When you take a backcountry ski tour in Europe, expect to descend vertical miles of powder, glide off glaciers, and kick off your skis in front of a rustic home sweet home. But it's not everywhere you can skin and ski all day without once shouldering your boards, bag unknown peaks just a hair under the top-dog figure of 4,000 meters, and kill your Alpine chill with a steaming cup of cappuccino and a mountainous plate of fettucini. All without crowds and without hitting the route before sunrise. If you want a mixture of hospitality, adventure, chianti, and comfort, head to the Ortles -- and explore the Italian Alps at your own pace.
Like much of Europe, the Ortler Range has an aura of history. Before 1918 the Italian-Austrian border ran across the ridgeline connecting the summits of Cevedale and the Gran Zebru, two of the highest peaks in the region. Barbed wire was piled higher than the winter snows. The nations hauled their cannons up here -- well over 3,700 meters -- and leveled them at each other. But with the settlement of World War I, the border changed. Sud Tirol, the geographic region to which these peaks belong, was stripped from Austria and ceded to Italy. Some strands of wire still remain.
One of the cannons still lies outside the Casati Hut. The term "hut" is used loosely; the lodges that dot the glaciers of the region are more like grand mountain hotels, with an easiness unlike anything else in Europe. In contrast to the regimented Swiss and French climbing huts located in the Pennine Alps (the hub of European ski touring due to the abundance of 4,000-meter peaks), life is laid-back here. Italians, Austrians, Germans, British, and Americans share food, drink, conversation, and camaraderie. While ski tourers in the Pennines are rising at 5 a.m., dipping hard bread into lukewarm coffee at 5:15, and exiting the huts by six, Italian life slumbers. At 6 a.m., Ortles skiers are just waking, and by seven, they're still laughing over jokes, discussing life, and considering ski lines as they sip espresso and heap sliced meats onto farm breads. Eventually, they trickle out of the hut and onto the glaciers.
Since the peaks in this range reach only to 3,851 meters -- not the 4,000 meters coveted by the majority of Europeans -- many skiers tend to ignore them. But so what if the area lacks star appeal? Those who look beyond arbitrary numbers know that ski mountaineering doesn't get much better.
The powder fields are simply massive, providing graded highways up such high points as Pasquale and the Gran Zebru. You don't even have to carry your skis -- just skin to the summit and lunch on Swiss chocolate and Italian bread beneath the ubiquitous crosses marking each peak. Take in the convoluted skyline and readjust your randonnée bindings for a vertical-mile descent. On a sunny spring day, you can seek out the southern flanks of Cevedale or Palon de la Mare and carve long turns through vast, white cornfields. And if storms have recently socked the mountains, you can hit one of the north-facing powder runs down the likes of Tresero or San Mateo. With creative route planning, it's actually easy to harvest south-side corn and north-facing powder on the same tour.
But skiing is only part of the Ortles experience. No joke: European magazines rate the quality of the cuisine in the climbing huts throughout the Alps. And the Branca Hut -- where you should linger a few days to bag several peaks -- rates consistently in the top five. When you order dinner, fixed-menu and family-style, expect a multicourse gastroganza of asparagus soup, fettucini, fried potatoes, veal, and fresh-baked plum pastry. The Branca may be the culinary piece de resistancein the region, but the neighboring huts are nearly as good. Regardless of where you bunk down, expect the delectable.
Combine that with a backcountry appetite, and you might as well add a Michelin star -- without the usual price tag. Half pension at the climbing huts -- whichh includes dormitory-style bed space, dinner, and breakfast -- averages about $33 per person per day. Throw in a few $4 glasses of vinoto complement dinner and the cost of your lunches -- which, for about $3, you should prepare and carry yourself -- and a day of decadent ski touring costs less than a lift ticket at most U.S. ski hills. In a single trip, you can find solitary days of adventure and nights of cheer. It's all encompassed in a concept central to Italian living -- the dolce vita. We English speakers embrace such skiing, cuisine, and ambience with a word of our own -- sweeet.
Unless you're a seasoned ski mountaineer, hire a certified guide. Pro Guiding Service (425-888-6397, 206-525-4425, proguiding.com) organizes tours. Mid March through April is the prime time to take the trip; budget four to seven days. The most popular huts include Rifugio Forni, 39-342-935365; Rifugio Branca, 39-342-935501; Rifugio Pizzini, 39-342-935513; and Rifugio Casati, 39-342-935507. Hut details and reservations are also available through proxy.provincia.ra.it/cailugo/asp/ricerca.asp. For more info, try the U.S. office of the Italian Tourist Bureau (310-820-0098) or the Italian Alpine Club (Club Alpino Italiano), cai.it/default.htm.