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A taste of Valbruna

Chris Anthony

I stumbled across an image of an Italian village nestled deep in a valley surrounded by walls of jagged peaks rising more than 4,000 feet from the valley floor. The buildings in the foreground looked like painted objects from a fairytale rather than an actual picture on a wall. The black-and-white image was old and slightly grainy, hanging behind a clothing rack.I turned to the shop keeper and asked, “Where is this?” She quickly said, “That is the village of Valbruna, located in the Julian Alps in Italy. This shop was named in honor of the village by Marco Tonazzi.”Marco Tonazzi, the proprietor of the shop, was born in Italy and learned to ski fast enough to become an Italian champion. When he retired from the ski team, he found love in America, then moved to the United States to race pro and eventually open up stores in Aspen, Denver, San Fransico and Vail. Each of which he named after the village where he learned to ski.I studied the picture carefully before deciding I needed to visit this mysteriously beautiful place. It was that picture on the wall that had me flying into Venice, where I would meet up with a friend, rent a car and drive north for two hours along the coast through the wine country before being swallowed up by the Julian Alps. I was astonished; the mountains were more amazing than the picture had portrayed them to be. We hiked, climbed and drove throughout the valleys, amazed by the beauty surrounding us. I turned to my friend and said, “I’m coming back this winter with a film crew and documenting this place covered in snow.”So began the long odyssey to have a Warren Miller film segment produced in Valbruna for the annual ski flick.It all starts with finding an exciting location. Then there is funding the trip, the logistics of which I could write a book about. Once we have those things in place and the permits ready to go, finding talent capable of ripping it up in any type of snow conditions and willing to hike is the next step. The remaining issues we leave in God’s hands. Those factors include snowpack, weather and light. Of course, the more snow the higher the risk of avalanche and the less opportunity for shooting when the weather clears. Yet we factor that risk into every run and realize the sacrifices needed to achieve entertaining footage for our audience.Yes, trying to conquer a Warren Miller segment is like trying to land spacecraft on Mars. If only the audience could really see what it takes to get the shots they have become accustomed to seeing on the screen, they might reconsider the glamour of the job.When it all came together months later, a portion of the crew stepped off a plane somewhere in Slovenia and found its way to Valbruna, while a last-minute addition to the team flew into Milan, Italy, and made her way by train to the village. Her nightmare took 18 hours of planes, trains and automobiles.When everyone met in Valbruna, we took refuge in a brand new hotel opened by Tonazzi and partners. The “Valbruna Inn” welcomed our junk show with open arms, provided us with comfy beds and stuffed us with strudel before we passed out from jet lag.The sun rose the next day under clear skies and the mountaintops were illuminated in pink. We climbed eagerly toward the summits with the goal of filming in fresh snow surrounded by majestic backgrounds.A storm rolled through a few days earlier and the off-piste was covered with light powder. We were stoked and ready to nail the goods for the camera. Then, just at the high point of our enthusiasm, the sun started to fall. There it was, the only thing that we didn’t calculate into the equation: the mountains being so steep and the valleys so narrow that the sun would never rise above the Julian Alps in February to illuminate the beautiful northern faces.It would be impossible to get the footage we needed in the mountains’ shadows. My heart sunk when I realized the shoot could be a total washout and I may have wasted everyone’s time.For the next several days we adapted to the local tradition of ski touring, eating, hiking and eating more. We did this while looking for snow with the right background and not hidden in the mountains’ shadows. The sky stayed clear and the wind kicked up to 80 mph, while temperatures dropped way below freezing. Then when we were about to give up and turn our journey into a wine tour instead of a filming mission, we found one south-facing, wind-crusted, 35-degree-plus slope with several rocky couloirs on it.The sunlit ridge was on the border of Italy and Slovenia. We raised our glasses and toasted one last time before climbing from the Refugio several hours to the summit in attempts to ski in the sunlight for the camera. When we arrived to discover a bulletproof, wind-slabbed snowpack, we cringed. Our only option left, and one we would figure out how to do, was to make it look good.We continued to climb the steep, icy slopes and ski it over and over. We would stand on exposed ridges in high wind and wait for the cameramen, weighted down with gear, to get an angle to make us look good and the environment to pop out behind us. In eight hours, we may have made two to three runs each for maybe a total of 40 seconds of film time. It was battle of creative energy, athletics and stamina. Every day we descended from the mountains exhausted and stunned by the effort.As the wind grew stronger and the clouds moved in, we had yet to really document what this part of the planet was all about. Or had we? Maybe the skiing hadn’t been captured on film, but we had certainly been absorbed by Italy.The enjoyment of time standing still while ski touring through the Julian Alps from one Refugio to another stopping only to speak with old climbers and sharing local wines and pasta sucked us in like a warm comforter. For us, the journey had been rewarding. For the film, we had yet to tell the story.When all else fails in filming skiing by means of chairlift, tram or climbing, one option remains:With the helicopter’s props beating the wind, we scrambled to the open door in the crisp morning air. This would be our last opportunity to find sun and powder at the same time. The next day would determine whether we would be flying out of Italy with memories or a movie.Crouched in the corner of a helicopter that lacked seats, or for that matter seatbelts, we lifted into the high winds on our final day in Italy. The bumpy ride took us to a high south-facing peak illuminated in the sun. The wind-loaded faces looked to provide just enough good snow to give us an arena to shoot what we needed for a minimum number of ski shots to fill a film segment. If we survived the helicopter flight and landing on the narrow summit, we could make this work.See how we did in next fall’s Warren Miller premiere. qChris Anthony, a long-time Vail-area resident, is the 1996 Alaskan Extreme Skiing Champion and a veteran of 14 Warren Miller films. Contact him at chrisanthonyski@hotmail.com.


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