"I’ve spent almost my entire life here. This place has changed a little, but has not been spoiled." -Oscar Taiola
The Skyway Monte Bianco is a mind-bending tribute to human ingenuity and fortitude. The futuristic cable car, finished in May of 2015 after 4 years and 110 million Euros, juts skyward from an equally impressive base station in Entrèves, Italy. The tramcar has the capacity to fit 80 people. It ascends 6,489’ in 10 minutes, with a brief stop at a midway station, and the entire translucent car does two full rotations on the way up. The new Skyway replaces the historic Helbronner cable car, originally constructed during World War II. It is built primarily for sightseers (an estimated 300,000 visits annually) to be able to access this awe inspiring cathedral of granite and ice but for skiers and alpinists, it is fast easy access to a vast, wild, uncontrolled world of high alpine terrain.
Punta Helbronner, the top station of the Skyway Monte Bianco, sits at 10,398’ on the shoulder of the tallest mountain in Western Europe. The building is an angular pile of steel and glass with the cantilevered decks and crystalline geometry blending into the dramatic and dangerous landscape.
“Everyone should see these mountains.” -Oscar Taiola
We had the privilege of meeting the man in charge of keeping hundreds of thousands of sightseers, skiers, and mountaineers safe every year in the improbably perched building with access to some of the most serious mountain terrain in the world. Oscar Taiola is chief safety officer of the Punta Helbronner and the Skyway. He’s a grizzled man, toughened by his 60 years of life in the mountains but his wild spirit radiates from his jovial laugh. He effervesces with the soul of the Alps. He has been a ski instructor since ’75, an alpine guide since ’77, and an alpine guide instructor since ‘80. For the past 30 years, he’s been the person in charge of search and rescue services in Valdigne (the upper part of the Aosta Valley), and now, at Punta Helbronner, he oversees safety for visitors.
He explains the challenges of his job center more around uninitiated than the alpinists and skiers, “With this gondola we can also bring people who have little knowledge about the mountains. Everything is easier, you can be at 3500 meters in just a few hours from Milan. People have a more “casual” knowledge about the mountains. In summer, you see them pushing strollers and, in winter, walking in their Moon Boots on the glacier. In general, people know less about the mountains.” When I asked if this frustrated him he chuckled and then said seriously that, “Everyone should see these mountains.”
He went on to explain the building’s long history, the changes with the new building and Skyway, and his place in the history, “Personally, I was only around for one renovation of the old site because the original one was built in the Forties.” He chuckled.“I’ve spent almost my entire life here. This place has changed a little, but has not been spoiled. The mountain has not been destroyed, the building is nice.”
The cement could not be hidden, together with the towers and everything, but the whole structure blends in well with the environment. We have new technology and old mountains.” He continued, “We do a job, here, that sometimes can be uncomfortable but… with all this beauty, on gorgeous days, we are rewarded and feel fulfilled. By now I’m part of this (laughs). I’m like the Christ on the wall over there.”
We thank Oscar for his time and step outside onto the exposed decks. Thick braided steel cables exited the building and disappeared from above our heads into the ocean of clouds that clung to the folds of the rugged terrain below. We climb off the railing, hoping we’re more knowledgeable than the Milan tourists in their moonboots. Our line was a beautiful flank of steep untracked snow that funneled into the dark walls of the couloir and seemed to close in on them. We clicked into our skis and shuffled to the edge.
I arrived in the Aosta Valley in the dark the night before, a few days after the last storm. My chatty shuttle driver from the Geneva airport began to lose patience with me after the fifth or sixth attempt at finding our chalet. Our only guide was an extremely vague text message from someone I’d never met. I was supposed to meet the “The Wolf Pack”, the young and rowdy American contingent of the Freeride World Tour, somewhere in Courmayeur. The town was packed with over a meter of new snow and despite being lost in a strange place I could already feel the cozy nestled aura of a classic European mountain village. Eventually one of the Wolf Pack members reluctantly left the bar to guide us down a tiny side-alley that we never would have found ourselves.
In the morning I got the full scope of our living quarters. Eight skiers were packed into a small three bedroom stone chalet with no linens or towels. The entry was littered with boots, liners, poles, and the entire inside of every room functioned as a gear dryer. The living was tight and bare-bones but the access was unparalleled. After Bialetti stovetop espresso and a simple breakfast we clicked into our skis on the stone patio, descended a treacherous footpath across a creek, and began our morning ski through the historic town of Courmayeur.
Courmayeur is the highest commune (Italian Municipality) in Italy and sits in the least populated region in the country. The original bridges and mountain roads date back to 25 BC when Rome conquered the Aosta Valley’s first inhabitants. The cobblestone streets wind erratically though the town and you can feel the layers of history in the patchwork stonewalls. Much of the town has been modernized. Bogner and Prada fill the shop windows and 20th century condos frame the views of the towering peaks above. But scarcely hidden beneath and behind the glitz are the rusted iron window bars and stone masonry of another time.
The ski through town had its spicy moments: “Town Couloir” was a straight-line through a narrow walkway that spat you out into the street just above the pizza restaurant where we would end our days of exploring the Alps. The days were full of moments that demanded attention both for the awe inspiring visual drama of the Mont Blanc Massif Mountains and the on-your-own danger that skiing through them exposes you to.
The awe inspiring visual drama of the Mont Blanc Massif Mountains
The Val Veny is a lateral valley that separates the modern spinning spaceship of the Skyway Monte Bianco from the oldest tram in the region. The Cresta d’Arp is a tiny steel sardine can, built in 1963 and barely big enough to cram four people inside its riveted walls. It is out of place on the stylish resort famous for on-mountain Michelin rated restaurants and Armani sponsored discotheques. The rustic tram rattles disconcertingly over big rocky terrain and tops out at a building that looks like it would be more at home in a war torn post communist country than atop a fancy resort. The building is a crumbling bomb shelter that would be condemned in any American public space but it serves at the highest point on one of the most popular resorts in Europe.
Every time we exited the rickety contraption into the abandoned concrete building, we marveled at it’s existence and the access it provides to world class big mountain skiing. The Cresta d’Arp tops out at 8,949’, 5,100’ above the valley floor. For an entire week we skied big open chutes, popped off pillow lines, and dropped cliffs crossing no one’s tracks but our own. We would push our ski days into the dim light of dusk. The path back to Peronis and all you can eat Italian appetizers was a long flat skate through an old abandoned mountain village and back toward the distant glowing yellow lights of town. We raised our glasses to the good fortune to ride both the newest and one of the oldest lifts lifts in Italy and ski some of the most historied yet underutilized terrain in the world.