What is ski mountaineering? It’s a journey

Adventure, exploration and freedom: going back to the origins of this popular sport

Alpine skiing, Nordic skiing, ski mountaineering — but at the beginning it was simply "skiing", the ancient Norwegian technique for moving across snow. Originally skiing was a journey, but then, at the end of the 1800s, it reached the Alps, and that’s when it became fun.

There were no cable cars. You had to walk up, using the technique used by soldiers and Nordic hunters who were able to travel dozens of kilometres a day, crossing passes and valleys that would have been impossible to do without skis.

The origins of ski mountaineering

At first there were the English...

Mountaineering and skiing, with the union of these two words, the doors were opened to accessing the mountains in winter: adventure, freedom, exploration, conquest, but above all the beauty of a world covered in white that was, until then, still unknown.

The same great charm that won over the first English tourists in 1864 who had been invited to spend the winter in the Alps by a Swiss hotelier, at the end of their summer sojourn: “You only pay if the weather is good”, was the offer he made them. What followed was a season blessed with sunshine and, thanks to a very modern type of bet — the “satisfaction or your money back” promise — winter tourism was born.

The origins of ski mountaineering

The Bonatti and Detassis roped parties

The English tourists came back to enjoy the winter sunshine on the mountain, and many more followed. And the adventurous aspect of skiing lasted for a long time: “Il raid bianco di Walter Bonatti” (Walter Bonatti’s White Raid) was the title of the Corriere della Sera article published on 31 March 1956, describing how the Lombard mountaineer led a roped party across the Alps on skis.

An idea launched on the snows of Madonna di Campiglio, which became a challenge with a second roped party led by Bruno Detassis from Trentino: a journey of over 1,200 kilometres across the Alpine slopes, with a vertical drop of 73,000 metres. They left on 16 March from Tarvisio and arrived at Col di Nava on 18 May. The two groups had come together during the journey.

That is the history of ski mountaineering. And that is why, in the age of cable cars, ski mountaineering is like going back in time for those who dream of adventure and freedom, off the beaten track and the most crowded routes.


The origins of ski mountaineering

Taking on the mountain “by fair means”

A journey often follows summer routes to discover how snow transforms the landscape and how skiing shortens distances “by fair means” (to quote the English mountaineering pioneer Albert Frederick Mummery). When the mountain is climbed “by fair means”, the descent is more pleasurable because it was earned with the effort of the climb.

And then there is the question of safety, because with the increase in the number of ski mountaineers the was the need to develop preventive measures: the avalanche bulletin (always check it), ARTVA beacons for locating missing people under the snow (always carry one with you, but above all learn how to use them), and the increasingly deeper knowledge of how the snow changes over the course of the day and over the season, because a good ski mountaineer knows how to read the safest track on the slopes and knows to quit when the risk is too high.

Rifugio Rosetta Giovanni Pedrotti

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Published on 06/06/2023