Gran Paradiso Hut Tour, La Dolce Vita

Rifugio Vittorio Emanuele, Gran Paradiso, Italy
At Rifugio Vittorio Emanuele

If there is such a thing as paradise for backcountry skiers, I am pretty certain I found it in Italy’s Gran Paradiso National Park.

I contemplated this possibility from the sunny deck of the Benevelo hut, home-base for the first three nights of my six day ski tour. The deck was a great spot to relax in the sun after a long day of skiing, where my partners and I enjoyed beer and cappuccino as we stared back at our tracks off of Punta Galisa. All around us were groups of skiers chattering away in Italian, German and French. Massive mountains ran off in all directions and it was impossible not to dream of endless tours that could be done from that spot. Warm showers were available and dinner, which was prepared by the hut guardian and his crew, were served family style at 7 pm each evening. The hut was heated so guests did not have to stoke the fire to keep things comfortable. There is no doubt about it, ski touring in Italy, as in much of the Alps, is la dolce vita at its’ finest.

The Gran Paradiso ski tour was my third in Europe. While the mountains in Italy and Europe lack abundant “cold smoke” Montana skiers like myself have come to expect, the endless terrain, comfortable huts, easy access to the mountains and cultural experience more than make up for the lack of epic powder. A European ski tour, in my mind, is a must-do for any keen backcountry skier.

Bluebird day!
Why Go?

Vast terrain –The shear scope of the Alps is truly impressive. Mountains everywhere and offers something for all sorts of skiers from steep slopes to wide-open terrain.

The huts – These provide meals, lodging and many provide showers so you can travel with a lighter pack and cover more ground. Many huts have beer, wine and cappuccino available for purchase, which makes for a nice treat at the end of the day. Imagine six consecutive days of skiing with few concerns other than keeping yourself healthy, getting enough food and sleep, and drying your gear so you can do it again the next day. No cooking, no driving to the trailhead, or even getting up to stoke the fire at night. I think this experience might have ruined me on the North American yurt trip experience.

The cultural experience - Another great reason for skiing in the Alps is the cultural experience. You’ll be skiing on another continent and you’ll meet people from throughout Europe. If the trips I’ve been on are any indicator, you’ll see few Americans making for a nice change of pace. A European hut tour is a great chance to connect with folks from other countries through a shared passion for backcountry skiing as well share and learn one another’s politics and lingo.

Punta Galisia, Italy
Atop Punta Galisia
If You Go…
If you’re considering a hut tour in the Alps, there are several things to consider.

Be prepared - Find an objective that matches your skill and fitness levels. Are you comfortable in assessing and traveling safely in avalanche terrain? Can you confidently negotiate a crevassed filled landscape? How strong are your route-finding skills in a white-out?  Be honest with where you’re at and hire a guide if in doubt. This might not resonate with your independent American spirit but does make for a safe way to go.

Be adaptable - Be ready to eat pasta for six nights in a row. While the food at the huts is hearty and plentiful, the variety can be lacking. It will be crowded so get over it. The huts I have stayed in sleep 20 to 80 people. You may cringe as you see multiple groups heading out at once. But it’s not as bad as it sounds – lots of terrain helps assure that people spread out.
Chamonix, France
View in Chamonix

Don’t give Europeans another reason to think poorly of Americans. Follow the hut rules. Listen to your guide. Be modest. As I learned first-hand you will sound smug just by uttering the words “cold smoke” so please don’t go on and on ad nauseam about how epic you have it at home. Many of us do have it great, but there are some pretty sweet things about the Alps.

Keep your pack light. While you won’t have to carry a tent and cooking gear, you will still have lots to carry. You will work hard each day so keep your pack light as possible. Don’t fall into the trap of adding things because they “don’t weight much.” The only thing that weights nothing is nothing.

Update: Additional post here and here.
Chamonix, France
In Chamonix

Big rock walls provided a landmark in cloudy conditions

A massive hunk of rock