (the Italian king who founded the park) is heavily glaciated and the highest point of the trip.  If the weather is good an ascent to the summit of the Gran Paradiso is possible.  With a forecast for worsening weather we decided to skip the scheduled rest day and push on to Vittorio Emanuel.  The morning had lower cloud and snow but with little wind the travel was still good so we raced to get over the pass before things got too bad.  Nearing the pass the visibility was getting pretty bad so I opted for a seldom used shortcut that I had used previously. We needed to navigate by GPS but with a little patience the Rifugio eventually came looming out of the cloud.
The ensuing storm, which was forecast to deposit 10-20 cm, ended up leaving over a meter.  Combined with high winds this made the avalanche conditions too serious to carry on to our next hut.  There was still a lot of good safe terrain to ski so we got busy doing what we do best.  Vittorio Emanuel Hut is excellent for good access to safe terrain.  With clearing weather and few other people in the mountains we had first tracks anywhere we wanted.  In the spring new snow stabilizes quickly and after a day of good weather the new snow had stabilized permiting a final run down the Grand Etret Glacier.  It is a rare chance to get first tracks down the Grand Etret from the summit and it made a fantastic last run, all 1200m! 
While the anticipated spring snow ski tour turned into a powder fest, this years Italian Haute Route was a great trip.  The flexibility of the area really came through allowing us to change the route according to condition and guarantee good skiing options whatever the conditions.  The excellent food, great people and magnificent mountains (and hot showers) all combined to make this another year in the Italian Alps that we will always remember.

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