We didn’t see any snow until the last 15 miles of the drive. Not along the roadside, at any rate. Not the kind that clings to pine boughs and buries the guardrails, so that it feels as if you’re driving through a tunnel of white, even in the darkness of nightfall.
“My father would love this,” I said to my wife Molly as I wound our Subaru around another bend in the narrow road. Everything shimmered in the sweep of the car’s headlights, while behind us our two-year old son slept in the backseat. It was hard not to imagine that we’d arrived in some hidden and enchanted place.
December, the first Friday of the month, and most of the Alps were still bone dry. Only a freak storm had blanketed the northern fringes of Italy with two feet of snow, and so off we’d gone in search of some skiing. Our drive had begun five hours earlier in Switzerland, where we were living at the time, and it had taken us across the Austrian Tirol, that vertiginous land of my farm boy father, over Brenner Pass, and down into the Trentino-Alto Adige of northern Italy. It’s a rugged region known for its white wine, crumbling castles, and apple orchards that blossom in spring under mountains still capped by snow.
But to skiers, it’s known for the Dolomites, a 6,000-square-mile UNESCO-protected subdivision of the Alps made famous by sheer limestone peaks and the winter resorts nestled within its wooded valleys. For many, it’s the name Cortina that conjures dolce vita dreams. Yet unlike the jet set who flock there, we were stopping an hour short in a quiet town called Corvara, which a friend had assured me was the region’s true gem.
The wood floor of our apartment creaked as I walked over to the window and flung open its curtains the next morning. Mountains soared, snow abounded. Our son’s babysitter arrived soon after, and by 9 a.m. my wife and I stood in front of Corvara’s main lift where bright yellow gondolas bobbed out of a classic A-frame structure.
Technically, Corvara belongs to Alta Badia, a ski area famous for its annual World Cup Giant Slalom. Dubbed the Gran Risa, it’s a steep, twisty slope considered one of the Alpine tour’s toughest. Part of me—that part which will always be the ski-racing obsessed boy who grew up in a New Hampshire winter resort with an Austrian father who ran the ski school—wanted to go check out the trail. But that was not the plan. Instead, Molly and I hopped on the gondola and headed west, up the southern flank of the 10,000-foot Grupo Sella. It’s a flattop massif that forms the central hub of the Sella Ronda—a 360-degree, 26-mile lift-served route that takes you into four valleys and nine villages over the course of a marathon ski day.
Molly and I followed orange signs marking the clockwise route as we dropped into Arabba, its timber and stucco chalets still dark in the long morning shadows of December. The snow was a firm corduroy, and the wide, empty slopes begged to be carved. Elsewhere, up high beyond the marked trails, untracked powder sparkled. It’d been a week since the only dump of the season, but the snow looked as fresh as if it had fallen yesterday. Italians bombed past us along the groomers, mimicking the style of Alberto Tomba, who must still be the national hero considering how they were all attired: Briko helmets, tight Colmar parkas; not a rocker ski or avy pack in sight.
Our pace slowed at lunch. We grabbed pizza in a rifugio at the top of the Passo Pordoi, and paired our pies with Aperol Spritzes because—hell—it felt like the most Fellini thing to do.
“I feel so guilty,” Molly said as she sliced into her pizza, fresh ricotta oozing on either side of her blade. She looked across the wooden booth at me. “You think he’s still upset?”
She was referring to our son and the fit he’d pitched just before we’d abandoned him with the babysitter that morning, but to me, she could’ve just as easily been speaking about my father. All of his life Dad had mourned his Alps, the ones he’d abandoned in favor of my American mother, the woman he was crazy about but whom he sometimes unfairly accused of dragging him to a land not his own. I grew up constantly hearing stories about Dad’s Alps, his quick green eyes lit by some sense of boyhood wonder as he spun tales in order to keep alive the world he’d lost. He spoke of the mountains he’d climbed. The deep Pulverschnee he’d skied—so light and wonderful compared to the cement we got on the East Coast. The alpine fields he farmed, some of which yielded views far down into Italy. My father had grown up in a village on the southwestern tip of Austria, with Italy on one side and Switzerland on the other, and to him the whole region was home.
I’d always wanted it to be my home, too. When my wife’s company offered to transfer us to Switzerland, I’d practically accepted on her behalf. Then came the guilt. Dad was already in his mid-70s by then, and he was stricken by an aggressive strain of kidney cancer that kept coming back. I did my best to enjoy our new home, skiing and cycling and hiking whenever I could, but it was never without the lingering worry that I’d chosen my father’s mountains over my actual father.
Outside, Molly and I snapped pictures. To the south I could see Marmolada, the highest peak in the region. The afternoon sun lent a blue-white sheen to its broad summit, and I remembered that this mountain was home to one of the few glaciers my father had ever graced. I imagined his footprints somehow still up there, fossilized forever in the ice.
“We better get going,” Molly said to me, her words hitting at the same time as the soft touch of her mitten on my shoulder. “We only have the babysitter till 4:30.”
Skiing in tandem, we banked big turns down into Val di Fassa under mountains slowly changing to the color of sandstone. Molly hooted and hollered, delighting in the gentle pitch and grippy snow. We met more than a decade ago in Manhattan, and as soon as things got serious, she picked up the sport, telling me she had no choice considering the ski-crazed nature of my family.
Val Gardena came next, but there wasn’t enough time to check out the village. Shadow had returned to the valleys and thumping après bars burst at the seams. We raced to one lift, then another, caught in the melee of people trying to make it back to their hotels. Atop the Passo Gardena the sky burned pink, and the moon already hung high overhead, its lunar surface stark as the seashells which can be found in the local rocks here, all of them belonging to a mountain range that once stood at the bottom of the sea.
Molly snapped several more pictures. I stood beside her, breath puffing in the cold air, and thought again of my father, dead now these two weeks. It wasn’t the kidney cancer that got him but a gastrointestinal kind, one that spread far faster and took him in under three months, most of which I spent back in America by his side. He kept his spirits high throughout, often speaking of the mountains and our shared love of them. But in the end that talk stopped, and in the last weeks of his life I sat vigil with my mother as we watched him recede from this world in the sheets of a rented hospital cot, this once ebullient and indomitable man silently fading away with all the disinterest of the soon-to-be dead.
It was Molly who’d suggested our Dolomiti weekend. Why not get away, she said. Maybe it would take my mind off things. I feared a trip like this came too soon, was too indulgent, or worse yet, that I wouldn’t be able to face my father’s mountains again. I’d like to say that wasn’t the case. I’d like to say that somewhere on the last run down into Corvara, the light flat, just as it often was back in New Hampshire when my father and I skied together at the end of the day, the mountains darkening into silhouettes all around me, their ridgelines broad as his big shoulders had once been, that I came to the understanding that to be in my father’s mountains was to be with my father, if only for a moment. But a conclusion like that feels too pat. And besides, it never happened.
We left the next morning, though a set of missing car keys delayed our departure. Four hours and several arguments elapsed before we found them, stuffed in my ski parka in a back pocket I never knew existed until that moment. I laughed and blamed our son, saying he must’ve hidden them there as payback for having gone skiing without him.
The sun was everywhere on the drive out, and underneath it the snow seemed so bright and textured that to look at it was to touch it, to taste it even. We were flooded by the simple relief of having found the keys, of being safely on the road home.
“Let’s come back soon,” Molly said, swiveling in her seat to grab one last photo, and I agreed, unaware that a simmering pandemic would soon prevent us from traveling anywhere.
But now as I write this, a resident of Manhattan again, with the busy traffic of Third Avenue bellowing below my window, I realize the Dolomites did do something for me. What it is I can’t exactly be sure, but sometimes I like to daydream about that weekend, and imagine what if we hadn’t found those car keys? That we’d somehow gotten stuck there in Corvara, maybe even come unhitched from time itself, and stayed, safe and hidden in that beautiful place, where it’s easy to imagine that only the world’s wonders have the power to reach you, and none of its wickedness.
A Foodie’s Mountain Tour of the Dolomites
Where to Find the Best Coffee in the Dolomites
Tucked away in Arabba, Pasticceria Genziana serves up the perfect mid-morning pitstop. Caffeinate for the skiing ahead with a cappuccino or doppio macchiato, both of which go down great alongside one of the bakery’s homemade chocolate bars (try the dark chocolate with walnuts).
A Lunch Spot Not To Miss
All of the rifugios dotting the Sella Ronda offer delicious local fare, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t direct you to Emilio Comici, a blue-shuttered institution atop Val Gardena’s
infamous Saslong downhill track that serves fresh grilled fish (delivered daily from the Adriatic) in a charming Stube covered with photos of Italian ski racing royalty.
Where to Après in the Dolomites
The Italians toast a day on the slopes almost as hard as the Austrians (albeit with a bit more effortless flare). Après options abound, though for those who truly want to get down it’s worth veering off the well-trod track and heading south to the slopes of Alta Badia. There you’ll find Moritzino, whose cast of irreverent regulars swill South Tyrolean wine, munch on truffle-fondue ravioli, and dance to disco while still in their ski boots.