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Skiing the Italian Alps by Hut: Ortler Group

This year marked the season that Beartooth Mountain Guides piloted it's European ski programming. This started with two awesome tours, the first one taking place in the Ortler Group in the Northern Italy. This trip was in part a wedding gift to my sister and her husband, courtesy of Anju and I. The goal was to experience a hut-based ski trip and leverage the resources that it provided to enjoy the best possible skiing in the area, all while tossing in some basic ski mountaineering skills. Safe to say, we made the most out of the week with incredible conditions.

Map of the Ortler Group, from Wikipedia

South Tyrol hosts a number of fantastic ranges for skiing, climbing, and general mountain endeavors. This range in particular was the scene of some of the highest battles in World War I, with some relics remaining over 3,000 meters in elevation. Because of this, the language divide still exists between Italian and German.

We started our trip in Zurich, spending a few days sightseeing and overcoming jet lag before jumping in a rental car and making the 4 hour drive to our starting point. A quick stop in Bormio, the last major town, provided us with some snacks for the tour and cash for the huts. In a rush, thanks to an afternoon storm, we opted to forgo touring town and begin the hike as soon as possible. The winding single lane road up to the trailhead was exciting with a few inches of fresh snow...

We started our tour in whiteout conditions with moderate to strong winds and heavy snowfall. Although there was the option to stay at Refugio Forni near the parking lot, we wanted to get to the higher hut that evening to set us up for a great day of skiing once the storm let up. Only a mile into the tour, things were looking bad as our visibility dropped to near nothing. Soon enough however, we ran into a descending party that laid tracks for us and informed us of wands marking the way to the hut. With this good news, we carried on through the whiteout. After about 4 miles and 2300' of gain, we pulled into Refugio Pizzini as one of only two parties for the night. My sister Hana said it well- this is why they call them Refuges!

Refugio Forni Getting a Fresh Coat

We woke up the next day to clear skies and nearly a foot of fresh snow. After a light breakfast, we repacked our bags and took off for a morning tour at the recommendation of Claudio, the hut keeper. Near Cima Pale Rosse, we made some wonderful turns underneath the largest mountain in the region, the Gran Zebru. We stopped to enjoy views down to the hut and across the valley to Monte Cevedale, where one of the most famous ski descents in the region stared right back at us. This morning tour brought us back to Claudio's bar, where we made it just in time for lunch.

Over lunch, we made plans to ski Cevedale the next day. Hana opted to stay in and conserve energy while Max, Anju and I opted to go out for an afternoon tour up Cima Zebru behind the hut. The snow wasn't quite as good as our first tour, but the views were hard to beat. Pizzini is a true ski in/ski out hut!

On day 3, we woke up early to partly cloudy skies and cooler temps. Although slightly ominous for the larger objective, we carried on with our plan to ski Monte Cevedale via Casati. This route avoided most of the avalanche hazard and provided more of a tour to the day, but it involved a steep boot pack. We cruised up from Pizzini to the closed Casati hut perched high on Pass del Cevedale and wrapped around onto the large Zufall Glacier, home of multiple large cannons from WWI. We didn't stop to appreciate the cannons, as Hana was showing symptoms of minor altitude sickness and a light snow was starting. Nearing the final climb, we opted to forgo the last 200 meters to the summit with limited visibility and increasing avalanche hazard.

After a long climb, we transitioned above the Cedec Glacier. A few turns in, the wind stopped and the clouds eased off, opening up our visibility to the best turns of the week in a wild setting. We skied conservatively at first, navigating a few exposed crevasses, before enjoying long uninterrupted stretches of powder skiing. This is all you can ask for on a trip like this! Before long, we were recounting face shots over drinks in the sun at Refugio Pizzini.

That evening, we decided to change plans due to Hana's bout with altitude sickness and the big days proposed in our original itinerary. We swapped out a night at the Marteller Hutte for an extra at Refugio Branca, allowing for a restful day 4. Despite Claudio's confirming nods regarding the good weather the next day, it ending up snowing another 6 inches in the morning. This meant that our play to have a more restful itinerary ended up being rather strategic, allowing us to be best prepared for yet another powder day. After a slow morning, we slid out of Pizzini, wiggling our way down to Valle Dei Forni before making a rising traverse to the Refugio Branca.

We checked into Branca, reveling in the luxury of private rooms, before enjoying some Pizzoccheri, a local buckwheat pasta dish of the region. With plenty of light left in the day and beautiful descents surrounding us, Max Anju and I set off yet again for an afternoon ski. We ended up evaluating the snowpack, bailing on one large slope, and settling on the glacial knob L'Isola Persa. This short tour put us in the heart of the Forni Glacier, giving us plenty of inspiration for the next few days.

On day 5, we tossed around a few options before settling on Cima Di Peio, a less frequented peak splitting the Forni Glacier. Hana gracefully opted out of the day, deciding to further recover for the final bigger day 6. Max, Anju, and I set out early, traversing from the hut onto the Forni Glacier before climbing a large couloir to gain the shoulder of Peio. From here, we ascended gradual glaciated terrain high above the valley below before reaching the broad, empty summit.

Seeing hordes of Germans and Austrians skiing towards Tresero and San Mateo, we were pleased to find only one other party of two on our entire ascent. After a quick break on the summit, we clipped in for the long descent to Branca. Thanks to the position of the glacier and cliffs surrounding the summit, skiing off the top of Peio was an island in the sky experience, with perfectly pitched North facing skiing well above 3000 meters. The solar couloir was better than expected, but a harsh change after the pow before. Fortunately, low angle powder on the glacier below greeted us with a quick and scenic exit.

Day 6 quickly approached, but the hearty 4 course meals of Refugio Branca kept us well equipped for day-after-day skiing. Anju was thinking ahead to our next adventure, however, and decided to sit this last day out. Hana, Max, and I rose early with a single goal in mind: powder skiing. After seeing so much terrain the days before, I devised a wonderful tour linking the best North facing shots on the glacier. It ended up being a bigger day than Cevedale, but it was undoubtedly the best quality ski day of the entire 3 weeks in Europe.

We decided to end on a high note and, over a few glasses of wine, settled on quick ski out the next morning to check out town and the famous thermal baths. Unfortunately, Hana had a somewhat epic crash just a few hundred meters from the car. She walked away figuratively unscathed and we proceeded into town for a visit to the Sauna and some Tamenta Spritz's.

Bormio is a cute medieval style town, touristic for Italians but off-the-radar for many other Europeans. We enjoyed local food and drinks, including Tamenta Spritz (a fresh herbal Spritz), Crespella Di Rapa (a local crepe) and Pizzoccheri. The thermal baths were well developed and large, but quiet and certainly appreciated after a week of skiing. Our AirBnB was just one block from the old town, making our trip to and from a classy Italian dinner easy in the night.

All in all, we skied over 40 miles and 20,000' vertical feet (according to my watch). This averages out to about 6.5 miles/3,300' per day over 6 days. We chose the Ortler trip because of the flexibility it provided with day tours, the lighter packs thanks to repeat huts, and the general focus on good skiing over objectives such as traverses or summits. The timing was perfect for this season, with avalanche conditions cooling off and fresh snow still falling.

I can highly recommend this trip to skiers looking for a comfortable hut experience (complete with wi-fi, wine lists, espresso, showers, and great meals) that emphasizes the downhill experience. The variety of terrain right outside of both of these huts provided the best options we experienced over our three week trip.

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