Alive at the End of the Tunnel

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Alive at the End of the Tunnel

PIERLUCIO TINAZZI watches dozens of skiers and snowboarders travel through the Mont Blanc tunnel the morning that this shaft beneath Western Europe's highest peak becomes a crematorium. Although March 24, 1999 is a cloudy Wednesday in the Alps, a deep snowpack keeps recreational traffic humming. Alpinists from the south understandably stream toward the tunnel's northern terminus and Chamonix, France, the most famous ski town on the planet. Less expected is the flow of glisse experts from Chamonix to Courmayeur, the Italian ski village on the south side of 15,781-foot Mont Blanc. Perhaps they're lured by polenta; perhaps by word-of-mouth praise for La Palud, a singular, little-known, exclusively off-piste area that rises from Courmayeur to the bowls and couloirs atop the "roof of Europe."

To Tinazzi, an Italian motorcycle patroller for the Tunnel du Mont Blanc, the tidy Peugeots and Fiats of skiers provide welcome variety to the thundering caravans of commercial trucks. Of the two million vehicles that annually clog this structure built to withstand 450,000, almost half are trucks; many of them giant tractor-trailers like the Volvo FH12 that lumbers up the switchbacks from Chamonix just before 10:45 a.m.

Tinazzi is stationed on the French side when Gilbert Degraves, a Belgian, steers the Volvo into the dim maw. Hauling nine tons of margarine and 12 tons of flour to Italy, Degreaves rumbles several kilometers into the 11-km tunnel. Suddenly, oncoming drivers flash their lights and honk their horns. In his rearview mirror Degreaves sees plumes of smoke shooting from his truck. He pulls over, but before he can reach his extinguisher, the blaze erupts into a fireball. Degreaves bolts for the Italian entrance, five kilometers away. Because the prevailing winds blow toward France, he survives.

Flaming margarine pours across the roadway. The tunnel explodes into inferno and chaos. Ten drivers try to pull U-turns, but oily, noxious clouds blind and asphyxiate them. Two truckers who run four-feet-per-second toward France fall dead in their tracks, overtaken by smoke moving five times as fast. Temperatures soar to a hellish 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. The wires of emergency telephones melt. Tires blow up. Walls crumble. The lights go out. Panicked motorists scramble for safety, but the tunnel, which dates to 1965, has no exit routes. Tinazzi seizes a gas-mask and a motorcycle, and pulls 10 people to safe air outlets. He goes back to rescue others, and dies trying. His body is found 200 meters from the fire's origin, near where his motorcycle chassis has melted into the tarmac.

The holocaust rages for 52 hours before French, Italian, and Swiss fire crews finally subdue it. Most of the victims succumb in the first 15 minutes. Rescuers find bodies still poised behind steering wheels. They comb through piles of ash that once constituted human beings. All told, the fire kills 41.

Local hero Tinazzi will never hear the Aosta Valley's deep gratitude. The Mont Blanc tunnel closes indefinitely to rebuild-shutting down Courmayeur's lifeline to continental Europe and the engine of its travel economy.

COURMAYEUR WAS SETTLED BY PIONEERS who didn't buy the medieval belief that the Alps hosted feral races of demons and goblins. In the 12th century they climbed to the head of the Aosta Valley and built stone edificies, some of which still stand. The town's mineral waters drew mountain tourists as early as 1680. Home to the Grivel ice axe company since 1818 and a mountain guide society since 1850, Courmayeur predates even Chamonix as a cradle of mountaineering culture. Yet the Aosta Valley occupies both the literal and figurative shadow of the French Alps.

"Courmayeur is an unknown gem for hardcore skiers," says James Harvey, a Telluride mountain-bike guide who has spent the last three winters sleeping on chalet floors and skiing amongst the angry ramparts, bony arrets, and discolored shark's teeth of the As. "La Palud, on the flanks of Mont Blanc, is right up there with La Grave for glaciers and thrills," he says, referring to France's celebrated haven of off-piste steeps.

A walk through town suggests Courmayeur is too concerned with la dolce vita ("the sweet life") to compete with brash Chamonix. Our group-photographer Lee Cohen, Colorado telemarkers Harvey and Dominick Guidubaldi, and I-strolls the cobblestone Via Roma alongside Milanese fashionistas clad head-to-toe in leather. In place of Chamonix's duct-tape and dumpster-diving Scandinavians are one-piece suits and heavily cologned Tomba clones. Storefronts assault the senses with $200 designer jeans and impressively stinky cheese.

Courmayeur's two main mountains-the Checrouit plateau to the west and La Palud to the north, which are not connected-ski big, with more than 60 miles of trails that plummet down vertical drops as big as 9,000 feet. Today at Checrouit, though, the skiing appears relatively tame. Europe's drought has stolen many expert lines, including the classics that drop off the plateau to the Val Veny.

We spend a few runs traversing to some little-tracked mush beneath a soaring cliff. The turns are okay, but nothing worth skipping an Italian lunch for (is anything?). Carbo-loaded and then some, we take the Youla cable car to 8,608 feet and a rope that keeps punters from coasting into a homicidal slide path. A sign warns "the police will proselute (sic) anybody" who skis the slide path, but the nonexistent patrollers and laissez-faire (read: European) management don't care if you hop the rope. Just stay high and skier's-left, preserving altitude till you can no longer resist the wide-open, 40-degree pitches dropping 1,200 vertical feet down the bowl. I pour into the fall-line a few seconds after a bright sun emerges. The sound of P-tex on corn is the most seductive hiss since Michelle Pfeiffer wore Catwoman's leathers.

We linger around the bowl for two hours, alternately milking short, untracked descents and boot-packing up to new ones. No one follows us. The silky backside of Cresta Youla is all ours.

In a way, so is Courmayeur.

We might be the only Americans to visit in April. Among Italians who don't so much speak their buttery language as sing it, we sound like quacking ducks. When our flat inflections thud against our hard consonants, people stare.

Though all ski towns slow down after Easter, Courmayeur seems especially weary. This may be the lingering effect of the tunnel tragedy. After three years of reconstruction, the Mont Blanc Tunnel reopened on March 9, welcoming skiers from France to the worst snow season in 16 years. You don't have to be Bill Clinton to feel Courmayeur's tunnel-fire pain.

The closure annihilated Italy's shipping industry and cost the economy a staggering $2.28 billion. Restaurateurs and shopkeepers saw business drop by 25 percent. For three years running. "With the closing of the tunnel one is turned over forty years behind," says Andre Brunet of Hotel Bouton D'Or. "Courmayeur was born with the tunnel in 1965. Before it was only one small village."

Weekdays were brutal for business, because the closure guillotined the blood-flow of day-skiers and picnickers from Courmayeur's major urban market, Geneva, Switzerland. The route blocked, Genevois skiers bought tickets at Chamonix instead, thereby reinforcing the notion of the Alps' biggest, whitest peak as French territory. Of course, the Italian Alps suffered an inferiority complex long before the fire. Webster's New Geographical Dictionary does not define "Bianco, Monte." It merely lists a note to "see Blanc, Mont."

THE PROTOTYPICAL CHAMONAIRD a free-soloing paraglider who snowboards off seracs, ... or a corpse. In aggro Chamonix, you fight for powder lines with the international extreme set. Courmayeur, on the other hand, is personified by one Calosi Giacomo, a suave schmoozer who runs a famed on-slope restaurant called Rifugio Maison Vieille.

We meet Giacomo ("jack-UH-mo") shortly after schussing past a race course marked by inflatable, 10-foot-tall replicas of olive oil bottles.

As we duck under the low eaves of the centuries-old stone rifugio, there's Giacomo. Green eyes and white teeth beaming, a cavernous glass of Chianti swirling in his hand. Tanned, straight-backed, and blessed with a mane of silvering hair, he looks fashionable even in a Navajo-blanket-motif shirt by Think Pink.

"Sit, sit!" he exhorts, with a smile that could both rip bodices and halt bar fights. "Are you hungry? We'll make you something special!" Judging by the photos on the walls, Giacomo is a world traveler who consorts with a variety of gorgeous naked women between adventures on skis, motorbike, snowmobile, and horse. Of course, in winter, he runs a rifugio on a ski slope. And what higher purpose is there than fine food? How better to show the world the wonderful way of Giacomo?

When the rifugio's comely waitress presents a bountiful, artfully designed platter of anti-pasta, Courmayeur shrugs its gloom. No, the Monte Bianco side can't match the French for extreme glory. But it doesn't care to. If Chamonix skiing centers on challenge and conquest, Courmayeur emphasizes aesthetics and hedonism. In Giacomo's Alps, high altitude is no excuse for sacrificing style.

We gulp rare steak, lurid tomatoes, crisp greens, hot bread, red wine, and creamy tiramisu until the kangaroo-pockets on our ski bibs appear to contain actual marsupials. Lumbering out, Guidubaldi asks for Giacomo's address.

"Don't worry. They all know me at the post," grins the magnate of Checrouit, the Chianti still swirling in his glass. "Just send your letter to Giacomo, Courmayeur."

LA PALUD IS TO HIGH-ALPINE OFF-PISTE SKIING what Ferrari is to Formula One and Pavarotti is to opera: the Italian dream at full throttle.

Granted, with its creaky, three-stage cable car rising from a 60-car parking lot, La Palud looks like a feeder hill. The first stage also hardly imbues the hardy spirit of alpinism, unloading as it does at a warm patio where Euro-Betties sunbathe topless.

Displaying remarkable willpower, we keep going, switching cars twice, till we ascend to 11,345-foot Punta Helbronner and a wind-scoured fin of rock that serves as the international border. From there, we gaze out over the sea of white comprising the Glacier du Geant, to the needle-like spire of the Aiguille du Midi. The Chamonix skiers disembarking the tram of the same name-arguably the most famous lift on the globe-are plying identical terrain, the hallowed Roof of Europe, that we are. Only we get to it from the south via La Palud, a roundly ignored Italian station that virtually zero skiers in the New World know about.

It's an overcast day with low clouds skidding into the peaks like drunk dirigibles. "Monte Bianco looks surly today," observes Cohen as we swig espresso at the Helbronner café. There's no reason to be ingesting caffeine. We sure don't need the jitters before skiing one of Palud's 50-degree chutes in flat light when the snow's icy and crevasse-ridden. Drinking espresso is simply what Italian ski mountaineers do.

Reaching the chute entails an extended traverse across a snowfield-a much longer excursion than it seemed from the windows of the café, since this infinity of Alpine rock and snow provides no sense of scale. The chute is as crusty as we feared, so we descend with inelegant survival turns. At the bottom, a crevasse yawns as wide as seven feet. The only way to cross it is over an askew snowbridge. Executing the maneuver-bank a left, then a quick right at a 45-degree angle over the chasm-is an ego boost. We savor it, plus some Ritter Sport chocolate, when a potentially lethal fog obscures the peak and demands we sit a spell.

The next day we ascend back to Helbronner when the only clouds in the sky huddle around the Aiguille du Midi. Aed Rifugio Maison Vieille.

We meet Giacomo ("jack-UH-mo") shortly after schussing past a race course marked by inflatable, 10-foot-tall replicas of olive oil bottles.

As we duck under the low eaves of the centuries-old stone rifugio, there's Giacomo. Green eyes and white teeth beaming, a cavernous glass of Chianti swirling in his hand. Tanned, straight-backed, and blessed with a mane of silvering hair, he looks fashionable even in a Navajo-blanket-motif shirt by Think Pink.

"Sit, sit!" he exhorts, with a smile that could both rip bodices and halt bar fights. "Are you hungry? We'll make you something special!" Judging by the photos on the walls, Giacomo is a world traveler who consorts with a variety of gorgeous naked women between adventures on skis, motorbike, snowmobile, and horse. Of course, in winter, he runs a rifugio on a ski slope. And what higher purpose is there than fine food? How better to show the world the wonderful way of Giacomo?

When the rifugio's comely waitress presents a bountiful, artfully designed platter of anti-pasta, Courmayeur shrugs its gloom. No, the Monte Bianco side can't match the French for extreme glory. But it doesn't care to. If Chamonix skiing centers on challenge and conquest, Courmayeur emphasizes aesthetics and hedonism. In Giacomo's Alps, high altitude is no excuse for sacrificing style.

We gulp rare steak, lurid tomatoes, crisp greens, hot bread, red wine, and creamy tiramisu until the kangaroo-pockets on our ski bibs appear to contain actual marsupials. Lumbering out, Guidubaldi asks for Giacomo's address.

"Don't worry. They all know me at the post," grins the magnate of Checrouit, the Chianti still swirling in his glass. "Just send your letter to Giacomo, Courmayeur."

LA PALUD IS TO HIGH-ALPINE OFF-PISTE SKIING what Ferrari is to Formula One and Pavarotti is to opera: the Italian dream at full throttle.

Granted, with its creaky, three-stage cable car rising from a 60-car parking lot, La Palud looks like a feeder hill. The first stage also hardly imbues the hardy spirit of alpinism, unloading as it does at a warm patio where Euro-Betties sunbathe topless.

Displaying remarkable willpower, we keep going, switching cars twice, till we ascend to 11,345-foot Punta Helbronner and a wind-scoured fin of rock that serves as the international border. From there, we gaze out over the sea of white comprising the Glacier du Geant, to the needle-like spire of the Aiguille du Midi. The Chamonix skiers disembarking the tram of the same name-arguably the most famous lift on the globe-are plying identical terrain, the hallowed Roof of Europe, that we are. Only we get to it from the south via La Palud, a roundly ignored Italian station that virtually zero skiers in the New World know about.

It's an overcast day with low clouds skidding into the peaks like drunk dirigibles. "Monte Bianco looks surly today," observes Cohen as we swig espresso at the Helbronner café. There's no reason to be ingesting caffeine. We sure don't need the jitters before skiing one of Palud's 50-degree chutes in flat light when the snow's icy and crevasse-ridden. Drinking espresso is simply what Italian ski mountaineers do.

Reaching the chute entails an extended traverse across a snowfield-a much longer excursion than it seemed from the windows of the café, since this infinity of Alpine rock and snow provides no sense of scale. The chute is as crusty as we feared, so we descend with inelegant survival turns. At the bottom, a crevasse yawns as wide as seven feet. The only way to cross it is over an askew snowbridge. Executing the maneuver-bank a left, then a quick right at a 45-degree angle over the chasm-is an ego boost. We savor it, plus some Ritter Sport chocolate, when a potentially lethal fog obscures the peak and demands we sit a spell.

The next day we ascend back to Helbronner when the only clouds in the sky huddle around the Aiguille du Midi. A high dome of sunshine brightens all else. Today, we'll sample one of the staples of Alpine skiing: traveling from one village to another. In the lean 2001-02 season, few village-to-village descents are possible. But we can ski the all-time classic Courmayeur to Chamonix route via the Vallée Blanche.

At Helbronner, we push through a beaten metal door painted with green, white, and red rectangles on one side, and blue, white, and red on the other. They're the flags of Italy and France, respectively, designating the least officious international border you'll ever encounter.

With Monte Bianco, 13,162-foot Dente del Gigante, and 13,802-foot Grands Jorasses looming above, we engage the world's most famous run. A glacier that courses between cliffs and seracs, the Vallée Blanche runs down the Alps for 13.7 miles, making it one of skiing's longest runs. We slalom around house-sized blocks of vivid blue ice. We skirt crevasses that evoke the gaping mouths of whales jagged toothed suggesting zero dental hygiene and much decaying plankton.

We toast the descent, the day, and the Alps in Chamonix. After a few hours acting as sneer fodder for uppity French waiters and exasperated clerks, though, we grab a taxi and return to Courmayeur.

Soon we're entering the rebuilt Mont Blanc tunnel, passing votive candles and flower bouquets left over from the re-opening ceremony. The new tunnel is a gleaming marvel of engineering, where flashing purple safety lights command drivers to stay 150 meters apart and well-insulated emergency refuges offer true protection from disaster, unlike the old ones, which Italian firefighters dismissed as "pizza ovens."

It seems unlikely that the tunnel will close ever again. Even if it did, Courmayeur would survive. If our ski journey to "the other side of Mont Blanc" has taught us anything, it's that Italians revere the Alps every bit as much as French extremists do.

Neither Courmayeur nor any other resort on the planet will ever match the renown of Cham. But the south faces of the Blanc/Bianco massif are only incrementally gentler than the north faces. Up above Courmayeur's quaint restaurants and fashionable Milanos, the Italian Alps have forged the same push-the-limits spirit as the French side. Danger is dismissed, risk is embraced. Consider what happened the first week the tunnel reopened: 600 drivers were fined for speeding in it. The fastest, who was fined $900, zoomed through the 70 kilometers per hour zone at 150 kph. He's an Italian, by the way.

Vitals
Air: Alitalia (800-223-5730; alitaliausa.com) offers the most nonstops from the U.S. to Italy. Fly to Turin, via Rome. Courmayeur is a two-hour drive from Turin.
Lodging: The three-star Hotel Bouton d'Or boasts a central Courmayeur location, excellent complimentary breakfast, comfortable rooms, and a host of fascinating artifacts of the Italian Alps: hotelboutondor.com
Food: Don't miss the extensive wine list and wood-fired delicacies of Rifugio Maison Vieille, on the slopes of Checrouit: maisonvieille.com
Skiing: The Skipass Vallée D'Aosta accesses Courmayeur's slopes as well as 20 others in the valley: skivallee.it.
Tourism info: courmayeurturismo.it

Palud Off-Piste
by Joe O'Connor

Heli-serviced: Founded in 1850, the Alpine Guides Society of Courmayeur (AGSC) has 58 of the most experienced mountain guides in Europe. Take their Freeride Discovery weekend, which includes a heli ride (heli-skiing is illegal in France but legal in Italy) and big descents on the Toula Glacier for 520 Euros. Or, if you think you can hang, book the Mont Blanc on Skis trip. For 950 Euros, you'll start with a chopper ride followed by a three-hour hike to the summit of Europe's highest peak; from there it's a 12,000-vertical-foot drop into Chamonnix. Book your trip at least 15 days before your chosen date-the guides need a little time to prepare (guidecourmayeur.com).

Leg-serviced: Backcountry skiers can also sign on with the AGSC for non-heli tours and chase guides down the precipitous Brenva Glacier (177 Euros). Check out guidecourmayeur.com for details.

Lift-serviced: Take the stand-up gondola from La Palud to the quad, and then switch to the 10-passenger tram, and you're in the heart of it. Patrol doesn't exist on La Palud, so bring a guide or a local and ski the south-facing slopes in the morning before chunks start rolling downhill. To ski the 16 kilometers from La Palud to Chamonix via the Valleé Blanche, take the Monte Bianco cable car from La Palud and grab the lift to Point Helbronner, admire the view, then take the plunge to Cham via Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice).

gh dome of sunshine brightens all else. Today, we'll sample one of the staples of Alpine skiing: traveling from one village to another. In the lean 2001-02 season, few village-to-village descents are possible. But we can ski the all-time classic Courmayeur to Chamonix route via the Vallée Blanche.

At Helbronner, we push through a beaten metal door painted with green, white, and red rectangles on one side, and blue, white, and red on the other. They're the flags of Italy and France, respectively, designating the least officious international border you'll ever encounter.

With Monte Bianco, 13,162-foot Dente del Gigante, and 13,802-foot Grands Jorasses looming above, we engage the world's most famous run. A glacier that courses between cliffs and seracs, the Vallée Blanche runs down the Alps for 13.7 miles, making it one of skiing's longest runs. We slalom around house-sized blocks of vivid blue ice. We skirt crevasses that evoke the gaping mouths of whales jagged toothed suggesting zero dental hygiene and much decaying plankton.

We toast the descent, the day, and the Alps in Chamonix. After a few hours acting as sneer fodder for uppity French waiters and exasperated clerks, though, we grab a taxi and return to Courmayeur.

Soon we're entering the rebuilt Mont Blanc tunnel, passing votive candles and flower bouquets left over from the re-opening ceremony. The new tunnel is a gleaming marvel of engineering, where flashing purple safety lights command drivers to stay 150 meters apart and well-insulated emergency refuges offer true protection from disaster, unlike the old ones, which Italian firefighters dismissed as "pizza ovens."

It seems unlikely that the tunnel will close ever again. Even if it did, Courmayeur would survive. If our ski journey to "the other side of Mont Blanc" has taught us anything, it's that Italians revere the Alps every bit as much as French extremists do.

Neither Courmayeur nor any other resort on the planet will ever match the renown of Cham. But the south faces of the Blanc/Bianco massif are only incrementally gentler than the north faces. Up above Courmayeur's quaint restaurants and fashionable Milanos, the Italian Alps have forged the same push-the-limits spirit as the French side. Danger is dismissed, risk is embraced. Consider what happened the first week the tunnel reopened: 600 drivers were fined for speeding in it. The fastest, who was fined $900, zoomed through the 70 kilometers per hour zone at 150 kph. He's an Italian, by the way.

Vitals
Air: Alitalia (800-223-5730; alitaliausa.com) offers the most nonstops from the U.S. to Italy. Fly to Turin, via Rome. Courmayeur is a two-hour drive from Turin.
Lodging: The three-star Hotel Bouton d'Or boasts a central Courmayeur location, excellent complimentary breakfast, comfortable rooms, and a host of fascinating artifacts of the Italian Alps: hotelboutondor.com
Food: Don't miss the extensive wine list and wood-fired delicacies of Rifugio Maison Vieille, on the slopes of Checrouit: maisonvieille.com
Skiing: The Skipass Vallée D'Aosta accesses Courmayeur's slopes as well as 20 others in the valley: skivallee.it.
Tourism info: courmayeurturismo.it

Palud Off-Piste
by Joe O'Connor

Heli-serviced: Founded in 1850, the Alpine Guides Society of Courmayeur (AGSC) has 58 of the most experienced mountain guides in Europe. Take their Freeride Discovery weekend, which includes a heli ride (heli-skiing is illegal in France but legal in Italy) and big descents on the Toula Glacier for 520 Euros. Or, if you think you can hang, book the Mont Blanc on Skis trip. For 950 Euros, you'll start with a chopper ride followed by a three-hour hike to the summit of Europe's highest peak; from there it's a 12,000-vertical-foot drop into Chamonix. Book your trip at least 15 days before your chosen date-the guides need a little time to prepare (guidecourmayeur.com).

Leg-serviced: Backcountry skiers can also sign on with the AGSC for non-heli tours and chase guides down the precipitous Brenva Glacier (177 Euros). Check out guidecourmayeur.com for details.

Lift-serviced: Take the stand-up gondola from La Palud to the quad, and then switch to the 10-passenger tram, and you're in the heart of it. Patrol doesn't exist on La Palud, so bring a guide or a local and ski the south-facing slopes in the morning before chunks start rolling downhill. To ski the 16 kilometers from La Palud to Chamonix via the Valleé Blanche, take the Monte Bianco cable car from La Palud and grab the lift to Point Helbronner, admire the view, then take the plunge to Cham via Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice).

o Chamonix. Book your trip at least 15 days before your chosen date-the guides need a little time to prepare (guidecourmayeur.com).

Leg-serviced: Backcountry skiers can also sign on with the AGSC for non-heli tours and chase guides down the precipitous Brenva Glacier (177 Euros). Check out guidecourmayeur.com for details.

Lift-serviced: Take the stand-up gondola from La Palud to the quad, and then switch to the 10-passenger tram, and you're in the heart of it. Patrol doesn't exist on La Palud, so bring a guide or a local and ski the south-facing slopes in the morning before chunks start rolling downhill. To ski the 16 kilometers from La Palud to Chamonix via the Valleé Blanche, take the Monte Bianco cable car from La Palud and grab the lift to Point Helbronner, admire the view, then take the plunge to Cham via Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice).

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