Summer in the Italian Dolomites – by Beth Lloyd
Beth heads back to the Dolomites during the summer to experience the spectacular mountain scenery and pay homage to the legendary Shane McConkey:
The summer finds me once again in the mountains of Northern Italy. The South Tyrol is home to the Dolomites and is a melting pot of Austrian and Italian alpine life where traditional farming culture meets tourism in long, glaciated valleys and rolling hills beneath striking cliff faces.
In the summer the meadows are filled with the ringing of cow bells and the locals work long and hard in the heat, cutting the grass by hand with scythes. The hills and mountains are full of climbers and walkers, the winding roads alive with classic car drivers and road cyclists and the tracks and lifts frequented by mountain bikers. A strong connection with WW1 has left the region with an extensive network of Via Ferrata (VF) routes – protected paths and climbing routes using steel wires, stemples, ladders and bridges to navigate the peaks. The towns are bustling with Italian gelato stops and Tyrolean strudel cafes.
We spend much of our time here walking, climbing and doing the Via Ferrata routes. This season we’ve had a chance to push the borders a little, straying further from our home in Alta Badia and ticking off a number of stunning peaks including Sas Rigas above Ortisei, Antermoia in the Rosengarten (where scenes from the film Cliff Hanger were filmed) and Monte Paterno by Tre Cime. These are all accessed by VF routes and each time we were rewarded by incredible views of our mountain home which we came to know so well in winter.
Winter in the Dolomites
In winter the landscape shifts. As a thick white blanket of snow covers all, more lifts open still to connect one of Europe’s biggest ski resorts. Twelve ski valleys, 1200km of pistes and 450 lifts make the Dolomites a big contender in the world of ski resorts. Traditional refugios line the pistes, serving a fusion of Italian pasta and Austrian dumplings and stews. At coffee skiers can enjoy a coffee of hot chocolate, maybe even a Bombardino –a bright yellow mix of equal parts brandy and Advocaat (an egg-based liqueur), topped with cream and served warm. Long, well-kept pistes, freestyle and fun parks, boardercross course and even glacial skiing on the Dolomite’s highest peak the Marmolada. It means there’s something for everyone.
But it’s not just the pistes that attract people in the winter months. Winter mountaineers, ski tourers and thrill seekers travel from far and wide to test themselves against the Dolomites’ steep gullies and couloirs, ice climbs, winter Via Ferratas and powder lines. If you think there are a lot of pistes, they barely scratch the surface of the amount of accessible off-piste available. There’s even a lift that climbs to the top of the Sella Massif where there are no marked pistes but loads of off-piste routes including the popular Val Mezdi.
Seeing this place in both summer and winter helps to bring a better understanding of some of our favourite winter routes and I have also enjoyed revisiting some of the Dolomites more infamous winter locations now that the snows have gone.
Remembering Shane McConkey
One of the most well-known skiers to visit the Dolomites was the late and great Shane McConkey. A pioneer of what we know now as the powder ski, McConkey made his name as a fun-loving and approachable freeskier, base jumper, wingsuit flyer and eventually a combination of all three. He skied all over the world, pushing boundaries and breaking records whilst at no point taking himself too seriously.
It was on a springtime trip to the Dolomites in 2009 that McConkey arrived to lay down some more ground-breaking lines. With a small group of friends and camera crew from Matchstick Productions, Shane planned a number of ski-base and wingsuit jumps. They had been carefully planning and designing this technique for some years previous after seeing the scene where James Bond escapes from pursuers in the famous skiing scene in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’. The idea was that Shane could ski to the edge of and off the cliff, enjoy a few seconds of freefall before releasing both skis and flying away from the cliff by wingsuit before deploying the chute. The skis they were using were kitted out with old Tyrolia bindings because they could be released by pulling upwards rather than the usual downward push system most of us are familiar with. This meant he could pull on two pieces of cord attached to the bindings whilst in flight to release the skis.
First of all Shane and his team made their way to the infamous Val Scura on Sassongher. Sassongher sits at the foot of Corvara in the Alta Badia. At 2665m this mountain looks inaccessible from the Corvara side but can be walked up from behind. In summer it demands a good head for heights for walkers and some protected path leads the way up one of the last sections of the climb. Just before the protected path is the entrance to the Val Scura. I have visited this a number of times in summer and the high walled, rocky floored gully gives me butterflies every time. The bottom isn’t visible and seems to be swallowed by the mountain itself.
Skiing the traditional route wasn’t even enough for McConkey though. After an initial attempt where one of his friend’s bindings broke on the entry to the couloir, calling for a self-arrest and then hike down the entire gully by foot, the team returned and gave it another crack. They had a plan to ski less than half of the route before traversing off to the side onto an outcrop on the face of Sassongher. They then set up a kicker and successfully ski-base jumped from the cliff. It was a good test for the start of their trip. All had landed safely and they got the shots they needed for the film.
Next was the Sella Massif at the top of the Pordoi lift. At 2950m the Pordoi sits on the shoulder on the Sella, the highest point of which is Piz Boe (3152m). The massif is lined by vertical cliffs dropping away for hundreds of meters to the valley floor below.
For the next shoot the plan was to take the lift up, ski down to the edge of the cliffs and perform a ski-base to wing suit jump. The conditions on the approach were difficult, with slab avalanches and hard pack snow and by the time they were ready to make the jump is was around 5.30pm. With the light just right for shooting Shane’s friend, Holmes made the jump first. Both skis detached, he flew away from the cliffs with arms outstretched and he deployed his chute to land safely just in time to turn around and watch Shane make the jump. Shane took off shortly after, lining up to the jump and projecting off of the cliff. From the ground Holmes watched as Shane became tangled, only one ski detached and he went into a spin. Calmly in the few seconds he had, Shane reached down and manually detached the ski, righted himself and deployed his shoot. But with only a second of freefall left and travelling at 110mph McConkey met the ground.Every time I find myself in view of the Pordoi cliffs I think about that line, what happened there and it’s a constant reminder that the mountains are not ours. We are merely guests. Just last week I stood at the edge of the Sella and looked out over the Dolomites. A gentle breeze rose up from the valley and chuffs sailed on the thermals. It was peaceful and unassuming. Mountains remind me that as much as I regard them as my home they are always the ones in charge. They change when they want and they hold fast, unforgiving and unrelenting until then. When standing at the edge of these unprotected, sheer drops the ground below is too far away to process. Villages and roads look like maps and the little cars like toys. It is sometimes hard to lose prospective in the face of such scale and although we are only small, the decisions we make in the mountains must match the size of them.
Every time I find myself in view of the Pordoi cliffs I think about that line, what happened there and it’s a constant reminder that the mountains are not ours. We are merely guests. Just last week I stood at the edge of the Sella and looked out over the Dolomites. A gentle breeze rose up from the valley and chuffs sailed on the thermals. It was peaceful and unassuming. Mountains remind me that as much as I regard them as my home they are always the ones in charge. They change when they want and they hold fast, unforgiving and unrelenting until then. When standing at the edge of these unprotected, sheer drops the ground below is too far away to process. Villages and roads look like maps and the little cars like toys. It is sometimes hard to lose prospective in the face of such scale and although we are only small, the decisions we make in the mountains must match the size of them.