A view for all skiers: Italy's picturesque Monte Rosa ski area is an Alpine jewel

Ashamed as I am to admit it, I've never been good at recognising mountain peaks. Whenever a guide points out giants such as Mont Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi, or the Matterhorn in Switzerland, I smile knowingly and point my camera in the direction of their finger without really being sure what I'm aiming at. All that changed last spring when I arrived for lunch at the Campo Base restaurant in the Italian ski area of Monte Rosa.

Perched high above the hamlet of Frachey, this buzzy restaurant offered stunning views of the surrounding range, including big-hitters such as the Breithorns (all three of them well over 4,000m high) and that Swiss Alpine icon, the Matterhorn, way off in the distance. Sitting by the window with a glass of Piemontese vino rosso, I had plenty of time to study its celebrated silhouette, the triangular top shaped like a crooked witch's hat.

I'd spent the opening morning cruising immaculate corduroy in the bright spring sunshine, and this high-altitude backdrop topped off what was fast becoming a rather spectacular day. Tucked away in the Aosta Valley, on the mountainous border between Italy and Switzerland, Monte Rosa is one of the largest lift-linked ski areas in Europe, with a whopping 185km of pistes to explore. It's spread across three resorts – Champoluc, Gressoney and Alagna – each with its own valley, so you can pick whichever one matches your mood. And that, in a nutshell, had been my plan.

The previous evening I'd arrived at the Hotel Lyshaus in Gressoney. Here I'd found a cosy room with carved wood walls, and a glass of pink prosecco waiting for me in the bar. Unlike the sprawling French super-resorts, Monte Rosa is made up of bona fide villages rather than purpose-built complexes. So you get clusters of ancient stone cottages and old wooden farmhouses scattered around the hillsides – each of which comes complete with authentic Italian trimmings, including quirky local restaurants and some seriously good wines. Both became recurring themes throughout my week here. After finishing that glass of lunchtime red in Campo Base I followed my guide, Carlo, across to Gressoney.

While Champoluc – the most westerly of the three resorts – is family-oriented, with an array of cruisy reds and blues, Gressoney is the intermediate filling in the Monte Rosa sandwich. It's made up of steeper reds with a few cheeky couloirs thrown in to spice things up.

It was one of these – called the Eagle – that I now tackled with Carlo. Making our way up to Punta Indren (3,275m) with the late afternoon sun casting long shadows on the spring snow, we dropped in to the short, steepish chute, which led conveniently out on to a chopped-up black.

The breathtaking scenery I'd enjoyed at lunch on the Champoluc side continued with us. Cruising back down to Gressoney with the slopes almost to ourselves, I got plenty of time to catch an eyeful of the snow-packed peaks turning milky pink to signal the end of the day.

As you might expect from a ski area that's made up of traditional villages the après scene here is not exactly wild. Instead you'll find family-run eateries serving up delicacies such as chestnut gnocchi with smoked ham and toma cheese (an Aostan speciality) or homemade pasta with wild boar ragu. They're recipes that have been carefully crafted over centuries, with the sole aim of filling up empty legs. And trust me, they work.

It was a good job, too, because the next day I shifted my attention to Alagna – the third and most extreme valley in this Italian trio. This is where the pistes peter out and all that's left is a handful of groomers. My focus, however, was on the steep stuff that surrounds Alagna – the kind of terrain where you have to hold your breath as you drop in.

My leader for this off-piste mission was Andrea Enzio – boss of the Alagna mountain guides' corps, who grew up in the area. We shuffled our way on to the Punta Indren cable car again, which whisked us up from Gressoney and over to the Alagna side. From here, Andrea led us way off into a wilderness as serious as anything in La Grave or Chamonix. It was just us and the mountains, as we set off to tackle the fabled La Balma run: traversing wide-open bowls, popping through tiny gaps in exposed ribbons of rock, and ending in a deserted village where the clocks seemed to have stopped in the 18th century.

But this was not the end. In all we dropped a thigh-burning 2,000 metres in 10km – something that even the likes of Courchevel and Val d'Isère can't match – and it was hairy at times, with stretches where there was no room to turn my snowboard.

My reward for survival was a lunch of bresaola (cured beef), mountain hams and handmade pasta at the Caffe delle Guide back in Alagna. As I sat in the sun opposite a 16th-century church, with the sound of melting snow dripping steadily off the nearby pine trees, I realised that I was missing those epic views. Happily, I was due to spend the night in the Rifugio Guglielmina – a high-altitude hut with an uninterrupted view for 130km, stretching all the way to the twinkling lights of Milan. I sat back to study the surrounding peaks. No excuses now for not knowing their names.

Travel essentials: Gressoney

Getting there

* The writer travelled with Ski Club Freshtracks (0845 458 0784; skiclubfreshtracks.co.uk). It offers a seven-night guided package to Alagna from £1,025 per person, including return flights from Gatwick to Turin, transfers and B&B. Departures are available on 26 February (for intermediates and advanced skiers) and 5 March (for off-piste experts). The trips are available only to members of the Ski Club of Great Britain. Membership costs £56 per person per year. Half-price membership is offered for first-time bookings of the Freshtracks holidays.

More information

* Alagna tourist information: guidealagna.com

Refuge Guglielmina: rifugioguglielmina.com

Suggested Topics
News
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
people
News
people

Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
Voices
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Convicted art fraudster John Myatt
art

News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
Life and Style
fashion

News
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
News
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleFormer Newsnight presenter is being touted for a brand new role
News
The two-year-old said she cut off her fringe because it was getting in her eyes
news

Video: It is the type of thing no parent wants to hear

Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Tyre Technician / Mechanic

    £15000 - £16800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Tyre Technician / Mechanic is...

    Recruitment Genius: Service Receptionist / Warranty Administrator

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion the Largest Independent Motor...

    h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Manager - Holiday Homes - £100,000 OTE

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + £100,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: Birmingham, Derby, L...

    Investigo: Finance Manager - Global Leisure Business

    £55000 - £65000 per annum: Investigo: My client, a global leader in their fiel...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game