Wednesday, February 22
Woke up Tuesday and felt like I had to get on the hill. Any hill. Without any alpine skiing events, there was no reason to hang in Sestriere. Women's Slalom was Wednesday afternoon, and could just as easily be watched from afar, on RaiDue television. So I packed up my VW Golf diesel wagon and headed north.
A few nights ago at the USA House, I met Eric Rhinehardt, an American from Crested Butte who is a World Cup ski tech for the Australian team. His plight at the games was similar to mine: no official credentials and left to his own resources to find his way as best he could. We compared notes.
Apparently, team credentials are divvied based on the number of athletes, and Australia only had four alpine skiers, therefore very few passes for coaches and techs. So Eric was unable to get into the Wax Bins, the area where the teams' tuners do their thing. In fact, their main slalom guy, Jono Brauer, was having to tune his own skis, unheard of outside of junior-level ski racing. And Eric was watching races with me, in the USA House (over another bowl of free Barilla pasta), or from the stands at the race. Not on the hill.
But he did score a "Gucci parking pass," found face down in a mud puddle in a lot down in the valley. Recognizing its value, he cleaned it up a little, slapped it on his windshield, and tried his luck. Full access. So he had that going for him.
But I have been parking in Cesana, grabbing a spot behind the Norway House for the last two weeks without any problem. Cesana is the last town before the absolute roadblock up to Sestriere, and the 15-minute bus ride isn't too badexcept when you have a full load of Torino volunteers elbowing you and pushing to get on.
So now I'm past Turin, my iPod doing its best to keep me sane and free of those awful Italian radio stations. I mean, does anyone in Italy like decent rock 'n' roll? Apparently not. I breezed up the Autostrada at 140 km/h headed towards Aosta. Just before passing that famous Roman road city, I peeled off and climbed into a little valley that I had heard a lot about, but never visited. The last few seasons had been stingy snow-wise in this region, but I hoped that the recent storms had improved the situation.
Every village I passed through got tighter and more rootsy than the last. Little Aostan soul shacks were scattered all over the hillsides, some even built under giant boulders that seemed to form part of the roof. I got to the head of the valley and there were trams and gondolas stretching skyward in every direction. Skiers, not chasing gates. No Caribineri to be seen. And huge friggin' mountains everywhere. I was as far from the Turin maelstrom as I could be. And it felt good.
I checked into an historic hotel called the Lyskamm, named after one of the daunting peaks at the head of the valley. It was warm and comfortable, even felt a little Swiss, which is no surprise. The border was only a few klicks to the north. I wandered around the village square, a tidy circuit of stone chalets and shop fronts, a few other hotels and restaurants scattered nearby. I walked down crooked little alleys, Aostan architecture even more apparent as cow barns and hay lofts blended seamlessly with the farmers' homes.
This was one of those true gems that you stumble upon when skiing in the Alps, a place that had been a village for hundreds of years before ski tourism was even a thought. Where Sestriere was a purpose-built resort conceived by Fiat founder Giovanni Agnelli, constructed of hideous concrete monoliths, this was a real mountain hamlet that reeked of authenticity. People were friendly and their smiles were genuine. I couldn't wait to ski and find out what lay in store up on the hill.
That night, I passed on the full-pension dinner at the hotel and checked out a tiny little restaurant that came highly recommended. The Nordkapp was as soulful a joint as you would imagine in a town like this. Managed by the team of Luca Malberti and his wife Priya Serra, they run a tight little crew that puts out some of the best food in the Valle d'Aosta. I started with an incredible rabbit dish that came with a salty homemade foccacia. My pasta dish was a pheasant ravioli with a sage-brown butter-parmesan sauce. Absolutely out of this world. I probably should have stopped there, but I went in for the slow-roasted lamb shank that fell off the bone. The wine of the day was an Aostan Nus that lubricated me with a happy glow. Priya brought me a plate of tiny amaretti cookies because she though I needed something sweet. I poured myself out into the street and tried to walk it off. I slept well.
At 6:30 a.m., I awoke with the anticipation of my first ski day in weeks. Breakfast (can you believe I was going to eat something else?) wasn't until eight, so I flipped on the tube and caught my first televised hockey game in a while. It was Italy-Switzerland from the night before, and it was obvious that the Swiss had run out of big games. They trailed Italy, the whipping-boy team of the hockey tourney, 2-1 and would have lost if Italy hadn't coughed up the puck with three minutes left to give Switzerland a tie. That was the last game I would see of the prelim round; from now on it was for the medals.
I headed up to the lifts and bought my pass and the optional "insurance." In the Alps, you never know what could happen to you while skiing. For two extra Euros a day, it's always nice to have the ability to get a free helicopter ride if something bad goes down. It was looking pretty socked-in up high, a challenging giorno bianco where the lack of trees makes it feel like skiing inside a ping-pong ball. No definition or contrast to help you feel where you are and where you're going. Skiing by Braille, if you will.
I boarded the gondola and headed up into the clouds, snow falling heavier the higher I got. My first run I felt a little rusty but found boot-top powder on the piste, marked by fluorescent sticks that oddly enough resembled slalom gates. It soon became apparent that with this visibility, that would be all I was going to do all day. There was no way, given the low-tide snow cover off piste, as well as the minefield of crevasses, that I was going to poke around without a guide in a whiteout. But it wound up being pretty good regardless. I explored the entire upper mountain, occasionally sinking knee-deep in light, dry snow. Once in a while a sucker hole would illuminate a ridgeline and the potential that this place held was unmistakable.
I heard a bunch of dogs barking on one of the runs, and I came upon a group of ski patrollers and rescue workers in the middle of a training exercise. Actually it was some sort of avalanche dog competition, and about 20 of the highly-trained pooches were doing their thing, finding buried "victims" against the clock. Now this was a sport that had some appeal. A couple of runs later, they were done and the dogs chased their owners down the piste, a powder day of their own.
At the end of the day, I needed to suss out an aprés-ski beer. I heard some Bob Marley coming from a nearby building, and found a diverse crew of skiers and snowboarders inside the funky Core Bar. It was just what I was looking for. Patrick, the bartender was super friendly and asked me what I was doing there. Once he sorted out that I was a journalist and who I had written for, he produced a Powder magazine and found one of my pieces. I then had a new best friend.
Patrick, a local from just down the valley, told me that they had very few ski bums there but this season a group of Scandinavians had come for the winter. Often that is the first sign of a resort's demise as far as powder goes. They go home in the summer, tell their friends, and the next year, there's twice as many. It is an epidemic in the Alps. Just look at Chamonix, Verbier, or Engelberg. But he still estimated less than 100 ski bums there total. My mind reeled. I downed another beer, complimentary at this point due to my "notoriety," and considered a season here for myself.
Later that night, I watched the U.S. and Canada both get eliminated from the Olympic ice-hockey tournament. Team USA fell victim to still-unbeaten Finland, and the Russians got the best of the Canucks. It seemed a fitting end for two teams who couldn't get it going the entire Games. Sweden and the Czech Republic rounded out the rest of the semifinalists, which will be a showcase of great European hockey.
And if you think for a second that I'm going to say where I was, you're dead wrong. If you do your homework, look at a map, and search out some of the peaks that shadow the valley, you might find it. And if you do, you deserve to. But this will be one part of my Olympic experience that will remain a mystery.