07 / 01 / 2017

Button Lift to the Heavens

The following article was written by American journalist, Keith Kirwen following his recent trip to Sestriere.

Being a one-ski-resort-man, I had no idea what was in store for me this past winter when I visited the Piemonte region of the Italian Alps to ski and board its MILKY WAY. This is not to be confused with Snickers, Kit Kats nor sky observation, but rather a series of ski resorts connected together by finely groomed runs, an extensive network of lifts and plenty of mountain goodness. This surprisingly interesting area is just a hop, skip and a jump from the bustling Italian city, Torino, which I imagine will be the arrival and departure point for most of you coming from abroad.
I say that I am a one-ski-resort-man because since I first started snowboarding, at the age of 23, I‟ve lived at the foot of a resort and therefore have done zero travelling to other ski havens. No need. I thought. Now I‟ve got the bug though and want more.

First, however, let me tell you about this great Milky Way, better known as the Via Lattea.
This Italian mountain region, home to the 2006 Winter Olympics, and just a short 1.5 hour drive from the old-school, café lined streets of Torino is well worth a visit for those of you who wish to ski (or snowboard) on up to 450 km (280 miles) of groomed runs with just one ski pass! The Via Lattea is made up of 8 different ski resorts, one of them being in France. That‟s cool. “How „bout we ski to France today, kids?” The elevation ranges from 1359 meters (4460 feet) to 2808 meters (9212 feet) so there‟s plenty of drop for nice long runs and the 4 snowparks within the area will surely feed all those park rats. I stayed in the Olympic Village of the resort in Sestriere and found it to be a perfect access point for all these riding options.

We all know that cities the world over compete fiercely to become the home for the Olympic Games and after visiting Sestriere, Torino and the Via Lattea, I know why. Economic growth and prosperity. Although 10 years have passed since the Olympics were held there, the long term benefits can be visibly appreciated and discovered when speaking with the locals about the “Olympic Games Effect”. During a visit with the Mayor, I learned just how much the region benefitted from being home to the games. They are still reaping the rewards of the global attention with increased annual numbers of international skiers and year round tourists, improved infrastructures and a general sense of being a great place to live, ski and enjoy the mountains. I noticed a sense of pride in the locals about having been home to the Olympics.

With over 84 medal events held during the 16 days of winter sporting showdowns the village of Sestriere, the city of Turin and the Piamontesa region got a huge economic boost. As I was riding in all these ski areas I was imagining, literally, ski jumpers flying through the air, downhill ski racers screaming by me and snowboarders nearly crashing as they cut in front of me in my invented snowboard cross competition where I always rallied to win, just seconds before the finish. But this was just a fantasy of mine.

It really did happen. Sestriere was home to ice skating competitions of all types, cross country ski races, luge, biathlon, and ice hockey as well.

In the middle of the Milky Way there is one particularly charming area where I would love to go time and time again, especially after a nice snow storm. It‟s called Pragelato and let me tell you why it‟s so worth visiting. It‟s got a button lift to the heavens. Seriously. Pragelato is a resort within itself with a world-class cross country ski center, charming mountain village with restaurants and bars called the Club Med, but most importantly it has a lift access ski area solely for freeriding and ski mountaineering. The day before my scheduled freeriding extravaganza at the hand of the local expert guide, Carlaberto “Cala” Cimenti, it snowed 70 centimeters (2 feet 3 inches)! I could barely sleep in anticipation of what turned out to be my “best day” in recent memory.

What makes this place so unusual is that they do not groom the runs. Years ago there was a “traditional ski resort” in Pragelato with groomed runs as there are big wide open spaces between the trees where the runs used to be, but are now simply fantastic avenues for wide, deep and fabulicious turns. An ungroomed freeriding resort with lift access….off the freaking charts! You take a two seater up to the halfway point of the mountain and then the button-lift-to-the-heavens where you have the option of sniffing out your next turns like a powder hound or you can put on your skins and skin up, over and down what seemed like an endless amount of mountain terrain. This is especially cool because you are in the “backcountry”, but close to the village should there be any need to get to civilization quickly.

On that note, I had the amazing opportunity to visit with the team from the Italian Mountaineering Company, Ferrino. In fact, I was fortunate enough to board that powder with the owner, a friendly and happy woman who showed my cohorts and me the slopes and gave us a full presentation of their award winning, Full Safe 30 Backpack with Integrated Air Bag and Air Safe System. The history of the Ferrino Company is quite a surprising one, I must say. In 1870 Cesaré Ferrino, owner of a paint shop in Turín, decides to try to waterproof fabric, and he does! Then, 20 years later the Ferrino Company starts to manufacture tents for camping as well as working for the Fiat car company. In 1910 their Ferrino tent becomes their first mass manufactured tent. From this point up to and through the 1980 ́s the evolution in tent design is led by Ferrino and then really begins to set trends when working closely with world renowned mountaineer, Reinhold Messner.

From the eighties to present day the Ferrino Company has branched out into the design and fabrication of all types of equipment for survival and success in the mountains. They have a long list of major mountain stories with their sponsored mountaineers wearing their clothes, sleeping in their tents, walking on the snow with their snowshoes and, among other things, staying alive with their one-of-a-kind avalanche safety backpacks, known as their Safe Collection. I was told in the presentation of their Safe Collection, after that amazing day rocking through the powder in Pragelato, that the company really started to push the envelope in design when they “opened” their high mountain testing lab in the mid-nineties at the Quintino Sello Mountain Refuge on Monte Rosa at 3585 meters (11,762 feet). Then, they simply got rid of the envelope when they partnered with the Mountain Medical Center to assist in the design and testing of the very crucial components of their materials which are, essentially, designed to keep people warm, happy and alive.

The Safe Collection is, perhaps, Ferrino‟s flagship range with countless hours of R&D involving Ferrino‟s technical engineers, ambassadors, the Italian Rescue service and the aforementioned Mountain Medical Center of Aosta. The star of the Safe Collection is surely the Full Safe 30 backpack. This safety revolution is the world‟s first of its species to incorporate both a breathing apparatus and an airbag system. The second coolest part of the day, for me, was seeing how the airbag (looked more like airwings) opened up and out and how one could simultaneously use the breathing system should he or she be engulfed in an avalanche.

Yes, this was a great day and yes I found the Via Lattea to be an extremely fun discovery, but skiing and boarding is not all this region has to offer. The après ski and the “during ski” food and drink options are numerous, varied and top notch. Throughout the resorts there are restaurant “chalets” serving up delicious combinations of local and national fare. One of the nicest meals I had on the mountain was in the cozy hut, Il Capricorno. Sitting outside on its sunlit terrace with a huge plate of pasta simply filled me with joy. Who wouldn‟t feel the same?

The trip came to an end and I had to say goodbye to my new friends with a sense of happiness that one can only understand after a perfect week full of good snow, good food and good times. As I was packing my gear to head back home, that evening, I watched a number of YouTube videos about skiing in the Via Lattea and in Pragelato, while planning my return. Maybe I will see you there?

Keith Kirwen


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