The Ortler Ski Tour
Two guys wearing nothing but spandex shorts, ski boots, and packs full of gear saunter down to the parking lot. Spaghetti western extras with holstered ice axes and dangling ski crampons. An upsurge of dust follows. Our gang is just arriving to start a week of touring in Italy’s Ortler range, and conditions look dry. We nod, crossing paths, shirts vs. skins. We’re headed into what they’ve just come from. Our goal is to go high. Glaciers and altitude are our best bet for skiable conditions. Plenty of daylight hours and corn skiing should make April perfect for touring…if we find any snow. And if we don’t, 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 short trek and skin up to Branca hut, our bunk for three nights. At the hut, we’re happy to hear reports of good snow high-up 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. Antipasto, primo, secondo, some nights a cheese plate follow. The room fills with chewing and chattering, and the sun only starts to set as we settle in for our dolce.
Our days 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 great friend of Dan and Janine’s, gives us tips on glacier safety and teaches us why touring boots are better for dancing on tables than alpine boots. In the afternoons, some pass the time with fistfulls of beer and sprawling over benches in the sun. We play cards. Intense showdowns over hands of Exploding Kittens. We set aside the trust we build skiing together, shooting sideways glances over fanned-open cards, feigning alliances to be the last one standing.
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 and 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 some downs. The steep slopes are short, but they’re steep for me. 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, salty, and not too many hours ahead of dinner since we spent some extra time practicing glacier rescue. Wearing only white towels, skiers who arrived earlier emerge from downstairs and rub snow on their steaming extremities. So there really is a sauna! 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 livin’. 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!
The reward on the last day: Gran Zebru. 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 towards it, steadily pacing against a wintery wind. A dark cloud tips over the summit as the mountain gathers it’s 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 need to ski anything above it. A few rocks rain down from earlier starters. A few other pairs of skis are waiting at various heights. It’s a steep hoof up, but worn-in steps help grip into the 45 degree icy slope. Italians in one-piece skimo suits swivel down from further up. More clouds roll in and out and clear completely as we reach the summit.
Tucking beside the thin metal cross at the top of Gran Zebru for a windbreak, I feel an impulse, a spur, a drive to go higher. I want one hundred forty-nine meters more mountain. I’ve never tagged 4000 meters, and 3851m is almost there. It’s not impressive altitude for mountaineers, skiers, alpinists, some day-hikers, but in the four days ski-touring Italy’s Ortler range, I reached several new highs: 35, 36, 37, 3800 meters. Greening valleys, speckles of villages, traces of road, all impossibly far-below. Jagged ridges unfold in all directions like their signifying lines on a map. The whole world seems to be black and white and blue. Nothing but rock, cloud, snow, and sky extending endlessly with no horizon.
Nothing left but coming down.
Happily for me, I get to wide-legged cowboy stomp down the steep stuff all the way to 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. Back to brown and dust, but for a few days, we traveled through a wild white landscape. 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.
By Kim Strom
Kim is an expat midwestern girl turning mountain woman. She can be found running trails throughout the Alps, except now that she has a taste of elevation, she may start getting high more often. Look for many more stories from Kim in the coming months. Follow her fun at Kimberly Strom.
Planning an Ortler Ski Tour?
For more info about the Ortler, visit our Ortler Ski Tour Trip Page.