There’s something decidedly eerie about the chairlift control room in the Italian ski resort of Gaver. An ancient computer, complete with a 16-speed CD-ROM and a Windows 95 logo, squats silently on a desk, gathering dust. Items spill out of a cupboard in the corner: a half-empty coffee tin, what looks like a tablecloth, and a battered old pan, its bottom blackened by fire. One wall is covered with the controls for the chairlift itself, a clunky series of switches set in a green steel case that wouldn’t look out of place in a Cold War submarine.
On a calendar turned to December 2013 someone has written inizio stagione (“start of the season”) in spidery biro, and then… nothing. All the evidence suggests that whoever worked here left in a hurry, and as I prise open a dusty door into a storage room, I’m half-expecting to be confronted by a misshapen creature from Resident Evil.
Step outside into the sunshine, however, and the picture couldn’t be more different. Gaver’s lifts might have closed a decade ago – the result, not of a zombie apocalypse, but of financial mismanagement, and several seasons of poor snowfall, exacerbated by climate change – but this resort is far from dead. In fact, thanks to the growth of ski touring and splitboarding, it’s undergone a remarkable renaissance in recent years. Ski touring uses climbing skins, which stick to the bottom of your skis, allowing you to go uphill. Splitboards, like the ones my wife Simona and I are riding, are the snowboarding equivalent. The board splits in half to form two ‘skis’, allowing you to climb. When you get to the top, you simply clip the halves back together and ride down as if you’re on a normal snowboard.
As I prise open a dusty door into a storage room, I’m half-expecting to be confronted by a misshapen creature from Resident Evil
Splitboarding and ski touring aren’t new, but in the past ten years they’ve exploded in popularity as the gear has improved, and people have embraced the fitness benefits of what tourers like to call “earning their turns,” instead of sitting on a chairlift. This growth was supercharged by the pandemic. Data from Snowsports Industries America, a trade association, showed a 57% leap in the number of people touring during the 2020-21 season. In Europe, where lifts stayed closed for the best part of two winters, many ski shops sold out of touring kit completely.
Pulling into the car park at Gaver, the first thing we see is a large sign showing touring trails of varying difficulty marked in green, blue and red – a piste map for off-piste exploration. The second thing we see is Stefano Marca, the man who quite literally put Gaver’s trails on the map and has, almost single-handedly, been responsible for turning its fortunes around. A trim 54-year-old, with energetic eyes framed by glasses, Marca is the proprietor of the small, 20-bed Blumon Break Hotel.
When the lifts shut for the last time at the end of the 2013-14 season, most of Gaver’s hoteliers followed suit. But Marca, who had grown up at the Blumon Break, wasn’t willing to give up on his family business so easily. A keen ski tourer himself, he’d spent years exploring beyond the lifts, and knew the area had potential. So he invested in touring skis to rent out, and began plotting out a few of his favourite itineraries. Word spread, and slowly ski tourers began to trickle back into the area.
Over expertly brewed cappuccini, Marca explains that Gaver is blessed with several natural advantages as a ski touring destination. Despite the role of the climate crisis in closing the lifts, the surrounding mountains are still relatively snowy. “It’s quite humid here, and the shape of the valley means it’s sheltered from the sun with a lot of north-facing slopes. For a village at 1,500 metres no one else gets snow like us,” he says. It’s also close to Brescia, a city of 200,000 people, many of them keen skiers. And if you venture above the old lifts, there’s plenty of high-altitude terrain to explore, where temperatures are colder and the snow is better preserved. While these are all assets for today’s ski tourers, they weren’t enough to save the resort in its original incarnation.
“It was good here in the 80s and 90s,” Marca reminisces. “Ask anyone in Brescia where they learned to ski, and most of them will say ‘Gaver’.” But as global average temperatures rose, snow became increasingly scarce on the low-lying, lift-served slopes. Larger resorts nearby invested in snow cannons to ensure that their pistes remained covered, but Gaver was never big enough to compete in the artificial snow arms race, and over the course of a few inconsistent seasons, skiers started heading elsewhere. There were several abortive attempts to save it before the end, Marca says, including a misplaced bet on freestyle skiing. “They brought in an American, who helped build this massive jump. But there wasn’t any agreement about the way forward, so that only lasted one winter.”
In the end, Marca says, it came down to economics. Ski lifts use a lot of electricity, and require a whole team to operate. The resort needed an average of 100 and 200 skiers a day to keep them running profitably, Marca says. As the snow became less consistent, that became increasingly difficult. By contrast, a ski touring business like his has very few overheads, and can afford to rely on those days when snow falls naturally. When there is a dump, the crowds still come, Marca says, proudly. “Especially if it’s a Saturday or Sunday, we’ll easily get over 1,000 people a day. There are weekends when you can’t find a parking spot here.”
The circumstances which forced Gaver’s lifts to close are far from unique. Throughout Europe, low-lying ski resorts are increasingly struggling as winters become less reliable. There are now 249 abandoned ski lifts in Italy alone, according to detailed research by Legambiente, the country’s leading environmental NGO. A further 138 lifts have been closed for at least one winter, and Legambiente identified 84 more as being ‘at risk’ because of climate change.
There are now 249 abandoned ski lifts in Italy alone, according to detailed research by Legambiente, the country’s leading environmental NGO
Most European ski resorts now rely, at least in part, on artificial snow to keep their lower slopes open and running throughout the season. Around 90% of the pistes in Italy, 70% in Austria, 53% in Switzerland and 37% in France were covered by artificial snow in winter 2020-21, according to data from the Swiss lift operators association. As a solution, however, this is not exactly sustainable. Like the lifts themselves, making artificial snow is hugely energy-intensive. It also requires lots of water, ultimately contributing to the climate crisis that it
was originally designed to cope with.
Could focusing on ski touring, as Marca is at Gaver, provide an alternative model? One that other struggling ski resorts could learn from? Environmental activist Vanda Bonardo, lead author of Legambiente’s report, certainly thinks so. In it, her team praises Panarotta 2000, a resort north of Gaver which kept its lifts closed last winter, but opened for ski tourers, as one of “ten good ideas to copy”. She explains: “People need to understand that the model of development which worked well in the 60s and 70s, building more lifts for more downhill skiing, is now obsolete. Ski resorts need to diversify the activities they offer. I hope – we hope – that the people in charge of developing resorts will start investing not in artificial snow, but in new activities.”
Marca believes the tide is beginning to turn. “Of course there are lots of people who love lifts, but there are also lots who don’t want any more of them built,” he says. When it comes to artificial snow, “People say to me: ‘why do we have to do these things that don’t really fit with nature? Should we really be creating all this fake snow, just so we can do certain activities?’”
Having consulted with Marca on the best splitboard itinerary to follow, Simona and I set off up what used to be an old piste. Quite apart from its environmental advantages, there’s something that is incredibly meditative about this sport. Before long, the only sounds are the rhythmic sweep of skins on snow, the click of bindings, and the occasional call of a buzzard, circling high overhead. Halfway up, as we stop to catch our breath, we get talking to Renato Cardin, a 60-year-old retiree from Brescia, who’s making his way back down. He loves the peace and quiet of ski touring, he explains. “You go to a modern resort and it’s all ‘boom, boom, boom’, disco-style music on the pistes. Here, I reach the peak and the silence is beautiful.”
As we climb, the landscape reveals itself steadily, with each vertical metre of ascent giving us a more elevated perspective. On one side, a steep cliff drops into a massive bowl where you could happily ski for a week without crossing your tracks once. On the other, an open face leads down to a ridge, from where we can see the remnants of another piste – and more skiable lines –snaking up the opposite hillside.
Behind us lies Cornone di Blumone, the craggy peak for which Marca’s hotel is named, rising up to 9,327 feet above sea level. It’s easy to see what Marca meant about Gaver’s potential. “One of the best things about ski touring is exploring and finding fresh snow,” he’d mentioned before we set off. “But also the climbing, reaching the peak—that gives you a huge sense of satisfaction.” By the time I reach the peak, I know exactly what he means. There’s a gratifying tiredness in my legs and lungs, as if I’ve just been on a long bike ride. As we peel off our skins and clip the two halves of our splitboards together, we definitely feel like we’ve earned our fun, and the descent – a series of wide sweeping carves back down through the trees – feels all the more enjoyable for it.
Near the bottom, we stop to look at another post-apocalyptic remnant of the old ski resort: the skeletal remains of a bridge whose planks have long since rotted away. It would be easy to see this as an eyesore –a rusting metal memento mori for the ski industry. Instead, with the sun streaming down, and the shadows of the steel cross-hatching the snow underneath, the bridge looks strangely beautiful – a sign of progress, and a reminder of how one man, armed with new equipment and an old-fashioned work ethic, has managed the difficult feat of bringing a ski resort back from the dead.