Needles and Pins: that was the song snagged in my head as I shot past the forest fringe on my first run of the new season. You may not have heard of it, or certainly long forgotten it, as the Searchers released the single around the time of the Battle of Hastings. But by rights, having been up since 4.30am for a crack-of-dawn flight to Innsbruck, I should have been dead on my feet. Instead, I was flying over the slopes at Kronplatz, stealing a few aperitif hours before the lifts quit for the day. I only sing out loud when I’m truly happy and on that first run on the first day back on the slopes I sang like a canary.
The next morning, once more, I soared across the great white belly of the mountain. At the top, cloud bubbled up the far valley beneath the knuckled peaks, but the fluffy cover soon lifted, revealing trees looking as if liberally dipped in caster sugar from an overnight fall, like decorations on a birthday cake.
That day I skied 41km over a range of reds and blacks linking my base, San Vigilio, with four other villages; I know the exact distance because I checked it on the nifty Dolomiti Superski website by simply typing in my ski pass number. The Kronplatz ski region, which encompasses San Vigilio, has 116km of groomed pistes in total, plus state-of-the-art lifts and smaller crowds than the more feted resorts in France and Austria, which means you can max-out on skiing, and skip the queuing and long lift rides. This, together with the clement climate (they claim 85 out of every 100 days are sunny here), probably explains why I was on my second Dolomite sortie in three years.
The five wide black runs on Kronplatz might only merit a red designation in France, but I was more than happy to swap bloodcurdling for uncluttered beauty as I sat on the sunny terrace of the Corones hut with my daily strong cappuccino and 360-degree view of the coronet of peaks.
By 3pm I was already skied out and shelled the ski gear to bask in the hotel’s sauna, steam room and pool before wandering into town. San Vigilio is the prettiest town in the valley and its expansive homes wear their prosperity as easily as their snow overcoats. The most popular cafe is called Mutsch, and much was what I got when I ordered one of their hot chocolates — the saccharine charge almost lifted my feet off the floor.
Once I’d explored the slopes at Kronplatz, I popped over to Alta Badia, about an hour’s drive south. The last time I was there, in 2013, I completed the 40km Sella Ronda circuit one morning; this time I restricted myself to the area skirting Badia and included a nerve-jangling descent down the Gran Rise, the steepest giant slalom in the World Cup.
A late lunch rewarded a 100m slog up a steep path to the most traditional Ladin mountain hut, the Santa Croce, which has views out to the eponymously named mountain whose pale sedimentary layers — once the sea floor — rises up in a dramatic outcrop that glows like coals in the grate at sunset. If I’d stayed for the evening, instead of heading back to San Vigilio, I could have eaten at one of the three Michelin-starred restaurants in the valley.
This Dolomite region not only offers its own micro ski climate, but also a unique Ladin culture that dates back to the Roman occupation. The impressive, and surprisingly large, Ladin Museum, located in a medieval castle in St Martin in Thurn, traces the valleys’ journey from ocean to tourist destination, focusing on the resourcefulness of the Ladin people, their language, arts and crafts. Only 30,000 people speak this Romance language today, and yet somehow, they’ve managed to preserve it for 2,000 years — even surviving the infamous First World War deal that saw the area handed over to Italy by Austria.
The highlight of the week comes on my final day when I joined a ski touring party exploring the pristine Fanes Natural Park. A large snowmobile clawed its way up to the refuge Ücia de Rifugio Fanes (where we would later lunch) before everyone made off in different directions with guides who knew the area as intimately as they knew their own back gardens.
My own deeply tanned guide, Simon Kehrer, was as at home on the mountain as the ibex, chamois, bears and golden eagles that inhabit the region. As we trudged upwards through downy drifts of snow, Simon told me his mother claimed he was climbing and skiing as soon as he could walk.
Fanes, with its Elysian meadows beneath a crown of dolomite peaks, has remained his favourite playground. I could understand why. What was less easy to understand, however, was his choice of job. When I asked what his father did for a living, he informed me, “He was a guide too, but he died in an avalanche when I was six.”
I touched my avalanche transmitter like a rosary for good luck…
Ninety minutes later, we reached a ridge and, before turning down, toasted our arrival with warm elderberry juice which Simon’s mum had made that morning. In summer, the meadow is full of alpine flowers. Today the vast white carpet was sparsely dappled with hardy larch and pine that clung determinedly before the pale mountain contortions shook them off as it soared into finials that rent the sky.
Carefully, we peeled off the sticky strips from the bottom of our skis that had provided a grip on our upward ascent. Simon smiled, “Ready?” I nodded and we headed downhill for our well-earned hearty lunch.
The Almhof Call Hotel has double rooms from €110 (£94) per person per day, half board.
Tip: The six-day €242 (£208) Dolomiti Superski pass gives access to 1,200km of runs across 12 resorts, yet costs just €16 (£14) more than the local Kronplatz pass.
For further information on ski touring, passes and all things Dolomites, visit suedtirol.info
Published in the The Alps Winter 2016 guide, distributed with the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)