Skiing the Dolomites

Posted by on Jan 1, 2012 in Europe, Italy, Travel | 0 comments

Skiing the Dolomites

Guest post by Wayne 

Teaching science to teenagers can often present a few challenges, and there is no greater challenge than trying to make the subject of geology interesting to students.  I mean, let’s face it, rocks aren’t particularly interesting!  With the possible exception, that is, of limestone – and there is no more impressive example of limestone than the Dolomite Mountains in northern Italy.

What makes limestone so interesting you see, is that it is a sedimentary rock formed from the mineralisation of coral and sea shells.  250 million years ago, the Dolomites formed part of a prehistoric tropical sea bed, before the sea dried out and left a large deposit of limestone in its place.

Then, roughly 60 million years ago, the African and European tectonic plates collided violently, resulting in the upthrust that has created the European Alps.  For the past 60 million years, the Dolomite mountain range has been sculpted by wind, rain, ice and snow, creating the stunning mountain range of today.  However, it is the limestone itself that makes the Dolomite mountain range truly stunning and unforgettable.

When the light hits the stone just right, almost always at sunrise and sunset, the mountains glow a thousand different shades of pink, a phenomenon the locals call ‘Enrosadira’ – which literally means ‘to turn pink’ in the local language of Ladin.
We stayed in Selva Di Val Gardena, and the only business in Selva during winter is skiing, and rightfully so.  The village has a typical alpine charm, with snow covered roofs and wooden chalet style buildings.  Accommodation is all in small, family run hotels called Garnis, and there are no big hotel chains.

We stayed in a cute little Garni called Garni Rubens, pictured below.  The food is a curious combination of Italian and Austrian cuisines.  The ingredients are fresh, and you can often spy the restaurants cooling potatoes or a tiramisu on the bench outside their kitchen, taking advantage of the cold mountain air.

 

Garni Rubens

Garni Rubens

 

Somehow, the area is still a bit of an Italian secret.  There must be some sort of conspiracy to keep the place hush-hush, because it is simply too good to ignore.  While not famous for huge amounts of natural snowfall, it makes up for this by having the largest number of blue sky days out of all European skiing areas.  It is also bitterly cold, averaging between minus 5 and minus 10 degrees celsius.

Combine this with an incredible 95% snowmaking coverage, and the result is very good skiing no matter what the conditions are.  There is a total of 200 lifts, with 1200km of groomed runs, all accessible on the Dolomiti Superski lift pass (Australia’s Perisher has 52 lifts which are never all open at the same time!), making it the largest ski resort in the southern hemisphere.

While Perisher charges over $100 a day for the privilege of skiing on their slopes, at the Dolomites it’s less than $60 Australian.  That is bloody good value and must border on unsustainability.  The lift system is modern and efficient, with a combination of gondolas and chairs plus a few drag lifts.

We were in the Dolomites for the busiest period of the ski season – between Christmas and New Year, which is when most Italians take holidays.  Despite this, the longest we ever waited for a lift was five minutes.  The runs themselves were unbelievably empty as well.  I found myself in a state of disbelief when I realised I was the first person to ski down a particular run – at 10:30am! Incredibly, this was not an isolated occurrence.

 

shadow

 

Skiing in the Dolomites is simply incomparable to Australian skiing – it’s apples and oranges.  All of the little morale sapping things that happen in Australia simply do not exist in Italy.  There are no lift lines, food is cheap, and you don’t have to awkwardly stalk a family for half an hour to get a seat in the restaurant.

That Australian combination of ice in the morning and slush in the afternoon doesn’t exist – the snow is always good here, thanks to the cold temperatures.  And, perhaps best of all, the accommodation is pretty much ski in and ski out.  In fact, the entire village is ski in and ski out. This is skiing as it was meant to be.

That being said, skiing is a little different in Europe. It doesn’t have the same aggressive edge where everybody strives to clock up the most vertical kilometres. It isn’t quite as sporty, but rather is a leisurely affair.  The basic recipe for skiing in Italy goes something like this:

  • Sleep in until 9 or 10am.
  • Walk out the front door, click into your skis and slide over to the gondola.
  • Shot of espresso at the top of the lift to wake up, whilst enjoying one of the world’s best views.
  • Ski to a different alpine village to yesterday and have a couple of easy runs. If you’re lucky, claim first tracks on a few of the hidden gems.
  • Stop for lunch – you’ve earned it.  Take your pick of the delicious Italian restaurants dotted conveniently around the mountain.  Settle for freshly cooked pasta, bread and half a bottle of wine – total cost, around 10-12 euros.
  • Spend time enjoying your meal, at an uncrowded table with stupendous views and too much wine.
  • Ski some more, before heading home for a delicious dinner.

Skiing through such an incredible landscape can be distracting to the point where it becomes downright dangerous.  I know this from personal experience, and the perfect example of this is the Sella Ronda.  This 42 kilometre long route circumnavigates the Gruppo Sella, a massive limestone centrepiece that dominates this part of the mountain range. The trip takes roughly six hours to complete and visits five separate villages full of alpine charm, delicious food and incredible wine.

It also never covers the same run twice, and can be done both clockwise, and anti-clockwise, which actually makes 84 kilometres of unique skiing.  The runs vary in length, but some are ridiculously long, leaving your thighs screaming in protest.  It isn’t uncommon for a run to take 20 -30 minutes from lift to lift, even when skiing at breakneck speed.

The scenery constantly changes, from wide open runs at the highest points of the mountains to narrow, twisting runs that wind their way through the pine trees on the lower slopes.  Every run is immaculately groomed, uncrowded and painfully beautiful.

Nature is rampant in these mountains, with birds chirping in the pine forests, streams bubbling through the villages and deer tracks in the fresh snow.  The natural beauty of this ski area is undeniable, and it leaves you wondering whether skiing could possibly get any better.

 

trees

 

At its essence, for me at least, skiing isn’t so much about the challenge and adrenalin as it is those moments of purity and serenity.  It’s these moments that skiers have, which make them come back season after season, those fleeting moments when everything happens effortlessly.  The skis chatter against crisp snow, and you’re flying down the mountain, yet it almost feels like you’re standing still.

Everything seems so sharp, the colours all so bright.  The wind is flying in your face and it’s breathtakingly cold, but in a way that feels good.  During these moments you become completely unaware of your skis, and every turn is effortless and perfect.  Your legs are no longer tired, just warm and in tune.  You stop noticing the other skiers, if they were ever there at all, and it feels like you’re at one with the mountains – participating in nature in a way that feels 100% pure.

These are the moments that make us ski, this is why we need to ski.  I have never had so many of these ‘moments’ as I had skiing in the Dolomites. With its massive size, efficient lift system and unique culture, skiing in the Dolomites gives you a taste of skiing at its most modernised and civilised.  Ironically though, the ultimate result is skiing at its most pure.

Click here to read about our skiing adventures in Japan!

 

emma

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