We’re in Cortina d’Ampezzo for the pistes, and luckily so. Not that we’re in Cortina, because that has nothing to do with good fortune. But the fact that we’ve come here to ride the groomers is downright lucky. Outside the thick white strands that are the pistes, especially on the south sides, a thin blanket of snow makes a valiant attempt to cover the rocky terrain. Freeskiing between the slopes is not an option.
I laugh in amazement, because what Emil does with his skis in front of my camera is incredible and skillful. Emil is inhumanly confident carving the edges of his skis. The speed and precision when we shoot pictures together are unreal.
Despite growing up a few blocks from each other in Skövde, Sweden, a couple of years of age difference meant Emil Johansson and I didn’t meet until our early twenties. Then we discovered each other through our shared interest in skiing, and in photographing skiing – Emil in front of the lens, me behind. It clicked immediately and continues to do so.
What sets our partnership apart in this industry, the professional side of the ski world, is that we only ever shoot piste together. Piste skiing becomes exotic for magazines that write about the niche and exotic and make freeriding the norm. Emil is an ex-racer so powder isn’t really his thing.
Surrounded by soaring cathedrals of dolomitic limestone that rise to over 3,000m, the terrain in Cortina is superb – mellow slopes down below with some steep runs cutting through the couloirs higher up. The slopes are generally steeper in the Cortina area than in the nearby Sella Ronda, which makes for exciting skiing.
Up at Rumerlo Duca d’Aosta, Emil and I stop at the most difficult passage of the men’s downhill course from the World Championships last year. The year before – the snowiest winter on record – the resort hosted the Alpine World Championships. For the second time. The first time the World Championships were held here was in 1932. The World Championships also took place here in 1941, but the competitions were restricted by the prevailing world war and were never classed as official. The Olympics have also been held here, in 1956, and they’re due to be held a second time, in 2026. A long series of World Cup events have been held between the championships. The women usually visit Cortina in January to compete in the speed disciplines… Like I said, this place has some exciting runs…
Emil stands there at the top of the course, called Vertigine (‘Vertigo’), quietly, then his thoughts settle, and his wonderment takes verbal form: “How on earth…?”. He’s as puzzled as I am. I’m a holiday skier who has never raced gates, but Emil has plenty of slalom races in the European Cup, a bunch of World Cup races and a few World Cup points to his list of credits – and yet he is equally dumbfounded as to how downhill skiers at inhumanly high speeds, on sheet ice, can force their skis to follow the track of these tight turns of the men’s World Cup downhill course.
We throw ourselves down the course. With a total length of 2,740m and a maximum slope grade of 61% it is fast and challenging, especially in some sections. The most difficult parts are the ‘Vertigine’ jump, the ‘Canalone Schuss’, the ‘Ghedina’ jump – in honour of the famous local athlete Kristian Ghedina – and the final ‘Marmotte’ jump, from where the athletes have to keep up their speed until the finish line.
Safely down, we follow the winding slopes on our way down from the area next to Tofana di Mezzo. Everything is untouched despite it being mid-morning. On this particular day the wind is strong and the cable car up to Tofana di Mezzo is closed to the public. Andrea, our guide who is showing us around today, has unlocked the lift for us via some quick phone calls.
The slopes are wide. Kind of steep, but not so steep that we can’t carve every turn. The views, well, they are magnificent. The backdrop for photography is excellent. Thanks to the closed cable car we can work undisturbed. As usual, I glide between the locations we are shooting with unbuckled ski boots (to keep the blood flowing and avoid numb toes due to the cold). Slithering along patches where turns on edge intended to increase speed would have been preferable, I have to settle for a snail’s pace.
As we go over the crest and turn around the mountain to see the lift and restaurant at Rumerlo, the entrance to the turn for Emil is completely blind. Over the radio I give him instructions for where the arch should be. “Okay!” Emil replies. Then he’s off, turning exactly where he should. It’s perfection at a level only feasible to reach here on the groomed slopes. It’s the reason I find it so interesting to leave the powder snow for the hardpack. The power and speed are different from freeriding in powder snow. Freedom is curtailed. Instead, it’s a quest for precision and perfection.
This first run down from the top has taken us all morning. By now, all the other slopes that tourists have had access to are filled with moguls. It’s natural for us to move onto the other reason we are in Italy: the food.
Down in the picturesque village centre, lining the cobbled main street Corso Italia, you’ll find numerous restaurants and cafés – and throngs of people partaking in the most popular sport of the town (on a par with skiing) – the social sport of seeing and being seen. All clad in fur coats and designer sunglasses. More often than not, Emil and I are the only ones wearing ski gear and resting a pair of skis on our shoulders as we make our way to and from the lifts.
We have a table booked at Dolom’eats all’Aquila, which serves Ladin cuisine. Ladin is the ethnic group to which the inhabitants of Cortina belong. Somewhat cut off from the lowlands, especially in winter, they developed a culinary culture based on local produce. This culinary culture is still alive. Some of its characteristic dishes – which we are sampling today – are fried spinach-filled puff pastry, ravioli stuffed with spinach, and various dumplings. The cavalcade of plates we are treated with all have a touch of sweetness. All rounded off with fried doughnuts.
Later that evening, at our hotel, Hotel Panda, just down the road, the feast continues. As Andrea unloads the car, Emil asks for the best pizzeria in the village. Andrea turns and smiles, pointing to the door next to the hotel entrance and says: “There it is.” Birreria & Trattoria Vienna.
The brick oven is the heart of the restaurant. Takeaway cardboard boxes are stacked on the counter behind which the pizzas are kneaded. It’s clear the attention to detail is high. There’s something about Italians and their food; even the banalest thing served in a cardboard box has been prepared with passion and care. There is a quest for perfection in the details.
Orders are pouring in by phone. There’s a steady stream of guests entering the dining room. The waiter silently tells us to leave when he notices me put down the napkin after wiping my fingers when the last slice of pizza is finished. There are hungry guests waiting to take our seats. “Buona notte, amici.” Good night, friends.
Day two is spent in the area above Faloria, up towards Tondi. The slopes wind downwards, the steep sections opening out onto flatter parts, so you can really let the brakes off. The snow is hard, smooth and grippy. There’s no need to turn to brake. Turns intended to increase speed are suitable. The power propagates up through the body. The faster your feet are, the quicker you turn and the more of them you can do.
We head for the area next to the Cinque Torri rock formation, five natural stone towers. Here, too, the slopes follow the rolling landscape. The lower part of them winds between the sparse larch trees. The sun and shadows fall across the slopes and create patterns in the snow. We are more laidback today. The Italian idleness has been contagious. Things will sort themselves out. The important thing is the good things in life.
We don’t care about shooting before lunch. Feeling confident what we already have is good enough. Just skiing around the slopes, carving short, sharp turns on the edges (now with buckled boots). Sipping espresso at half-past ten and having a long lunch soon after at Rifugio Scoiattoli, located next to Cinque Torri.
After lunch, Emil takes off his cap, replaces it with his helmet. “We need a simple image for social media,” he says. A little further down I find a compression where the piste turns, where there is a patch of good snow and where the light falls in the right way. “Do your thing; a left-footer, like two meters in front of me will be fine,” I say on the radio. A quick snapshot, it turns out to be one of the best shots of the trip. Piste perfection, captured in a photo.