Stupefied by lack of sleep, exhausted muscles, a hot shower and a glass of Austrian wine, I sit at my assigned table in the Hotel Trofana dining room, taking notes. “Right now, I can’t imagine skiing tomorrow,” I write. Then, feeling I’ve betrayed my mission, I counter that thought in writing by promising myself a good night’s sleep, but the sentence trails off. The two men at the next table, who’ve been conversing softly in German, are addressing me. Quickly they realize I’m uncomprehending. The one who speaks a little English asks me why I’m writing, and after I explain Operation Border Crossing, he serves as interpreter in a three-way conversation. The father and son at the next table are soon drawn in, and it’s the elder of these two who points out my mistake: I should have taken the gondola back down the mountain instead of skiing all the way. All that ice and slush is what the locals call “survivor snow.”
Whether that means it’s the snow that still survives after repeated thaw and refreeze, or the snow that skiers pray to survive, isn’t clear. “Normally the snow’s better,” says the father, a Danish man from the Copenhagen area named Claus Baekbo. I sense that he’s amused by my ignorance and is covering it up with sympathy. Helpfully, he says pistes 80 and 81 are a better route into Samnaun village than the alternate way. He advises me to carry my passport, though he’s never been asked to show his in a decade of visits. I take notes, not because I fear forgetting, but to compensate for stupidity with an apparent eagerness to learn.
Survivor snow proves to be a useful term. Fast-forward 28 hours, two train trips and a nauseating bus ride, and my taxi into the tiny northeastern ski town of Sella Nevea is driving through a steady drizzle. Valley weather can be deceptive, though. Conditions could be radically different 2,292 meters higher up, on the neckline of Monte Sedlo. It’s late. I persuade myself it’s snowing at the top.
In the morning, it looks like I was right. Cloud cover has crept down to the waist of the mountain. It’s still sprinkling in the valley, but on the mountainside people are skiing, their red and blue and black coats drifting like falling leaves down the broad but steep throughway to the base lodge.
Turns out I was wrong. For the first time ever, I ski through drizzle. It’s a shame, because the long journey down-mountain crosses a roller-coaster bowl before sweeping its way into the trees. On a clear day at the top, they say, you can see the Gulf of Trieste. And the people here are the type who want to take you home for dinner with the family, provided you can pry them away from their espresso in the base lodge. A dozen American college students pounce on us when we arrive, full of where-are-you-from-what-do-you-do? questions. And the hotel owners, a young couple, show up with a bottle of wine for us, from Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso grapes grown at a vineyard they recently bought.
The husband knows his local history: During World War I, the mountains here were full of fortifications, and the pivotal Battle of Caporetto was lost a few miles away. When he was a child, the Soviet Union lay just over the ridge, and in the 1980s, the Yugoslav and Italian armies protected their territories. Ski Lift No. 502, the Funifor Prevala, is the first international connection between the two countries, a joint project finally completed only two seasons ago. “An old European country like Italy and an ex-Soviet Bloc country,” he marvels. “And now it’s free to ski.” The boot fitter at the Palle Di Neve rental shop, Diana Martucci, had said much the same that morning. “If you don’t have a map you won’t realize it’s the border. No police, no one to ask for your documents. There’s no sign of it.”