Taken from Whitelines 105, December 2012
Words by Ed
Photos by Dan Medhurst
You don’t have to fly long haul for some radically different terrain. Whitelines travelled to Italy to prove it.
I was almost never born because of the Dolomites. In 1963, when my dad was still at uni and hadn’t even met my mum, he went on a climbing trip to Italy with two of my uncles. Ours is a family of eccentrics, and the brothers’ lack of real mountaineering experience was no obstacle. Throw some canvas tents in the back of a Beetle, stick a bike on the roof, chuck in a few ropes and make for the hills. Route plan? Guide? Exit strategy? These were alien concepts; it was more “let’s have a crack at that peak then… after we’ve brewed some coffee.” All went well on this particular expedition until one day, Robert (that’s my dad) attempted to scale the Cima Piccolissima, the smallest of three neighbouring faces called the Tre Cimnea (‘Three Chimneys’). My uncle Stephen recorded what happened next in his diary:
“The wind had by now dropped but the omens were bad, with low clouds and the threat of rain… After traversing 20 yards along a ledge, we were at the foot of the Preuss Wand, a severe pitch with delicate holds up and over a sheer face of rock. I attached myself to a secure and comfortable belay. Robert set off up and disappeared from view over a slight lip… It was now starting to rain and the prospect of climbing on wet rock in such an exposed location was distinctly dismal… Shortly after, I heard a warning cry from Robert: his arms were tired and he no longer had the strength to hold on. Before I could register what was happening and brace myself, a big bundle came tumbling over the lip of the Preuss Wand and down onto the ledge where I was belayed, then bounced off into the void. A fraction of a second later I was bowled over by the sudden jerk on the rope I was holding, which zipped through my hands as Robert plunged on and down. Suddenly it was all over. Robert had landed on the next ledge, some 70 feet below me, and come to rest. I was terrified that he might have been killed, and shouted down to him. He moaned reassuringly. At the same time, I became aware of burning pains in my hands, which had been flayed by the rope as it slipped through my palms and fingers. I realised that I was stuck some 300 feet up this rock face, unable to climb down even if my nerves would hold.”
Suffice to say my uncle did make it down, thanks to the efforts of the Italian mountain rescue team – one of whom hoisted Stephen on his back, Yoda-style, and made the sketchiest of rope descents whilst repeatedly crossing himself! As for my dad, the fact I’m here writing this is proof that he wasn’t (quite) killed, escaping instead with some broken ribs and a shattered kneecap.
The limestone formations offer up plenty of rock drops, from cheeky pillow-topped boulders to ball-shrinking cliffs
This story – and that gnarly range of mountains called the Dolomites – became legendary in my family, so that as I land in Innsbruck nearly 50 years later and make the short drive south across the border, I feel like I’m on some eerie pilgrimage. The windscreen wipers are on full blast, and just as it was on that lonely pinnacle in ‘63, the mountains are covered in ominous clouds and rain. The mood inside the car is lifted by the riding crew, who are all excited to check out the potential of this small corner of Europe. For whatever reason, the Dolomites have been largely ignored by British snowboarders in favour of the usual French and Austrian resorts, but we were going to set things straight. With any luck the rain would be falling as powder up at higher altitudes, and at the very least we expected to eat our own bodyweight in pizza.
The team is a mix of old heads and youthful experience: Col Mytton – veteran of two WL covers, full time plasterer and still the owner of one of the best methods in Manchester… probably. Sam Turnbull – current British Big Air Champion, farmer’s lad and Yorkshire’s answer to Torstein. Jordy Gee – 17, quiet, whispered of as one to watch. And then there’s our regular lensman Dan Medhurst – southern ‘Dickhead’ and as greasy-haired and swarthy as any of the locals we were likely to encounter.
Outside of nearly killing my dad, the Dolomites are probably best known for nearly killing James Bond. Remember the one where Bond finds himself forced to go off a ski jump in order to escape a creepy bespectacled German of the kind who remembers to regularly de-frag his hard drive full of torture porn? That was filmed in Cortina, as was the ensuing chase by some black-helmeted shits on motorbikes (For Your Eyes Only, if you’re interested – incidentally the same film where crinkly Roger Moore almost does a Jimmy Saville with a teenaged ice skater).
We begin our own adventure in the neighbouring resort of Selva Val Gardena. Dawn reveals half a foot of fresh that clings to the trees as the last of the swirling cloud burns off. It’s easy to see why the area is popular in the movies (Cliffhanger and The Pink Panther were also shot here): Dramatic cliffs of reddish rock rise up on every side, different in feel to anything I’ve seen this side of the Atlantic. The pistes are forced to hug the lower, gentler slopes beneath each ridge, so in search of good snow we head straight for the highest lift, the Piz Sella cable car, which sweeps us up in a single span to an eagles-nest perched on a giant pillar. Proper Blofeld territory. There are few skiers – most of them seem to be supping hot chocolate in the mountain café – and even fewer snowboarders, so we have no trouble finding some fresh turns. Despite the recent snowfall the park is well groomed and completely empty, like some extravagant gift from an oil sheikh to his spoilt son. We take a few laps through this private playground and shoot some pics, but mostly we just gawp at the incredible scenery.
The ski pass covers 12 areas and 450 lifts, making it officially the biggest network in the world
Although the Dolomites merge seamlessly into the rest of the Alps, geologically they are completely different – in fact they’re named after the mineralogist who first studied them and are now a recognised UNESCO World Heritage Site. The sheer rock faces are made of limestone rather than the Alps’ granite, and – mind-bogglingly, to someone looking at them from a chairlift – were once buried thousands of feet beneath the sea. Dominating the entire ski area at Selva is a colossal hunk of rock called the Sassolungo. This was the stage of another of my dad’s hairbrained climbing adventures, when he found himself caught in a thunderstorm at the summit as lightning literally fizzed the ground around him. Even the highest chairlift can only deposit you in the shadow of its mighty wall, so we scratch about the base looking for stuff to leap off. While the marked terrain is generally fairly mellow, the limestone formations offer up plenty of rock drops, from cheeky pillow-topped boulders to ball-shrinking cliffs. Sam Turnbull wastes no time hucking himself off a few of these to keep our photographer happy, before Jordy Gee tests his teenaged knees on a 40-foot whopper.
Our accommodation is the Linacia, a modest B&B in the shadow of the Sassolungo. The walls are covered in touristy summer shots, when the valley is transformed into
a panorama of primary colours: lush green meadows, red cliffs and blue skies. Looking at the pictures makes me vow to return later in the year with a mountain bike. The place is run by a polite old couple who speak little English and discreetly open the window each time we leave, presumably to air out the stench of five farting snowboarders and their festering boots. We’d been expecting them to welcome us with some friendly Super Mario chat(“Ciao!Youcan-astay-aupstairs-a”) but instead we’re surprised to hear a thick Germanic accent. It turns out that the people of the Dolomites are a strange mix of Austrian and Italian, and like many border areas it has been fought over for centuries. In the First World War, the front line passed right through these mountains, and for four years soldiers from Austro-Hungary and Italy played a cat- and-mouse game amongst the passes; aside from the many firefights, a staggering 10,000 men were killed in avalanches.
After a couple of days in Selva we drive over one of these historic passes to the neighbouring town of Alta Badia. The two resorts form part of the massive Dolomiti Superski pass, which covers 12 areas in total and an incredible 450 lifts (1,200km of piste), making it officially the biggest lift network in the world. Many visitors have a crack at the famous Sella Ronda loop, a day-long circuit that takes in no fewer than four valleys and three provinces, though in fairness there are a lot of flat sections – making it more appealing to the kind of skier who likes to boast about their daily mileage and can list every Jeremy Clarkson book since Born To Be Riled. The only problem with such a vast and sprawling ski area is that it makes navigation a little difficult. In Alta Badia we go looking for the park but find ourselves criss-crossing the valley like a pinball, regularly forced into an about turn or change of direction because you can’t tell from the map if the flat-looking runs and lifts actually link up to each other.
Sam is ballsier than a game of wing-walking snooker
The freestyle set-up, when we do eventually find it, is decent enough. Maintained by the guys at Q-Parks, it consists of a couple of modest kicker lines and loads of user-friendly boxes and rails. It’s been built to cater to the Italian snowboard scene – which is park-orientated, super keen and fashion conscious (think Paulo-Maldini-in-a-pair- of-lime-green-XXL-combats). That said, the Dolomites are a bit like Chamonix or Zermatt: they’ll happily take your money, but they don’t really need snowboarders thanks to some jaw-dropping views that have been attracting wealthy skiers for over a century.
This fact becomes clear during an altercation with one of Alta Badia’s core clientele. On our way back up the pass, we spot a gnarly c-rail beside the lift station – a rusted metal banister that curves its intimidating way down 26 cheese-grater steps. Col isn’t feeling it (moments before he’d been relaxing over some delicious spinach ravioli, the idea of doing some professional snowboarding takes him off guard) and quiet Jordy is giving it the proverbial floor stare. At times like this, magazine editors and photographers are put in a frustrating position: you can see the potential for an amazing picture but you can’t exactly force the riders to risk their neck on something they’re not comfortable with. Fortunately Sam is ballsier than a game of wing-walking snooker, and after a team effort with the shovels he gamely boardslides the spiral of doom. Dan bags the shot from two angles but Sam has a head of steam now and keeps on jogging back up for another go, finally coming a cropper towards the bottom when he slips out, snags his board inside the handrail and smashes face-first into the steps. He’s still lying there, nursing his shoulder, when a fat moustachioed tourist skis to a halt in front of him and starts bellowing in German. “Achtung! Idiot! Idiot!” We try to explain that he’s a professional on a magazine shoot but our Prussian friend is having none of it, practically jabbing at Sam’s broken nose with his pole before skiing off shaking his head. Like I say, snowboarders are still a bit of an alien invasion around here.
Back at the ranch, Col cooks up an odd concoction of spag bol with chunks of broccoli, perhaps inspired by the local fusion cuisine that blends classic Italian and stodgy Austrian. There’s practically a vat of the stuff, so Jordy (on dishes detail) helpfully puts the leftovers in a plastic bag and leaves it on a chair for the owner. We find it carefully put to one side with our other belongings the next day. The window is open again. We take it as a sign to move on.
Mind-boggingly, the sheer rock walls were once buried thousands of feet beneath the sea
Our final destination is the legendary resort of Cortina D’Ampezzo, a Chamonix-sized town that once hosted the Olympics and sits, like its French cousin, amid the country’s most dramatic peaks. Pioneering freerider Tom Burt came here in the 1990’s, and though he was accustomed to the extreme terrain of Alaska he was blown away by the steep pitches and narrow chutes he found, declaring it “the best place I’ve ridden so far.” Few international snowboarders bothered to follow him, perhaps put off by a restrictive off-piste policy – or the exclusive atmosphere i
n town, where the fur coat brigade strut past designer boutiques dragging lap dogs in tartan jackets.
We’ve been driving through yet another stunning pass for a good hour and are beginning our descent into Cortina when we spy an insane cable car rising up above us – a tiny red spider suspended from its cobweb in the clouds. We have no idea where it goes but can’t resist a ride, and low and behold our Dolomiti Superski tickets are still valid – in terms of pure lift numbers, it’s like having a pass that takes in Tignes, Val d’Isère, Saint Foy, Les Arcs, La Plagne and the 3 Valleys! The journey up proves genuinely terrifying – we leave the station at a steep angle, and before long the old tin cans are dangling more than 300 feet in the air, nothing between the soles of our boots and oblivion but a few wafer thin sheets of aluminium.
It’s only after we begin our descent that we realise the piste is taking us well away from the bottom station and our car – in fact it points in the complete opposite direction, disappearing between sheer walls of rock. We later discover that this is Cortina’s famous ‘Hidden Valley’,
a scenic dead-end run from Lagazuoi to Armentarola that requires a taxi trip back over the pass. The detour proves worthwhile though, leading us past a huge frozen waterfall of blue ice and depositing us halfway down at a picturesque wooden restaurant, where we gorge on jacket potatoes with generous mounds of melted cheese and bacon straight off the grill. Outside, sun-kissed rock spires rise up cathedral-like on either side of the gulley, and there’s barely another soul on the piste to disturb the stony silence. We continue the epic nine-kilometre journey and are finally spat out at a hotel that guards the entrance to the valley, where two huge mountain dogs slouch on the roof chewing lazily on a bone, and an old Fiat 500 sits outside. Suddenly Innsbruck and the rest of the Alps seem a long way away: this is Italy.
The more authentic Italian vibe continues at our Cortina hotel, where a silver-haired grandpa on reception – the spitting image of Pinocchio’s dad – plays cards with a young girl. We immediately christen him Gepetto. The next morning we set out to explore the resort’s more central runs, and Gepetto points us in the direction of the Tofana, another crazy-ass cable car. This one takes you in three vertigo-inducing stages from the base at 1200m to a breathtaking summit at 3200m – two full vertical kilometres. The incline is, frankly, mental. The cable car accesses a whole playground of runs at the top, but there are signs saying not to go off piste – understandable when you consider a false turn could see you accidentally recreating the opening scene of The Spy Who Loved Me, sans parachute. But with so much untracked fresh (most of the other visitors are sunning themselves at the café like fur-clad lizards) it’s difficult to resist.
Its like nowhere I’ve ridden in two decades of snowboard travel – a European Yosemite, just two hours from home
The snow is super light up at this altitude, though the thing about the Dolomites is that there are always rocks lurking here and there, and by the end of the day we’ve all got some claw marks in our bases.When we’ve finally had enough of playing powder roulette we drop down onto the home run, and once again it turns out we’ve accidentally stumbled onto a world famous section of piste – this time,the notorious ‘Schuss’, part of the World Cup skiing downhill. The top is a 45-degree tongue of ice squeezed between cliffs, and we pass a hesitant snowboarder sat on her bum, staring in horror at the sheer, bullet-proof wall of white that lies between her and her waiting boyfriend. There’s nothing we can do for her now. The ice eventually gives way to a bumpy motorway, then a patchy ribbon of cat-track that snakes down through the forest. It’s been a poor season for snow, and the base of the mountains around Cortina are bare brown meadows save for the main, cannon-lined arteries. Nonetheless it’s an exhilarating, eye-watering descent, and peering back at the top station – now little more than a speck high up on the rock face – it’s hard to believe we were up there less than 15 minutes ago.
On our last afternoon we drive up the opposite side of Cortina’s wide valley, to the pretty slopes around Lake Misurina. Even now it’s a popular area with hikers, and the carpark is full of coaches depositing wiry old goats in corduroys and gaiters. They remind me of the old pictures of my dad, and in
fact from the shores of the lake I can gaze across at the Tre Cima, the infamous trio of needles where he smashed his knee all those years ago. Not withstanding my own family history, it’s clear that the mountains around here are special, attracting a whole spectrum of visitors beyond the usual skiers and snowboarders.
We jump on the spaceaged ‘cyber chair’, and somehow the landscape gets more surreal. We’re climbing over fields of scree and scrubby bushes and trees; the late afternoon sun casts a warm glow over the cliffs, and it feels like we’re in the desert of California or Nevada. But the Dolomites hold still one more surprise. At the top we board a further lift, a rickety sun-bleached old chair that ferries us up a hidden cleft in the rock. The long chain of pylons is now dwarfed on either side by an immense wall of limestone known as Monte Cristallo, creating a stunning contrast with the inky blue of the sky. There’s a visible strata to the rock, and the whole thing feels like some gigantic fossilised fish or alien planet.
It’s like nowhere I’ve ridden in two decades of snowboard travel – a kind of European Yosemite, nestled amongst familiar peaks just two hours from home. Sure, the parks and powder are more reliable elsewhere, but compared to this place, the mountains I’ve spent a lifetime exploring seem unexciting.
When we finally return to base we grab a celebratory beer, striking up conversation with a hamster-cheeked liftie in wrap- around shades and an old FILA tracksuit. He seems genuinely stoked to meet us. “Where you from?” he says, slapping me on the back. “London,” I reply, prompting him to break out into a random list of English words. “Freddie Mercury!” he says excitedly. “er… Piccadilly Circus! Stevie Wonder, no? Bath.” We finally figure out he’s on about Madame Tussauds, and that his own name is Luca. Unlike our angry Austrian acquaintance at the c-rail, Luca appears impressed to learn that Sam, Col and Jordy are “Professionale!” so we figure he won’t shut us down if we tackle another stairset we’ve spotted nearby.
The peaks are glowing red in the setting sun as the five of us get to work building
the take-off. Sam, Colum and Jordy do the rest, laying down a series of stylish tricks
on the triple rail – conveniently located for photos beneath an Italian flag. With the
light fading fast and Dan scuttling to adjust his flashes, the session has an adrenaline- fuelled urgency, each of the riders pushing each other on and the whole team playing their role – photographer, sling shot, road lookout. From my location at the top, I watch as Sam misjudges one of his runs, flying awkwardly over the lip and out of sight into the void. I shout down to check he’s OK, and he calls back reassuringly. This wasn’t exactly the kind of adventure my dad had in these mountains, but it’s a familiar one all the same: fun, spontaneous – and just a little bit foolhardy. And so it continues.