Ski Club explores the Italian bliss of the Aosta Valley!
Picture the scene: you’re sat down with family and friends discussing the destination of your next ski or snowboard trip and the suggestions rolling off the tongue are all individual resorts… but what about a whole region?
Whenever the results of the Ski Club’s annual Consumer Research are announced, the size of the resort and desire for guaranteed snow is always listed as the most important reasons for choosing a ski area. This means resorts that are part of a wider ski area (such as La Plagne in the Paradiski area or Tignes, part of Espace Killy) are always popular. This can be a blessing when there are British-speaking tour operators organising the whole trip, and a curse when resorts become overcrowded during school holidays or lack local charm. This February, the Ski Club decided to reimagine the age-old conundrum of where to ski, and instead asked which region we could visit to provide us with the kilometres of skiing and the guaranteed snow that we wanted.
So, join us as we visit three resorts in the north-western Italian region of the Aosta Valley.
Coming in at the tail of Storm Ciara, the landing into Turin resembles a boat off the north coast of Scotland in December than a 300-tonne machine floating in the air, but Ciara blessed us with fresh powder in the middle of the week so we’ll take the rough with the smooth. One member of our group has been delayed out of Frankfurt so we sample our first (of many) famous Italian espressos in the arrivals hall while we wait for the storm to clear.
Once the full group has landed, we make a beeline for the Aosta Valley. Destination: La Thuile. With limited Italian, I expected broken conversation with our transfer driver but he tells me that most people in the Aosta valley speak Italian and French so we could chat easily. I later learn that any elected official in Aosta needs to pass a French exam before taking office; a reflection of the region’s open outlook and historical trading with France across the Petit San Bernard pass.
Arriving at the hotel, we are delighted to find out that the staff has kept the pizza oven open for our late arrival, with the aim of helping us load up on carbs for the ski day. We demolish one famous Italian pizza each and the thick crusts and plentiful toppings defeat us - a theme which continues throughout the week. Having consumed an espresso and a pizza within 4 hours of being in the country, we are satisfied to be tasting the real Italy and head to bed hoping for clear skies in the morning.
La Thuile will host the Women’s World Cup next week (29th February) and is part of the Espace San Bernado ski area, sharing 152km of piste with the French resort of La Rosiere. The resorts are so well connected with each other that rather than needing to make a ‘day-trip’ into France, you can easily head there for a mid-morning croissant stop, potter about across the border, and head back to La Thuile for lunch. Or so we were told. I can’t vouch personally for this as Storm Ciara restricts us to just 3 lifts… Fortunately for us, La Thuile resembles an ‘inverted resort’ with the more difficult three black and one red dropping off the main gondola out of town, and the main beginner's area a further chairlift up the mountain. Most resorts are designed for easy access to beginner runs but La Thuile is the opposite. Although not much of the resort is open, there is still more than enough challenging terrain accessible below the treeline to test our legs. Taking refuge in Le Petit Skieur for a gorgonzola and nut pasta, the welcoming rustic wooden interior allows us to take stock of the morning’s skiing, with most people opting for a spa afternoon.
Courmayeur and Aosta
A cruisy 20-minute drive through the valley takes us to our second resort of the week, Courmayeur. The town developed around alpinism rather than skiing (much like Chamonix 20km across the border through the Mont Blanc tunnel) and you can see why just by looking up at the sheer mountain faces peering over you everywhere you look. That’s not to say there’s no skiing, far from it, skiers can enjoy 47km of piste. However, with an outrageous amount of challenging off-piste, Courmayeur is a powder-hunter’s dream and therefore attracts beginners as well as the hardcore. This becomes apparent with the number of Black Crows skis (the popular Chamonix freeride brand) and pin bindings that line the walls of the après bars. Arriving in town, we head for the winding cobbled streets for a plate of cheese, cured meats and a local beer at Café de la Posta: the old post office with a roaring fire to dry your socks on!
Our schedule means that we aren’t able to appreciate the first bluebird of the week, so instead of clipping into our bindings, we head along the valley to the Skyway, a €143 million feat of engineering taking you from 1,300 metres to 3,466 metres in two stages. Although today’s Skyway took 4 years of construction, the true origins began in 1934 when Count Dino Lora Totino developed the vision to connect Italy and France. It took 6 years for the project to be approved and in 1941 work began on the first section. Temporarily halted due to the Second World War, the Monte Bianco Cableway was finally opened in 1947, taking the public to the highest point in Italy within minutes (Rifugio Torino, 3,329m). Totino’s expertise also extended across the border, with his influence on the cableway construction to the Aiguille du Midi starting in 1951 and where in 1957, cable cars connected Rifugio Torino with Punta Helbronner and then to Aiguille du Midi. After nearly 30 years of continuously pushing the boundaries of human engineering, Italy and France were linked across the mountains.
Back to the present and today’s incarnation takes over 300,000 passengers a year to the peak, with around 20% of people heading up with skis, skins and a harness to attempt the famous Vallée Blanchee across to Chamonix. Or to tackle the numerous off piste itineraries down into Courmayeur. If you already have a week’s ski pass in Courmayeur, you can upgrade your pass for €10 to include a return trip on the Skyway, or if you’re looking to tackle the off-piste another €3 gives you multiple journeys up to Punta Helbronner. Travelling over two thousand metres in 15 minutes, all 4 cabins rotate 360° offering a panorama of Mont Blanc, as well as the other 4,000-metre Aostan peaks of Cervino, Gran Paradiso, Monte Rosa and Grand Combin. The mid-station, Pavillon, houses a museum, a 148-seater cinema, a conference room, a wine cellar and the Saussure Botanical Garden hosting over 900 species. But most importantly, it gives you an excuse to catch your breath before ascending a further 1,200 metres to the Punta Helbronner. At 3,466 metres, the views from the 360° observatory stretch for miles in the distance. The peak of Mont Blanc is so close it feels as if a 15-minute stroll could take you to the summit. This creates an unsettling perspective for me, having always thought of Mont Blanc as a mythical, unreachable monster. If you’re lucky enough to visit in the summer, the cable car to the Aiguille du Midi will be open, taking 30 minutes to transport you over the border with no need for a passport!
The second part of our non-ski day consists of a walking tour around the town of Aosta, the region’s capital. With both medieval and Roman architecture restored and protected, it’s easy to forget you’re surrounded by Italy’s modern ski resorts. If you’re a multi-generational family, or someone in the group doesn’t enjoy the slopes, basing your holiday in Aosta gives you the luxury of both worlds.
There’s even a 25-minute cable car from the town of Aosta to the resort of Pila, which we discover is quicker than taking a car up the mountain!
For the shredders in the group, Thursday is the day we’ve all been dreaming of: groomed pistes, clear skies and empty runs. Although Pila is not as big a ski area as La Thuile, it still boasts 50km and the 12 lifts takes you to an altitude of 2,740m which is more than enough for a few days of skiing. The clincher in the Aosta valley is that when buying a 6-day liftpass, you can ski two days in any other resort in the region. So, if the weather closes in or you’ve sampled all the coffee one resort has to offer, switch up your perspective and explore a new region.
With adrenaline running high in Pila, we hold out for a late lunch of gnocchi, arguably the best decision of the week because as soon as we unclip our helmets the clouds descend, dumping 20 centimetres of freshies across the resort. A quick blast below the treeline gives us the opportunity to ski on the new snow, before we head down the valley to the airport. James Connor was a guest of the beautiful Hotel Montana Lodge in La Thuile, which operates a shuttle service to the lifts and where most of the group spent the first afternoon in the spa. The base in Courmayeur was Le Massif, which offers a fantastic breakfast and is located only a few minutes’ walk from the cobbled streets of the old town. In Pila, James was a guest of Hotel La Chance which is perfect for families, with a homely feel and fireplace. The town of Aosta hosted James at Omama Social Hotel. Opened in 2019, this ‘concept’ hotel is nothing like the previous hotels. From the bedrooms (see the above image) to the lifts, it’s certainly worth visiting for the décor alone and is within walking distance of the Roman town.