The Bellavista Experience: Trapped in snow (again)

20 Feb ’18 by Sara Travel
If you ever get stuck on 3000 meters in the European Alps, I hope it's going to be at the lovely mountain cabin Bellavista Rifugio (Schutzhütte Schöne Aussicht)

“Guys, welcome to our little cabin. I’m afraid I have to tell you that you probably won’t be able to leave tomorrow”, greets us Jasmin Rainer, acting manager of the Bellavista Schutzhütte. The Bellavista is a lovely little cabin on top of the Schnalstaler glacier in the South Tyrolean Alps, where we had just arrived after screaming our lungs out in hysteria over a 300 meter chairlift ride and a near death experience on a terrifying snowmobile.

Up to that point, I was a virgin to winter holidaying. I had just absolved my first skiing lesson in the quaint Ultental valley a few days prior to our arrival at Bellavista, and I had made my peace with the idea of dying on a beginner’s slope while nappy-wearing toddlers raced by my lifeless corpse so skill- and gracefully as if competing at the Winter Olympics.

I finally forgave my immigrant parents for never letting me try-out snowboarding (or tennis, while we’re at it), a past-time that simply doesn’t compute for people who don’t drink alcohol, don’t co-ed sauna and don’t have any interest in spending their money voluntarily on getting cold. I was, all in all, finally becoming truly integrated into German Alpine culture. The last piece of the puzzle – I am sure now – is strapping your gear into the roof rack of your BMW at least once a year and then heading off to festive orgies of Kaiserschmarren and Knödel.

I thought I was ready to commit to my German-ness once and for all when I met my alpine antagonist: the chairlift.

If you’ve never taken a chairlift across a goddamn 3000 meter glacier, please let me briefly acquaint you with my trauma: you are on mountain with snow up to your knees. You must run up to an ancient technology, basically moving steel bench on a rotating rope system, sit down quickly before it hauls you over the edge of the cliff, and then attach your body – now hovering 3000 meters over the ground – to the bench by holding on to a very, very loose rail. Imagine being in a roller coaster, but you’re not strapped into it by mechanical force – YOU are the mechanical force. A hoot for people with intrusive thoughts.

Somehow I survived the torture without falling, but my feet were freezing, and I had already noticed something odd about the environment: it was constantly snowing. As paradox as it may sound, even in the Alps, snow is hard to come by. In fact, the winters have been so volatile that most hotels and destinations are expanding their businesses from ski to wholesome spa-resorts. Snow is always a good thing in winter, but even I, a beach bum, knew that this was a lot of it.

Once we checked into our cozy little room at the Bellavista, the exceptional panorama across the valley had already disappeared behind a frantic snow storm.

We had packed for one night only, as we were supposed to leave Bellavista early in the morning for a hike across the glacier. While everyone was still cheerful and optimistic (our guide texted me something along the lines of “don’t worry about the snow, I’ll meet you in the morning”), I was getting nervous. I couldn’t open the window without swallowing liters of snow.

“You may have to stay another night if it doesn’t stop” says Jasmin, shrugging, without a worry in the world, although she does have an apologetic look in her eyes. While we’re at dinner with 48 other guests – it’s a full house – she tours the tables to explain our situation. “You guys, try to enjoy your stay here tonight, and I’ll make sure to get you all down tomorrow. I’ll have more news at 9 AM – be ready and packed in case we have to act fast.”

We woke up at 8 in the morning to a complete whiteout, stuffy noses and wrought out lungs – the side-effects of being in an overheated cabin is being perpetually dried out by the radiator. That first night, we were not able to air the room because of the massive snow. I felt like an old prune, dehydrated despite the humidity outside, my skin wrinkled and thirsty. Overnight, the snow had made the Alps, the Schnalstal valley and the sky disappear. When we looked out of the window, we were floating on top of of an endlessly expanding ocean, our cabin merely an island in a vast sea of white.

When Jasmin finally arrived at breakfast, she had that apologetic look in her eyes again, but she was nonchalant about her bad news.  “Guys – the roads in the valley are covered in meters and meters of snow. The funicular and the slopes are closed. There will be no skiing and no hiking. You better start notifying your work – you’re not getting down today.” 

While some people were visibly stressed, I was giddy and excited: trapped in a snowstorm? In a romantic cabin on top of a mountain? What a dream come true.

That was on Sunday.

A few things happen when you’re stuck in snow with nothing to do at all.

  • Time stops passing,
  • you shovel snow for fun,
  • you obsess over your own, new-found state as a victim of natural forces,
  • you go insane.

For the first couple of hours, I was delighted. Ecstatic, really. The sheer romance of our situation was mind-blowing: here we were, in a tiny wooden cabin, with friendly strangers, held by the firm grip of nature. No TVs, no distractions (and no private bathrooms and a dwindling amount of underwear and socks) – just us, in our tiny room, huddled together. The landscape around the cabin looked like a scene from a science fiction movie, so bizarre and so beautiful. This is the birthplace of love stories! And crime novels.

And horror movies.

But romance was everyone’s state of mind during the first couple of hours. On Monday, one of the trapped guests (very clumsily) shaped a heart out of rose petals on the snow for his wife’s birthday; and at night, we could hear the Italian guests getting very intimate on the top floor.

Unfortunately, that kind of intimacy is hard to sustain with paper-thin walls and other people. It was borderline Sartre, or, for a more contemporary analogy, for some people on that cabin (I may or may not refer to the nervous bundle I was traveling with), it was The Good Place.

For Jasmin – ever the casual shrugger, never letting the stress of 48 trapped guests get to her, always in a good mood and after the first day an integral part of an ongoing South Tyrolean card game tournament called Watten – the situation isn’t dire, but it’s a full house and she’s trying to keep everyone light and happy. I ask her what they usually do in situations like this, assuming her coolness can only stem from experience, but the 29 year old barely shrugs, raises one eyebrow and says:

“I’ve worked here for three years. This has never happened before.”

In fact, it had happened before – Jasmin just doesn’t know it. Paradoxically, know it because my friends Nico and Soraya had covered the story of their Bellavista experience on the blog in 2013. Maybe, I thought, this is destiny.

Jasmin tells me that she studied education and pedagogy before she took over the managing role at Bellavista. “It’s helped me a lot in dealing with guests – especially now, when you have to be a good listener and consider everyones individual worries.” Some of those worries were reasonable: one couple had left their teenage kids in a hotel in the valley for the night, and now they were still waiting for them to return. A group of Germans had missed their flights, others – among them a doctor – were needed in their workplaces.

It seems like an awfully tiring job, but Jasmin and her staff aren’t bothered. “So many different things happen in a day here. It’s hard to hold on to bad feelings.” When she tells me that she only visits Meran, the municipality of the region, once or twice a month, I realize that this lockdown is absolute normalcy for her, and start wondering about her skincare routine.

By Monday afternoon – it had already felt like a week – it stopped snowing so fiercely, and we ventured outside the cabin for an expedition. The snow was still meters high, you could swim and drown in it if you wanted to. We improvised a sled run, which we used with snowboards and plastic bags. We counted around 120 charging cables for 50 people, but not one fucking sled. Actually, that’s not true: an old, tatty lady had one that she wouldn’t let us borrow, which briefly united us into a spiteful lynch mob.

Meanwhile, the burping and farting, all-male German football club (or an equally obnoxious group of men with little manners) were hogging the saunas and hotpot like they bought it.

On Monday – after 72 hours of the exceptionally well made but heavy Knödel, delicious, creamy pasta and loads and loads of white bread – a man took out an avocado from his bag, which ultimately became my personal symbol of liberty and freedom and in which I sensed a cry for help. Don’t get me wrong – Bellavista is known for its sensational South Tyrolean mountain fare, but damn if I didn’t crave a smoothie or something after 4 days.

My nose was bloody and crusty on the inside from the heating, and the snow slowly lost its magic.

It was time to leave Bellavista.

On Tuesday morning, we were greeted by blue skies, sunshine and good news: the roads in the valley were opened again, and the weather was good enough to send a helicopter to our rescue.

Being told that you have to get airlifted out of a mountain cabin was the single most exciting thing I had heard in my whole life until I actually sat shotgun in that rattling godforsaken shoebox. It’s one of those things that you do once in your life but then maybe not again, ever? It made me question my German winter holidaying integrity and I should probably finally realize that I am horribly scared of heights, of losing control and of flying anything – from chairlifts to airplanes.

It all went so quickly in the end.

The people we’d met and spend so much time with, the staff that so lovingly took care of us, the food, and of course, the snow – all of it now a single, blurry snapshot in my head, from a helicopter’s perspective: a tiny cabin on a gigantic mountain, that feeling of warmth, of being safe from the world, of a perpetual slumber, of sharing your bed with a blizzard, of romance and love and hospitality, of being helplessly exposed and at the mercy of nature. A travel memory and an adventure we will most certainly never ever forget.

If you ever get stuck in snow, I hope it’s at the Bellavista Rifugio / Schutzhütte Schöne Aussicht.

How to get there

The “Bellavista Rifugio – Schutzhütte Schöne Aussicht” can be reached via the funicular, then two chairlifts or a 1-2 hour hike at the Schnalstal glacier in Merano / South Tyrol.

Maso Corto, 39020 Senales BZ, Italy – Website

Other opinions

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