Val di Fassa Guide | 3 Days Skiing in the Stunning Italian Dolomites Drenched in World War History
In December 1916, during the First World War, the Marmolada was the scene of ‘White Friday’– the second worst avalanche-related disaster ever recorded...
"Outside, in front of the chalet a road went up the mountain. The road climbed steadily through the forest and up and around the mountain to where there were meadows, and barns and cabins in the meadows at the edge of the woods looking across the valley."
Ernest Hemingway describes his route through the Italian Dolomites in ‘A Farewell to Arms’, one of the most acclaimed depictions of love and war, light and darkness, ever captured on the page.
The novel is based on the American author’s experiences as an ambulance driver on the Italian Front during the First World War. Hemingway’s services often required him to travel to the front, which ran across the peaks of the stunning Val di Fassa, from the Marmolada, the highest peak in the Dolomites, to Costabella, Juribrutto and Cima Bocche.
“We woke one morning and it was snowing," the book reads. “We stayed in bed with the fire roaring in the stove and watched the snowfall. I went to the window and looked out but could not see across the road. It was blowing and snowing wildly."
Arriving in the Fassa Valley for the skiing rather than to help the Allied Powers, we were glad to be greeted by blue skies and sunshine rather than a whiteout similar to that of Mr. Hemingway.
If anything, it was actually alarmingly warm. A toasty +7 degrees Celsius in our resort town of Canazei was great for topping up the goggle tan and illuminating the enormous Gran Vernel at the end of the road, but it possibly wasn’t ideal for getting our turns in.
Thankfully the slopes were still covered in the white stuff, even if the same couldn’t be said for the hills and forests around them. No, we weren’t going to be sampling the off-piste of the region, not unless we embarked on a day or two of hiking or headed down grass avoiding mountain goats on our way.
Still, it was tough to feel hard done by after climbing off the gondola from Canazei. The opening day of our itinerary saw us cruising the 40km Sella Ronda tour – a route serving up scenery as stunning as anywhere in Europe. To the right of our starting point stood the eponymous Sella Massif, jutting out of the Earth from the edges of the piste; an amber giant dwarfing the resort below.
We set off down the piste, and it was difficult not to fixate on the views in the distance instead of the slopes. Rows of amber forest precededed a stretched-out web of white capped by the piercing Sassolungo mountain group. Snowy ski runs are sprinkled in and out of the forests, weaving between the trees to the bottom of the mountain.
A glance left again found even higher heights, more familiar to the traditional Alps of France and Switzerland, with snow-covered forests below them, and above them the massive shape of the 3,343m Marmolada – the only glacier in the whole of the Dolomites.
The Marmolada is truly where the Fassa Valley met World War One; part of the front line and the setting for brutal mine warfare between the Austro-Hungarian and Italian soldiers from 1915-1917.
In the depths of the mountain 100 years ago lay the ‘City of Ice’, a 12km network of tunnels where over 200 Austro-Hungarian troops used to live. Dug with spades and explosives, the city offered a safe haven from avalanches and snowstorms at a constant temperature of zero degrees – though our seven and counting was suiting us quite well.
Though the City of Ice has now melted (always a danger with such cities), it is commemorated in the Museum of the First World War stationed within the gondola station on the Marmolada; a history lesson for visitors before they take on the 12km run on the glacier.
Back on the Sella Ronda, we took to the slopes and skied through tree runs revealing huge portraits of mountains, framed by forest and sky at every turn. A second gondola took us to a run right beneath the stunning Punta Grohmann and Sassolungo mountains, the two of which combine to become bookends for the Punta Cinque Dita rock face – translating literally as “Five Fingers" in reference to the distinctive spiky shape of the formation.
“In World War One, on 13 December 1916, the Marmolada was the scene of ‘White Friday’– the second worst avalanche-related disaster ever recorded..."
A long slope guided us as far as Colfosco on the Sella Ronda tour. The snow was melting quickly and the slopes getting crowded, but we couldn’t help but stop and watch as the sun rose beneath a cliff edge halfway down the piste. It was absolutely enchanting, and one of the better runs in a tour which while unbeatable in beauty is often disrupted by a chairlift sooner than you might hope.
The following day offered a solution to that problem. We journey further out into the natural playground and find the Fassa Valley offering wider, longer runs, less crowded slopes, fluffier snow and a bit more of a challenge. With the sight-seeing done, it’s time to do some skiing.
Following a steep sprint down the red ‘Panorama’ run, you're given a moment’s breather upon turning off for the black-marked 'Volcana'. But it is a brief moment. After the drop it's all eye-watering speed and raw beauty, a series of wide, sharp slopes guiding you under the shadows of the Monzoni mountain Range.
A low-light section of the 58% gradient run plunged us briefly back into darkness, and from there it was a no-holds-barred dash to the bottom of the beautiful slope.
We hadn’t sacrificed the beauty of the region in our hunt for turns, either. Our gondola back to the top of the valley looked out on the Catinaccio; a rocky bed of spikes bunched together thousands of metres high in the distance.
Stepping off that gondola brought the Marmolada back into view, dragging us back into the inescapable history of the area. Our guide Tommy spends lunch pointing out the couloirs and touring lines he normally guides on near the famous mountain when the snow allows, some requiring abseils, some long hikes, but all of which look absolutely stunning.
I ask about the danger of avalanches and Tommy casually admits to having been trapped in one previously, stuck for 10 minutes before his friends dug him out with the help of a transceiver. “I knew they would find me," he says, with the indifference of a man who has evidently seen his fare share of landslides.
He reminds us that the area itself is no stranger to avalanches, either. In World War One, on 13 December 1916, it was the scene of ‘White Friday’– the second worst avalanche-related disaster ever recorded, with 10,000 dead as a result. A day of darkness categorised by endless white.
That day in 1916 they'd had the kind of snowfall which today seems fanciful. 8-12 metres in a 24 hour period, and a sudden thaw in the Alps soon dawned prime avalanche conditions.
At the time, the 1st Batallion of Austro-Hungarian Imperial-Royal Mountain Troops were based in a barracks on the Marmolada. Captain Rudolf Schmid saw the danger and requested to abandon the barracks, but was denied permission. Days later, 200,000 tonnes of snow – approximately one million cubic metres – plunged onto the barracks, destroying the wooden building and leaving only a few of the 321 residents, including Captain Schmid, alive.
In the hours that followed, both sides triggered further avalanches by firing shells into weakened snowpacks, and the death numbers tolled into the tens of thousands. To this day, mountaineers are still finding the bodies of soldiers killed in the tragedy.
We continued on with our afternoon, skiing down the mountain with the history of the grim Marmolada hanging over the valley behind us, but absolute beauty in front.
A beautiful 3km black run takes us through the woods and to the village of Alba, from where we jump in a five-minute cable car back to the Belvedere-Canazei area. Another black, this time shorter, provides the best snow we see all weekend. The thigh-burning run was controlled off piste until integrated into the official ski map a few years back.
The end of the three days in Val di Fassa had come far too soon. There’s nothing that quite breaks the heart more than leaving a mountain range you’ve fallen in love with, and in the Italian Dolomites, in the midst of the history and the perfect monstrosity of the mountains, it’s impossible not to follow Ernest Hemingway in doing exactly that.
The American author once wrote that “what you talk about in the nights is not love. That is passion and lust." We imagine we'll be talking about Val di Fassa both in our sleep and over breakfast for some time to come.
Do It Yourself:
Inghams is offering a seven night holiday on a half board basis at the four-and-a-half-star Hotel La Perla in Canazei (Val di Fassa), Italy, from £1,028 per person, based on two sharing. Price includes return flights from Edinburgh to Innsbruck and airport transfers and is valid for travel in January 2018. To book, visit www.inghams.co.uk/ski-holidays or call 01483 791 114.