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Season Diary - Day 8: Olympic Ambition in Sestriere

After the washout that was Monday in Prato Nervoso, it was time to move on to a proper resort; Sestriere, part of the Via Lattea group of six interconnected resorts linking Turin and France via the Val di Susa.


Alas, it had still not stopped snowing. Italy was bathed in the flurried bliss of a Retour d'Est weather system, pounding the region with snow. From 9am on Monday until I left the area at 9am on Thursday, it piled on the snow. Previously barren and bare slopes were cast a new under the build up, with feet of fresh powder at 2,000m to have fun with.


 

Sestriere's Olympic past and snowy today, showing the night before the morning after ...


 

Sestriere is not a looker of a town. Built in the 1960s, it brings all the charm and grace of brutalism to the ski slopes, the practical nature of a town designed to survive the harsh conditions of winter somehow destroying the last semblance of good grace that places like the Barbican hang on to. A couple of tower blocks, perfectly round, are the piece de resistance in this Keynesian dystopia of shopping arcades, hotels and multi-level passageways.


If you want looks, head over the other side of the mountain to Sauze d'Oulx. With an original core dating from the 16th century, narrow cobbled streets open up to picturesque alpine churches and low doors invite curious folks in for a glass of excellent local Nebbiolo wine in dark, low ceiling cellars. It is not without sin, however, as the bars further up in the new part of town overflow with (mostly) Brits slurring along to the fifth rendition of Sweet Caroline of the last ten minutes (buh buh buuuh).


The Via Lattea, however, is blessed with 400km of slopes, making it one of the biggest in Europe. At its core are Sauze d'Oulx and Sestriere, sharing the same massif between Val di Susa and Val Chisone. With options still limited thanks to the weather - the lift links between the two didn't open until Friday of this week - we stuck to the slopes of Sestriere to see what it had to offer.


 



 

The answer is trees. Lots and lots of trees. Which is weird. Is it weird? Yes, it is. I think. You see, Sestriere sits at 2,000m elevation above sea level. This is the same elevation as places like Tignes (actually higher at 2,100m). And yet, Tignes does not have any trees. It sits in something akin to a moonscape, before you've even achieved lift-off. The same can be said of Livigno, far far to the east near where the Italian, Swiss and Austrian borders meet, and laying at 1,800m.


Not only is it weird that Sestriere has trees, stretching high up to the peak of the region at 2,500m, it is that they appear to be some sort of deciduous pine tree, the jointed, angular limbs devoid of pine needles normally painting the Alps green all year round.


This does mean, however, that there is some great skiing to be had in these trees. The lack of foliage on the trees meant they seemed slightly more spaced apart, signposting the way for a picture perfect tree run rather than creating a sense of imposing claustrophobia that can happen. And boy was this a day for tree runs. Two feet of fresh snow made for a perfect morning, dancing and weaving under the canopy and between the trunks. The snow held up brilliantly, especially as it had been cold overnight and to start the day.


 

A skier wearing SkiMojo leg braces
"I am Iron Man" - even with the help of SkiMojo, the afternoon's conditions proved difficult.

 

Things got trickier after lunch, however. On the one hand, because I gorged myself on some of the best pizza you'll find in the Alps and finished lunch off with lashings of Bombardino and Vov, both custard-like drinks laced with liqueur of varying types and strengths.


But a combination of warming temperatures and the hoard of day-trippers that were making the most of one of Italy's first real powder days meant the snow quickly turned to chalk, firm and dense underfoot with little to know give. This wasn't boilerplate or ice, as the snow retained a fair amount of grip, but nonetheless it became hard work and tiresome to ski, legs working constantly to retain balance and pressure. I opted for a more "freeride" style, keeping my skis together to ensure my legs would work as one, and gliding short, quick turns to avoid long traverses across bumpy terrain.


Unsurprisingly, we didn't last long in these conditions, and called it a day for some well earned rest. Thus my Italian odyssey came to an end, a quick romp through some of Piedmont's finest skiing. Ironically, the last time I went skiing in Italy there was no snow; this time, too much snow. Prato Nevoso came in right on cue, the perfect, perfect weekend destination with just enough skiing to keep everyone entertained, a good party scene and short transfer times. Via Lattea and Sestriere showcased some of the best Italian skiing and ski food respectively, with Sauze d'Oulx providing plenty of opportunities to enjoy an après drink - civilised or otherwise.



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