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The Off-Piste Priest

Face Shots
posted: 08/20/2003

When a village like alagna ends up with a priest like Don Carlo Elgo, it's easy to believe in some sort of divine providence. The sole caretaker of Alagna's ancient stone church and unofficial ambassador to its numerous Scandinavian ski bums, Don Carlo, 70, is the sort of pastor who decorates his home with ice axes and ends sermons with weather reports. He takes Norwegians on hut-to-hut drinking tours, fetes Swedes with 15-course banquets, and writes letters in florid Italian to Italian-illiterate foreign friends. When snow falls on the flanks of 15,203-foot Monte Rosa, the second-highest mountain in the Italian Alps, he follows his flock up the lifts. "I like to ski everything," he says, "Grand Couloir, Eagle Couloir, Salza Valley, Balma… piste or no piste—no problem."

Among the Scandinavians, who've migrated to Alagna since one of their ilk discovered its ungroomed steeps in the early '90s, Don Carlo is exalted for the way he drives—even at 65 miles per hour, he stays in third gear—and for a tantalizing rumor: In times of extreme need, he prays for powder. (If true, this presents a thorny theological issue; Alagna has had two mediocre snow years in a row.) Locals have a more historical take. They like to point out that Pope John Paul II was once a formidable skier, and they see Don Carlo in the tradition of celebrated Alagna priest Don Gnifetti, whose 1842 assault on the easternmost of Monte Rosa's four summit spires—now known as Punta Gnifetti—ranks among the great climbs of early mountaineering.

Don Carlo first reached this same 14,957-foot summit in 1950, at age 17. "I didn't know the way," he says, "so I just snuck behind another group. When they stopped, I stopped." And since 1980, when he moved here to preside over Alagna's storied parish, Don Carlo has done his best to live up to his predecessor. He's skied or walked to Punta Gnifetti another 292 times—54 without the help of the tram, which cuts 6,800 feet from the 11,000-vertical-foot ascent. That leaves him only 41 summits short of the record set by a onetime caretaker of the hut on Punta Gnifetti. Will he break it? "If it still pleases my guide—il Signore Dio—I'll keep going," he says. "But after I pass 300, I'm going to stop counting."

The Carlo Chronicles

BORN: September 5, 1933, in Borgosesia, Italy
5.10 STEEPLE: Winding up the bell tower of Don Carlo's 500-year-old church is a 15-bolt sport-climbing route. "We have a festival every June," he says. "I let the kids and mountain guides climb up and ring the bell."
PIOUS SCHEDULE: "Normally I ski every weekday. Saturday is okay, too, because mass doesn't start until five o'clock. Sunday is more difficult—masses at 10, 11, and six o'clock—so I can only ski from 11 until four."
IMPRESSING THE BOSS: "When the bishop visited Alagna, I served him a glass of very good white wine—from California!—then we took a ride up the tram."
MEA CULPA: "Don Carlo once showed up at my door with 10 bottles of red wine," says Swede Jesper Andersson. "He just set them down and walked away, waving his arms and saying 'Doppo, doppo' (Later, later). I think he feels guilty when he's too busy to hang out with us."

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