Total Disco on the Ortler
The couloir corkscrews toward the summit of S. Giacomo (10,764 feet), a rugged alpine peak along northern Italy’s Ortler Traverse, one of the ultimate backcountry ski destinations on the planet.
Huffing and puffing from the altitude, I follow our guide, Marica Fave, as she ascends steep snow near the top of the 3,000-foot climb. My friends Jerry Casson and Bruce McLachin are right behind me. Near the top of a col, the wind gusts. Visibility tanks. We decide to turn around.
After hydrating, we click into our bindings. Now for the fun part. Marica shoots down first, creating a rooster tail of powder behind her. I follow, whooping and hollering as I work my way back and forth across the couloir, searching for pockets of eiderdown snow blown off the north side of the peak.
Marica’s green parka bobs ahead like a beacon. As we descend, the slope grows crusty, making the turns trickier. I force myself to stop, catch my breath, and take in the views. I’ve earned my turns and now I want to savor them.
We cruise past boulders, scrub pine and larch trees, eventually reaching the road. Taking off our skis, we walk back to the Forni Hut. Despite my jet lag, I’m energized by our first day on the Ortler; so far it’s living up to its billing.
The Ortler Traverse crosses the spine of northern Italy—an enormous playground of glaciers, snowfields, ridges, cirques, and long, sustained ski runs—interspersed with some of the most comfortable huts in the world, the restaurants serving pasta, ham, and venison washed down with draft beer and local wine. It’s supposed to be the place where backcountry skiers die and go to heaven.
After doing the Haute Route from Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland, I first heard the siren song of the Ortler. I wanted to ski it immediately, but family, work, and a knee surgery put the trip on hold. I put it on my backcountry bucket list, one of the trips a skier should do at least once in a lifetime.
Last year, I decided to make it happen. I selected dates in mid-March and put the word out to my backcountry skiing buddies. Many were interested but only two could commit: Jerry Casson, an experienced backcountry skier and climber; Bruce McLachin, an avid cyclist and skier, new to the backcountry. I hired an Italian guide, Marica Fave, who came highly recommended. We planned to spend five days on the tour, tracing a rough circle from the Forni Hut outside of Santa Caterina to the Pizzini Hut, Marteller Hut, Branca Hut, returning to the Forni Hut. Along the way, we planned to sample the skiing, mountaineering and Italian food, drink and hospitality. I hoped it would live up to the hype.
In March we flew to Milan and drove three hours north to Santa Caterina di Valfurva, a fairy tale town ringed by high peaks, ski lifts, and sturdy alpine style-buildings with smoke curling from the chimneys. We drove up the steep, winding road to the Forni Hut at 6600 feet, putting chains on the rental car to get up to the final hill. When one of the chains broke, Jerry and Bruce came to the rescue, using ski straps to secure the chain. We limped into the parking lot of the hut located at the base of peaks in Stelvio National Park, making it a perfect jumping off point for the tour.
Returning to the Forni Hut after our first day on S. Giacomo, I sit down on the bench outside and take in the elemental beauty of the surroundings: white snow, black rock, and apricot alpenglow spreading across the summit of S. Giacomo.
Heading back inside, I pass a glass case with WWI memorabilia. The hut is located near the front lines between Italy and the Austrians during WWI. There are historical items like bullets and hand grenades as well as climbing and skiing memorabilia. The hut has a colorful history.
That night, we gorge on pasta with venison ragu for the first course and a cheese omelet for the second course, showing the diverse heritage of the region. Digging into the pasta, we discuss the itinerary. We have tons of options for the tour, depending on the weather and the strength of the party. We’re all fit, excellent skiers, but we’re middle-aged working stiffs.
Marica has evaluated us and come up with a plan. She’s just over five feet, with short black hair and electric green eyes. A ski racer for eight years on the Italian National Team, her motor revs high. Check your manly outdoor ego at the door when you ski with Marica; she’s a dynamo on the way up, and a dart on the way down.
“I think we go slower,” she says diplomatically. “Then we can enjoy the huts and the scenery.”
I nod in agreement. I’m here to savor the whole experience: the huts, food, camaraderie as well as the skiing and climbing.
“That sounds good,” Bruce says.
Jerry also agrees.
After dinner, I do a gear purge, leaving a book, extra food, gloves, etc. Now, my pack weighs 30 pounds. I need to go light if I want to keep up with Marica.
The next morning, we head for the Pizzini Hut. Clouds move in. The wind picks up. We move at a steady pace up a snow-covered road, past electrical lines. This is not wilderness in an American sense, but it seems very wild today, with blue glaciers and scads of high, alpine peaks.
The hut appears as a small black dot on the snowfield ahead. We arrive in the late morning, storing our gear in the hut’s basement, which has a rack for boots with snazzy hot air jets to dry them.
The hut keeper, Claudio Campagnoni, serves us tea and cake. I shake my head at the contrast to other huts I’ve visited, where you eat the food you haul in and there’s no barista or cake waiting at the counter.
Marica suggests an afternoon jaunt to a high point on a ridge above the hut. Bruce stays at the hut to rest up and get over a cold. We quickly skin up toward the high point, glad to travel without heavy packs. We’re halfway to the high point when a storm moves in. Snow starts falling. Visibility goes to 50 feet.
“Should we turn around here?” I ask Marica.
“Yes, it’s okay,” she says.
We find a flat spot, take off our packs and peel off our skins. The snow comes harder, bringing visibility to 10 feet. I’m worried about finding our way back to the hut.
“Don’t worry,” Marica says. “I will find it.” Using her GPS, she leads the way, working across the slope. The fresh snow makes skiing a pleasure, so I scythe back and forth across it. Then I hit a patch of ice, pitch forward, and manage to right myself. It’s hard to see the contours of the slope. It’s “survival skiing” as Jerry likes to say. We follow her through the mist, feeling our way as if by braille. I’m glad we hired her as a guide.
My thighs are torched by the time we reach the hut. It’s a relief to take off my boots, dump my pack and relax. After a sauna and shower, I enjoy a bowl of vegetable soup for lunch. Marica and Jerry head out again while I take in the atmosphere around the hut. Despite knee surgery and the aches and pains of middle age, I feel great. I’ve trained for the trip by dragging a 30-pound pack up and down my local ski area. So far, this seems to be paying off.
Soon cooking smells waft from the kitchen. Dinner beckons. There is no Top Ramen on the menu. Instead, we dine on Polenta Taragna, a local dish, and Bresaola, slices of air-dried beef, Marica’s favorite meal. We pair this with a local red wine. After dinner, Marica suggests a glass of Braulio, the local digestif. It has a strong medicinal flavor, a bit like Jägermeister. Let’s just say it’s an acquired taste.
The next day dawns clear and cold. Wind hammers my Gore-Tex shell, making it rattle like a machine gun. Marica leads the way up toward the Casati Hut perched on a ridge above the Pizzini. She zigzags back and forth up the huge snow slope, gaining elevation. I follow, breathing hard to catch up. My acclimatization isn’t there yet.
Bruce comes up behind me, maintaining a steady pace. “I’m glad I took the afternoon off yesterday,” he says.
I nod and keep going, marveling at the expanse of the Ortles Range spreading out before us. This is big country. We reach the foot of a rocky ridge. The slope steepens above. The sun glints off ice under the snow.
“Let’s put on crampons,” Marica says.
We take off the skis and lash them to the packs. My hands grow numb as I put on the crampons in the cold, but they make the going much easier. The route takes a steep line up scree and ice-covered rocks. When I turn to look back at Bruce, I feel the pinprick of adrenalin in the back of my neck. The slope below is steep and runout. I don’t want to fall here.
As the angle eases, I notice a rusted tangle of barbed wire, a remnant of WWI. I pass a trench and pillbox. Finally, we emerge on top of the ridge and spot the Casati Hut, currently out of commission.
We dump our packs and refuel. Marica suggests climbing the Suldenspitze or Cima di Solda (11,076 feet). We’re straddling the border with the Sud Tirol; all the features have names in German and in Italian. This area was disputed in WWI. Now officially a part of Italy, the terrain and culture resemble Austria.
Bruce waits for us here while we head up toward the peak. We scrape our way up icy slopes toward the wind-blasted summit of the Suldenspitze, the high point so far of the trip. Ski crampons would have helped, but we manage without them. I edge across the wind-blasted ice to reach a snow patch. Finally, the angle eases and I join Marica at the top.
“Berg Heil!” she shouts, congratulating me on the climb. She high fives me and Jerry. The view is amazing, especially to the northwest with the impressive dark triangle of Grand Zebru (12,635 feet). We pose for photos with a large metal cross on the summit.
Skiing back to the Casati, we pick up Bruce and then head across the glacier to check out the three cannons left over from the war. We rope up, moving methodically over the snow, which looks stable, but may cover crevasses. The three cannons sit on a talus slope pointing south, reminders of a much less peaceful time.
Re-crossing the glacier, we un-rope and begin our descent toward the Marteller Hut, our destination for the night. I follow Marica as she makes long, looping turns down the Langerferner Glacier. I stop to catch my breath and take in the views, mile after mile of magnificent snow-clad peaks, with no one else around. We fly back and forth across the snowfield, seeking out pockets of powder. It’s waltz time skiing, with Strauss’s “Blue Danube” playing in my head. I revel in the chill air and try to keep my thighs from getting torched.
In a basin below the hut, we skin up again. It’s been a long day, with a lot of mileage and a lot of vertical. It’s a great relief to reach the hut, which bustles with people. Jerry, Bruce and I stake out a spot on the wooden tables in the sun outside the hut. We order three draft beers and toast to our adventure. High life on the Ortler!
That night in the café, blond waitresses speaking German bustle back and forth, bringing us bottles of the local wine and heaping platters of pasta and Spiegeleier, a local dish of potatoes, meat and eggs. It’s a backcountry skier’s fantasy.
The coffee is strong and black in the morning. I chow down on ham, cheese, and croissants. I’m reluctant to leave but Marica wants to reach to the Branca hut tonight. We pack up our gear, put on our skins, and head out at 7:30 a.m.
The air is cold and still, with Monte Cevedale looming above us. We slowly ascend the Zufallferner Glacier. Marica wants to climb Cevedale, but the weather looks bad.
“I don’t think we do it today,” she says.
“Okay,” I say, relieved. Save it for next time. I’m getting enough of a work out.
White clouds spill across the glacier, blotting out the summits. Marica keeps us on track with her GPS. I draft behind her, regulating my breathing, trying to move efficiently. It’s hard to judge time or distance in the whiteout. Just keep plodding and hope you’re on track.
We rope up again, the push/ pull of the rope throwing me off balance. Finally, we spot the ochre rectangle of the Casati hut in the mist. Lashing the skis to the packs, we switch to crampons. The descent is steep and icy, so we take our time moving past the barbed wire and trenches. At a flat spot halfway down, we put on the skis. The first turns are tentative, checking out the snow. Then I bomb down a steep couloir, ripping back and forth across Bruce and Jerry’s tracks, the snow billowing up into my face, nearly blowing my hat off.
Poling madly, I strain to hold as much speed as possible, flying over terrain that took hours to cover on the way up. The world blurs by. My legs feel like rubber when we arrive at the Forni Hut.
We stop here for lunch. After all the exercise, my body screams: EAT! We order beer, mushroom pasta, and Pizzoccheri, a local pasta dish made with buckwheat tagliatelle, potatoes, cabbage, Casera cheese, and sage butter. Not exactly a training meal, except for the Ortler.
After lunch, we waddle up to the Branca Hut. As I open the heavy wooden door of the hut, I get hit with a blast of rock music. A group of Americans from Boston has colonized the bar and commandeered the stereo. The place is hopping, with the bar offering free snacks and happy hour drinks. From total whiteout to total disco. Such is the life along the Ortler!
Sitting down with the group, I learn that one of them, Dan DeMarco, attended Amherst College two years behind me. As we reminisce, he tells me he was recently diagnosed with throat cancer. He underwent treatment and finally beat the cancer three months ago. He badly wanted to do this trip and trained hard but wasn’t back to his previous form. Earlier in the day, his group overshot the Branca Hut and faced a two-hour uphill trek to reach it. Dan was exhausted so the rest of the group emptied his pack and helped him ski up to the hut.
“I started sliding my legs forward,” he says. “I was lagging but the guys stayed with me. When we got up there, I sat down and started crying. I have great camaraderie with the guys. I love having the physical goal of the trip. I think it helps you live your life.”
The trip is a victory for him; I can see it in his eyes. Trips like this make such a big difference in your life. You have to make time for them.
At dinner, we toast new friends and old, including Dominique Felllay, my guide on the Haute Route who died in an avalanche several years ago. We eat and drink, delighted to be together in this amazing place. The Bostonians turn up the stereo, dancing to the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive.”
The clouds open on our last day, revealing an enormous snow-spackled bowl behind the hut. We skin up past a frozen lake toward the ridge. I’m finally acclimatized and dying to get in one last run before heading home.
When we reach the ridge top (10,160 feet), the views expand in all directions—to the north the icy ripsaw ridge of Monte Cevedale, to south toward S. Giacomo (10,764 feet), the flank of which we climbed early in the trip. I think back on all the great moments of the tour—summiting Suldenspitze, waltz time skiing on the Langerferner glacier, meeting Dan DeMarco, and the great camaraderie of our group. We’ve gotten a fantastic introduction to this storied tour. It’s totally lived up to the hype.
We click into our bindings for our final run. Marica leads the way, gliding through new powder on the north-facing slope. Her black Blizzard skis whip back and forth, cutting deft, decisive turns, matching every contour. I follow, turning back and forth across her tracks, braiding them into a cable.
Bruce and Jerry come next, whooping and hollering as they blow through the powder. We stop at the bottom to admire the graceful lines we’ve incised in the slopes. Then I take off again, heading for the Branca, tucking in the flats, launching into the steeps, flying past rocks, my lungs working, my legs screaming, a wide grin spreading across my face as if I’ve gotten away with something.