A Snowless Snowshoe Race: Val di Non’s “Ciaspolada”

The gun sounded and they were off. Their pronged snowshoes digging into the trail, sending snow spray in a zealous arc behind them. These were the die hard competitors, leaving the rest of us in the proverbial “dust” at Val di Non’s Ciaspolada snowshoe race that day.

I tried to take it all in — the news helicopters circling overhead, the building-sized sponsor banners, the fanfare and commotion of so many people at one winter sports event. And as I looked out at the land beyond the snowy trail, trying to gauge the distance to the finish line, all I could see was green.

That’s right: green (or greenish-brown, really).

This is what happens when the planet is warming. When there’s no snow in a valley in the Italian Alps that typically has white stuff on the ground 6-7 months a year.

Back in November, folks weren’t yet worried. “The snow’ll come,” they said, sure of it. But by December the tone had changed: “Hopefully it comes.” And when the beginning of January 2013 rolled around, still — not a single inch of snow had hit the ground.

A snowless Val di Non in January (Italy)
A snowless Val di Non in January (Italy)

La Ciaspolada is Val di Non’s premier International Snowshoe Competition, held every year since I-don’t-know-when. But it’s a big deal in the valley, and everyone participates: Mom and Dad with kids in tow, people in costume, dogs in costume, and regular folk like me. What, then, are the race organizers to do with a snowless winter? And how can they possibly host a snowshoe race with no snow?

Why, “Truck that stuff in!”

In the days before the race, we could hear them in the distance, diesel-y dump trucks running late into the night hauling in snow from higher altitudes. For days we watched workers pack snow down along the ciclabile (a combination bike-walk trail that runs the length of the valley), constructing a snow trail where there should have been the real stuff, instead.

Pretty soon, you could see it from afar: a white line snaking through Alta-Val di Non’s farm fields, flanked by green-brown winter fields. “The race will go on!” was the collective roar, and there it was — the €200,000 solution to no snow.

Man-made snowshoe trail (val di Non, Italy)
Man-made snowshoe trail (Val di Non, Italy)

Jason’s cousin Fernando sits on the appropriations committee for Alta-Val di Non, and every year they take a vote about whether to pay to truck in snow if the natural snow doesn’t show up. And, every year, Fernando gets outvoted.

“Yes! We will have the race!” they say. “It’s good for the valley. For the economy.”

“Even if we’re losing money on it?” Fernando asks.

“Of course.”

Don’t get me wrong, the mountaious climate and scenery make Val di Non an ideal sports destination.* Plus the Ciaspolada is also a short race, lasting only 8 kilometers (roughly 5 miles), so maybe it’s not so absurd to build a race trail with displaced snow.

But it’s pause for concern. A harbinger, perhaps, of what’s to come. These days, every year seems to be “the hottest on record”.  How much time is really left for the famed Ciaspolada, if they have to regularly bring snow from elsewhere, and the costs can no longer be justified? Will Val di Non have to turn the Ciaspolada over to another location higher in the mountains? Will there be no snow there, too?

Bottlenecked on the man-made snow trail (Val di Non, Italy)
Bottlenecked on the man-made snow trail (Val di Non, Italy)
A man running the snowshoe race in underwear and a winter hat (Val di Non, Italy)
A man running the snowshoe race in underwear and a winter hat (Val di Non, Italy)
Forst beer on a sled (Val di Non, Italy)
Forst beer on a sled (Val di Non, Italy)

Running down the race in my own pair of snowshoes felt like being part of an episode of The Simpson’s meets The Amazing Race. None of it really made any sense. Because snowshoes don’t work on grass, participants were bottlenecked trying to fit on the narrow man-made trail, and so we all just ended up walking, laughing collectively at our pace.

One particular guy reveled in the absurdity, racing down the path in only a pair of red briefs and a ski hat, hauling a sled full of Forst beer. He posed at every kilometer marker for his friends to take pics, handing beer out to the people around him.

As I turned to the finish, the piazza in Fondo was full of activity: food stalls, children, spectators, and a medal ceremony for the winners — who looked like they’d been ridiculed by these 60-degree temps. It’s possible they were offended by the brief-wearing racer, but as they stood sweating under the blazing January sun, I could only imagine their thinking: toss me a beer.

Race competitors winning prizes (Val di Non, Italy)
Race competitors winning prizes (Val di Non, Italy)
The snow piles in the main 'piazza' had melted, leaving puddles behind towards the end of the 'Ciaspolada' snowshoe race (Fondo, Italy)
The snow piles in the main ‘piazza’ had melted (Fondo, Italy)
Me, at the end of the Ciaspolada (Val di Non, Italy)
Me, at the end of the Ciaspolada (Val di Non, Italy)

*In addition to the Ciaspolada every January, there’s also a mountain bike race in Cavareno each May, not to mention the Giro d’Italia (like the Tour de France, but less famous) that came through Sarnonico in spring 2014.

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