The Ortler: Skiing Corn By Day And Feasting In Italian Huts By Night

Conditions are arid. But it’s last call for turns this April, so we finish packing our gear in the dusty parking lot. The only things missing: motivation and probably snow. In this heat, I’m ready to hang up the avi gear and skis. Our gang is just arriving to start a week of touring in Italy’s Ortler range. Two guys wearing nothing but spandex shorts, boots, and overflowing packs saunter past us. Spaghetti western extras with holstered ice axes and dangling ski crampons. An upsurge of dust follows them. We’re headed into what they’ve just come from, and they nod, knowingly, as they pass. Our goal is to go high. Glaciers and altitude are our best bet for lingering snow, and if that fails, at least there’s rumor of a sauna and the promise of multi-course Italian dinners at the huts.

We saddle our backs with rope, crampons, warm layers, and skis to begin the walk and ski-carry up to Branca hut, our bunk for three nights. At the hut, we’re happy to hear reports of good snow up high and huddle over maps with other skiers and guides to discuss the best prospects. The dinner bell rings and the door slides open to a large dining hall. Hungry skiers clamber in, claiming seats at place-marked tables with salads already served and waiting. Antipasto, primo, secondo, some nights a cheese plate follows. The room fills with chewing and chattering. The sun only starts to set as we settle in for dolce.     

Based at the Branca hut, we skin and ski Punta Pedranzini (3599m) and Cadini (3524m), encountering everything from warm slush to ice to unexpectedly good, old powder. Simon, an experienced mountain guide and friend of Dan and Janine’s, gives us tips on glacier safety and teaches us that touring boots are better for dancing on tables than alpine boots. In the too-hot-to-ski afternoons, some tourers pass the time sprawled over benches in the sun with fistfulls of beer. We play cards—intense showdowns over hands of Exploding Kittens.

After three Italian dinner-gorge-fests, three golden sunsets, three cozy nights at Branca, reaching the two highest summits I’ve ever climbed, and my first time on a glacier, we set off for Rifugio Pizzini via Monte Pasquale (3552m) and Cevedale (3769m). More new territory for me: scrambling the rocky edge of Cevedale in crampons, loaded with skis and poles on the pack to reach the summit. It’s not so much the climbs pushing my boundaries this week, but the skiing part of it, the steep downhills. Occasionally Simon or Marine’s guide-instinct kicks in: They’ve sized-up my weakness, sensed my hesitation, and they offer their curving descent lines for me to follow.

We arrive at Pizzini sunburned and salty. Wearing only white towels, other skiers emerge from downstairs and rub snow on their steaming arms. There really is a sauna up here! It’s just beside the heated ski storage with boot dryer. Add the multi-course dinners and even showers (if you choose - we don’t) and this is some swanky hut life! We drink apfelschorle, play cards and buddy up to a pair of American guides here on holiday. Then we raid the sauna in wool caps and goggles. Viva Italia!

Gran Zebru is the reward saved for our last day. Dan and Janine wanted to make this summit on previous trips, but never had the conditions on their side. We start our watches one more time, and skin toward it, steadily pacing against a surprisingly wintery wind. A dark cloud tips over the summit as the mountain gathers its own weather. The climb is sloping at first, then steeper and icy. I leave my skis at the base of the couloir knowing I won’t want to ski anything above it. Other pairs of skis are posted in the snow, too, waiting at various heights. It’s a steep hoof up, but worn-in steps help grip into the 45-degree icy slope. Some rocks rain down from earlier starters, and Italians in one-piece skimo suits swivel past. I stab my poles through the crust and keep moving. More clouds roll in and out but clear completely as we reach the summit.

Finally tucking beside the thin metal cross at the top of Gran Zebru for a windbreak, I’m reminded that it’s worth it—most things that ask more effort, cause heavier breathing, and lead us higher usually are. Jagged ridges unfold in all directions. The whole world seems to be black and white and blue. Only rock, cloud, snow and sky extending endlessly.

We all look to where we started. Far down in the valley below, it’s drier and warmer even than a few days before when we carried our skis up the trail. Greening valleys, speckles of villages, traces of road, all impossibly far below. I feel an impulse, a drive to go higher—motivation for next winter. For now, there’s nothing left but coming down.

Back at the bottom of the couloir and my ready skis, we finally find the anticipated corn baking in the noon sun and excitedly speed over the rolling terrain. Wild, whooping, bucking as we go. Not far beyond Pizzini we straddle rocks on strips of gritty snow until they’re narrower than our skis. Now we’re the ones with bare arms and burnt faces booting down the road to the bottom of the valley where summer is waiting. Back to brown and dust. But for a few days, we traveled through a wild white landscape.

About the Ortler: Sizable glaciers, serac zones, crevasses, and high alpine peaks make the Ortler terrain ideal for interesting approaches, as well as long descents. Climbing big peaks, like Monte Cevedale, Punta San Matteo, or Gran Zebru, requires basic alpine skills for the summits.

Best time to go: March & April

Start/Finish: There are three main ways into the Ortler Group: above Bormio from the west, from Solden in the north, and the Marteller Valley, on the east. The Solden approach is quite popular, as a lift can be used for a high start. The exit route from the Branca side to Solden or Marteller can be complicated in bad weather. It’s an easier and shorter downhill without glaciers if you have to ski out from Branca or Pizzini to the Bormio side in bad weather.

The Tour: The Ortler Tour isn’t a classic point-to-point tour, or a set loop. The ideal way to explore the Ortler group is to make a star: Stay at a couple of huts for multiple nights. This allows more flexibility, choosing the best option for the day’s conditions, skiing with lighter packs and returning to a base. Given the conditions, we adjusted from touring objectives to ski mountaineering mode. In four days we climbed five of the classic ski peaks.

Peaks: The classic ski peaks are Punta San Matteo (3676 m), Pizzo Tresero (3594 m), Punta Taviela (3612 m), Palon de la Mare (3585 m), Monte Cevedale (3769 m), Monte Pasquale (3553 m) and the trophy peak, the Gran Zebru, or Königspitze (3851 m). Others not to miss: Cime dei Forni to the north of Pizzini, and the many couloirs from Monte San Giacomo that drop steeply straight down to the parking area for the Branca.

Effort: Route specific. Medium to Difficult

Huts: Besides the great ski terrain, the Ortler is known for its huts. Several key huts; Rifugio Branca, Pizzini, Casati, and Marteller. For this tour we stayed at Branca (three nights) and Pizzini (one night). We enjoyed private rooms, espresso machines, bars, showers, and even a sauna. And then there’s the food—not your typical hut grub. Four course meals; antipasto, primo, secondo, dolce. As you sit at the dinner table with plates piled high, your pants unbuttoned, and a grappa in hand, you can peer out the hut window and plan what you’ll ski the next day. Reservations required.

Guide: A mountain guide can organize everything, show you the best places for the current conditions and keep you safer on the glaciers, which require serious knowledge of rescue and navigation. Check in with Simon Duverney of Altiplanet (pictured) at www.altiplanet.fr.

Gear highlights:

Men’s and Women’s Deviator Hoody

Men’s White Room Pants

Men’s Ferrosi Summit Jacket

Women’s Offchute Pants

Phosphor Mitts

Men's and Women’s Echo Hoody

Women’s Flyway Zip Hoody

Men's and Women’s Helium II Jacket 

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Photos by Dan and Janine Patitucci.