Hanging Out in Cortina
“Oh…what do I do now, Edoardo?” I yell back up tentatively to my smiley young mountain guide. The steel cable that my harness is securely clipped to has disappeared deep into the snow and the next cable is nowhere in sight. Although I’m in a crawl position, I’m so vertical, the back of my helmet is hitting the skis on my pack, forcing me to look either directly ahead at a wall of white—about 30 cm in front of my face—or straight down. “Down” means beyond the crampons on my ski-touring boots, one of which I didn’t tighten properly. “Down” has also become infinity.
It’s an abnormally warm March day and I’m clinging to a mountainside above Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, on what had been earlier described as the “easy-medium” Olivieri via ferrata route up Tofana. I only learn later that this rating is for non-winter users, when one’s harness is continuously clipped onto steel cables as one billy goats his way up the mountain, in climbing boots, following along a relatively dry and clear via ferrata, or “road of iron.” Because of the Dolomites low-snow, high-sun winter, our ski-touring options were few and less than ideal, so I was all in when I was offered the suggestion to go for a walk.
“Okay, now we go freestyle!” responds Edoardo. “You must plant your ice axe firmly, unclip from the cable and then take one step at a time.”
Confident that the next cable will reappear soon, “just around the corner,” I count each slow step methodically until the snow has been replaced by rock, where a new cable reappears for me to latch onto. Later, on my third time “going freestyle,” it’s almost become routine, although each time I return to the cable, the sound of the clip remains equally comforting.
Weirdly, during all this excitement, I was wondering where some of the others on last March’s Ski Canada Readers’ Trip were now stopping for a mid-morning coffee or cocoa and a pastry on a sunny deck to soak in another truly awe-inspiring view of the Dolomites.
After a decade, Readers’ Trips have developed a routine. From the morning boot-room scramble to evening après-ski bubbling with the day’s stories to a saunter into the dining room, the groups are a mix of returnees and first-timers, eastern-skiers and a few from Western Canada, couples, singles and buddies. Trip veteran Paula Powell, immortalized in Readers’ Trip lore for discovering and then leading the thirsty troop to an unlocked beer tap at Montreal’s PET Airport after a major flight delay, said: “I never ski where you ski, Iain, but I love seeing the photos!”
Paula’s husband, Richard, on the other hand, does ski (well, snowboards) a lot of the stuff I like but the lone wolf is so hard to track. We see each other more on the way up than we cross tracks on the way down. Brian, Patti, Rob, Ginny, Judy, Rick, Bing, Wes, Kiyoko, the Pirates…the Ski Canada gang mixes and matches each trip and it’s fun to say “See you next year” and mean it. Thornbury, Ontario, apple farmer and Readers’ Trip virgin Tom claimed he’d never skied off-piste before last year’s trip to Cortina—and then proceeded to thrash through some surprise boot-top powder we had under the imposing vertical walls of golden limestone two mornings like it was his regular weekend haunts.
The group quickly realized that a week in and beyond Cortina on a 450-lift, 12-resort Super Dolomiti pass barely scratched the surface, there’s so much to ski. A morning ski bus from the hotel Corona’s front door to the Lagazuoi cable car took us up and over the tunnels blasted through solid rock in the First World War when the Italians and Austro-Hungarians were literally on top of each other battling it out. One very long wide-open cruiser later, the gang was holding onto a team of horses being pulled toward a small platter lift that would connect us to Alta Badia and then Arabba/Marmolada, Val di Fassa and Val Gardena. Those in the group who really wanted to cruise had charged off earlier and were busy counting laps on the Sella Ronda challenge.
Cortina and the massive neighbourhood make a classic comparison with North American skiing. Where we are strong in organized lift lines, well-planned fall-line skiing cut into trees and ski-to-the-door condos, Europe woos with a massive game of playing lost-and-found as one skis from village to village, resort to resort, gourmet dining on sunny decks under neck-craning scenery that leaves one humbled.
Ski Canada’s January 2020 Club Med trip sold out before this issue went to press, but there are still a few spaces left to ski with us in March at Madonna di Campiglio. And that leaves you plenty of time to warm up a few weekends or a week here at home or maybe Cortina. Whether you’re ready to race your buddy on a World Cup downhill course or you’re already planning your lunches, sooner or later you should join the Ski Canada gang.
• Mountain guides from Alpine di Cortina Scuola d’Alpinismo have been leading newbies and experts around the Dolomites for more than 150 years. Ski mountaineering, freeriding, family and kids’ programs, resort tours, via ferrata and more: guidecortina.com
• Ski Cortina d’Ampezzo before the Olympics return in 2026: cortina.dolomiti.org
• Or join Ski Canada readers in Madonna di Campiglio this winter.
_Iain MacMillan, Editor, in Buyer’s Guide 2020 issue