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The International Language of Skiing

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I’ve always thought skiing uphill brings out the best in people. Jeff Ward, co-owner of North Cascade Mountain Guides is all smiles as we rip skins on top of Punta San Matteo, a peak at 12,067 feet towering over the Branca Hut. It is day five of our seven day trip through the Ortles-Cevedale region of the South Tirol. After 4,000 feet of climbing, back aching under the weight of my pack, and the wind howling in my ear, I can’t help but smile too. For the last few days we’ve been indulging in fine Italian cuisine, wandering across sparkling glaciers, enjoying 360 degree views of the alps, great company, and of course plenty of local wine and beer on tap. 

Larry Goldie and Jeff Ward, co-owners of North Cascade Mountain Guides have been guiding the Ortler Route every spring for the last ten years. Still a relatively hidden gem of European hut skiing, the Ortler circuit really seems to have it all: impressive ski mountaineering objectives, magnificent scenery, warm Italian hospitality, a smattering of World War 1 history. Unlike more famous routes like the Haute Route, the Ortler trip starts and ends in the same place, spending a few nights in some of the huts along the way, creating a more relaxed itinerary. “Instead of getting from Point A to Point B we can focus on where the best skiing is and adapt the trip based on the needs of our guests” Larry tells me.

We begin our journey in Santa Caterina, a small ski resort in the heart of the Stelvio National Park. We are greeted outside our hotel in the morning by our cab driver Flavio, an older Italian man whose rugged leatheryface tells stories of years spent in the mountains. “Tutto bene, cara?” He doesn’t speak any English and he smiles at me warmly when I approach, taking my pack out of my hands and tossing it in the trailer as if it were light as a feather. I feel instantly at ease as Flavio ushers us into the cab and we speed up the winding valley on our way to the Forni hut, my nose glued to the window the whole time, dazed by the towering mountains above.

We are a group of nine; seven guests led by Larry and Jeff. The other guests are a cheerful group from Mazama, Washington, where North Cascades is based and most of them know each other from home. I am here alone, joining the trip from my current residence in Italy, a few hours away from Santa Caterina. Being skiers, it doesn’t take long to find common ground and I quickly feel at home around my new friends; Kristen and Steve both went to school at the University of Colorado in Boulder where I am currently a student, Wendy tells me all about her daughter who’s about my age. After one day it feels like we’ve known each other for years.

We wave goodbye to Flavio and stretch skins over our skis, hoist our packs onto our backs and head up the valley. From here it is a gentle two and a half hour skin up to the Rifugio Pizzini, our first Italian hut. Larry tells me this is hands down his favorite trip to guide. “Everything is better” he says. “The food, the huts- it’s hard to go back to anything else once you’ve done a trip in the Ortler”.

We arrive at the rifugio at around noon, immediately overcome by the smell of something delicious coming from the kitchen. My mouth begins to water and we quickly ditch our skis and snake our way through the gear drying room, ducking under rows of skins waving like bright orange flags in the otherwise dim and shadowy room. We trade our clunky boots for our choice of hut slippers; several shelves of mismatched sandals supplied by the hut keepers. I slip on a pair of bright orange Crocs and head into the dining room. Windows on all sides boast impressive views of the terrain around us, and although plenty spacious, the room feels warm and cozy with red checkered curtains framing the windows and a fire crackling in the corner.

My immediate reaction is that the word hut is a colossal understatement for this experience. This style of skiing is worlds away from hut skiing in the United States. In the states, hut skiing usually means hauling in all your gear, cooking for yourself, melting snow for water, and trekking through the snow to a dingy outhouse. There’s no denying that it is still a blast to enjoy the comforts of a shelter while having the terrain all to yourself; but a nice hut by US standard may as well look like a shanty compared to these miniature mountain palaces.

The hut keepers Claudio and Mauro, greet Larry and Jeff like old friends. The Pizzini has been in the Compagnoni family for three generations, since their grandfather Filippo started managing it in 1958. The hut itself was rebuilt in 1926 after being destroyed in World War 1. Black and white photos and newspaper articles on the wall offer us a glimpse into the lives of Claudio and Mauro’s grandparents, sporting wooden skis with leather straps.

The two floors above are lined with bedrooms and shared bathrooms for the sixty or seventy guests staying here at any given time. I’m amazed at how many people they can accommodate so comfortably. “I’ll take top bunk” I hear someone say as we shuffle into our room to work out sleeping arrangements. It feels like summer camp for adults. Aside from the snowmobiles that deliver supplies to the huts every few days, the only way to get here in the winter is by ski or snowshoe. The hut keepers and employees spend all season here, from March to September, hosting skiers in the spring and hikers during the summer.

At 6:30pm all the guests for the evening file into the dining hall. Our table for nine is waiting for us, labeled “Larry-super guides!” Since 2007 Larry and Jeff have been taking guests to the Pizzini and it’s clear they’ve developed quite the rapport with the Compagnoni brothers. The efficiency with which the huts are run is extremely impressive. Not only are more than 50 hungry skiers served promptly at 6:30 pm with three courses of traditional Italian fare, but the hut keepers and restaurant staff seem to genuinely enjoy what they do. Everyone has a smile on their face as we dig into a hearty meal of pasta con ragu, fish, potatoes, and local wine.

Ciao cara, alla prossima!” Claudio and Mauro see us off early the next morning with brown bag lunches in hand. The crisp air pricks my skin and I can’t bring myself to take my down jacket off, despite knowing I’ll be drenched in sweat in ten minutes. Mysterious wisps of fog cling to the peaks above us, not yet ready to reveal what lies ahead. The childlike excitement of a new adventure zaps me awake and my giddiness overrides any sense of nervousness I had towards the physical challenge of the next few days.

We climb up the valley and the Pizzini gets smaller and smaller in the distance, soon becoming just a tiny dot on the glacier below us. Despite the altitude and the weight of my heavy gear, I surprise myself at how strong I feel as we climb higher and higher. After a few hours of uphill, we make a pit stop at the Casati hut, perched on a ridge at 10,725 feet with a spectacular view of the Marteller Valley. We indulge in some minestrone, torta di mela (apple cake) and a cappuccino, then continue on, up towards the peak looming above us.

At 12,366 feet, Cevedale is one of the highest peaks in the Ortler Alps and one of the most popular objectives. We skin for a while up the smooth glacier until the slope gets too steep and it’s time to boot pack. A few members break off to head down with Jeff and Larry leads myself, Steve and Dave up the rest of the way towards the summit. We transition to crampons and rope up for the final stretch. Traversing the last 50 feet across the knife edge ridge to the summit I am reminded that although we’re enjoying many luxuries on this trip, it is in no way a walk in the park. I shudder as I glance down at the 60 degree slopes falling away on either side of me and concentrate on taking careful, consistent steps as the wind pummels us with fierce blows. “What happens if one of us falls off?” I ask with a nervous chuckle. “I jump off the other side to balance the rope” Larry responds casually, without missing a beat. Reassured by his composure but a little spooked at the image our bodies dangling like puppets on either side of the ridge, I take a deep breath and keep putting one foot in front of the other. A few minutes later we are standing on the summit; a flat landing not much bigger than a Fiat with a decorated wooden cross. It feels like we’re in a postcard, surrounded by shimmering peaks and electric blue skies. All around us you can see tiny specks of color standing on peaks in the area. Looking east I can make out the unmistakable cragged peaks of the Dolomites. It really feels like we’re on top of the world. We snap a few pictures and take advantage of the momentary break in the wind to traverse back across the ridge and give the next group the chance to stand up here. Larry points down the glacier to our destination, the Marteller hut; barely even a speck in the distance, 4,000 feet below. “Hear that?” Larry smiles, cupping his hear towards the valley below. “I can hear the beer calling our names”. He leads the way, steering us through a maze of debris, and down the vast, sweeping glacier. I get the familiar flutter in my stomach; my body’s reflexive excitement whenever the time comes to start skiing. For how firm and wind affected the snow felt on our way up, I am pleasantly surprised as we careen down the smooth slope, enjoying some soft pockets of snow.

During World War I the Ortler Alps were a large part of the Italian front. Midway through our descent we stop for a minute to see the Tre Canoni, three cannons looking into the Marteller Valley. It is remarkable to think about the Italian soldiers standing behind these very same cannons, firing them into the valley below towards the advancing Austro-Hungarian army.

Stepping into the Marteller feels as if we’ve crossed a border. In this region of Italy, the Alto-Adige, about 75% of the inhabitants are German-speaking and the Marteller has a noticeably more Bavarian vibe. From the gear room, loud exclamations in German are chorused by a melody of clanking beer glasses. I half expect everyone to be wearing lederhosen when I turn the corner into the dining room. The rest of our group is already there, having arrived a few hours earlier, immersed in an animated game of Hearts. It doesn’t take long before I’m sitting in a wooden booth in front of that very same beer that was calling our names 4,000 vertical feet ago. “We bought you guys showers!” Fran jumps up, distributing tokens for the hot showers upstairs. A gracious way of saying we could probably use one.

We’ve arrived just in time for dinner, and one round of Hearts later we’re sitting down to another legendary meal complete with stuffed peppers, pasta, potatoes and chocolate cake. The hut keepers Elisa, Christian and Matthias fluently bounce between German, Italian and English as they help their employees dish out generous portions to all the guests. The whoops and hollers turn to a quiet hum as the food is served. Seconds are passed around. Then thirds. It’s going to be hard to go back to the states after this.

Since we are spending two nights here, the next morning we shed our packs of extra weight and begin our approach of Marmot Peak directly above the Marteller. My legs feel heavy from yesterday’s summit. “I think gravity is extra strong today” I joke to Wendy who is quickly catching up to me on the skin track. Larry and Jeff demonstrate an efficient way to anchor your downhill ski during a kick turn, kicking a hole into the skin track, and for the first time ever I find myself able to change directions smoothly without breaking stride. A big difference from my signature twelve-point kick turn which has always gotten me where I’ve needed to go, although slightly humiliated along the way. 

We enjoy a nice long descent, scoring some sweet pockets corn lower down. After a few more pitches we round the corner and practically ski right over the roof of the Marteller! We park our skis and plop down onto the sun deck for a cappuccino and a plate of Rösti; a magnificent Swiss dish consisting of potatoes layered with prosciutto and topped with three fried eggs.

 “Anyone up for an afternoon tour?” Larry asks after we’ve scraped every last savory morsel of food off of our plates. As if the day couldn’t get any better. A half an hour later we’re back on our skis, meandering back up the glacier for a little pre-dinner walk, basking in the gloriousness of the day. It feels as though we’ve been transported into a utopian world where all you have to do is eat, sleep and ski. There’s no rush to get back to the car before dark, or climb back out by a certain time. It’s perfectly acceptable to head out for an afternoon tour at 4pm; a great way to prepare ourselves for another spectacular meal to stretch the waistbands of our softshells.

The sun barely hints its presence as we pack our bags and brush our teeth early the next morning as we prepare for our journey to the Branca Hut, our final destination and home for the next three nights. “You’re in for a treat” Jeff tells us eagerly. “The Branca hut is really something special”. It’s easy to fall into a relaxed pace, lulled by the rhythmic swooshing of our skins as we make our way up the valley we skied down two days before. I can’t believe our trip is only half way over; it feels like we’ve packed a lifetime of fun into the last three days and I have to pinch myself to really believe that we have four more.

Arriving at the Branca later in the afternoon I immediately understand why Larry and Jeff were so excited to get here. Looking out over the magnificent Forni Glacier, the rifugio is dwarfed by the Tredici Cime, the Thirteen Peaks: including Cevedale, Palòn de la Mare, San Matteo and Tresoro, towering over us and beckoning us to try our hand at an ascent.

Most of the huts have been passed down in the same family for years, each rich with family history. Enrica Confortola, the hut keeper at the Branca hut tells me that her grandfather, Felice Alberti, built the hut in 1934. She is the third generation in the family of hut keepers just like Claudio and Mauro at the Pizzini and she proudly nods towards the kitchen telling me her mother still cooks every night, nourishing hungry skiers with her traditional Italian recipes.

Sitting in the dining hall of the Branca I glance around. To our left is a table of rowdy Germans. Across the hall are some spandex clad Italian randonee racers who’ve just zipped up for the day from Bormio. I exchange words with a friendly couple from Austria and even get the chance to use my Spanish with a few Spaniards who have relocated to the Alps. It is quite the merging of cultures. There are many things we don’t share; customs, language, politics. But when we’re out here, it doesn’t matter where anyone’s from. Out here we are all the same. We are united under the same routine. We trudge around the huts in brightly colored Crocs. We eat breakfast together at 7. We fill our thermoses with hot tea for later in the day. We put our skins on in the crisp morning air, using the picnic tables to prop up our skis. We ski off in different directions from the hut and when we return later in the afternoon, exchange knowing looks of happiness and exhaustion. We line our boots up together and hang our skins in front of the fireplace. We all sit down at 6:30 in the same room for dinner. We toast to a great day with a few rounds of genepì. We share the same stoke for flying down a hill with two pieces of wood strapped to our feet. We understand each other. It is the universal language of skiing.