I heave my roller ski bag over my shoulder as its urethane wheels rattle over the cobblestones. The walk from my lodging in Rome to the nearby regional autostazione Tiburtina is short enough to warrant schlepping my luggage, but also long enough to regret the decision. I resign myself to the cumbersome portage, knowing that no Roman taxi could fit this 200-centimetre monster anyway.
I find my boarding platform, the bus attendant eyeing my ski bag with a raised eyebrow. He considers turning me back to the ticket office to pay for the excess cargo but is more interested in the bus departing on time, so he gives me a pass and gestures to heave the nylon beast into the luggage compartment and prompts me to board.
My bus is bound for Teramo, a small city in the Abruzzo region of Italy. After around 90 minutes, we pass into the monumental Gran Sasso National Park, where I hope to make the contents of my hefty ski bag useful. I catch a glimpse of the towering Corno Grande (Big Horn) before entering the dark roadway tunnel through the mountains.
After disembarking the bus in Teramo, I patiently hover around my gear waiting for my ride to show up. After a few minutes of phone tag and trying our best to bridge the language barrier, Marco Finori appears and eagerly shakes my hand, gesturing me towards his vehicle. I stare at his Porsche 991 Carrera 4 wondering how my elongated ski bag is going to fit in this two-door speedster coupe. Marco seems nonplussed as I do my best to problem solve the situation, emptying the contents of the bag onto the leather backseats and wedging my skis diagonally across my lap. We roar out of Teramo, Marco passing other Italian cars wildly all while texting, answering calls on his phone and occasionally punching words into Google Translate.
We arrive at the ski resort of Prati di Tivo in Italy's Gran Sasso National Park, which at 1,449 metres at the base and 2,007 metres at top station is one of the highest-elevation ski areas in the Apennine mountain range. Marco ushers me into his office to change into my ski gear while he takes off for a few minutes, reappearing with Maurizio Felici, an International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations ski guide. He is charged with showing me around Prati di Tivo's side country for the afternoon.
I learn on our gondola ride to the top station that like most Italian ski guides, Maurizio spends a lot of time guiding in the Dolomites and the Alps, but has only skied and climbed one mountain in North America: Alaska's Denali (6,144m), which he soloed.
He explains that the mountains of Gran Sasso are made of the same geological rock as the Dolomites (permeating a long and storied history of rock climbing in the area) and with its proximity to the sea, receives significantly more snow than Italy's northern mountains. We're not skiing any of that powder today with a recent warming event in the region, but the grandeur of Gran Sasso and its crown peak of Corno Grande is not lost in the early spring conditions.
Maurizio leads me past the boundary on the southside of the mountain, the solar radiation having softened the snowcrust and rewarding us with more than satisfactory skiing. He points out a hollow, abandoned two-storey stone building, one of many constructed as surveillance stations by Mussolini during Italy's fascist rule of the Second World War. To the east the view extends to the Adriatic Sea, to the north, west and south the Apennine mountains flare out towards Monti della Laga and the Sibillini Mountains, the chain of Gran Sasso towering over them all.
After our descent off the backside of the ridge and return to the Prati di Tivo parking lot, Maurizio introduces me to another skier Paola Ricci, who spent seven years living in Whistler and working at one of the flagship fine dining restaurants. She returned to her home in this valley because she missed her family, her culture and her mountains.
"Whistler is an amazing place," says Ricci on our gondola ride back to the top. "But here, after a big snowfall you can ski for a week and there's still fresh snow for those who want it."
The lift service at Prati di Tivo is limited with only the one gondola currently running (a drag lift servicing the lower part of the mountain still requires repairs), but for skiers readily equipped with avalanche equipment and skills to self rescue, the towering cliffs above the resort present dozens of chutes that funnel back into the resort's boundaries. Ski mountaineers are in heaven here, with mountain traverses and steep objectives looming in every direction.
I meet up with Marco after a half day of exploring around the resort for a beer and pasta at the lodge, where I learn he's actually the new owner of this central- Italian ski area. Our beer glasses clink and in my butchered Italian I compliment Marco on his latest investment.
Prati di Tivo, Gran Sasso and the nearby Monti della Laga mostly fly under the radar of global backcountry skiers, who are more familiar with the northern Italian ski destinations in the Dolomites, South Tyrol and Courmayeur. Like most of those skiers, I was more than a little surprised when I saw what this region had to offer.
Vince Shuley will return to Gran Sasso National Park. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider email firstname.lastname@example.org or Instagram @whis_vince.