The Italian Alps of the South Tyrol region are the perfect place to learn to snowshoe in the shoulder seasons, with stunning routes to atmospheric mountain huts, serving up the very best of local food and hospitality. Just make sure you’re able to get back down again…
My first clue that I’d arrived somewhere unique came in the car, as I made my way from Innsbruck Airport into the foothills of the Alps. The first song I heard on the radio was a meticulously faithful cover version of Men At Work’s ‘Land Down Under’, with the famous chorus line changed to “I come from the land South Tyrol!”. Clearly, this is a place that is inordinately proud of its identity and is confident enough to holler it over some cheesy 80s pop without fear of mockery.
The white-topped mountains and green valley floors of the South Tyrol region span the permeable border between Italy and Austria, from the Alps in the north to the Dolomites in the south. Once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was annexed by Italy after World War One but now enjoys near-full autonomy after a treaty was signed with Austria in 1972.
Most people still speak German, yet the towns and villages’ neat, Bavarian appearances belie a more Mediterranean temperament that somehow combines the best of both worlds. There’s a Germanic stridency in locals’ attitudes towards outdoors fitness and beer-quaffing, which is mixed with a cheery, laid-back, gastronomic culture more akin with the Mezzogiorno. The region’s weather embraces similarly attractive extremes, with winters of deep, skiable snow followed by sun-drenched, balmy summers.
But it’s the spring shoulder season between March and April that I was there to enjoy, when the hordes of holidaying skiers are leaving the resorts and the high-level snow is still intact. Because it’s then that is the perfect time for snowshoeing. And Campo Tures, a picturesque castle town situated at the head of two valleys and the foot of the Reiserherener-Ahrn Nature Reserve, is the perfect hub from which to explore the mountain winter wonderlands on foot.
Entering an awesome blankness
Switch-backing up the steep valley floor in our hotel minibus, my fellow tourists and I cooed at the vertiginous views down into the green valley floor from the apex of each bend. The temperature was dropping sharply, snowflakes began to appear on the windscreen and, after several more blind corners, everything turned white. We’d hit the snowline and it was time to kit up and set out. I’ll admit, in the run-up to this trip I still had childish visions of strapping tennis rackets to my feet and walking in exaggerated strides, like cartoon characters in a yeti-chasing episode of Tintin. But the modern snowshoe is a far more sleek affair. Made by ski-boot specialists Salomon, mine were ingenious, nimble, plastic contraptions, like miniature snowboards that strapped securely to your boot and could be fixed or left to swing freely from a hinge at the fore of the foot, allowing for different gradients and snow conditions. There was even a crampon at the toe to dig in on sharp climbs. Stefan Fauster, the spry middle-aged owner of Hotel Drumlerhof in Campo Tures, led us casually up a forest track, with his pet Jack Russell scampering up ahead and disappearing periodically up to his tail in the powdery drift. While the rest of the group followed assuredly in his wake, I was left flailing self-consciously at the back. Reaching out too ambitiously with my ski-poles and taking ungainly diagonal strides forward, I felt like an asthmatic King Crab trying to crawl out of a bathtub of Slush Puppie. Then one of the group took pity and stopped to advise me. Step forward and bend your leg normally, she told me, and use the poles for support, not propulsion.
Much to my amazement, I found her simple instructions worked. If I pretended I was out for a normal walk with a pair of walking poles, everything ran like clockwork. The snowshoes sank slightly into the drift before holding true, my poles swished gently beside me, keeping my posture upright, and each step progressed me steadily onwards without the shoes clashing or colliding withmy calf.
We worked our way steadily up a cleft in the mountainside along a stream, clacking and crunching around giant marshmallow boulders whose grey underbellies were hung with icicles staring down into crystalline pools of snowmelt.
After half an hour, the track began to level out and we stepped out from under tree cover into the awesome blank expanse of a large upland meadow, surrounded by the jagged teeth of several 3,000m+ peaks. The bells of grazing cows would be echoing off the mountainsides in the summer months. But the farm’s fences were now buried somewhere deep beneath us and we crossed the bowl unhindered, past the semi-submerged A-frames of hay-stores and barns and the dirty scar of a recent avalanche.
Higher still, we progressed along a snowy ridgeline towards a mountain pass between two particularly impressive mountain incisors, where the veranda of an empty private chalet provided us with an impromptu picnic spot for lunch. Stefan unpacked a smorgasbord of homemade breads with local sausage and speck – the region’s speciality cured ham that’s famous for its sumptuous rind of fat. I washed it all down greedily with big gulps of delicious mountain tea, the locals’ favourite flask-warmer of red wine and rosehip infusion, while basking in the deafening silence of my high-altitude surroundings.
Enchanting nooks and magic huts
Like most Sudtiroleans, Stefan was passionate about the outdoors and is an accomplished skier – both downhill and cross-country. But he insisted that only snowshoeing can offer you true freedom among the mountains in snow. On our second walk the next day, feeling more confident in my snowshoeing technique, I began to appreciate what he meant.
This time the group followed a popular route up the forested flanks of another nearby mountain, Fadner Alm (7,063ft/2,153m). It recently played host to the cross-country skiing world championships, and we occasionally had to step aside for the odd group of Nordic skiers returning from their morning circuit. But just as I was beginning to get tired of the track’s monotonous zigzag and tree-restricted views, Stefan skipped off the thoroughfare and shimmied down a hillock into a narrow glade, where we picked our way over the trunks of fallen trees, crossed a gurgling stream, and pushed past the snow-laden boughs of thick, green fir trees.
It’s these magical, hidden nooks of the mountainside that are only accessible on snowshoes. And with fluffy snowflakes drifting down around us, I felt for a moment as though I were walking in a snow-globe that had just been given a gentle shake.
Now out of the tree line, Stefan pointed to a picturesque, Swiss-style log cabin in a clearing below us: our destination for lunch. To get there lay a steep, 400m slalom of unblemished snow that looked like it would require some careful negotiation not to go arse over on the way down. But Stefan and his dog had other ideas, and gambolled down the slope in less than a minute. One or two of the group tried tentatively to ‘ski’ down on their shoes, using their poles to guide them – a technique that even the most experienced seem to falter at. So I dismissed any chance I’d have with that tactic and just careered down the mountainside – poles flailing, snowshoes bounding erratically and a big, joyous grin plastered across my face – until my legs sank thigh-high into a drift at the bottom and I came to an abrupt stop.
We tumbled through the low door of the Innerhofer Alm hut red-faced and exhilarated and sat ourselves noisily at the long table next to the welcome warmth of the kitchen stove. The duo of friendly, young staff worked cheek-by-jowl alongside us, pouring drinks, tending four frying pans on the go, and joshing with Stefan. Hearty and fattening fare of speck and eggs, giant berry pancakes and bratwurst platters graced our table, accompanied by frothing steins of Pilsner and generous tumblers of warming local wine, while other people fresh-faced from the mountain cold arrived to join the party.
An atmosphere of uninhibited revelry mushroomed with the cooking fumes and loud laughter under the cabin’s low ceilings. It’s what locals fondly refer to as ‘hut magic’, and I was intoxicated in more ways than one by it. In the evenings, Stefan told me, there’ll often be live music and people will toboggan their way to the bottom of the valley completely drunk in the small hours of the morning. What an amazing sight that must be! If I lasted the night, I promised myself I’d do the same; and I’d sing “I come from the land South Tyrol!” at the top of my voice, all the way down.
TIME/DISTANCE: Choose from hundreds of well-established winter snowshoeing routes, from an afternoon’s excursion to multi-day hut-to-hut treks. Many start conveniently from car parks or can be reached by cable car from nearby towns (such as Bolzano and Bressanone).
TRAVEL: easyJet (www.easyjet.com) and British Airways (www.britishairways.com) fly regularly to Innsbruck in Austria, which is the nearest airport to South Tyrol. Trains and buses cross the border into Italy and connect to all the major towns in the region.
FURTHER INFO: www.suedtirol.info
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY: Dominic Bates.