Vertical: 7,754 feet
Skiable Area: 714 acres
Annual Snowfall: 240 inches
Price: An all-day lift ticket costs $34
When to Go: February and March have the best snow
"ABOVE ALL, DO NOT FALL. If you fall, you will die."
With that bit of confidence-building advice, Jean-Marc Crampe, a ponytailed ski guide, leaped off a cornice and into a 60-degree couloir. The night before, in the hotel bar, after one too many rounds of grappa, I had persuaded him that I was up for the nastiest descents he could show me in the Monterosa area of the Italian Alps, the latest mecca for extreme skiing.
After all, wasn't Italy the country where skiers spent more time parading around in fur coats than skiing? Well, Monterosaa resort named after the Monte Rosa Range, whose 15,000-foot peaks straddle the Swiss-Italian borderisn't like the rest of Italy.
Sure, there are 110 miles of conventional trails that link the villages of Champoluc, Gressoney, and Alagna. In the hotels, there are tuxedoed waiters who fussily serve weekend visitors from Milan. And the lift attendants still whistle at women in one-piece Bogner suits. But up above, there is terrain that makes Jackson Hole look like a nice place to cross-country ski. That, and the absence of crowds, has turned Monterosa into a cult destination for alpine ski bums. It's the new La Grave. Peering over the rim of the couloir, I watched Jean-Marc make a few jump turns to avoid crashing into the rock walls that lined the ten-foot-wide sliver of snow. I turned down his offer to let me rappel over a frozen waterfall at the top and side-stepped and slid my way down about 100 yards to meet him. As terror gave way to mild fear, I was able to start skiing again. After 2,500 vertical feet came the rewardthe couloir opened up enough that I could let my old-school skis rip through the softened spring snow. Finally, when the snow ran outthe March sun was beating downwe hiked through the woods to Alagna.
The couloir was only a quick tune-up for the main event the next day, a heli-skiing trip from Gressoney across the Swiss border to Zermatt and back over to Italy, in the shadow of 15,203-foot Monte Rosa. Heli-skiing, strictly limited or banned in other parts of the Alps, is still widely practiced in Italy, and Monterosa is the best base for it.
After we had strapped on our avalanche beepers and harnesses, two buddies and I followed another guide, Claudio Bastrentaz, to the chopper, which dropped us off on a 13,000-foot saddle on the flanks of Monte Rosa. Before us stretched the Grenzgletscher, a ten-mile ice floe. After a scenic tour down to Zermatt, past towering seracs and gaping crevassesa "cakewalk," Claudio said in accented English, even though we had skied twice the vertical drop of Vailwe got another helicopter ride up to the ridge.
"I hope you like steep slopes," Claudio said after the helicopter had left, giving us no choice in the matter. We followed him onto a 50-degree firn-covered incline. The skiing was so smooth, I was lulled into a false sense of security, broken only when I saw Claudio waving his poles at me from below what looked like a stair-step in the mountain.
"Jump, jump," he yelled. As I flew off the step, I looked down into the abyss of a five-foot-wide crevasse. Once we had all cleared this hurdle, Claudio informed us that we had made a "first descent," giving us the right to name it.
"You must name it after your girlfriends," he said. Proving that we were, after all, in Italy.
WHERE TO SKI
The Diretta ski route is an unmarked but easy-to-follow off-piste itinerary from the top of the Alagna cable car down to neighboring Gressoney.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Dufour ($600 per person for seven nights, including all meals; 011-39-0125-366-139, www.hoteldufour.com), at the foot of the slopes in Gressoney, is the most convenient place to sleep, particularly because the guide service is based there. Rooms are basic but clean and quiet, with balconies facing the nearby Punta Jolanda ski lift.
WHERE TO EAT
Champoluc, Gressoney, and Alagna are tiny villages, not your typical sprawling ski resorts. It's better to get a hotel with half boarddinner includedthan to search in vain for food in one of the trattorias scattered about. On the mountain, Ristoro Belvedere, in Champoluc, is a gema hut where you can get a heaping plate of polenta and sausages for $10.
GEAR & GUIDES
Scuola di Alpinismo Monte Rosa (011-39-0125-366-139, www.guidemonterosa.com), based in the Hotel Dufour in Gressoney, is the place to go. A guided tour above Monterosa and Zermatt, using two helicopter drops, costs $170 per person. Without a helicopter, a guide costs $260 a day for a group of up to five people. David Sport, in Gressoney (011-39-0125-366-124), rents any equipment you need for skiing off-piste on glaciers.
Alitalia (800-223-5730, www.alitalia.com) flies from New York to Milan starting at $515 round-trip. Rent a car and drive 70 miles through the Alps foothills to the resort.