Ex­plor­ing a quiet pow­der stash on the French-ital­ian bor­der



A Poma lift on the left, a cou­ple of out-of-com­mis­sion snow guns on the right, and some crude grad­ing is all that dis­tin­guishes this “piste” from the sur­round­ing fea­ture­less alpine ter­rain. The only clue that this same run in Sestriere, Italy, hosted the world’s best GS skiers in the 2006 Olympics, in­clud­ing Benjamin Raich, Her­mann Maier, and Ju­lia Man­cuso, is a cou­ple of start houses on the far right of the slope. Dur­ing the 2006 Games, the en­tire ski world’s at­ten­tion was fo­cused on this slice of moun­tain near the Ital­ian-french bor­der—by train about five hours from Paris and an hour from Turin, Italy, or by car, three hours south of Cha­monix—yet to­day the sur­face lift rarely runs and the ma­jor­ity of ski traf­fic is up­hill, a jump­ing-off point to the ex­pan­sive back bowls and couloirs in a small pocket of the Milky Way ski sys­tem.

The group of small- to medium-sized ski ar­eas, known lo­cally as the Via Lat­tea, is com­prised of over 70 lifts that con­nect eight dif­fer­ent vil­lages in the south­west­ern Alps. It’s mid-march and I’m here with Kiwi Sam Smoothy and Cha­monix-based pho­tog­ra­pher Jeremy Bernard. The re­gion has been get­ting ham­mered by snow­fall all win­ter, thanks in part to an ex­tremely lo­cal­ized weather phe­nom­e­non known as re­tour d’est. The weather pat­tern, which lit­er­ally trans­lates to “re­turn from the east,” oc­curs when low pres­sure forms over the Gulf of Genoa, the large body of wa­ter off the Ital­ian Riviera, and feeds con­tin­u­ous mois­ture from the Mediter­ranean to the Alps from the east. With no real foothills to blunt the im­pact of mois­ture, cer­tain lo­ca­tions can see ex­tended pe­ri­ods of heavy snow­fall. This past Jan­uary, a sin­gle storm pro­duced over six feet of snow in the Milky Way.

When we ar­rived in Mont­genèvre, a lit­tle ski town on the French side of the bor­der, the im­mense snow­pack buried huts and lodges. The town is known for hav­ing hosted one of the world’s first in­ter­na­tional ski races, in 1907, around the same time its denizens built the first ski jump­ing hill out­side of Nor­way, a claim dis­puted by neigh­bor­ing town Claviere, Italy. While rac­ing has al­ways been a driv­ing force be­hind de­vel­op­ments—and im­prove­ments—we came here for dif­fer­ent rea­sons: There’s lit­tle hype, amaz­ing tree ski­ing, and plenty of ver­ti­cal to get one puck­ered in the area’s com­plex alpine and sub-alpine ter­rain.

Up the hill ahead of me, Smoothy and Marco Eyadin, a lo­cal we had met through mu­tual friends, break trail. Eyadin, 34, has an easy stride and a well-de­fined sun­glass tan de­spite the stormy win­ter. Even by Ital­ian stan­dards, he has a lais­sez-faire, we’ll-get-there-when-we-get-there at­ti­tude, as he fit­tingly ex­plains there’s no rush to get to the top be­cause there’s no one be­hind us.

By the time we crest the top of the ridge, it’s be­come ap­par­ent where Eyadin gets his ca­sual at­ti­tude: Not only is there no one be­hind us, there’s just a hand­ful of tracks drop­ping off ei­ther side of the ridge, de­spite sev­eral days of clear weather that pro­ceeded our ar­rival. We tran­si­tion at the top of the Milky Way Couloir, which is more of a giant ramp than couloir, and take in the seem­ingly end­less ter­rain op­tions around us. It’s as close to

a per­fect late win­ter day as the re­gion had seen, with snow corn­ing up on the south-fac­ing slopes to our right and pow­der be­ing pre­served by the sun-shel­tered north-fac­ing slopes to our left. It would be hard to find a bad turn in any di­rec­tion.

As we dis­cuss who gets first tracks, Eyadin says, “You guys should go first, I ski here all the time.” He doesn’t sound like he’s con­ced­ing some­thing or cav­ing to a re­spon­si­bil­ity of giv­ing us the best snow, but le­git­i­mately wants us to have the priv­i­lege. Smoothy takes off and gives us real-time up­dates on snow con­di­tions through a se­ries of laughs and Kiwi-ac­cented ex­cla­ma­tions. “You’ve got to be shit­ting me!” he cries out in ju­bi­la­tion as his voice fades into the val­ley 2,000 feet be­low.

I drop in next and con­firm the snow sup­ports Smoothy’s use of su­perla­tives. It’s not deep, but per­fectly smooth and light, wind­ing through a se­ries of un­du­la­tions and cliff bands all the way to the bot­tom. De­spite trending to­ward moun­taineer­ing in re­cent years, Eyadin has a back­ground in freestyle, which shows in his ski­ing. He floats as ef­fort­lessly on the way down as he did on the way up, and slowly opens up his turns on the apron, where he comes to a hard stop right be­side us, smil­ing ear-to-ear like it was his first time ski­ing the run. Al­though what we do next seems to be a fore­gone con­clu­sion, we dis­cuss it any­way and all agree: same thing.

IN TERMS OF MOUN­TAIN PASSES IN THE ALPS, the Col de Mont­genèvre, the ver­i­ta­ble heart of the Milky Way, is noth­ing im­pres­sive. There’s no eas­ily dis­tin­guished sum­mit that re­veals the up­per Du­rance Val­ley to the west or the Susa Val­ley to the east. Save for go­ing be­neath a chair­lift be­fore en­ter­ing a tun­nel that by­passes most of the town, one could miss the ski re­sort all to­gether.

Due to its lack of a topo­graph­i­cal crescendo, the col has played an im­por­tant role in mil­i­tary bat­tles and hu­man mi­gra­tions for cen­turies. One of the most for­giv­ing thor­ough­fares of the Alps, the pass has seen (ar­guably) Han­ni­bal, World War II bat­tles, and, re­cently, mi­grants from North Africa seek­ing work who use the groomed slopes that flank the high­way to by­pass bor­der guards on their way from Italy to France. Of­ten equipped with only sneak­ers and a light jacket, mi­grants opt for the more dan­ger­ous snow con­di­tions ver­sus the po­liced cross­ings on the nearby road. It’s not un­com­mon for ski pa­trollers to find shoes, blan­kets, and even strollers on the slopes at dawn. (In April, France’s In­te­rior Min­is­ter pledged to in­crease se­cu­rity on the pass.)

Sit­ting in front of the bak­ery in the early morn­ing hours sev­eral days later, it’s easy for a skier’s mind to get lost in the moun­tains that sur­round the col. Mont­genèvre’s mod­est ver­ti­cal drop (by Eu­ro­pean stan­dards) of roughly 2,700 feet in­cludes in­tri­cate couloirs, film-wor­thy mini golf, and steep ramps that de­scend all the way to the val­ley, ac­cessed by a short hike from the sum­mit chair. Re­tour d’est has been par­tic­u­larly good as well, de­liv­er­ing over 330 inches in town.

The town it­self has a cer­tain je ne sais quoi. When we didn’t have cash our first evening and the only ATM was bro­ken, our wait­ress shrugged it off and just asked us to pay in the next few days (we did). Four gen­er­a­tions of lo­cals dance to the same band each Fri­day night and ev­ery­one in town—from the baker to cin­ema op­er­a­tor—con­sid­ers their job the most im­por­tant one.

We’ve al­ready fallen into a rou­tine that can only be de­scribed as… french: wake up, put ski gear on, and roll down to the bak­ery to get an es­presso and crois­sant. We get our fill of caf­feine and sec­ond-hand smoke and head over to the lifts to meet Lorenzo Bel­mondo, a lo­cal skier and bar­tender.

A panic en­sues pre­cisely on cue shortly be­fore the lifts open at Mont­genèvre. Dozens of skiers are step­ping all over each other with com­plete dis­re­gard for per­sonal space, clad in skin-tight white pants and hel­mets with vi­sors. For all in­tents and pur­poses, it’s a blue­bird pow­der day, which, for this crowd, means it’s a blue­bird piste day.

Be­yond his pow­der skis, Bel­mondo stands out with his pack, hel­met cov­ered in stick­ers—many of which rep­re­sent his motto, “No Friends on Pow­der Days”— and his well-groomed han­dle­bar mus­tache. His English isn’t per­fect, but he speaks con­fi­dently as he lays out the plan for the day as we ride up the chair.

His plan is—how you say?—loose. Go around the cor­ner here, poke over there, maybe walk up there. Which is part of the beauty of the Milky Way. Al­though one ticket gains ac­cess to the en­tire net­work of lifts, each re­sort has a unique feel and qual­ity of ter­rain to en­ter­tain even the most ded­i­cated skier. Al­though the lift ticket sys­tem and lift open­ing times re­quire a thor­ough un­der­stand­ing of spread­sheets and a ba­sic grasp of French and Ital­ian, once un­der­stood it’s easy to pur­chase a sin­gle, cheaper ticket based on the day’s weather and snow con­di­tions. Snowy and cloudy? Ski in the trees be­tween Sestriere and Prage­lato (ticket: $43). Sunny and calm? Ski Mont­genèvre’s north-fac­ing side in the morn­ing and catch the af­ter­noon corn cy­cle on the south-fac­ing slopes across the high­way (ticket: $48).

With­out the need for a plan d’at­taque, we ski a cou­ple of wide open faces and make our way to­ward Claviere. As we tra­verse to­ward a new but oddly dor­mant lift, Bel­mondo ex­plains the com­pli­ca­tions that face neigh­bor­ing re­sorts that are owned by dif­fer­ent mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties with runs that cross in­ter­na­tional borders. “There was a run here but now you’re not al­lowed to ski it with­out avalanche gear,” he says. “If the Ital­ian po­lice catch you with­out gear, they’ll fine you.”

The lift clo­sure stems from a com­bi­na­tion of ero­sion as­so­ci­ated with grad­ing, re­cent ac­ci­dents, and the bu­reau­cracy of in­ter­na­tional law as­so­ci­ated with de­vel­op­ing a run that starts in France and ends in Italy. It is now tied up in lit­i­ga­tion, and we have to climb over mas­sive drifts just to get into the top sta­tion.

While many lo­cals in the U.S. would be up in arms about an un­used, fairly cru­cial chair­lift, Bel­mondo is un­fazed, and per­haps happy that the only way to ac­cess the ter­rain is by hik­ing. “Here, you can make freeride with­out big dan­ger with a short hike,” he ex­plains as he points out the dif­fer­ent slopes, the re­peat of­fend­ers, and what time to ski each run safely. Al­though the re­gion has an ubiq­ui­tous ca­sual vibe, we’d later find out that as long as peo­ple have been trav­el­ing in these moun­tains, they’d also been dy­ing in them.

We leave the would-be top sta­tion and ski mid­day un­tracked pow­der un­der the lift. Over beer and pasta at a refu­gio, Bel­mondo in­tro­duces us to his friends around the deck. We visit more ta­bles than we miss, and I won­der if “No Friends on Pow­der

Days” is meant iron­i­cally.

As we make our way back to Mont­genèvre, check­ing out a cou­ple of WWII am­mu­ni­tion stashes that sit un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously on the sides of the piste, I re­call what Be­mondo had said right be­fore we dropped in to our run. “This is my moun­tain,” he’d said, the tips of his mus­tache curling in­ward un­der a big smile. There wasn’t a trace of cock­i­ness in his voice, nor did he mean he’s the man of the moun­tain, rather that the moun­tain is more than the place he skis.

THE TOP OF THE BOWL is an eerie place to be. The at­mos­phere of fog oc­clud­ing the peaks above and the trees be­low am­pli­fies the feel­ing, but it’s some­thing more gut­tural—sim­i­lar to ex­plor­ing an aban­doned road­side build­ing—that drives the point home. Smoothy, Bernard, and I briefly dis­cuss how to de­scend north into the val­ley that di­vides Sestriere and the now-de­funct re­sort of Prage­lato. We de­cide to take a con­ser­va­tive route through the north-fac­ing trees, stick­ing to ridge­lines, and avoid­ing the mas­sive avalanche path.

The birch trees’ nar­row branches are coated in snow that’s so light it would take only a breath of wind to clear off the en­tire tree. We make a hasty plan, pick­ing out un­touched pan­els that vary from knee- to waist-deep pow­der. It’s light-hearted, laugh-af­ter-ev­ery-turn ski­ing. Al­though it’s a Sun­day, we feel no pres­sure from other groups and see only one group of lo­cals the en­tire day.

The tree ski­ing it­self is a bit of an anom­aly by Eu­ro­pean stan­dards. The de­cid­u­ous trees—un­like their ever­green coun­ter­parts typ­i­cal of many Eu­ro­pean re­sorts—al­low snow­fall to reach the ground in a fairly con­sis­tent man­ner rather than flakes get­ting caught up on branches. The Steam­boat-es­que glades re­veal fluid ski­ing through steep ter­rain for hun­dreds of ver­ti­cal feet.

We re­group when the pitch mel­lows out. The grayscale land­scape of clouds, trees, and snow im­me­di­ately bring back the un­com­fort­able feel­ing from be­fore, this time ac­cen­tu­ated by the skele­tons of build­ings we can see across the val­ley. What was once a small town now con­sists merely of a cou­ple of stonewalls and crum­bling arches. Al­though well away from the main avalanche path, the sheer de­struc­tive power of the slide path is ap­par­ent even from where we’re stand­ing. Not only does the path run part­way up the ad­ja­cent hill­side, but most of the lower limbs of the trees around us have been blown off, ev­i­dence of the slide’s pow­er­ful, ac­com­pa­ny­ing air blast. On the wrong day, it would be hard to find a truly safe spot in the val­ley.

At the bot­tom of the run, we en­ter a cozy refu­gio and or­der plates of steam­ing po­lenta and wild deer, beef, and pork. Over the hearty meal, the refu­gio’s owner passes down a story from April 19, 1904, when 81 peo­ple were killed by an avalanche on the path

we had just cir­cum­vented. He ex­plains in French how work­ers from the nearby Beth Mine were swept up by the avalanche, with some of their bod­ies not re­cov­er­able un­til the snow melted that sum­mer.

The mine even­tu­ally closed in 1910, he con­tin­ues, and many build­ings were re­built only to later be burned down by the Nazis in 1944. His sto­icism and sense of pride is re­flected in an Ital­ian poem penned by a miner that hangs on the wall of the refu­gio. Two sen­tences in par­tic­u­lar strike me, and I can’t help but relate to them as a skier:

“The al­ter­ation of the sea­sons and of the years was printed on their sun­burnt faces, in­jured by the blades of the cold. Ev­ery day their mus­cles flexed un­der the lash of fa­tigue, their hearts pulsed in har­mony with the fire that fed the oven.”

OF THE THOU­SANDS OF PEO­PLE who pass through the Col de Mont­genèvre ev­ery day on their way to bet­ter known des­ti­na­tions on the coast of France or the Pied­mont val­ley of Italy, only a hand­ful get ed­died out. Just four fam­i­lies have lived here for mul­ti­ple gen­er­a­tions, whereas the ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion (about 480 year-round res­i­dents) con­sists of trans­plants from neigh­bor­ing towns and the U.K. It’s per­haps be­cause of this lack of tra­di­tional lo­cal­ism that most peo­ple have such in­stant pride in the town; there’s no pr­ereq­ui­site amount of time to prove one’s love.

One such trans­plant is Ali Fair­head, bet­ter known as Mon­key. With un­kempt hair and an equally un­kempt beard, Mon­key is one of the most gen­uinely happy lo­cals in a town full of them. The English­man has trav­eled the world, from Alaska to the South Pa­cific, his nick­name fol­low­ing him across dif­fer­ent na­tions and oc­cu­pa­tions. He loves beer and laughs about how he doesn’t bring his wal­let when he goes out to avoid spend­ing money, only to find out the next morn­ing that his friends create bar tabs for him and treat them­selves. He is fast friends with just about ev­ery­one, and goes as far as invit­ing all of us to his wedding even though we’d just barely met him.

We meet Mon­key, his Czech fi­ancé, Klara Valen-

tova, and co-worker Syl­van in front of the ski shop where they all work. Slightly hun­gover, Mon­key re­luc­tantly agrees to a short hike to the top of La Plane, a sev­eral-thou­sand-foot run sim­i­lar to Snow­bird’s North Baldy just out­side the re­sort.

The hike is ca­sual, and I talk with Va­len­tova about the sim­plic­ity of life in town, her fe­male ski posse, and the con­stant en­ter­tain­ment of be­ing en­gaged to Mon­key. We don’t set any records on the hike up, our pace more con­sis­tent with an is­land vibe than a French ski re­sort. From the top we have a beau­ti­ful view of town, and Mon­key elab­o­rates on re­tour d’est and the col.

“The same storm can hit us two or three times. It comes in from the east, gets pushed back by winds from the west, and can even come back one more time if the con­di­tions are right,” he ex­plains. The ridge­lines that sur­round us, with cor­nices on both the east and west sides, backup this claim that seems too good to be true.

Mon­key’s ski­ing style isn’t re­flec­tive of his per­son­al­ity: It’s ag­gres­sive and hard-charg­ing, ac­cen­tu­ated by his full-face hel­met. Va­len­tova and Syl­van un­der­sell their ski­ing abil­ity—they’re both fluid and nat­u­ral. At the bot­tom, it’s hard not to be be­wil­dered: Here’s a near per­fect run, in plain view of a ma­jor high­way, a short hike from the top lift, and five days af­ter the storm we’re still within the first 50 peo­ple down it.

Walk­ing around town that evening, we meet one of the oldest cou­ples in the vil­lage, Henry and Si­mone Mignon. Henry is one of the few oc­to­ge­nar­i­ans born in Mont­genèvre that still lives here. They in­vite us in their home and he gives us an elab­o­rate oral his­tory of his life. With bushy gray eye­brows and a mouth framed by large joules, the 84-year-old re­cites his story through la­bored but pur­pose­ful sen­tences. He tells of learn­ing to ski when he was 4 years old on what was then called “the lift.” The Ital­ian oc­cu­pa­tion came in 1940, and he was taken away on a train des­tined for a work camp. He was then res­cued from that train by Red Cross just short of cross­ing into Ger­many. In a raspy, “God­fa­ther” voice, he re­calls how he re­turned to Mont­genèvre in 1945 only to find it com­pletely razed dur­ing the war. He helped re­build it be­fore a ca­reer as a cus­toms of­fi­cer took him through­out France. The town and ski­ing brought him back for good in 1994.

When I ask what keeps him here, he looks up with a thou­sand-yard stare of some­one try­ing to find words that are just out of his grasp. It’s a look that’s be­come fa­mil­iar this trip, but the an­swer even­tu­ally comes to him. “I was born here,” he says. “It’s where I saw the light for the first time and it’s where I want to see the light for the last time.” For once, no fur­ther ex­pla­na­tion is needed.

ABOVE: How you say...ah yes...meat, cheese, bread, cof­fee.

BE­LOW: Via Lat­tea lo­cal MarcoEyadin not ap­pear­ing to be in a rush for un­tracked.

ABOVE: The polizia will def­i­nitely not catch Sam Smoothy in the trees be­tween Sestriere and Prage­lato, Italy.

BE­LOW: Mario or Luigi? Lorenzo Bel­mondo lives the freeride life in the Via Lat­tea.

RIGHT: Va­len­tova, orig­i­nally from the Czech Repub­lic, shows why it’s good to get ed­died out in the Milky Way as she finds the line be­tween France and Italy.

LEFT: Mont­genèvre lo­cals Ali “Mon­key” Fair­head and Klara Va­len­tova.

LEFT: Sam Smoothy by­passes cus­toms and stamps a right-footer at Mont­genèvre, while the Sestriere, Italy, tram sta­tion (this page) acts as a gate­way to in­ter­est­ing, hid­den stashes.

BE­LOW: Henry and Si­mone Mignon have seen Mont­genèvre grow from the rub­ble of World War II into a quiet moun­tain vil­lage.

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