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Lure of the unbeaten path

Written by Josh Sharpe

In this picture: Simon Charriere surfing shadows in the Italian Piedmont.

Photos by: Josh Sharpe
-4°C
180cm
Piedmont, Italy

It’s bluebird again, cold, but sunny, just as it has been for the past 4 days.

We’ve just finished our toast, filled our thermos, and finished packing our bags.

Simon is already outside of the Refugio we have been calling home for the last few days, and he is almost finished putting on his skins.

Jesse is still upstairs somewhere, lagging behind, but we will blame it on the jet lag and not the table wine we had with the multi-course dinner the hut keeper made for us last evening.

We planned to head out deep into the back of the valley, to a peak that caught our eye on our borrowed map.

Rewind a few days to the morning after Jesse arrived in Switzerland from California, and we are frantically throwing gear, food, and clothes into my car, so that we can meet Simon at the train station in time.

Jesse is a long time friend of mine, whom I met back in my California days. I remember it well, he was dating my flatmate at the time.

In this picture: Jesse Miller & Simon Charriere heading deep into the magic valley.

While hanging around, I mentioned that there was a huge storm due to hit the Sierras and how I grew up in a ski town, and how much I missed skiing while living at the beach.

Turns out Jesse grew up in a ski town too, and we decided right then and there to hop in his old Subaru and drive right into the middle of the storm which ended up dropping over 7 meters of snow in a week.

Who would have thought, 10 years later we’d be skiing in the Alps together.

After we picked up Simon and loaded up on coffee and croissants, we were on our way south, through the longest tunnel in the world, to Italy.

We had a long flat skin ahead of us before we could even start to gain much elevation.

Simon charged ahead effortlessly breaking trail. We had come here for more than just the great food and good hospitality.

“ This is why we had come here, to this mystical ski tourer’s paradise. To be alone as far as the eye can see. ”

What we really wanted was back in that valley, and Simon, a native to the Swiss Alps, had already started to grasp it.

I had first heard about this place the previous season from a friend, who had stumbled upon it, whilst exploring the Italian Piedmont region in his VW van packed with ski gear.

He told a story of a valley with trees, perfectly spaced for the flowing arc of a ski turn, going well above 2400m (something that is almost non-existent in central Switzerland where I live).

Above the trees, the peaks rise up over 3000m with big steep powder fields, and the occasional couloir, and to top it off, an empty little Refugio sits right in the middle of it all.

I was sold and paid this mystical place a visit a month later, and surely all was true, but the thing that caught me off guard was how alone we were there. That’s what brought me back this year.

In this picture: Simon Charrier breaks trail through week old cold powder.

We followed the frozen river back for 8km, as the morning light began to light up the big walls and blue ice falls around us.

Our skis slid through 20cm of cold dry powder that had been sitting untouched for several days since the last snowfall.

As we moved quietly in rhythm, it was impossible to keep my gaze off the peaks, mind surfing my line of choice down each one.

Yeah, I imagined I’d make three big open turns up top before the choke into the couloir, then some tight fast ones before the straight line exit onto the apron below.

“So nice”: I shouted to the boys. My concentration was only broken when we had to cross the occasional pile of old frozen avalanche debris that had ripped off the steep walls beside us.

I could almost hear the rumble it must have made as the mountain shed off the weight. Signs of wildlife were in abundance, and signs of any human activity were nowhere to be seen.

We reached the end of the valley, toes cold, but the steep walls opened up and finally we could start our passage to the upper mountain.

As we quickly gained elevation, we were rewarded with vast panoramic views of the stoic peaks that surrounded us, and their big blank aprons laid out in front of them.

“ All of it coated in shin deep grade A cold smoke ”

From this vantage point, we could really start to get a feel for the potential here.

There were mellow east facing powder fields across from us, and steep north and western faces beside us, ribbed with long couloirs that topped out onto knife ridges.

All of it coated in shin deep grade A cold smoke. Scenes that almost left us speechless, made us feel so minuscule yet so fortunate. We felt like kings, the lucky ones on this day.

In this picture: Jesse Miller & Simon Charriere slide back home to the Refugio

This is why we had come here, to this mystical ski tourer’s paradise.

To be alone as far as the eye can see, in such a place, with two buddies and many years worth of stellar lines surrounding, well this is something special in the European Alps.

As possible as it still is to find places like this, it could all change in the future. I hope we can fight to preserve these places, so our children’s children can have the same opportunities to connect with such wilderness.

When the moment came, that we stood on top, and peered back down over the track we had laid all morning, I turned back to Jesse and Simon.

They had the same silly grin on their faces as me. So, we pulled our skins, and well, I suppose you can imagine how the rest goes.

The lure of the unbeaten path runs strong, and with as little as a friend’s push in the right direction, a borrowed map, and a little luck, we can all stumble upon places like this.

Michael

Very cool!
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