I’m sure I said it several times. Everybody glared at me to get moving; glad it was I and not they. It was lonely trying to muster the will to point my skis off the ridge and onto the headwall at the top of the Val Cedec with no sensory perception other than whiteness and wind. The unknowns were legit: slope angle, duration, cliff bands, rock gardens, and/or crevasses. The real question is why we didn’t retreat back into the Rifugio Casati two minutes away, drink more cappuccinos and wait for the storm to clear?
The Ortler Ski Circuit is among the definitive European ski tours, along with the Haute Route, the Silvretta Ski Traverse and the Berner Oberland Tour. It is in the Ortler Range in Italian South Tyrol. Stelvio National Park, the largest park in Italy, is the setting and it adjoins another park in Switzerland to form an immense Alpine preserve over 1,500 square miles. The region is home to many glaciers and peaks nearly 4,000 meters (13,123’). Several rifugios (backcountry lodges) operate in the region. The terrain is generally above treeline and has something for everybody. Many peaks can be summited with climbing skins and ski crampons while more challenging peaks require a cool head and some mountaineering tools. Almost all are skiable from the summit.
In Spring 2014 I jumped at the chance to ski the Ortler for a week with a group of 12, most hailing from Seattle (Randy, Deanna, Vanessa, Mike, Kim, Dave and Kam), a contingent of Utahns (Paolo, Eric, Tony and me) and an Alaskan (Karol). Strong skiers each (one splitboarder included) and all are possessing agreeable dispositions. The latter quality is key, the dynamics of ski touring, mountain climbing, eating, lodging and travelling with an unguided group of 12 can lead to delicate situations where individual concessions to the group will be necessary – a go-along-to-get-along scenario. Half the group was telemark skiers, making them the last telemarkers in Europe.
We convened at the Rifugio Forni, an idyllic refuge used as barracks for alpine troops fighting in World War I between the Kingdom of Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There were many museum-like displays of relics from the early days of mountaineering and from the fighting nearby in WWI, mostly shell casings and other curios like glacier glasses and mess kit items. The most distressing antiquity I observed was a framed newspaper article in Italian from 1915 reporting 40 troops killed not by other men, but by an avalanche in late July of that year near Monte Cevedale.
Departing the Forni early the next morning, we skinned up the Forni Valley to the picturesque Rifugio Branca. It was a short distance; nonetheless it brought us directly to the very heart of the Italian Alps, a dramatic and stunning landscape. Beautiful peaks sparkling with glaciers surround the Branca, which sits on a rock abutment with an unobstructed view of enormous mountains. Touring parties and ski tracks were everywhere. Preconceived ideas of a desolate mountain retreat were quickly dispelled.
Packs were emptied of unnecessary items and we were soon touring up the Val Rosole under a roasting April sun. An ascent of Cima Branca brought a 360-degree view of ski touring paradise including views of the Gran Zebru jutting into the sky, the showpiece of the range with a potent mix of intimidation and intrigue. With few exceptions everything looked skiable in every direction. The choices are endless; there are giant skiable faces of sustained steepness or long runs from summits down rolling glaciers or broad slopes of sunny corn or narrow couloirs. We skied a long corn run down snow that had a light red tint. A dust storm from the Sahara Desert 500 miles to the south had left its residue a week before.
The pristine mountains distorted their own size. The next day we realized that a jaunt up Punta San Matteo was a 5,000’ haul. Near the summit ridge the skintrack ascends a glacial ramp adjacent to a cascading icefall of jumbled seracs, part of which had spilled debris over descending ski tracks. Seeing the debris over the tracks was a reminder of the dynamic nature of glaciated ski terrain; seracs fall, snowbridges collapse, crevasses open up. The day before at the Branca we had seen a hundred ski tourers or more ascending Punta San Matteo, yet when we arrived on the summit there was only one fellow tourer, an affable German splitboarder. Apparently the day before was Sunday and the Branca is popular with the weekender crowd. Summit views were astounding and included the Dolomites to the west and a sea of peaks comprising the bulk of the Tyrol region in Austria to the north. A long descent in soft, settled powder brought us back to the Branca.
The majority of our group had declined to ascend Punta San Mateo with us, fearing a conga line of people on the skintrack and instead climbed Punta Cadina. They descended a steep, consistent face of Alaskan proportions that I feared hid crevasses or blue ice. We returned simultaneously with the Cadina party to the Branca in warm afternoon sunshine and initiated a daily ritual of rehydration with draft beers and cappuccinos. The Rifugio Branca dates from 1934, nonetheless we had a private bedroom of four bunk beds and a bathroom with a coin-operated shower for the hygiene concious.
Every hut/refugio has a drying room and many are unworthy of the name but the Branca drying room cranks up a genuine roaring heat. Our enthusiasm for dry boots was tempered by a very distinct pungent smell emanating from the drying room. It began slowly and built up to a steamy cloud of evaporated boot sweat that spread and penetrated the sleeping quarters. Luckily the boot liners dried quickly in the intense heat and it soon dissipated.
After two nights at the Branca, the Rifugio Pizzini in the Val Cedec was the next lodging, accessed by either a low route (one hour) or a high route (many hours). We took the high route over a col between Monte Pasquale and Monte Cevedale, then down Vedretta di Cedec. We were hoping for a quick ascent of Monte Pasquale from the col but two days of cloudless skies had given way to a rapidly dropping cloud ceiling. Unsure of the crevasse danger ahead, we chose to descend before the visibility became impaired, which it did soon. Fortunately we had already navigated the worst crevasse section. It was snowing hard when we arrived at the Rifugio Pizzini.
The winter entry into the Pizzini is through the gear/drying room. I was excited to see ducts coming off a heater going to tree-shaped drying racks for ski boots. At the end of the “limbs” were holes enabling hot air from the heater to go directly to the toebox of hanging ski boots, the only drying apparatus designed to dry ski boots without taking the liner out. It was Europe at its finest yet again the offensive perfume of evaporating ski boot sweat made some eyes water. The storm raged outside as we played cards, conversed with other parties and snacked and imbibed in what is undoubtedly the nicest rifugio/hut that any of us had stayed in. Dinner was served by lovely signoras wearing matching dresses and serving generous proportions of delicious Italian cuisine accompanied by excellent local wine delivered by the always smiling hutkeepers Mauro and Claudio.
We awoke predawn to clear skies and brisk temperatures with several inches of new snow. At sunrise we set out to climb the Gran Zebru, the “Great King” (3,859 m, 12,661’). It looms over the Rifugio Pizzini and is the most impressive of the peaks in the Ortles–Cevedale Group, the heart of the Ortler Range. The skintrack winds to the base of a west-facing couloir. Crampons and self-arrest tools were necessary up the couloir, then continuing another 1,000’ up a steep snowfield to the summit. The exposure was energizing, the views intoxicating. The snow surface was tantalizingly smooth but it was dust on crust and it barely concealed a bed layer of frozen ski tracks from before the storm. The descent was pure adrenaline down the steep face, terminating at a cliff band. Shortly above the cliff band we traversed right to catch the west-facing couloir used in the ascent. We were relieved to find it facing into the sun. It was the perfect consistency of corn. The couloir descent was very quick to avoid high rockfall potential. We reconvened on a slope below the couloir to savor our accomplishment, break out the chocolate, cheese, bread and salame and revel in post-adrenaline euphoria. It was effortless schussing down rolling terrain back to the Pizzini. The mother/daughter duo in our group was so enraptured by the freedom of the hills that they took a pair of runs au natural embraced by the spring sunshine.
The following morning we departed the luxurious Pizzini for the Rifugio Casati (3,269 m, 10,725’). The Casati is a very large structure perched high on the windswept ridge straddling the two prominent cultures of the Tyrol. We had been on the Italian side, but the other side of the ridge is the Austrian side, despite the fact the Ortler is entirely in Italy. A portion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire became part of Italy after WWI when the Italians triumphantly annexed territory encompassing the entire watershed. The route to the Casati ascended an open slope and eventually led up an exposed ridge with patches of 100 year-old barbed wire from WWI across the skin track. The wind was gusting strongly across the ridge. Proximity to a large drop off generated some well-deserved anxiety.
Once at the Casati, we carefully tread the sloping exterior deck of dubious structural integrity, fearing a misplaced step could exact a high price. Inside we found ourselves the only visitors, despite a 260-bed capacity. The hutkeeper, Mr. Alberti is a gregarious Italian from Bormio, enthusiastic about ski racing and quick with the cappuccino. We headed to our rooms to empty our backpacks for an afternoon walkabout when Steven King’s “The Shining” came to mind in the big empty hotel, surrounded by mountains and glaciers (and howling wind for special effects). It was the only rifugio on the Ortler that did not have hot showers. It did have stacks of thick wool blankets that were helpful for sleeping in the high-altitude accommodations on that cold, windy night. It was at the Casati that I most regretted forgetting to bring my Steripen, a compact UV light for sterilizing water. The Casati receives supplies via a lift from a location near the Pizzini. Consequently, supplies are expensive- especially water. We calculated that bottled water would figure to over $25 per gallon.
The every-other-day storm gave way to calm blue skies the following morning for a chilly descent down the Sulden Glacier to Skiresort Sulden. Fresh snow in the perfect amount sweetened the deal. Our gaze was repeatedly drawn to the Gran Zebru towering over everything and growing in perspective as we descended. We passed several large touring parties originating from Skiresort Sulden ascending the skintrack in a comical, lock-step fashion almost militant in nature. The descent brought us to the upper half of the Sulden ski area. Packs were ditched and we jumped on the lifts and did a couple runs to scout for the way to Zufallhütte and then onto the Marteller Hütte. Quickly underwhelmed by the flat ski runs, we succumbed to the temptation of yet another restaurant.
A small notch at the top of Skiresort Sulden is the entry into the drainage leading to the Zufallhütte. We dropped in ready for scratchy frozen ski tracks and instead found smooth corn in the window of perfection, thousands of vertical feet of it. Near the bottom of the drainage we traversed around a corner and skated onto the grounds of the Zufallhütte. A fluttering Austrian flag had us debating whether we were still in Italy or Austria. The baristas were wearing frayed cutoff denim shorts, plaid shirts and enough eyeliner to make my teenage daughter proud, resulting in a distinct roller derby effect that had me thinking Joan Jett goes to the Alps. The Von Trapp family didn’t live here anymore.
After more outstanding food, we left the popular Zufallhütte and climbed 500 meters to the Marteller Hütte. We were soaking up afternoon sunshine during the afternoon ritual when a very large raptor began circling the Hütte, making a few passes surprisingly close. It was a Lammergeier, the “bearded vulture” with habitat in mountainous regions from North Africa to China. The species was destroyed in southern Europe in the early 20th century and the bird circling us was the result of recent reintroduction efforts in the Stelvio National Park. The wingspan of a mature Lammergeier is seven to nine feet and this one was definitely mature. In many cultures the Lammergeier symbolizes luck and happiness. It is the perfect omen for the Ortler Ski Circuit.
The following day was our last with a final destination of the Rifugio Forni, our starting place where the snow meets the road. The day-on day-off storm pattern appeared to have fizzled under clear morning skies. We set off early up the Martell Valley toward the Rifugio Casati, intent on summiting Monte Cevedale. Slowly some clouds appeared and multiplied until no blue was left. Then the cloud ceiling lowered as we neared Monte Cevedale, eventually obscuring the summit and dashing our hopes for one last peakbag. As we approached the ridge separating the Italian and Austrian cultures, I spied a promontory hosting the fabled “Tre Canoni”, the three cannons. We heard about them when we stayed at the Casati earlier in the week but were unable to locate them in the limited visiblility. They are three Italian cannons from WWI that had a commanding view and menacing range overlooking the Austrian side of the Martell Valley.
We stopped at the Casati for some outstanding cappuccino and to celebrate the end of the last skintrack. It is all downhill back to the Rifugio Forni with the only complication a cloud cover that had dropped low enough to form a white out with strong winds and snowfall. And we were unsure of the descent off the ridge. The prudent approach would have been to sit tight and wait for the weather to clear so we could see our route down. However, while sitting out a storm it is easy to imagine the storm will never end, or at least not soon. We were concerned that enough new snow would create avalanche dangers and could leave us stranded at the top. The urge to move before things got worse prevailed and with the hutkeeper’s directions to the descent we were soon on the ridge in a whiteout.
“Dammit dammit dammit ….”
I stood on the edge for a few minutes hoping for the clouds to part and yield a glimpse of what lay below. I stalled, completely convinced of a poor outcome should I step onto the steeps. Paolo, underwhelmed by my courage, came over and casually dropped onto the headwall like it was his local ski hill. He sideslipped down the 40-degree slope until only his outline was visible. We all quickly followed, trying to stay within vision of each other. I had my whippet handy for self-arrest should circumstance necessitate. It probably took 10 minutes to sideslip and occasionally turn, but the whiteout distorted the time/space continuum and it felt like hours. Eventually we hit the flats at the bottom of the slope and picked up a path of snow wands until we emerged from the whiteout. A few minutes further on was the Rifugio Pizzini (cappuccino) and onward down to treeline. The snow had mostly melted out before we made it to the Rifugio Forni – leaving barely enough in places to ski down. Spring was creeping up out of the valleys.
Back at the Forni we celebrated and partied and ate and drank and kept the hutkeeper busy selling beers and wine and the local hooch, Braulio. We unpacked and repacked in an endless reshuffling of possessions, staging for the next phase of the trip. Most of the Seattleites were heading to Tuscany for several days of bike riding under the strong Mediterranean sun. We Utahns headed to Milan for a brush with haute couture and then back to the Wasatch for a deserted, late season powder cycle to wrap up the season with a smile.