High in the Dolomites

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I was in a state of high anxiety. A huge dump of snow in northern Italy had lured me to the towering peaks and deep gorges of the Dolomites for a long weekend to ski a legendary offpiste ski run: the Bus di Tofana, the hole in the mountain. But when I arrived in the picturesque village of Arabba the news from the fun-loving guides office in nearby Cortina d'Ampezzo was that the "avalanche danger was far too great" to make a safe descent.

There had been so much snow that nine people had died in avalanches, most in the previous 10 days.

I spent the morning of my disappointment skiing the Olympic downhill course above Cortina with Paolo Tassi, a mountain guide shortly to depart for K2, the world's second highest mountain, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its first ascent.

In between attempts on the famous run from Pomedes to Rumerlo we flitted from bar to bar, sipping expressos and prosecci before at last heading for an extravagant lunch in a well-known local mountain restaurant.

There a chance meeting with Andrea Illy, the international coffee magnate from Trieste, overturned my fears that in Italy I might for ever be condemned to living an Epicurean distraction.

To my delight Illy's passion and enthusiasm for skiing the hardest routes in his beloved Dolomites* persuaded Tassi to abandon food, caution and the gathering of beautiful people at our table, for what Illy assured us would be a fine "exploratory venture".

We embarked on ski at breakneck speed, catching the Frezza del Celo cable car to Ra Valles and then the highest chairlift above Cortina towards the Tofana massif and eventually onto the very route upon which I had originally set my heart.

As we moved slowly upwards, the dramatic array of jagged pinnacles that make up the three main Tofanes peaks came into view, reminding me of the imaginary, rocky backgrounds in so many early Renaissance paintings.

Dolomite is a particular form of limestone far more susceptible to erosion than the majority of the harder rocks which make up the Alps. More often than not it is crafted by wind and rain into fantastical towers and spires.

As the great British 19th century mountaineer Leslie Stephen put it, the Dolomites boast "shapes more like dreams than sober realities, recalling quaint Eastern architecture whose daring pinnacles derive their charm from a studied defiance of the sober principles of stability."

At the top of the chair we shouldered our skis and ploughed upwards on foot through thigh-deep snow until, after half an hour, we found ourselves lodged underneath the uppermost pyramid of the Tofana di Mezzo (3,243m), just as it was beginning to turn golden-yellow in the early afternoon sun.

A short traverse leftwards beneath an overhanging wall of rock brought us to the great Bus (hole) itself, through which we could see a dozen Dolomite peaks stretching out into the distance. Far away to the south west was the Marmolada, at 3,342m the highest mountain in the range.

Below was an uncompromisingly steep and shady couloir, brimming with fresh but dangerous, wind-blown snow on an icy base.

After clambering through the hole Tassi set off making narrow jump turns. He skied the first 25m of the 1,900m descent without a word, keeping as close as possible to the rocky wall on one side of the chute. We looked on, fearing the worst.

At last came a guarded nod and we followed, one by one, taking the 40 degree descent from the top of the col in silence.

Suddenly the angle eased to about 30 degrees and the snow - tricky, deep and occasionally crusty - improved. We descended our glorious couloir in short linked turns, with every second's glance behind offering a more memorable view of the Tofana des Rozes (3,225m), its vertical limestone pinnacles growing ever higher as we skied lower.

The sky shifted from deep blue to glowering black and back again until at last we came to a wild mountain hut, the Rifugio Angelo Dibona, where inside we met the very guardian who had built it 54 years ago.

He was surprised to see us in such conditions and in mountain camaraderie shook our hands with an iron grip, his fingers the size of small bananas from a lifetime of rock-climbing.

Mario Recaffina, now 77 but still as fit as a mountain chamois, told us stories of Angelo Dibona, his father-in-law, one of the great climbing pioneers of the Dolomites. We were famished and as happy as children when he offered us a late mountain lunch, a simple affair topped with a fried egg and washed down with a local wine.

By now it was getting late and we raced down to Cortina completely alone. On the way we skied past powder-blue frozen waterfalls in an evening sun which turned the Cristallo massif (3,216m) and the great Sorapis wall (3,205m) an electric rose-red.

It had been one of the most perfect days since I started skiing in 1989.

The Dolomites contain a dozen or so distinct mountain massifs, most with peaks over 3,000m, and the region offers one of the great undiscovered (by non-Italians) offpiste ski areas in Europe. In addition to the Marmolada, Cristallo and Tofana peaks there is the Civetta (owl) (3,220m); the Gruppa Sella (3,150m); the Cinque Torri (Five Towers); Sassolungo (3,181m); and Mt Pelmo (3,168m), to name less than half.

Most are linked by cable-cars and chair lifts to form the world's largest skiing region, nearly double the size of France's Trois Vallées. On the Dolomiti Superski pass there are 464 ski lifts and nearly 1,200km of pistes, almost half covered by artificial snowmaking.

How to get there: Best is to fly to Treviso or Venice and hire a car. It is about 160km to Arabba

Where to stay: With over 35 Dolomite resorts to choose from this is not easy. Perhaps the ideal location for young children is pretty San Cassiano with its gentle skiing; for the glitterati swish Cortina, the long-crowned Queen of the Dolomites, would be favourite; for tea dancing few could deny Corvara. But for serious skiiers not looking for night life the traditional village of Arabba is the place.

Right on the Sella Ronda circuit it is just a couple of lifts away from the half-dozen off-piste Marmolada runs; and at 1,602m and with many north-facing slopes, its snow record is second to none. It also happens to be very pretty.

Warm-up ski runs: A perfect start for a fit skiier based in Arabba is to circumnavigate the Sella group (the Sella Ronda) twice in one day . This gives an excellent idea of the mountains and their offpiste possibilities, but be warned you will have to start as soon as the lifts open and skip lunch and tea.

If this does not appeal you could try the "Grande Guerra" - a First World War day tour from Arabba to the Col Di Lana, via the Marmolada, Civetta and Lagazuoi. Much of the area, notably the Col Di Lana where 8,000 people died, was closely fought over by Austrians and Italians in the first world war. Both sides occupied a host of huge underground tunnels, camps and gun emplacements in what was the highest and coldest frontier in the conflict.

The ancient village of Arabba was completely abandoned and villagers did not return there until after 1920.

Top-off piste routes: In his latest book** on freeride skiing in the Dolomites, published this month, Francesco Tremolada, one of the leading experts on the Dolomites, lists 55 named routes. But in an earlier two volume classic, by the same author, now out of print, over a 100 off-piste routes are written up.

In addition to the Bus di Tofana, the classics are:

North Face of the Marmolada: Many excellent runs of varying difficulty starting from the cable car at Punta Rocca, include Punta Penia (perfect conditions only), Old Bellunese, Old Piste, Lydia to the dam and Lydia to the pass.

Val Mezdi (Valley of the Midday Sun ): 1,400m of dreamy descent near Piz Boe in the Sella massif

Val Lasties (Witches Valley): a delightful circular Italian Vallé Blanche on Sass Pordoi, also in the Sella.

Creste Bianche-Pra de Vecio: 1,500m of serious action on the north face of Cristallo.

A top ski day from Arabbba in good snow conditions, and one I contrived with Tremolada, earlier this year, is to take the cable car from the top of the Pordoi pass to Saas Pordoi and warm up with the Forcella Pordoi, the huge gorge beneath the cable car.

Go back up to Saas Pordoi and ski the lonely and beautiful Witches Valley and finally, if you still have time and energy, return for a third foray into the Sella massif to descend the awesome Val Mezdi shute - one of the highlights of the Dolomites.

The first in the "FT small offpiste jewel" series was on Andermatt. La Grave and Allagna are to follow. Readers can email Richard.Cowper@FT.Com with their own choice for the fifth and last in the series, explaining the reasons for their choice

Richard Cowper stayed in Chalet Barbara and Chalet Robena in the high mountain resort of Arabba as a guest of Neilsen

*Dolomite Mountain Photographs: Monti Pallidi; Francesco Illy; Edizione Bolis 1996 ISBN 88-7827-068-7

**Freeride in the Dolomites; Francesco Tremolada; Versante Sud, 2004; www.versantesud.it

Arabba Tourist Office: 003943679130; email:arabba@infodolomiti.it;www.infodolomiti.it

Neilsen: reservations 08703333347;www.neilson.com

Francesco Tremolada, Mountain Guide 0039 3391055653; tremolada@proguide.it

Skischool Arabba 0039 43679160

Paolo Tassi, Mountain Guide: 0039 3388321814; poltassi@libero.it

Cortina Mountain Guides 0039 436868505; info@guidecortina.com

Mountain gear: www.berghaus.com

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