If You Go: Passo dello Stelvio

Chelsea LittleAugust 6, 2013
At nearly 11,000 feet, the looping tracks of the Cristallo nordic trails at Passo dello Stelvio.
At nearly 11,000 feet, the looping tracks of the Cristallo nordic trails at Passo dello Stelvio, Italy.

Welcome to “If You Go,” a (very) occasional series we’re putting together on places to ski during the dryland season. These descriptions are based on the experience of only one reporter, and the trips were not paid for by either FasterSkier or the ski areas. But the hope is to give a good overview of how things work for skiers who are looking to plan on-snow training camps or vacations during the summer and fall.

With trails for alpine, nordic, and snowboarding, Passo dello Stelvio in Italy is one of the more famous places to ski in the summer. The first ski school popped up in the 1950’s and not only does the Italian national team train there, but a number of other top skiers, occasionally, as well.

So: there’s skiing. But not everything is simple or self-explanatory. Here are a few tips.

Where to stay: It’s possible to stay at Passo dello Stelvio itself, perched on the Swiss-Italian border at the base of the ski lifts. There are half a dozen hotels which offer rooms at around 80 Euros per night for a single, meals included. Team deals may be available. The pros to this option are that you can walk out the door and into the cable car to go skiing. The cons are that there is nothing on the pass except these few hotels, some cafes, and souvenir shops. You might get sort of bored.

To stay further down in elevation, and in towns where there’s actually something to do, there are several possibilities. The most well-known is the Bormio area, on the Italian side of the border. It is a small town with its old character despite hosting World Cup alpine racing every year, and a variety of lodging options are available, ranging in costs but not more expensive than staying at the pass. Most are old-style family-run hotels, but there’s also a modern design option, the Eden Hotel. if you have some extra time and money on your hands, there’s a thermal spa to relieve the aches and pains of skiing.

To stay at Bormio or Passo dello Stelvio, fly to Milan. Either rent a car, or take a bus to the Milano central train station. Transfers are available directly to Bormio by bus, or take a train to Tirano before connecting to Bormio.

On the other side of the pass, also in Italy, are a few more options, such as Solda. There are numerous small hamlets, each with their own hotel or two. If you have a car, these may be rewarding options to explore. This side of the pass is served most easily from the city of Balzano.

On the Swiss side of the border down the Umbrail pass lies Val Mustair, home of Dario Cologna. Val Mustair features both a youth hostel and more luxurious hotels, which are priced from roughly 75 Euros per night upwards for a single (this is not based on exhaustive research, and cheaper options may be available!). There are also other small towns in the area, with more lodging options. To stay in this region, fly to Zurich. It’s then a roughly three-hour trip by train with two or three connections, or an extremely scenic drive.

Transportation and the pass: No matter where you stay, you will likely have to travel up and down one side of the pass repeatedly. This is for a few reasons, including that grocery stores, company, and culture are nonexistent on top of the pass. Also, skiing is only good in the morning, so dryland training is a necessity in the afternoon. There’s a rollerski loop down on the Italian side and other possibilities as well, such as biking any of the passes. There are also a lot of hiking trails in the national park which surrounds Passo dello Stelvio, and many opportunities for ski-walking and bounding.

Without a car, the best bets are to stay in Val Mustair or Bormio, if not the pass itself, because these towns are served by buses that travel up the pass. However, there are only a few each day, and it’s not particularly convenient. Hitchhiking is a possibility. Most fellow skiers are friendly and happy to provide a lift down from the mountain, although they may not speak English.

Renting a car or van provides the most mobility, but then you are responsible for navigating the pass yourself! From the Bormio side, there are more than 30 switchbacks and several covered “galleries” to protect the road from snow. In most places, including the tunnels, the road is a lane and a half wide, which creates some scary scenarios. From the other Italian side, there are 48 switchbacks. The Umbrail pass to Val Mustair is a little less spaghetti-like, but has switchbacks of its own and is unpaved in sections.

Costs: Val Mustair will have Swiss prices, i.e., expensive. But Bormio is quite affordable. You can buy enough gelato to satiate anyone’s cravings for under three Euros, and dinners are affordable as well. There’s lots of good pizza for hungry juniors, too. Many hotels include breakfasts which are large, delicious, and filling. This is Italy, after all, not Scandinavia.

Skiing at Passo dello Stelvio is 25 Euros a day for the “national team price” (extended also to professional teams and youth).

Snow and Training: To get to the cross country tracks, take two cable cars up to the Livrio area of the glacier. From there, at least three different areas are sometimes groomed for nordic, although usually not all at once. You may need to take additional lifts and traverse or descend alpine trails to reach your skiing. Ask the ski area what is open, and you may even be able to make requests.

Ski conditions depend on the time of year: in July, it’s often wonderful, since it gets down to freezing at night. By August, that is generally no longer the case, and skiing early is the best bet if you want to avoid serious slush. The skiing might be slow, but some coaches on the glacier believe this is great training. Even in the slush, picking the right wax makes for enjoyable classic skiing, and the sun is always shining. Training skis, rather than race skis, are recommended, at least in the middle of summer.

Another question is altitude. The cross country trails range between 10,000 and 11,000 feet in elevation. Is this too high to be ideal? You decide. There are plenty of options for dryland training in the afternoon down at 4,000 feet or so. This may also influence where you decide to stay: picking a hotel on the pass means sleeping at 9,000 feet.

There are few amenities available on the glacier. Once you leave Livrio and head out towards the trails, you’re not going to find a warming hut, lunch counter, or bathroom. Even at the top of the cable car line, these things are not guaranteed. Plan accordingly and bring a backpack with you to leave on the trails with everything you might need, like dry clothes and food.


Chelsea Little

Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.

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