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, drinking in 360 degree views of the Alps, and, of course, plenty of local wine.
Larry Goldie and Jeff Ward, co-owners of North Cascade Mountain Guides have been guiding the Ortler Route every spring for the last 10 years. Still a relatively hidden gem of European hut skiing, and, 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.
On Day 1, we met our group of nine; seven guests led by Larry and Jeff. The other guests were a cheerful group from Mazama, Washington, where North Cascades is based, and most of them knew each other from home. I came alone from my current residence in Italy, a few hours away from the small ski resort of Santa Caterina. Being skiers, we quickly found common ground: Kristen and Steve both went to school at the University of Colorado in Boulder where I am currently a student; Wendy told me all about her daughter who’s about my age.
We stretched skins over our skis, hoisted our packs onto our backs and headed up the gentle two-and-a-half hour skin track to the Rifugio Pizzini, our first hut. Larry told me this is his favorite trip to guide. “Everything is better,” he said. “The food, the huts—it’s hard to go back to anything else once you’ve done a trip in the Ortler.”
We arrived at the rifugio at around noon, and my mouth watered at the smells coming from the kitchen. We quickly ditched our skis and snaked our way through the gear drying room, ducking under rows of skins waving like flags in the otherwise dim room. We traded boots for hut slippers, several shelves of mismatched sandals supplied by the hut keepers. I slipped on a pair of orange Crocs and headed into the dining room. Windows cozily framed with red-checked curtains boasted impressive views on all sides, and a fire crackled in the corner.
My immediate reaction was 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. This, in contrast, was a mountain palace.
Hut keepers Claudio and Mauro greeted 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 offered a glimpse into the lives of Claudio and Mauro’s grandparents, sporting wooden skis with leather straps.
The two floors above were lined with bedrooms and shared bathrooms for the 60 or 70 guests staying here at any given time. “I’ll take top bunk,” I heard someone say as we shuffled into our room to work out sleeping arrangements. It felt like summer camp for adults.
At 6:30 p.m. all the guests for the evening filed into the dining hall. Our table for nine was waiting for us, labeled “Larry super guides!” Since 2007 Larry and Jeff have been taking guests to the Pizzini, and clearly they’ve developed quite the rapport with the Compagnoni brothers. The efficiency of the place was impressive. The staff served more than 50 hungry skiers promptly with three courses, pasta con ragu, fish, potatoes, and local wine.
The next morning, Claudio and Mauro saw us off early with brown bag lunches in hand. “Ciao cara, alla prossima!” they say. The crisp air pricked my skin and I couldn’t bring myself to take my down jacket off, despite knowing I’ll be drenched in sweat in 10 minutes. Wisps of fog clung to the peaks above us, not yet ready to reveal what lies ahead.
We climbed up the valley and the Pizzini got 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 gear, I surprised myself at how strong I felt as we climbed. After a few hours, we made a pit stop at the Casati hut, perched on a ridge at 10,725 feet with a spectacular view of the Marteller Valley. We indulged in some minestrone, torta di mela (apple cake), and a cappuccino, then continued 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 skinned for a while up the smooth glacier until the slope got too steep and it was time to boot pack. A few members broke off to head down with Jeff and Larry led me, Steve, and Dave up the rest of the way towards the summit. We transitioned to crampons and roped up for the final stretch. Traversing the last 50 feet across the knife edge ridge to the summit I was reminded that although we were enjoying many luxuries on this trip, it was in no way a walk in the proverbial park. I glanced down at the 60-degree slopes falling away on either side of me and concentrated on taking careful, consistent steps as the wind pummeled us with fierce blows. "What happens if one of us falls off?" I asked with a nervous chuckle. "I jump off the other side to balance the rope" Larry responded casually. Reassured by his composure but a little spooked at the image our bodies dangling like puppets on either side of the ridge, I took a deep breath and put one foot in front of the other. A few minutes later we were standing on the summit; a flat landing not much bigger than a Fiat with a decorated wooden cross. It felt like we were in a postcard, surrounded by shimmering peaks and electric blue skies. All around us we could see tiny specks of color standing on peaks in the area. To the east were the unmistakable cragged peaks of the Dolomites. Larry pointed down the glacier to our destination, the Marteller hut; barely even a speck in the distance, 4,000 feet below. “Hear that?” Larry smiled, cupping his ear towards the valley below. “I can hear the beer calling our names.” He led the way, steering us through a maze of debris, and down the vast, sweeping glacier. I got the familiar flutter in my stomach, excitement whenever the time comes to start skiing. For how firm and wind affected the snow felt on our way up, I was pleasantly surprised at the soft pockets and chalk as we arced down the smooth slope.
Midway through our descent we stopped for a minute to see the Tre Canoni, three cannons looking into the Marteller Valley used During World War I. It was 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 felt as if we’d crossed a border. In this region of Italy, the Alto-Adige, about 75 percent of the inhabitants are German-speaking and the Marteller had a noticeably more Bavarian vibe. From the gear room, loud exclamations in German were chorused by a melody of clanking beer glasses. I half expected everyone to be wearing lederhosen when I turned the corner into the dining room. The rest of our group was already there, immersed in an animated game of hearts. Soon I was 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 jumped up, distributing tokens for the hot showers upstairs, a gracious way of saying we could probably use one.
We arrived just in time for dinner, and one round of hearts later we sat down to another legendary meal, with stuffed peppers, pasta, potatoes and chocolate cake. The hut keepers Elisa, Christian, and Matthias bounced between German, Italian, and English, and the whoops and hollers turned to a quiet hum as the food is served. Seconds were passed around. Then thirds. It’s going to be hard to go back to the States after this, I thought.
Since we were spending two nights here, the next morning we shed our packs of extra weight and began our approach of Marmot Peak directly above the Marteller. My legs felt heavy from yesterday’s summit. “I think gravity is extra strong today” I joked to Wendy, who is quickly catching up to me on the skin track. Larry and Jeff demonstrated 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 found 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 enjoyed a nice long descent, scoring some sweet pockets corn lower down. After a few more pitches we rounded the corner and almost ski right over the roof of the Marteller. We parked our skis and plopped down onto the sun deck for a cappuccino and a plate of Rösti; a magnificent Swiss dish of potatoes layered with prosciutto and topped with three fried eggs.
“Anyone up for an afternoon tour?” Larry asked after we’ve scraped every last morsel off of our plates. A half an hour later we were back on skis, meandering up the glacier for a little pre-dinner walk. All you have to do here 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.
The sun barely hints its presence as we packed our bags and brushed our teeth early the next morning before our journey to the Branca Hut, our final destination and home for the next three nights. We fell into a relaxed pace, lulled by the rhythmic swooshing of our skins as we made our way up the valley we skied down two days before. I couldn’t believe our trip was only half way over; it felt like we’d packed a lifetime of fun into the last three days, and we have four more to go.
Arriving at the Branca later in the afternoon, we looked 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, which towered over us and taunted us to make a summit attempt.
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 told 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 nodded towards the kitchen, telling me her mother still cooks every night.
Sitting in the dining hall of the Branca I glanced around. To our left was a table of rowdy Germans. Across the hall were some spandex clad Italian randonee racers who’d just zipped up for the day from Bormio. I exchanged words with a friendly couple from Austria and even got the chance to use my Spanish with a few Spaniards who had relocated to the Alps. There were many things we didn’t share; customs, language, politics. But when you’re out here, we are all the same. We lined our boots up together, hung our skins in front of the fireplace, and toasted to a great day with a few rounds of genepì. We were all there because we share the same stoke for flying down a hill with two pieces of wood strapped to our feet. We understood each other. This is the universal language of skiing.