Skiing in Aosta Valley
The Aosta Valley is the smallest autonomous region in Italy but boasts many of Italy’s, and indeed the Alps, highest peaks. Throughout the valley there are over 800km of marked pistes and 150 ski lifts, mostly spread amongst the resorts of Courmayeur, La Thuile, Pila, Champlouc and Gressoney.
Marked by Mont Blanc at the western end and stretching to the Monterosa in the east, the Aosta Valley is also home to the Italian flanks of the Alps most famous peak – the iconic Matterhorn and one of the valleys best known resorts – Cervinia. The resorts form the base of several distinct ski areas, La Thuile, Courmayeur Mont-Blanc, the Monterosa in Piemonte and, of course, Cervinia which now includes the entire Zermatt ski area linked at high altitude across the glacier. Although not all lift linked, one pass now buys you access to all these slopes, along with an extraordinary quantity, quality and variety of off-piste terrain.
The Aosta Valley is also one of the best places in Europe to heliski. While never cheap, heliskiing in Aosta is certainly more affordable than many other areas with single drops also available. You can heliski from all the major resorts and the terrain ranges from wide open areas for adventurous intermediates to the steeps and drops of extreme ski movies – only for the brave and able. Like other Italian regions the Aostans are fanatical about food and the region boast a number of Michelin starred restaurants; but of more interest to most visitors is the fantastic quality and value to be found in small, local restaurants.
The historic mountain town of Courmayeur is one of the world’s top ski resorts. It sits on the Italian side of Mont Blanc, western Europe’s highest mountain, which it shares with Chamonix over on the French side. The scenery all around you here is spectacular, with fourteen 4,000m plus mountain peaks above and Courmayeur is a very atmospheric resort where ancient buildings huddle around cobbled streets so that the whole place oozes traditional charm. The resort offers skiing for all standards, including famous runs such as the resort’s World Cup Downhill and the International, a 6km (4 miles) run which drops 1,000m (approximately 3,300 feet) as it descends. Many runs are covered by snowmaking and the resort has a very good snow record.
Advance and expert skiers are likely to head for the more limited lift network of Mont Blanc, which serves steeper, more spectacular trail and links over to Chamonix which, along with Argentière further up the Chamonix Valley, is included on the Courmayeur lift pass. Beginners have wide open slopes to gain confidence on, with tuition from the Mont Blanc Ski School, founded in 1936 and one of Italy’s oldest and most prestigious. Intermediates are the most spoilt having both the wide open spaces and testing routes above Courmayeur and the ability to tackle the incredible runs that are unique to Mont Blanc.
La Thuile is one of the most popular Italian destinations for British skiers. Friendly and affordable like all Aosta Valley resorts, La Thuile has free childcare and also has the unique attraction in the Valley of being one of less than a dozen in the world where you can ski across an international border, because its linked to La Rosiere in France. La Thuile has excellent skiing for all ability levels with north facing slopes which, along with its proximity to Mont Blanc, normally ensure good snow conditions. There’s a range of passes to suit all needs and a variety of terrain which can cater for everyone from beginner to expert.
For beginners there are two gentle nursery which have their own drag lifts and are separate from the main ski area but intermediates will enjoy the terrain the most. There are seemingly endless blues and reds that radiate out to the peaks of Le Belvedere and Chaz Dura and from there you have a variety of routes over to La Rosière which sometimes offers the sunnier skiing. Advanced and expert skiers have a dozen black runs to choose from, some of the steepest down through the woods above La Thuile itself and boarders and freestylers have a fun park to enjoy in La Rosière and the predominance of chair and gondola lifts makes getting around the big and varied area pretty well hassle free.
Pila is an old town with a big vertical high in the Aosta Valley. It is one of the most snowsure destinations in the Alps, with the ski area running from 1,765m right up to more than 2,700m. Pila’s skiing offers the best of all worlds with skiing through woods of birch and larch in total safety and freedom on lower slopes, and open powder snow areas above the treeline.
Beginners and children have easy ski runs such as Baby Pila , Baby Gorraz and Grimod. Intermediates and advanced skiers progress on to steeper slopes which usually have excellent snow where you can turn and model curves endlessly, especially good news for carving enthusiasts in search of thrills and excitement. The snowpark is popular with boarders and freestylers, combining natural terrain features with created structures. There are jumps, slides and half pipe for those of all ages and experience. If you are already expert then the thrills of fun box, spine and the big jump await you.
Cervinia is one of the world’s leading resorts; lift linked to Zermatt across the Swiss border it has access to Europe’s highest lifts, skiing and boarding summer and winter, and one of the world’s biggest ski areas with 400km of runs. You also have access to one of the world’s longest ski runs, from the Klein Matterhorn above Zermatt down to Cervinia’s lift-linked neighbour, Valtournenche, an epic 20km (13 mile) descent.
Cervinia is a good choice for beginners and near beginners as the wide open slopes above the resort and on one side down from Plan Maison are ideal. Experts perhaps have the least to shout about, even with the long runs, but there are five shorter black runs – mostly just above the resort, and then the steep runs of Zermatt over the border . For experienced skiers, there is also a thriving heli-skiing business, taking skiers up to the 4,500 metre (nearly 15,000 feet) high Monte Rosa for long powder runs down to Valtournenche or Champoluc. For cross-country skiers there are three high-altitude loops, one at resort level. The wide slopes are good for free boarding and large chunks of the terrain can be accessed by chairs and gondolas, but facilities for ‘boarders are generally limited otherwise in comparison to other top European resorts.
Champoluc lies at one end of the giant Monterosa ski area, also known as the Italian Three Valleys, an impressive 17km in lifts and piste from the other end at cult skiing Mecca, Alagna. The ski region is one of the world’s largest and you can ski or board without needing to stop for 180km on slopes that extend up to a snowsure 3275 metres.
The ski slopes are unusual here in that they mostly follow one after another, covering big distances between resorts, rather than the usual model of often dozens of routes down from one lift. So for most skiers and boarders the day begins with the gondola ride from Frachey and from there it’s on to Gressoney in the central valley. Beginners will find good nursery slopes served by carpet lifts at the top of the gondola. The freeriding terrain in the Monte Rosa region is a dream for boarders. The opportunity to open up 2000 metres of vertical above Alagna with a couple of cable car rides up is a truly wonderful thing, and the wide open powder fields all the way down likewise.
Gressoney should really be ‘Gressoneys’ as there are two neighbouring villages, a kilometres or so apart, Gressoney La Trinte and Gressoney St Jean. Both are well positioned in the central of the three Italian ski valleys that make up the Monterosa ski area. Head one way and you find yourself high above legendary Alagna, in the other above rustic Champoluc.
Alagna is well worth skiing over to if just to look round, but be warned that unless you are an expert skier you may wish to ride the cable car down to the village as the only piste is an infamous black. It’s also worth making a pilgrimage up to the Guglielmina refuge at 2880m on the Col d’Olen, between Gressoney and Alagna. Boarders will love the freeriding opportunities across Monterosa and there’s also the region’s only boardercross course right above Gressoney. Telemarking is also popular in the area and there’ a special club for Telemarkers. Cross-country skiers have valley and altitude routes (at 2025m high Pianalunga for example) around the area.