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Every year, Val Gardena draws scores of visitors from around the globe to its season-ending giant slalom event, the longest of its kind anywhere worldwide. Every registered participant is free to take part – no matter whether they’re a pro or a novice. The unseasonably warm weather this March forced the organisers to move the finish line a little up the hill for the first time in 21 years. Nevertheless, the 4-kilometre run, which plunges some 600 vertical metres into the valley, is still anything but a walk in the park.
The first highlight of the event already takes place on the day before, as the over 700 participants are assigned start numbers in the centre of St. Christina. Participants are showered with goodies from the sponsors, while youngsters have a chance to claim an autograph from (ex) ski stars Christof Innerhofer and Peter Runggaldier.
However, like most participants, we travelled to Val Gardena with only one thing in mind – the race. On race day, we fuelled up with a hearty breakfast in the hotel before making our way over to the Col Raiser gondola at 6.45 AM. Despite the ungodly hour, the lift station was easily as busy as during peak times in the main season. Most participants were carrying two pairs of skis – one for inspecting the run, the other for the race itself. And although we only had one pair of skis in our arsenal, we were clearly hoping that our motivation could make up the difference. We were particularly keen to make a good impression as the race was being broadcast live on the official Gardenissima website.
Next stop: Col Raiser middle station. We clip into our bindings. Most participants already seem focused for the race itself, with little more than tired smiles being shared among the skiers. We aren’t tackling the course on true racing skis and are instead relying on conventional slalom and carving models. The next leg sees us ride the four-man chairlift up to Seceda peak. The prominent Red Bull starting gate is visible from a long way off. Tension mounts. Our first job is to give the course a thorough inspection – after all, we don’t want to embarrass ourselves in the international journalist rankings. The previous day saw temperatures soar to 20°C, followed by a frost overnight. As you can imagine, the slopes were like an ice rink first thing in the morning.
Soon, we were forced to cut our preparation run short. The time was fast approaching 7.45 AM and the race was due to get underway at any moment. As we were assigned the start numbers 188 and 196, we still had more than an hour before our starting slots. We decided to watch the spectacle unfold from above, and the Toko ski service station was ideal – one last chance to give our skis the once over. Lots of the racers had waxing kits with them with a mind to achieving the perfect setup for the race. As you can imagine, most participants were wearing skin-tight racing outfits, often regardless of physique or body shape. Needless to say, we felt much more comfortable in our normal skiwear! :-)
Into the start gate!
Just 5 minutes to go! We treat our muscles to one last, brief warm-up before our start numbers are called. “Cinque” shouts the start-line official before we catapult out of the starting gate five seconds later. The upper section on the Seceda is not for the faint-hearted, with steep inclines and extremely icy sections. The ski service certainly paid off here, with every inch of edge required. After the testy initial section, the course thankfully flattens out – time for some gliding skills. Suddenly a skier appears ahead of me – the Italian journalist colleague who started 30 seconds ahead of me seems to be taking it a little easier than I am. I kink past him. Before long, the finish line is already visible in the distance. My thighs are really starting to burn by this point. The finish line comes as blissful relief for my muscles – 3 minutes, 18 seconds after starting up on Seceda.
Beyond the line, all the talk is of the course and each of our experiences on it. Thankfully, we all did really well. Some 600 skiers are still waiting their turn. We make our way down to the base station, where we are greeted with some welcome refreshments. Pretty young ladies are waiting to pose with us for souvenir photos. Then we notice a great crowd of skiers in front of a board – the first results are already out. Needless to say, we’re pretty eager to find out how we measured up.
We headed back to the hotel incredibly proud of ourselves and with great memories to take home. The event was a truly fitting way to round out the ski season in Val Gardena. We’ll certainly be back next year.
Sella Ronda on the previous day
The Gardenissima was, without doubt, the main reason for our trip to the Dolomites, but no visit to Val Gardena would be complete without tackling the mighty Sella Ronda circular route! That’s why we tuned up for the Gardenissima by skiing the green circuit of the Sella massif on the day before. Our motivation was dampened somewhat by the forecast for warm temperatures. Thankfully, we were pleasantly surprised by the conditions on the Sella Ronda despite the early onset of spring. It goes without saying that you need to be up early to tackle the circular route in March: We were already at the lift for 8.30 AM and therefore had plenty of time to enjoy the slopes in all four sections of the Sella Ronda (Val Gardena, Fassa/Carezza, Arabba & Alta Badia). We particularly liked the runs on the Passo Sella, Pecoi and the north-facing slopes in Arabba. Another absolute must: Take a break or two at one of the fantastic mountain lodges lining the Sella Ronda.