“When we get to the tunnel entrance you mustski right inside, because avalanches can run alongside the outcropping and bury the trail,” said Alessio Delpero. “But if the entrance is already blocked by debris, we’ll have to dig our way in.”
Of all the skiing-related directions I’d received over the decades, none had been quite like these. Alessio and I had just descended 3,000 vertical feet of north-facing blower surrounded by the wild relief of the Italian Alps in a largely overlooked, generally bypassed area of “near-Dolomites” that, though less famous than that iconic range, offers even more accessible touring and often better skiing.
Called The Prostitute by locals, it had been straightforward routefinding with the standard avy precautions. Mostly, it had been plain great skiing on wide-open, moderately pitched slopes in brilliant sunshine. With strained metaphors and wan puns rolling off our tongues, we agreed she had dispensed her favours willingly, satisfyingly and at a remarkably low cost. But now we were transitioning from fall-line skiing to the exit phase, which can be an intricate undertaking in the Alps. For The Prostitute, it meant a long traverse along an ancient military track running between avalanche start zones above and big cliffs below, followed by a brief respite in the aforesaid tunnel, then more sidehill traversing, with a finale of tree skiing before reaching our ride at a local highway.
Would The Prostitute grant us a discrete exit? Or keep us in her clutches to extract payment? As we set out on the long traverse, I worried less about crossing my tips on the bumpy, rutted, alternately slush/icy track and falling to my doom than I did about getting crushed from above and then swept away to my doom. I ditched any idea of applying the brakes and shot along the track beneath avalanche chutes and over successive zones of debris until rounding a last pile of mud-streaked chunks brought the open tunnel into view. Just enough snow had sluffed inside to permit hurling myself sideways on the last patch of sunlight and hockey-stopping inside the entrance short of piling up on verglas-covered boulders. The whorehouse equivalent of a smoke break between rounds.
The Prostitute got its name after becoming a major World War I battleground between Italy (allied with France and England) and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (allied with Germany), which then owned nearby South Tyrol. Changing hands numerous times, the fiercely contested valley’s lack of “loyalty” to either side inspired the bitter wartime name: she didn’t mind who came along, as long as they paid dearly in blood and treasure. Blatantly sexist to current hyper-attentive sensibilities, but in Italy, one is never far from history. Even in the highest mountains one views wartime fortifications carved into cliffs or comes across scraps of barbed wire or shell fragments. Glaciers periodically disgorge remains of some unfortunate soldier who escaped being blown to bits only to fall into a crevasse.
Alessio and his family own a mid-sized, mid-scale hotel in Passo del Tonale, where I’ve been drawn by a few quietly whispered reports of easily accessible tours onto lightly travelled, big-vertical descents – the thing that just about every serious ski tourer is always seeking. In the Alps, it’s an ever-receding target that, some say, is gone forever. It’s still to be found in my experience, and at Passo del Tonale I’ve found it.
The word “Passo” is important. The village sits at 6,300 feet, which would be low in Colorado or Utah but is very high for the Alps. Critically for touring/skiing quality, the pass runs east-west. Smooth-faced mountains with a jumble of detachable chairlifts rise to the north. It’s pleasant skiing with square miles of easily-accessed off-piste and ridge-tours. Alessio, Cindy my sweetheart and I spend a couple of fun mornings cruising along perfect groomers just long enough to find suitable powder slopes, then off we go. But it’s not why an Ascent reader would cross an ocean.
The other side, very much so. Slopes sweep up steepening into a massive, miles-long cliff-wall punctuated by a couple of alpine cirques and several tight couloirs. A modern high-speed gondola scales one of these cirques and passes through a notch in the cliff wall. Beyond that, a high hanging glaciated valley saddles out at 10,300 feet and gives access to the Adamello Glacier area. Past the Adamello, one last ridge marks the effective end of the Alps, the terrain disintegrates and Milan lies figuratively at one’s feet.
Although it doesn’t look like that much on a map, as anyone who’s ever explored even a little bit knows, there’s alwaysmore terrain than you think. Like so many “little” places, it’s a little world unto itself. If you avoid obsessively demystifying the place ahead of time on Google maps or topo apps, Passo del Tonale and the Adamello Glacier zone are a varied and fascinating area that can yield one discovery after another, including descents of over a vertical mile. As they did for me.
One easy hit is known simply as The Couloir. It’s a juicy gully-cirque-bowl-apron combo with easy access that avoids being overrun through its requirement to traverse beneath big, sun-baked avy slopes, then post-hole up a steep chute, all of which tend to release – or “detach” as Alessio puts it – after a snowfall, i.e., exactly when you want to do it. On Day 2, it snowed hard nearly all day and that night, but we resisted diving in first the next morning, instead awaiting a series of “detachments.” So we weren’t the first in but, after crossing tracks in the narrow opening pitch, it opened into cirque, bowl and apron for joyous steep north-facing untracked powder the whole way.
Passo del Tonale’s sidecountry and backcountry aren’t exactly empty, but they’re not overrun. It’s not the absolute highest nor most rugged part of the Alps, nor the largest, best-known or snowiest. But it scores “good enough,” “real good” or “great” in nearly every criterion. Other areas might have more snow but be overrun with people, or have the biggest relief and the most impressive peaks but get great snow only about every 10thyear. As a package, Passo del Tonale adds up to “outstanding.”
Admittedly, on this trip I didn’t seek out additional physical suffering by scouring the region for smelly touring huts populated by bros and betties with exactly the same outlook, attitude and goals as every other ski tourer. After all, we were in Italy, a culture that lives and breathes wonderful food, wine and coffee. Sitting on the dividing line with culturally Austrian South Tyrol, the Delpero family’s Hotel Dahu looks more Austrian than Italian – with wooden posts and beams, trim and panelling, and stuccoed walls – although it is culturally Italian, including the cuisine.
Cindy and I were staying in one of the hotel’s “Romantic” rooms, which we found out was a euphemism for “small,” although it was beautifully furnished and finished, including the bath. I say that only because, historically, Italian establishments had a very uncertain relationship with plumbing. Not here. In addition, there was some bizarre lighting circuitry in which LEDs would randomly dissolve among various garish colours. “Green means ‘go’, honey,” I commented one evening after dinner. We found out later that the coloured lights were Alessio’s mother’s idea.
Of course, I was here to do real touring. Alessio had been saving The Glacier (all runs seemed to begin with “the”) for the right combination of great snow and reasonable avy conditions. The snowfall had resumed after our descents of The Couloir and The Prostitute and, as we rode the gondola the next morning, we saw the wind had blown as well. Seemingly inauspicious but, Alessio maintained, “I’m optimistic.” Next to “detached,” his favourite expression. Traversing from the top station was pure slab. We travelled ultra-conservatively, staying on low ridgetops, ever-conscious of hazards above, below and beside.
Not so some others. One guy on skinny ski-mo gear kicked off a wind slab, got carried down a ways, picked himself up and promptly skied into a huge slab pillow, burying himself neck-deep. Had anything “detached,” Alessio and I would have been in search mode. Lower down, some split-boarders were ripping turns on a sun-baked slope that had already detached three slabs. Alessio and I timed things to shoot across between their runs as far from the run outs as we could get.
At last we were in the relative safety of the skin-up area. Far below we could see the large, stone Rifugio Mandron (aka the “Città di Trento”), now open for the spring ski touring season. Across ran the long, sinuous, heavily crevassed Adamello Glacier. After its decades-long retreat, it’s less enjoyable and more dangerous to travel on than in the past. Atop and beyond it sits the Rifugio ai Caduti dell’Adamello (aka the “Lobbia Alta”). And beyond that, numerous additional peaks and glaciers that would warrant a multi-week visit rather than my meagre four days.
The Adamello Glacier and its huts are where a young Polish cleric named Karol Wojtyla many decades ago would visit for the feelings of height, solitude and physical effort that, he felt, brought him closer to God. He went on to become Pope John Paul II. I know the Catholic Church’s reputation is in tatters in the U.S., but he was a remarkable man. Among many other things, Alessio told me that the future Pope’s deepening relationship with his Italian mountain guide, Lino Zani, inspired Zani to do all he could with his own life. He went on to climb major peaks in the Himalayas, summiting Dhaulagiri, and also crossing the North Pole.
Alessio and I had a more achievable summit in mind. The ascent to “The Glacier” (which does have an actual name, the Pisgana) took us away from the Adamello and up a huge slope down which avalanches could run for several thousand vertical feet. We were able to stay on a relatively protected shoulder for much of the two-and-a-half-hour ascent. I kept thinking that my Canadian avalanche course instructors would suffer a series of heart attacks, strokes and exploding heads at the sight of me right now, and my choice of route would flunk me out of any Canadian course. As I’ve written about previously in Ascent, the Alps are different: either the accepted risk-tolerance is higher, or the snow is more stable, or a bit of both.
Before long we were at our saddle and into the usual ritual of unskinning, swapping layers, having a drink and snack and clamping down our boots. A few other ski tourers and splitboarders were doing the same, and all were questioning Alessio and wondering why a North American would come here. “Tell them it might have something to do with the 6,000 vertical feet of north face we’re about to ski,” I replied. Besides, with weed smoke wafting around on the saddle, “I feel like I’m in Cali or B.C. right now.”
Although it sounds too good to be true, the slopes we were contemplating had been copiously dumped upon but looked utterly untouched by wind. Blower wherever any snow could settle, framed by massive cliffs. We pushed off, well-spaced, and were instantly waist-deep and engulfed not merely by face-shots but descending entire face pitches. Every few turns I’d compress deep and pop up hard for a look and a breath. We passed several tourers on narrow ski-mo gear wallowing forlornly and looking unhappyat the snow’s depth.
As we stopped between pitches, we looked up and noticed a couple of them skiing in our tracks. One section was, admittedly, too flat to turn much even on our wider skis. Gradient soon returned, however, and three successively steeper pitches followed. One of them must have been 1,000 vertical feet all by itself. Though still very light, the snow was slightly settled, allowing us to accelerate into fast ripping turns, throwing our skis far out away from us and ending up nearly chest-deep at each apex. Unbelievable.
“Alessio, this is what one does cross an ocean and circle the globe for,” I yelled as we regrouped after the last big pitch. Now we were in a narrow valley beneath a mile of rocky, snow-blasted relief in the dazzling late-morning sun. At the mouth of this valley lay the village of Ponte di Legno at 4,000 feet. After shooting past the last danger zone, another 2,000 vertical feet of pleasant glades, tree skiing and zig-zaggy forest trail lay ahead. Everything remained attached.