From fear to exhilaration: Go off piste in Livigno
Livigno offers white-knuckle excitement for Nick Boulos when he heads down the Monte della Neve for his first off-piste adventure
Saturday 22 January 2011
Spotting the aftermath of an avalanche is not the most comforting sight to see as I prepare to venture off-piste for the very first time. I'm sitting in a chairlift above the Italian resort of Livigno, with Matteo my mountain guide. "Avalanches are a problem," he says. "But that's only a small one." We gaze at the long, clean break in the snow.
The thought of skiing through virgin snow across untouched landscapes is a thrilling one. But, as the tragic loss of four skiers in Val d'Isère earlier this month reminds us, going off-piste is very dangerous. Skiers should never, under any circumstances, go without a professional guide laden with at least a shovel, probe and avalanche transceiver. However, those who do brave the dangers are rewarded with plenty of white-knuckle fun.
I'm keen to experience it for myself and Livigno, three hours from Innsbruck, is an obvious choice. The off-piste terrain here is tame compared to places such as Chamonix and the Dolomites, which means novices can get stuck in, without getting stuck.
I'm booked on an intensive course teaching the basics of off-piste skiing and I'm keen to get started, but first I had to get my ski legs back. Matteo and I soar down a couple of exhilarating red runs, pausing every so often to admire the scenery. "That's where we often go off-piste," he says, pointing high to the very top of a nearby mountain. "From the chairlift we walk for 20 minutes along the crest – not easy, let me tell you. Then we ski down the gullies," he adds.
Perhaps noticing my panic, Matteo is quick to reassure me. "Don't worry, we won't be going there. That's only for the most advanced skiers," he laughs.
Sadly, it seems I will have to wait a little longer to get a taste of it. My report card is in and it's not good news. "You're just not ready. You have to be in complete control at all times to go off-piste or it's a recipe for disaster," Matteo tells me.
That evening, Matteo's words ringing in my ears, I stroll through Livigno and wonder if I have bitten off more than I can chew. The town's busy cobbled streets, dominated by the 16th-century church, are lined with log cabins and stone farmhouses, designer boutiques, and an abundance of shops selling doilies and perfume.
Over a bombardino – a warm, fluorescent yellow drink made from eggs and topped with whipped cream – at the popular Miky's bar, my thoughts return to my predicament, and I pledge to succeed.
The next morning, I enlist the help of Olympic skier turned instructor, Giorgio Zini. We spend the day perfecting my technique. "Central balance is crucial. You never snowplough off-piste; your skis must always be parallel or one leg will go one way from the other," he warns as we ski up high on the Monte della Neve.
We meet again the next day and now the moment has come. Giorgio leads me to the very edges of the piste. "Ready?" he asks. He's off in a flash, speeding across a snowy plain, a flurry of flakes spraying from his skis.
I push myself over the mound of snow marking the slope boundary and soar, my skis vanishing under inches of soft powder.
Gone is the sharp sound of my skis on the packed snow. All I can hear is a subtle swish and the odd crunch as we brake through the icy surface, which is decorated with ripples and dune-like formations.
Struggling to remain upright, I remember Giorgio's advice and lean back slightly (a big no-no in regular skiing) while avoiding the desire to snowplough.
Fear soon gives way to exhilaration. For several euphoric seconds, I enjoy a sensation unlike anything else; then lose control and tumble into the deep snow. Getting up is exhausting, but the smile remains etched on my face.
Up ahead, Giorgio inspects our surroundings suspiciously. Stomping on the snow with his skis, he motions for us to proceed.
"Down!" he later bellows as we rocket towards a cluster of large pines. I immediately crouch to my knees as the branches lash against my helmet.
Out of the trees, I get into a stride and gain confidence, but the terrain becomes increasingly uneven: it's my biggest test yet. I try to mirror Giorgio's agile movements, but my limitations are beginning to become apparent.
Eventually I feel the reassuring presence of a groomed piste below my skis. We've reached the bottom of the Monte della Neve intact. "Bravo," says Giorgio, patting my back.
* The writer travelled with Inghams (020-8780 4447; inghams.co.uk). A week's stay at the three-star Bellavista Residence apartments, half board, costs from £455 per person. Price includes return flights from London Gatwick and transfers.
* A three-day off-piste training course led by an expert mountain guide with local operator Guide Alpine (00 39 328 709 5950; guidealpine.info) costs €185 (£157).
* Italian tourist board (020-7408 1254; italiantouristboard.co.uk)
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