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
* 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.
* Alagna tourist information: guidealagna.com
Refuge Guglielmina: rifugioguglielmina.com