Sastrugi: Italian For Ski Holiday, or How I Realised the Aussie Alps Are Rad

March 12th, 2020
Wind-scoured satsrugi – not a lot of fun,  but makes for an exciting drop into the chutes.mPhoto: Jock Gunn

Mountainwatch| Travel

There are no guarantees when you head overseas for a snow holiday and sometimes, as Georgia Cameron  discovered, travel can make you realise that winter in Australia is not all that bad.

The mountain exhales in every direction. It is HONKING! I hit the ground and embrace a headstone sized sastrugi*. It occurs to me that this snow sculpture, helpful to me now, will soon become my enemy. A gust hurtles across the mountain. My skis are sails and they threaten to lift me off the side of the peak.

Looking behind me I see a ball of Gore-Tex, skis and rope. It’s Jock battling to get his skins off and the rope back in his backpack. Toby, despite the chaos unfolding around him is beaming goofily under his hood. He waves, his smile broadening across his beard as I attempt to reciprocate.

I manage to climb the side of the sastrugi, back onto my feet. It is my lifeline not my headstone. I slither up it. It supports my weight and calms my nerves. I look over into the couloir and get a glimpse of what I had feared. The run we are about to ski is a mosaic of sastrugi, ice, chalk and breakable crust – so much breakable crust. I breathe and contemplate the run below – trash or treasure?


Finding a silky line between the areas of breakable crust was easier said than done. Photo: Jock Gunn

I don’t want to do this.

The rocks look jagged on each side of the silky white blanket. The rocks protect the snow from wind, but I can’t see beyond their serration. Ice! Sastrugi! Breakable crust! I really don’t want to do this.

I play out the only other scenario in my head – an ‘assisted’ decent. Assisted in this case means a shove in my back and gravity will do the rest. The couloir is wide and there’s a safe runout at the bottom, so I know as patience dwindles and the wind picks up, the shining knight in Gore-Tex armour behind me will have no qualms in ‘assisting’ me down. Bloody ski-patrol cowboy. I guess I’m going then.

“Go, now! Before it gets worse again!” shouts the cowboy.

“I’m going, just give me three seconds!”

I count to three. Nothing. Then I count to three again… four… five.  I go.


Sometimes a skin track doesn’t cut it. Photo: Jock Gunn

The first turn is into a gap between two visible sastrugi ice caps protruding from the sea of white silk. I feel the skis beneath me float, waiting for them to hit a sastrugi-burg or worse, punch through the crust. I make my turn, still tense. It doesn’t happen. It’s all silk. I finish the turn. I’m in the couloir proper now. The wind seems to evaporate. I enter the land within the cold rock walls, now friendly standing on either side of me. Underfoot it’s soft and it’s superb. Man, this is good. This is so good.

Four more turns and the bluish sheen of ice pokes it’s snaring nose through the silk as the white highway broadens and the rocks spit me out at the bottom. I make a final turn, narrowly missing it and then it’s over. No more silk highway. We’re off-roading it again back on the sastrugi.

Standing atop our predetermined perch I watch Toby ski next. He’s not so fortunate to spot the blue snaring nose at the bottom. He hits it, going A over T but recovers unscathed. Still beaming. Then it’s the Gore-Tex knight – he makes two sweeping tele-turns down the couloir and then it’s over for him too.

The ‘it’ I refer to is the best run of a six-week trip to Alagna, a town self-titled by the Italians as the ‘Freeride Paradise”. Alagna sits at 1200m in front of the Monte Rosa – Europe’s second highest peak.  An aptly named collection of peaks given their rose like formation and pink colour at dusk and dawn. The rose and all its sastrugi thorns is planted between the Valle d’Aosta and Valle Otro. Valle Otro was once linked to the town by the Belvadere gondola which has long since been abandoned. Instead, it is now accessible only by foot, skis and heli.


The tram raising  out of Alagna to Passo Salati. The dramatic peaks of the Alps lure people from all over the world to the “freeride paradise” of Alagna, but like everywhere, there are no  guarantees. Photo: Jock Gunn

Alagna, the town, is in the Aosta Valley and on the outside looks mostly unchanged since it’s construction in the 13th century. Algana is frequented by four main groups of people who share the mountain in a complementary manner.

There are the Milanos, who on-mountain stick to the piste, and in the village, haunt the bars only after returning home to groom and laden themselves with fur, Moncler and the latest Armani, Gucci and Dolce. This group swarm out of Milan to take over the piste and pavements on weekends and their Christmas break.

Then there are the ski racers. A subset, or at least progeny of the group above. They swarm the piste on Fridays too. They own the mountain – or that’s what they like to think. Even the language barrier isn’t enough to mask the sense of entitlement this group exudes.

Thirdly, the ski-mos – or randonee racers. Clad in tight, fluro softshell and clipped in to the lightest and most insubstantial pins that will hold them – these guys use the piste too, only they skin up the groomed track instead of skiing down. (This makes sense when you see their skis!)

Finally, the ‘freeriders’, reaping the benefits of the head start the tram to Punta Indren at 3275m provides. This group comprises of a combination of Scandis, Brits and a few locals who escaped the piste at some point and decided they liked it. Recognisable, if not by their skis, by their colourful Gore-Tex and array of ice axes, ropes and ABS backpacks. For a ‘Freeride Paradise’ this group is surprisingly small – it wanes in comparison to the equivalent group in nearby Chamonix.


The approach to Capanna Gnifetta and possible respite from the wind. Photo: Jock Gunn

A massive drawcard here is the promise of high powder to person ratio.  Or so we thought… That unparalleled feeling of gliding down the silk highway was a one-off for us this January. There was great, stable high mountain adventuring but the soft skiing was over in the time it’s taken you to read this.

“We’ll be there for six weeks, it’s got to dump at least once!”

‘Eat your words,’ said the mountain. While neighbouring Switzerland and Austria were choking in it thanes to some massive snowfalls, down on the southern tip of the Alps, Italy’s Freeride Paradise wasn’t getting any snow! I don’t want to whinge, but six weeks of breakable crust isn’t exactly a paradise to me. That stuff is soul destroying. The rhythms of a snow-starved ski town are tortuous. Snow is forecast a week out. The anticipation builds. Then as three, two, one day out arrives it falls – the forecast, not the snow. Then instead of snow, wind strips the peaks and transforms anything fresh into sastrugi fields and breakable crust. Breakable crust as far as the eye can see and further than this girl could ski.


Wind-stripped and “Breakable crust as far as the eye can see.” Photo: Jock Gunn

Why then does skiing Down Under get such a bad wrap? I’ve heard those people, you’ve probably heard them too – the “I only ski overseas” or “Skiing in Australia is too unreliable” or worse, the “I only ski Europe” type. I don’t get it! Skiing in Australia is epic.

There is nothing more magic than weaving a line between the snow gums or skiing all the way down into the big friendly trunks of the Woollybuts. People say the mountains aren’t big and the runs aren’t long. But that just means you get more runs in in a day! Altitude – we don’t have that. But guess what, getting into camp after a day of backcountry adventures to find your Champagne frozen at 4000m will put a dampener on your evening. I’m happy to camp at 1760 for the sake of free-flowing cocktails.

We have snow and it’s stable. Maybe not in the quantities of North America or Japan, but I skied more powder days in August in Australia last year than in Italy in 6 weeks. “Rain” you say, yes, we have that too, and isn’t it great! Nothing to clear a resort out like a bit of precipitation. Then you’ve got it all to yourself! And as the rain softens the snow, all the easier to dig your edges in and carve like a Euro. Dank!


The essentials become even more appreciated when conditions aren’t as good as you’d hoped. Photo: Jock Gunn

But this skiing business, this thing we all chase, this thing that took us halfway across the world to the homeland of spaghetti, sangiovese and sastrugi, the “we’ll do it later” capital of the world… it’s not about the snow, or the rain, or the altitude, the après, the carving, or the powder, the trees, the length of the runs or even the terrain. It’s the whole package, the conglomerate of all this and more. Skiing is a perfect marriage between all these things, the vibe, the mountains and the community that rallies around them.

Spending six weeks in Alagna we really got to know the lay of the mountains and the feel of the mountain community, and it was rad. Despite the lack of snow Alagna remained a playground and a paradise for adventure. But it also made me realise how great the Australian ski experience is. We have our own paradise back here, Australian skiing is rad. I don’t care about the naysayers. A wolverine once told me that powder’s just the icing on top of the cake – and cake’s still pretty damn good without the icing. I’ll have to agree with him here.

*Sastrugi if you not experienced it first-hand are sharp irregular ridges formed on a snow surface, usually by wind.