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Season Diary - Day 7: Making a Prato Nevoso of Myself

The snow started falling this morning at around half past eight. Sat at breakfast, we watched it begin to fall in big, fat, wet flakes outside the window of the breakfast room of the hotel, silently announcing the beginning of Italy’s first big dump of the year. Perched on top of a hill, Mondoví sits proudly above the head of the Po River at 600m (599, to be exact). If it was snowing here, imagine what it would be like up the mountain?


We didn’t have to wait long. As we followed the snowplough up the winding mountain road towards Prato Nevoso, it became clear that we were one of the few to brave the snowy conditions. Snow chains were immediately called for as we turned off from behind the plough, and we crawled the rest of the way to the resort base.

 


 

Prato Nevoso is a local’s resort. Relatively small, it possesses a smorgasboard of reds and blues connecting three different villages (Prato Nevoso, Frabosa, and Artesina) with a total piste length just topping 100km. A lot can be said for the on-snow facilities that there are no green runs (Italy has a mixed record marking runs as “green”, so take this with a pinch of salt) and only four black runs in the whole resort, including the wider Modolé ski area.


I wish I could tell you what Prato Nervoso looked like; I can’t, because I never saw the village. The snow fell so heavily and so continuously that only on occasions did the looming shape of apartment blocks appear through the distance. I wish I could tell you what Prato Nevoso skied like too, but again with conditions so socked in, and so few people making the journey to ski there today, only a pair of lifts in the resort were open.


This snow marks the first retour d’Est of the season. If you will allow me, I will indulge my nerdy side for a moment, and dig in to exactly what this means.


 

A chairlift base station, in a very snowy ski resort
Somewhere out there - a ski resort ...

 

Snow generally requires two things to form; moisture and cold temperatures. The Alps tends to get the latter of these, but it is the moisture it has struggled with this season. Moisture is only brought in from very specific weather patterns, mostly low pressure anti-cyclones that pick up moisture from the oceans and drops it over land. The perfect combination of these sees powerful low pressure storms and cold, cold temperatures to create serious snow dumps; this is what drove super duper snow in North America last year, as well as Japan’s near continuous snowfall every season – wave after wave of moisture hitting the mountains and falling as snow.


In weather science, the greater the distance between two extremes of something, the more extreme the weather will be. The lower the pressure, the deeper, bigger and stronger the hurricane, for example. The same is true of the factors that influence weather. If warm weather cools quickly, the impacts of this are more severe. If hot weather is allowed to cool even quicker, the impacts are even more severe.

Enter retour d’Est, literally “return from the east”.


Every so often, usually several times in the course of a winter season, a low pressure area will enter the Mediterranean Sea via the Straits of Gibraltar. Like many of us, it will use this opportunity to get some winter sun, warming up considerably and soaking up plenty of moisture from the sea as it goes. It then turns north, making landfall over Italy, hopefully Genoa or Venice. It also keeps turning towards the west, hopefully hitting the entire length of the Italian Alps as it goes.


The Italian Alps are really special. They rise from the Po River valley, a huge expanse of flat flood plain that runs across the length of the north of the country from Turin in the west to a delta just south of Venice in the East. From this plain suddenly rises huge Alpine peaks, often with no foothills to soften the blow.


What does this mean? Well, our really warm, really damp low pressure area hits these mountains and is forced to rise. The difference between low, flat river valley and high peaks is so severe, it rises really quickly and really suddenly. As it rises, it cools, again very suddenly because of the extremes of this gradient. And as it cools, it turns to snow. Lots and lots of snow. A retour d’Est weather system is one of the most powerful snow systems to hit the Alps, guaranteeing a huge powder day for the Italian Alps and, hopefully, sharing that love with the rest of the region too.

 


 

A skier with face hidden behind goggles and facemask, lots of snow falling
Obligatory chairlift selfie - I never tend to use a facemask unless things get really difficult ...

 

That, therefore, is the reason for the socked in conditions in Prato Nevoso. We skied what we could, taking lunch at a family-run mountain restaurant serving heaps of polenta and tiramasu still using nona’s recipe. At 12EUR a plate for a main and 6EUR for a pudding, as well as a cheeseboard overflowing with sumptuous local flavours, we were reminded why we were hear – a local’s resort will always be just fine for a day’s skiing, but you come to Italy for the incredible food and the even better wine.

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