Seiser Alm and perfect ski vacations.

I’m seriously late with this trip report, but no matter. I want to tell you about a trip I took back in early February.

Earlier this winter, when I realized that I was not going to the Olympics and thus had more time to play with in Europe (ha! only kind of! I need to finish my dissertation!), I asked on Facebook: what were my friends’ favorite places to cross-country ski in Europe? Places that I shouldn’t leave next fall without having visited?

Yes, I am in that mode. I anticipate defending my PhD in September, which means that I am looking for postdoc positions and in all likelihood I’ll be headed back to North America. It’s not that I’ll never take another ski trip in Europe, of course, but doing so will be a lot harder once I’m based on a different continent. There is such a world to explore here, and I’ve had so many great trips and experiences – many of which you can read about on this blog, like this, this, or this – but there are so many places that I still want to go, and not enough time to visit them.

So I wanted some help narrowing down my list.

A suggestion from multiple people was Seiser Alm (or Alpe di Siusi) in Italy. I had known for a while that this would be a nice place to go, as evidenced by the fact that oh so many national ski teams do training camps there: it is a favorite of the Americans, the Canadians, the Swedes, the Norwegians, and the Finns, among others. Marit Bjørgen and Charlotte Kalla each decided to ditch their teams’ pre-Olympic training camps and train in Seiser Alm instead. (And that turned out to work out well for both of them, as each came home with individual gold medals.)

Seiser Alm isn’t all that hard to get to, if you’re coming from afar. Go to Milan, take a train to Bolzano, and then it’s a quick bus ride to Seis/Siusi, the town below the plateau. You can stay there and take the cablecar or bus up to the plateau of Seiser Alm/Alpe di Siusi every day to ski, or you can travel up the big hill and stay up there, for example in the village of Compatsch, as we did.

Pro tip, do some work on the train.

The reason I hadn’t been to Seiser Alm so far, however, is that if you are coming from the north it is not so convenient. With a car, it’s probably not that bad. I don’t have a car, however, so the trip was a long combination of train and bus connections. Crossing the Alps is never a simple feat and I took the train into Austria, then another train to the top of a pass, then a another train down the other side of the pass into Italy, then a bus from Brixen/Bressanone to Seis/Siusi*, then the cablecar. I had wanted to take this trip before, but the logistics put me off. From Zurich it’s literally as fast to fly to Oslo and then take a train to Lillehammer, as it is to take public transportation to Seiser Alm!

I’m bad at writing blog posts, because my introductions are always longer than the meat of the post. But here, I’ll finally get to the point: I took a few days off work and made it a long weekend, reserved a hotel, and traveled to Seiser Alm. I went with my boyfriend, who had never cross-country skied before. I was hoping he wouldn’t hate it, and figured that if I wanted him to love my sport, I might as well introduce him to it in the awesomest place I could think of.

Because of all those logistics, we arrived in the mid afternoon. After checking in I immediately wanted to go for a ski before the sun went down, so I grabbed my skate skis and headed out. It had snowed the day before and the grooming was imperfect for skating (classic would have been better, but I didn’t want to take the time to pick and apply kickwax, I just wanted to get out there).

But it was beautiful. Everything I had dreamed of. And I had plenty of time to appreciate the scenery, because skating through the powder up some big climbs at 1800 meters of elevation (around 6,000 feet, and higher once I went up some of those big climbs) is really hard. I just skied until the sun was setting, maybe an hour and a half, but I was already pooped.

Luckily, I could refuel. Our hotel was delightful. As is probably the case for most or all of the hotels in Compatsch, half-board is the default: breakfast and dinner are included in the room rate. That’s because Compatsch is a tiny, tiny village at the top of the cablecar. There are a handful of hotels, some of them fairly big, but maybe only two or three bars/pizza places that aren’t associated with hotels. There’s just not many other places you are going to eat, and the hotels aren’t really going to get dinner guests who aren’t staying up there because the cablecar stops running at 6 p.m. and you aren’t allowed to drive up to the plateau unless you are staying there (which makes the plateau very nice and quiet!). So, half-board makes sense for everyone.

The dinner was superb, including a great salad bar, some handmade pasta (of course), and a *dessert buffet*. I generally try not to eat dessert, but this was too much to resist. When I saw the 70-something-year-old German guy from Hamburg who was sitting at the table next to us get up and choose a second dessert, I decided that’s what I should do too.

Yes, even if you don’t count the phenomenal skiing, I was spoiled on this trip.

The next day we enjoyed a similarly great breakfast, and then set out to ski. That first afternoon I had remembered how exhausting it is to skate at altitude. I haven’t been doing a lot of skating this year because I’m still recovering from an ankle injury that has really affected my mechanics, so I had somehow forgotten that fact.

So we stuck to classic skiing. After the moody weather of our arrival day, it dawned bright and sunny. I slapped some blue hardwax on my skis, we rented some skis for my boyfriend, and set out.

Same view, this time with A+ grooming.

I can hardly explain how spectacular it was. I tried to be a good teacher but was distracted by the scenery, the perfect conditions, the feeling of sun on my skin (we hadn’t been getting a lot of that in Zurich). Every few minutes I would look around and grin, and sometimes spread my arms like, can you believe this?

From Compatsch, it is a few kilometers up to Ritsch, which is the true center of the trail system. From there, there’s a few kilometers of easy, rolling trails (and actually even a one-kilometer “practice loop” which is totally flat). We started there, but continued around the 12-km “Hartl” loop that goes far out the plateau to the northeast, and at its farthest point loops around alpine meadows with overlooks across a valley into Val Gardena.

I live in Switzerland, so I’m used to mountains, but the mountains in the Dolomites are totally different. They are made of, well, dolomite, and they are sharp and craggy. I think this is one thing that made me so awed by the scenery: it was just so different than what I was used to seeing. Take my wonder at the Swiss Alps, that feeling I have in Lenzerheide or Gantrisch or even Einsiedeln, and increase it by an order of magnitude, because these mountains are simply not what I usually look at. And throughout the day, the sun plays across them. Different parts are lit up or shaded. Clouds and snow squalls play around the spires. Every time you look is a little different.

My boyfriend survived the loop and we stopped in Ritsch for lunch at the hotel/restaurant there, devouring some excellent local-style dumplings. One was made with cheese, another spinach, a third one beets.

After replenishing, we parted ways and I skied down into Saltria and cruised around the 6 k loop there. Now is a good time to explain Seiser Alm. It is really just a huge alpine plateau, with hills and meadows, and sharp mountains on several sides. On every edge of this plateau are ski lifts and tiny resorts with a one or two hotels each; many of these areas are accessible from one another, albeit not by steep ski runs. Sometimes the cross-country ski trail would be running parallel to an alpine run, on a gradual downhill across the plateau. Even just in a tuck, on my cross-country skis I would be going faster than the downhill skiers on their heavy equipment, who couldn’t get up a head of momentum on such a gradual hill.

Saltria is another medium-sized village, a bit like Compatsch, but nestled down in a mini-valley a bit instead of totally perched on a plateau. To get down to Saltria, I dropped almost 200 meters of elevation in about two twisty kilometers, which was a lot of fun. I then cruised around the medium loop there, which was comparatively deserted and quite lovely, going up this mini-valley along a babbling river/stream instead of offering the bam-bam-bam of the plateau’s mountain views. And then I had to climb back up those 200 meters in two kilometers, which was slightly less fun.

Again, I was exhausted. But as I waited hungrily for dinner time, I appreciated the view, again. Perhaps some of the most special views of the spiky mountains are in the morning and the evening. As the light gradually disappeared, the spires were framed in different colors, just there right outside our window. The beauty and the quiet are so striking. Unless you have a really good reason to do a budget trip, it’s worth spending a little bit more money to stay up on the plateau and experience the mountains through whole days and nights instead of just enjoying the views from your skis during the day.

We had another great dinner, after which we sat in the hotel’s lounge area with a couple of beers. We were joined by two German couples, and the two men in the group began playing music on a guitar and singing. They were great, and played songs from several cultures and in several languages. The experience of this type of hotel, where everyone sticks around for meals, is a very different atmosphere from the impersonal settings of bigger resorts, and it was a lot of fun.

The next day was again beautiful and sunny, and we skied the “Panorama” loop, in total about a 20 km round trip from Compatsch, with a huge elevation gain.

Suddenly you find yourself skiing past the top of a ski lift, an experience you rarely get in the U.S. or Canada! The way that nordic and alpine skiing are integrated into the same space in Seiser Alm (and a few other places I have been, like Font Romeu in the French Pyrenees) is really neat. Groomed winter hiking/snowshoe trails are also embedded into this matrix, so up on the plateau at nearly any point you can look around and see people doing three or four different kinds of recreation. I wish more resorts would do this, instead of making these all totally separate activities, each with their own “area”. It’s great to be able to use the same space, and simply provides more terrain for everyone – why is that not a win/win!?

The panorama loop indeed offers spectacular panoramas. Again I was on blue hardwax, cruising around perfect classic tracks. I just couldn’t believe how lucky I was. Perhaps because we set out directly after breakfast, we encountered relatively few other skiers, particularly in the outer parts of the loop.

The loop was so great that I went back the next day, when I skied as much as I could – the Panorama loop, the other loop overlooking Val Gardena – before reluctantly putting my skis back in their bag, getting on the cablecar, and starting the long journey home to Zurich. I had skied about 30 km each day, on average, and I was satisfied, exhausted, sore – but wished I could have just stayed and kept skiing.

I know exactly why so many people, from the world’s best skiers to that old guy from Hamburg who told us that he comes to Seiser Alm for two weeks every year, want to go there. I can’t wait to go back, even though it might be five or ten or twenty years before I have another chance.

Not only the snow, but that handmade pasta and an excellent glass of wine are waiting for me when I do.

*Why does everything have two names? Südtirol is an interesting region with an interesting history. It’s currently an “autonomous province” of Italy, but more than half the people living there speak German as their first language. Here’s a link to the Wikipedia explanation of the region’s history, and a link to a 1927 article in Foreign Affairs stating that “the German South-Tyrol and its people are purely German. Never in history has the Brenner been the frontier of Italy… Italy nevertheless has an international obligation with regard to the rights of the German population of South-Tyrol.” That article is obviously not completely unbiased, but it’s quite interesting to read.

La Sgambeda, my first ski race of the year!

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Most people don’t decide that the first time they classic ski for the season should be during a long race. I can now confirm: this leads to pain. Much pain. My weekly yoga class on Tuesday? Extra rough this week.

I was tempted to do La Sgambeda after Holly Brooks raved about it last year. A ski marathon in Livigno, Italy, La Sgambeda last season served as the opener for both the Swix Ski Classics series and the FIS Marathon Cup; there was a skate race and a classic race, as well as the Ski Classics prologue, all zipping up and down a sunny valley just over the border from Switzerland.

How could you not want that?

This year things were a bit different. The FIS Worldloppet Cup doesn’t start until January in France, and the (now Visma, not Swix) Ski Classics moved the race one weekend earlier: a 35 k classic race in the first weekend of December.

I few people were less enthusiastic once the skate marathon option disappeared, but this fall I gathered some friends and finally looked for a place to stay.

I made sure to get on snow twice before the race… but both times were skating, and once was on an ungroomed path after the first “big” snowstorm around Zurich. Things were so messy and lumpy (plus it was after work in the dark) that it took us an hour and 15 minutes to go just 12.5 k, skating until we were completely exhausted. I’m not sure I’ve ever gone that slowly on skis in my life, much less when I’m skiing more or less at threshold. I mean, my Vasaloppet pace was faster than that, and the Vasaloppet was (a) classic and (b) a disaster. Technically, it was skiing, but in terms of anything you might call race prep I’m not sure it qualified.

Nevertheless I was super excited to race. I have never been a fantastic marathon skier and that certainly won’t change now, but I felt fit from the running and hiking I did all summer and fall. Classic skiing up a long valley and then pushing down the gentle downhill kilometers to the finish with a few hundred of my new closest friends sounded like oh so much fun.

There were hints that my dream might be a bit unreasonable. There has been very little snow in central Europe (or at least on the southern side of central Europe) and so I carefully watched the Livigno webcam to see what conditions were like. I stalked the #Livigno hashtag on Instagram. I asked people on twitter what the conditions were. People were skiing on a manmade loop, in shorts and sports bras.

Yet ten days before the race we got an email from race organizers saying that the race had been “secured”. 800 people from all around the world were already signed up, with more registrations coming in. La Sgambeda would happen. Hmmm.

Sure enough, the day after the registration deadline we got another email: the distance was cut to 24 k and would be loops around a 6 k manmade track. (After finishing, our watches told us it was more like 21.5 or 22 k.)

These are hardly my favorite ski conditions, but I tried to focus on the positives: it would be sunny and warm! We would eat Italian food! Most importantly, I vowed to not work at all over the weekend, except to file some short race reports. (It turned out that our internet didn’t work, so I couldn’t even do that. So relaxing!)

And so we departed for Livigno. Our crew: a motley bunch of scientists. Greg is a postdoc in ecology studying, more or less, carbon cycling and storage in forests. Jonas is a chemist working at a pharmaceutical company. Jonas is a much better skier than Greg and I. Between the three of us we had one complete wax box, which we considered a victory before the race even began.

I met Jonas at a train station partway to the border, and we drove into Livigno on Friday night. The town center is a strange combination of a pedestrian-only zone and hotels, so you have to try to navigate through the packed streets even though almost every one has a big sign saying only “authorized” traffic. After driving past street turn after street turn, feeling we weren’t allowed to go down them, we eventually decided that we were authorized and tried not to hit any Italian tourists. It was a challenge.

Our hotel included half board, so we stuffed ourselves with delightful Italian food for dinner. I think it was the first week they were open for the season; the waiters were still enthusiastic and friendly, making jokes and then smiling because they knew we liked their joke.

The next morning we slept sort of late – paradise! – and then walked over to the ski stadium to watch the Ski Classics Prologue. The organizers had kept the loop pretty flat, and everyone was double poling. Watching them cruise around the course made me even more excited to ski.

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After Greg arrived on the bus, we grabbed some lunch – the best 9€ pasta I’ve ever had – and then went back to the trails, this time with our own skis, to test klister.

The klister worked, but most of all I was just overjoyed to be skiing! It was my first classic ski of the year. Sometimes when you get on snow for the first time, it feels awkward – your skis are sliding around, you feel like this is totally different than rollerskiing, your shins immediately hurt from trying to balance.

I did not feel like this. I felt like I had been born to ski and that skiing on snow was the best thing ever, and totally natural.

The hard tracks in the 40°F sunshine might have had something to do with it too. It was glorious. I felt like singing. Luckily for my companions’ ears, I resisted this urge.

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We headed back to the hotel to prep skis and eat another big dinner. On Saturday night half-board apparently consisted of fondue. We skipped the cheese version and got meat fondue, which also is definitely not ideal race prep, but better than cheese, we hoped?

(Also, having come from Switzerland, it seemed a little ridiculous to order cheese fondue while we were out of the country on vacation…)

I had a really fun time racing the next day. So when I present the following shortcomings of the organization, put them in context. I’m thrilled that Livigno pulled off holding a race at all. But… there are a few things they could work on…

Because of the loop format, the organizers didn’t want the elite field to have to lap through the rest of us. I understand that. They started the women at 9:30, the men at 10:15, and the rest of us got to start at 11:30. The upside: we got to sleep late. The downside: the officials closed the course completely before our race.

Jonas and I tried to test out what to cover our klister with, during the women’s race. There were only 34 women in the elite field; they skied in packs, with large gaps in between. Minute-plus gaps. Even in the packs, they did not take up all four lanes of the course. Being responsible skiers, we looked around to make sure that we weren’t in the way, and then hopped in the outside track.

Two officials quickly converged on us and told us in Italian, and in no uncertain terms, to get out of there.

So the course was not open at all for the two hours before a classic race, during which time the air temperature warmed up 15 degrees and went from below freezing to above freezing. Since it was a manmade loop, there was nowhere besides the race course to ski.

I understand that circumstances were extenuating, but I was still pretty irked. We were definitely not going to get in anyone’s way. I guess my upbringing on the Eastern Cup circuit, where people manage to warm up despite races going on, biased me a bit.

I was more irked later, in my own race, when not only were people skating around the course for fun, but a few spectators or elite athletes were skating the wrong way on the course during the race. The point of the Ski Classics series is to make for great television and to have the world’s best athletes compete, but also to give normal people a good race experience so they can connect with the series – maybe focus on the same high organizational standards for the citizens’ race?

Competitions like the Birkebeiner and Vasaloppet show that this is definitely possible. It’s not the World Cup. It’s a different thing.

Once we got to the start, there was another shortsighted problem. Greg went to put his skis at the start line in his wave, and there was no room. The organizers had assigned people to waves, so they certainly knew how many people to expect, yet didn’t make the start pen big enough to fit all the people signed up. Really?

(There were things that the organizers did well, of course. There were feeds and free wax support on course, for example, and everyone was basically really nice. The course marshals cheered as we went by, although they did not yell at all the people who were blatantly skating. Their warm attitudes were impressive since they had probably spent all of their energy shoveling snow for the last several weeks!)

Of course, though, once the gun went off everything was fun. Some people went on skate skis but I was happy to have my klister cover as I strided up the first hill. There was plenty of chaos, with people falling and crashing and taking out others. I was in the first 200 people to go around the course, and already by the time I got to the first steep downhill it was completely snowplowed out.

The steep uphill afterwards, which was just two skiers wide? We had to take turns skiing down to it, and then stopping. The wait times were somewhere between 30 seconds and 2 minutes to get moving, depending on where you were in the field. If you didn’t want to simply walk on your skis, that was too bad because you had no choice.

All of that chaos had the effect of stringing out the field much more quickly than it would have if we could have stayed in bigger packs. So soon, I found myself skiing more or less alone around a long, pancake-flat loop of a field. This was definitely not what I had pictured, but at least I was out of danger in terms of broken poles.

Double poling isn’t really my strong point, though, and having not done it at all this year except on a short test ski the day before, I felt slow. My skis – fast on the downhills and solid on the uphills – were also dragging on the flats. I was working fairly hard, but going nowhere.

The fact that my skis were slow on the flats was nobody’s fault but my own: I quickly realized that I hadn’t accounted for how much weight I’ve gained since I first acquired my klister skis, and that they aren’t quite as stiff for me as they used to be…. less klister next time, oops! The upside of being a recreational skier is that when you mess up your skis, there are no real consequences except for spending a bit longer on the race course than you had planned.

The best thing to do seemed to be to just enjoy being out in the sun with a lot of other skiers. At one point I had a mini battle with a 60+ year old guy in a new German team suit. Every time I passed through the stadium, I laughed to myself about the Italian announcing, which made everything sound much more dramatic and exciting.

I was tired when I finished, and my arms and back were already stiffening up. But it was so beautiful and so warm that we went back out for a cool-down lap anyway. Living in Zürich (or in Jonas’s case Aarau) it wasn’t really clear when the next time we’d be on snow might be. So we reveled in the snow and sun and cheered for the racers who were still out on course.

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After re-packing the car, we grabbed some more delicious Italian food. The restaurant was busy but we explained to the waiter that we had just finished the race and were hungry. He understood.

And then we headed home. Greg and Jonas had never met before the weekend, but the three of us had gotten along perfectly and tried to plan what other races we might do together.

As for La Sgambeda? I probably won’t come back if it’s on a manmade loop again, but I do want to try the real thing with the trails heading up the valley. The Livigno landscape is beautiful and I’d like to go in the summer for hiking, too.

Stangest thing in the race bag: Glucosamine joint supplements. I mean, I know marathons have mostly master skiers, but do you think we’re that feeble!?

Biggest accomplishment: Jonas has never heard of using plastic wrap to wrap your klister skis if you don’t have time to clean them before tossing them in your ski bag to travel. I feel that by spreading this knowledge (and gifting him a box of plastic wrap) I have made the world a better (and less sticky) place.

Shopping haul: In the tax-free zone, I avoided the designer perfumes and fancy watches, and instead brought home some local Italian food products. So, friends, now you know what you’re getting for Christmas.

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skiing the glacier in Italy.

I did something crazy today: I published the first thing I’ve ever written in the first person for FasterSkier. I really dislike editorializing, and so I have tried hard to avoid it. Writing an entire piece with “I” felt like I was breaking some rule I had made for myself. But I wanted to tell a story about what it was like to go to Passo dello Stelvio, Italy, and ski on a glacier in August. It was a strange, fun, and powerful experience that was not at all what I expected. Want to hear about it? Head to FasterSkier and read the piece HERE, which is in many ways like what I typically publish on this blog.

I will leave you with some extras, though. Here are the photos I took over the course of two days of skiing. Enjoy.