A Ski Tour Through Italy Reveals Fragility in the Heart of Mountain Culture.
Climate change in the Alps is threatening skiers’ very way of life
by Porter Fox
(This story was published on powder.com on November 8, 2020, but originally appeared in the Fall 2020 (49.1) issue of Powder)
Wind shook the little shack where we stopped for lunch. Grown men outside leaned into the gale with their arms outstretched like zombies; others clung to the stairway. Skiers lucky enough to have found their boards herringboned across the flats, duckfooted, alone, terrified by the knowledge that in a few short minutes the entire resort—the entire region, in fact—would shut down as hurricane-force winds moved in from the west.
Marcello Cominetti put his spoon down. He was more concerned with the quality of the barley soup than the weather. “I should call the polizia,” he said quietly, referring to the soup. Then he shouldered his pack and walked out. A skiing and climbing guide for more than 40 years, Marcello is considered one of the best in a valley known to breed the greatest alpinists in the world. He scaled a climbing route on Mount Fitz Roy in Patagonia with a client for fun, back when only a handful of people had completed it. When Sylvester Stallone and a film crew of 200 arrived in Italy’s Dolomites to shoot the preposterous climbing film Cliffhanger, they hired Cominetti to be a stunt double. Stallone needed it, Cominetti said. When the actor stepped out of the helicopter in loafers onto a glacier the first day, he slipped and slid 300 yards, nearly to his death.
Cominetti was unconcerned about the weather we now faced, as long as we got to the rifugio by dark. Ski mountaineer and Chamonix-based guide Giulia Monego—a Venetian who grew up FIS racing in nearby Cortina—followed him into the gale. Her friend Christina Lustenberger, a professional skier and ACMG guide from British Columbia, headed out next. Photographer David Reddick and I took up the rear as we lowered our heads and skinned straight uphill into the teeth of the storm.
Earlier, in the shelter of Val Badia, a picturesque portrait of winter was intact. The air smelled like woodsmoke. A snow-packed, one-lane road weaved through a cluster of broad-roofed chalets, past the town well that had been spewing glacial water into a concrete basin for three centuries. The central bell tower was constructed five years after the Mayflower set sail for America. The gable ends of the chalets were carved and painted with edelweiss, mountain scenes and the compulsory image of a flirtatious Alpine woman.
February in the Alps marks the apex of winter culture in the Northern Hemisphere—a way of living, eating, thinking, and recreating that has been refined in Europe longer and deeper than anywhere in the world. Haflinger horses tow hand-carved sleighs, mulled wine warms over an open fire, thick wool blankets get spun at a farmhouse down the road. Restaurants serve local dishes like raclette and beetroot tortellini, flavored with Alpine herbs picked and dried on the mountain by three generations of restauranteurs.
Our tour was supposed to follow the Sellaronda, a 25-mile circuit of interconnected resorts, skiing from village to village during the day and staying in on-mountain rifugios at night. In between towns, we would explore thousands of acres of on- and off-piste snowfields, glaciers, 10,000-foot peaks and classic high-walled Dolomite couloirs.
The valleys and villages on the route—Val Gardena, Alta Badia, Arabba and Val di Fassa—are some of the oldest in the Alps, having been settled by the same Alpine tribes that helped Hannibal cross the Alps, then joined with the Romans at the close of the Alpine Wars. Eighty percent of the region still speaks Ladin (la-DEEN), a form of vulgar Latin handed down from Roman soldiers, as their primary language. The area was part of the Austro-Hungary Empire, until Italy annexed it at the end of World War I. Having maintained their language and identity for the better part of 3,000 years, the Ladin valleys now operate as a self-governing province, a liberi comuni, within Italy.
Our route would also circle the Marmolada Glacier, which has watered the valleys and rivers of the Piave Catchment, including the vineyards, farms, and cities of northeastern Italy for thousands of years. The thick white blanket draped on an eponymous 10,968-foot peak can be seen from the streets of Venice, 60 miles to the south, and has hosted skiers for a century.
But lately this interconnected web of winter, tourism, ice, and skiing has been changing. Along with every glacier in Italy—and now, the world—ice in the Dolomites has been devastated by climate change. The Marmolada is the last glacier in the Dolomites and has been thinning and receding at a historic rate. With studies suggesting that the Marmolada will be gone completely by the end of the century—along with most other glaciers in Europe—our mission was to document the early roots of Alpine civilization and the birth of modern ski culture before it melts away. The larger question that we wanted to answer: If all the glaciers of Europe disappear, will the history of skiing and winter as we know it vanish with them?
The wind continued to ratchet up to biblical speeds the closer we got to the summit. We still had two passes to cross before arriving at the rifugio. It would be dark in four hours. Unbeknownst to our intrepid little crew, the forecast had been revised to maximum gusts of 125 mph, reaching beyond the threshold of a hurricane and well into the realm of tornado status. Every step was precarious, until a final gust, thankfully from the rear, blew us up the last pitch to the summit station.
Clouds pushed down on the peaks: Cristallo (10,549 feet), Tre Cime (9,850 feet), Gruppo Dei Cadini (9,312 feet). Swirls of snow raced past as splotches of blue sky appeared overhead. The wind was too loud and cold for us to linger. We peeled off the backside one by one, Cominetti leading the way with smooth, measured turns. I followed, feeling gravity pull me into, then release me from, every turn. The infrastructure of the Alpine winter world flashed past: cables, roads, paths, bridges, lift stations, hay sheds.
In the span of our short history on this planet, inhabiting the mountains in winter is a relatively new invention. Humans didn’t want anything to do with the high peaks, winter, snow or ice at first. The cold season meant death, sickness, and danger. Aristotle hypothesized that the Alps were tentacles of the “Frozen Zone,” a region of “universal cold and death.” The word Alps itself, a derivation of the Latin word albus, or “snowcovered,” suggested cold and doom to Europeans for millennia.
Like many unexplained phenomena in antiquity, 47 the high peaks were often associated with deities and demons. Tales and folklore, from the Brothers Grimm to Maria Savi-Lopez’s Legends of the Alps, popularized some of the myths and gave rise to a widespread belief in dragon lore. Accusations of witchery in the Alps peaked in the 1600s with a massive witch-hunt that lasted 200 years. The Alpine “Witches’ Sabbath” was purported to be a nightly orgy where Satan preached and planned the downfall of Christianity. Tens of thousands were executed in the purge.
Over time, war, religious persecution, and population growth pushed settlers to higher elevations. Shepherds had long taken their flocks to high alpine pastures in the summer, before retreating to the lowlands in winter. Eventually, a few started staying over. They designed houses with sleeping quarters directly above livestock stables to take advantage of the animals’ body heat. They built a central cooking oven with a clay dome that also heated sleeping and living areas.
Despite howling winds, Christina Lustenberger makes finding an untouched line on the Marmolada Glacier look facilissimo.
It took, somewhat ironically, the Industrial Age—and the air pollution and respiratory illnesses that came with it—to bring the masses to the same mountains that those emissions are now melting. As tuberculosis spread like wildfire across Europe with no cure in sight, many turned to “medical climatology” in the Alps. Clean air and “milk therapy” were used, along with some more creative remedies. Juice from pressed cow dung was administered to patients with stomach cramps. Ashes from burned dung were prescribed for dropsy, and poor souls with an earache got ox urine mixed with myrrh delivered to their bedside.
A few hundred travelers visiting Alpine kurhauses in the early 1800s grew to tens of thousands by mid-century, at which point medical destinations throughout the Alps began to be developed as all-season resorts. In the mid-1800s, ice skating and bobsledding were offered to winter guests. The introduction of skiing came slowly at first, then all at once after the 1900 Paris World Fair popularized it. An Austrian instructor named Mathias Zdarsky wrote an instruction manual titled Lilienfelder Skilauftechnik and distributed it throughout the Alps, helping beginner skiers understand what to do with their new 8-foot-long hickory and ash boards. When the first ski club was formed, St. Mortiz’s Ski Club Alpina in 1903, members hiked a thousand vertical feet to ski back down. A few years later they rode a funicular built for one of the nearby kurhauses, and a few years after that—in the Dolomite valley where we began the first morning of the trip—one of the first chair lifts went up. This was the modest beginning of the $30 billion Alpine ski industry that has since influenced nearly every civilization north of the 30th parallel.
We stopped at the bottom of the next pass next to a stationary chairlift, put on our climbing skins, and headed uphill again. The wind continued to howl, rendering the snow icier and skinning even more difficult. We climbed in a line, taking caution with each step and slipping every 50 feet. Leaning into the wind, it was easy to see why people had avoided the high Alps for so long. At the top of the second pass, Monego pointed downhill at a little shelter clinging to the side of the mountain. “We sleep there!” she yelled over the wind. We switched our bindings to ski mode for the last time that day and pushed off. There wasn’t a single ski track on the run because the lift hadn’t spun since the winds started howling. We carved long S-turns toward the shelter, made even more sublime by the ghost-town scene around us and a warm bed waiting at the bottom. Turn after turn, I felt my legs falling into sync with my body: angulate, lean in, let the edge bite, and follow it around.
If you must escape the storm, take comfort with a glass of prosecco and a plate of ragù di cinghiale in a warm rifugio.
We clicked out of our skis at the front door of the Rifugio Baita Cuz and wandered inside to a warm saloon. Reggae played on the stereo. Drying racks were mounted on the wall, along with a boot-drying station downstairs. A bartender asked for our order, and by the time I took off my jacket and goggles, Monego handed me an Aperol spritz. Perhaps it is the extremes—precipitous heights and violent storms followed by biodynamic wine and tagliatelle with venison ragu—that makes winter travel in the Alps so extraordinary. Our double rooms were outfitted with fluffy comforters folded at the foot of each bed and had views of steep, rimmed mountain peaks. The duffels we had packed with slippers, sweatpants, and books had been delivered by snowmobile earlier that day.
I took a hot shower, then scrambled across the frozen deck to a Finnish barrel sauna looking out over Val di Fassa. A German couple—naked, of course—rearranged themselves to fit me in. Wind gusts pushed through the fitted cedar planks and rocked the barrel just enough to imagine rolling a mile downhill with the German couple and a dozen red-hot sauna rocks.
That night at dinner, I did indeed get the tagliatelle with venison ragu, followed by polenta, local cheese, sautéed mushrooms, and tiramisu. Afterward, I stepped onto the balcony and looked up at the shadow of the Rosengarten Massif. Clouds passed overhead at a hundred miles an hour, dragging a charcoal shadow across the valley. When the clouds passed, pale-blue starlight illuminated the hills again—until another cloud arrived and took the mountain and rifugio back into night.
“Winter is getting more and more like an abstract concept, like a fantasy world portrayed on television and in magazine ads.”
For most parts of the world, the end of glaciers, snow, and winter will initially pass without protest. Melting ice, dying mountain forests, dried-up streams, rising sea levels, and brown summits hundreds of miles from major populations won’t bother many at first. Except in the Alps, where every hillside, peak, and valley has a village, rifugio, lift, tunnel, grazing pasture, or hiking trail—and every inch the snow line rises is noticed.
Scientists like Michael Zemp have been trying to figure out just how fast the great melt is coming, and what it means for everyone downstream. Zemp is the director of the World Glacier Monitoring Service based in Zurich. His job is to watch the world’s inventory of glacial ice and find informative and inventive ways of distributing that information. The system uses around 500 observers in 40 countries to provide data. Once a year, WGMS publishes a book with all of the findings, and now has an app that lists the health of every major glacier in the world.
Since the 1960s, Zemp told me, Earth’s glaciers have lost about 9,000 gigatons of ice (1 gigaton equals 1 cubic kilometer ). A third of that melt comes from Alaska. The European Alps are warming at about twice the pace of the global average—likely due to ocean and air currents—and have lost half of their glacial ice since the 1800s, much of that since the 1980s. With a forecast for 70 percent less snow in the Alps in the next 80 years—and no major glaciers by the end of the century—at least half of the ski resorts in Switzerland could be shut down due to lack of snow, and nearly all the resorts in Germany, Austria and the Pyrenees could be forced to close by 2050. Which is to say, that without a rapid shift away from burning fossil fuels, the storied history of skiing and winter culture in Europe, driven by more than 60 million skiers a year, appears to be coming to a close.
Thirty years ago, when winters were cold and the snow was consistently deep, European cities emptied out mid-winter as families headed to the mountains for school break. Not so today. “It is so strange,” said Daniel Huggenberger, curator of the Swiss Alpine Museum in Bern, Switzerland. “Skiing is not a sport here; it is a way of life, a part of the social fabric.”
Giulia Monego and Christina Lustenberger touring toward the Forcella Granda to gain access to an expansive north-facing couloir. Dolomites, Italy.
A week before our Dolomites tour, Huggenberger, the son of a snowboard pioneer, led me downstairs in the museum to look at a new exhibit he was curating. It was called “Lost and Found Memories Office” and featured a collection of ski gear gathered from museum visitors. The idea was to create a scrapbook of what skiing used to be. A row of old T-bars hung near the middle of the room in front of a wall of antique skis. Next to them were pink and red one-piece snowsuits, a rack of replaceable aluminum ski tips, and a wall of blue-and-white trail maps.
The scene was nostalgic to us, but to kids, he said, it was harder to understand. Recently, he took on another project where he showed children 1,000 old photos of winter and skiing in the Alps. Most, he said, couldn’t believe how much snow there used to be. “They asked, ‘Is that really Switzerland?’” he said. “Winter is getting more and more like an abstract concept, like a fantasy world portrayed on television and in magazine ads.”
A full breakfast awaited us in the rifugio the next morning: croissants, Bavarian cream doughnuts, scrambled eggs, charcuterie, yogurt, muesli. The lifts were still closed, so after a short ski down and a taxi ride to the Rifugio Capanna Bill beneath the Marmolada, we started skinning up the piste again toward Passo Fedaia. The terrain was similar to the day before, though the pitches were longer and steeper and, somehow, icier. The gradual slope gave way to a series of headwalls near the top that created an honest-to-God sense of terror with each step.
Monego savors a moment of calm amid the limestone peaks of the Dolomites.
Two hours later, at the top, the wind peaked at 60 mph, with even stronger gusts. Lustenberger and Monego found pockets of powder alongside the piste. I skied the groomer and watched them shoot photos, then took off for the rifugio to sip coffee and a locally made grappa infused with pine. I sat beneath a photo of the owner with Alberto Tomba as a teenager framed in yellow-lacquered birch saplings.
The skies were calm and blue the next morning, and the lifts were running, so we skied to the Marmolada tram and rode to Punta Rocca at 10,856 feet. The summit station was more like a mini-mall with several floors, one being a museum dedicated to one of humanity’s greatest tragedies: the horrors of World War I. Glass cases displaying uniforms and equipment tell the story of Italian and Austrian soldiers who fought for several long years on the Marmolada—living in snow caves, caverns, and entire complexes that they drilled into the glacier.
When the soldiers were fighting, the Marmolada reached below 7,800 feet and the Crevasse Carpaccio— the final resting place for many soldiers—was 250 feet deep. Now the glacier barely makes it off Punta Rocca and the crevasse is a small divot in the slope. Cominetti, Lustenberger, and Monego skied graceful lines through stranded aprons of powder beneath a ridgeline striated with pink layers of dolomite rock. White clouds of snow circled behind them as they skied around arches and spires.
We entered the final leg of the circuit that afternoon: the Cinque Torri formation in the Nuvolao group of the Eastern Dolomites. At the top of the chairlift, golden light illuminated the five spires. It was almost closing time, so we headed for the base and caught a taxi to our final home, the rifugio Passo.
Forward, march. Lustenberger and Monego move through remains of the Italian campaign to cross the Dolomites during the first World War.
Inside, pictures on the stairway landing showed men in caps, jackets, and ties standing on long skis. There is a village behind them and what looks like a hotel. In the second image, children, adults, and a woman in a full gown with puffy shoulders slid downhill in a toboggan. This was winter, or what we have come to associate with winter, hanging in simple black frames throughout the house.
The grande dame of the house, Claudia Valet, flipped through a book that night about the Scoiattoli di Cortina, a climbing club in the Cortina d’Ampezzo Valley that claims among its spoils the first ascent of K2. The last pages of the book were dedicated to sledding, then skiing, then ski mountaineering, following the progression of winter sport and the development of the Dolomites as a winter destination.
At 75 years old, Valet was still the head server in the Passo Giau dining room; her son managed maintenance and her husband was the head cook. We sat across from a doctor and his wife at dinner. They were from Tuscany and had been coming to the rifugio every winter for 25 years. Dinner was beetroot ravioli, cut and pressed by Claudia earlier that day. A wood stove in the corner heated a large ceramic chamber that warmed the dining room and lobby. Each table was set with linen tablecloths and wooden trays. Carved wood paneling covered the walls and ceiling. Out the window, starlight silhouetted the Cinque Torri.
The Valets joined their friends after dinner and told stories about the old days. The doctor had brought Tuscan cantucci, a kind of biscotti, and Claudia’s son Igor served the traditional vin santo dessert wine to dip it in. Guests drifted out one by one, as we eventually did, leaving the Valets and their friends to carry on roaring with laughter and opening bottles of wine.
As I fell asleep, I thought about all that was at stake here and how little the world knew of it. Beyond the ecological and economic effects of a melting planet, winter culture curated here and beyond was vanishing. Over the next few months, a single image of the Alps stayed with me: The sun was going down, leaving a yellow sky above the yellow dolomite rock. Some of the higher snowfields facing west were hot pink; the 6-foot snowbanks on Passo Giau were dull blue.
From the front door of the rifugio, I saw a lone skier standing on a snowfield above the pass,—an ink-black silhouette, hunching over to step into his bindings. Alpenglow touched the tops of the Cinque Torri as the man pushed off and arced long, fast turns. Snow spiraled behind him and hung in the air like the thin veil of a cloud. He made a few more turns, then angled toward the parking lot, where he stopped on a large snowdrift and sidestepped to the pavement. There he took his skis off, tossed them in the back of his car, and headed down the pass toward home.3