SELLA RONDA :: ITALY
"I AM SORRY," says our guide, with a wry smile, shrug, and lilting Italian accent. "We asked for more powder, but the Man on the Last Floor only gave us this . . ." The guide, Icaro de Monte, points to an inviting snowfield blessed with eight inches of creamy, boot-top snow—a reminder that sarcasm, unlike theological idiom, is an international language.
We're skiing the Sella Ronda, a loop in Italy's Dolomites, perhaps the most dramatic peaks ever created by the Man on the Last Floor. Everywhere stand cathedrals of stratified dolomite rock: spires, buttes, needles, slabs, and cones thrusting high above onion-shaped church towers in thousand-year-old towns. Of the million or so reasons to ski the Alps—from cuckoo clocks (not so important) to chocolate (very important), seamlessly skiing from village to village ranks near the top.
Unconstrained by narrow Forest Service leases, Europe fosters vast networks of lifts that connect far-flung valleys. Forget the North American practice of yo-yoing up and down the same terrain: Here, skiers cover expanses of peaks and valleys without ever repeating a run. And few of these classic village-to-village Alps tours match the Sella Ronda's standards for scenery, turns, ski culture, and dolce vita. Logistics are simple: Because the Sella Ronda forms a circle, skiers can finish it precisely where they began.
We start our ronda in the Badia Valley, known for its affordable four-star hotels and ravioli with truffle oil. A speedy gondola whisks us up from Corvara to an elevation of 6,706 feet on the hulking, jagged Sella massif, which gives the tour its name. We promptly see a Sella Ronda sign pointing south and follow it down a groomed, corkscrewing slope to the next lift. In our case, the sign is orange, designating a clockwise tour; counterclockwise skiers observe green signs. Both routes are so thoroughly marked they could be located in a howling whiteout by a shitfaced grappa drunk. (Hey, it happens.)
All told, the Sella Ronda wends about 23 miles (about nine on lifts, 14 skiing) around the massif. Though the Dolomites are rife with sheer walls that recall Yosemite's El Capitan, the pistes connecting the Sella Ronda are downright gentle. Intermediates can lap the circuit in seven hours, experienced skiers in five—and that's with the requisite pasta breaks. But rushing isn't the point. Not when you can relish mountains that provided the soaring backdrop for Cliffhanger. (They doubled for the insufficiently cinematic Colorado Rockies.)
After catching a T-bar and cruising into the Arabba Valley, we realize we've covered almost 20 percent of the tour in 45 minutes. It's time to slow down. Luckily, we're in the Italian Alps, so an espresso shack/alfresco bar beckons just off the slope. With miniature steaming coffees in our hands and the um-ticka, um-ticka, um-ticka beat of Euro trance in our ears, we pore over the Sella Ronda map. Ahead of us lie villages, huts, and passes with musical names: Passo Pordoi, Lupo Bianco, Valentini, Val Gardena. And we can visit all of them with ease: Our Dolomiti Superski tickets entitle us to an astounding 464 lifts, the most of any single ski pass in the world. As a result, there's almost unlimited potential for side trips, and in the coming days we'll detour to a wine-spattered rifugio and a canyon framed by towering peaks.
But that's for later. Today we have orange signs to follow. After lunch—a sausage-and-cheese platter, Chianti, and a couple shots of Jägermeister—we drop a procession of silky-smooth groomers, passing a smooching couple here and a wooden troll there. So it goes on the Sella Ronda: abandoning slopes after only one run, then chasing the horizon toward whatever the Dolomites offer up next.
SELLA RONDA :: ITALY