After a great experience on the classic Haute Route last year, Taylor and I were eager to return to the incredible access, amenities, and settings of the European hut system. While on the Haute Route, we chatted with Nortwest Mountain Guide Nick Pope, who told us that the Ortler circuit was one of his favorite trips because of the good skiing, lower prices, and better food than in the Swiss system. We were sold.
We began our trip in the small town of Santa Caterina di Valfurva, in Northwest Italy. This tiny valley outside of Bormio has produced numerous olympic skiers, but in the late spring, it’s nearly deserted. After a night at a great local Airbnb we drove our intrepid rental car up a winding and steep single-lane road to Rifugio Forni, where we parked and set out on skis to begin our 8-day tour.
The ski from the car to Rifugio Pizzini is just a short slog up a beautiful valley, but I quickly discovered that my boots were no longer my friends after skiing the PDG and doing some work on my liners. For the first time ever, I was forced to sit in the snow with my boot off and basically cry about how badly my foot hurt.
We pulled out my footbed and carried on to discover that I’d puttered to a stop about 100 meters from the hut.
Rifugio Pizzini was large, prepared to host more than 100 skiers. They were also incredibly eager to serve second and third helpings of all three courses of dinner. They stuffed us full, we slept well, and we headed out in the morning to tag one of the classic local peaks, Monte Cevedale.
The summit of Cevedale was beautiful, with just a light wind and the cloudless Ortler group spread below us and the path of our Ortler Circuit visible around us. What had been a steep and icy climb to the summit had softened perfectly for our descent back to a second night at Rifugio Pizzini.
During our stay and our climb of Cevedale, I drooled over the local icon, the Gran Zebru. Its pointy summit and obvious steep ski descent were very tempting, but our timing wasn’t going to allow an attempt despite perfect conditions. This one will wait for our return.
The next morning, we donned our heavy packs again and climbed out of the valley, descending North towards the Austrian border and into the German-speaking part of the range.
A long and gradual descent down a valley of a dying glacier led us into the spring of the low-alpine, where the Zufalhütte made for a pleasant coffee break before we climbed to our final stop for the night, Martellerhütte. The Ortler Circuit does not lack in snack-break potential.
Marteller was a favorite stop, where we spent two wonderful nights. The position of the hut, the ambiance, the small, comfortable rooms, pleasant staff, and the unsurpassed food made it an easy place to spend our time.
Our afternoon at Marteller was relaxed and sunny, and we enjoyed the local version of Rösti while planning our layover ski day. After a windless evening and a comfortable sleep, we woke to ski on and around Cima Marmotta, the peak atop a glaciated valley that lies directly above the Marteller.
The skiing on these peaks was typical of what we experienced on this trip. The winter snow was largely but not completely consolidated, and after a night of above-freezing temperatures, there was a narrow window of time and elevation in which to ski good snow before the heat of the sun softened the snowpack to a deep mush.
The upside of the weather was day after day of sunny skies and little wind, with little concern for foul weather. The skiing was also intermittently good, with some great turns here and there. Avalanche hazard was predictable, and despite the hot temperatures, we didn’t observe any natural or skier triggered avalanches during our week in the range.
After two nights at Martellerhütte, we made a short “rest day” transfer up the valley to the Casati hut. The ski up the very benign glacier was warm and uneventful, and we stopped off to visit the “tre canoni”, a rocky outcropping that hosts three iron canons from World War I. Each of these canons was dragged up the valley over the period of four months by two-hundred Austrian soldiers each, just to mount them atop the ridge and shoot at Italian positions in the Valle Santa Caterina that had been out of reach. They succeeded in pounding the Italians, but nevertheless lost this corner of the range to Italy by the end of the war.
Taylor opted to rest the afternoon at Rifugio Casati while I did some extra skiing with a light pack. Soldenspitze and Cima Cevedale made for a fun and fast tour of two new peaks, and I enjoyed running around unencumbered by a heavy pack. It’s no wonder that SkiTrab lives just down-valley and that so many Skimo athletes train in the Ortlers. The range is well-suited to covering ground and skiing peaks.
The amenities at Rifugio Casati were the most spare of the trip. While it used to be a huge hotel serving a now defunct ski resort emerging from Valle Pizzini, it now feels more like the hotel from The Shining staffed by the movie critics from the muppets.
After a somewhat drafty sleep, we set out on an aesthetic tour across the apex of the Ortler Circuit, first tagging the top of Monte Cevedale for a second time, skiing down the glacier of the Val Cedec, and then ascending to the summit of Palon de la Mare. Along the way, we stopped at a bivouac box, bivouac Colombo, one of many such bivouacs throughout the range. Equipped with a solar panel, LED lights, a stash of fuel, and eight (8!) beds, this thing was ready to rock.
The descent from Palon de la Mare from Rifugio Branca was looooong, and followed a beautiful glaciated bowl into a narrowing couloir that cleverly passes the cliffs at the bottom and offers a nearly-downhill traverse to the Rifugio.
Rifugio Branca was mid-party as we arrived. We thought that this might just be an average day, as it was a weekend and Branca is very easy to access as a day tour from Santa Caterina. It turns out that it was busier than normal as the executives from SkiTrab were getting drunk there for their end-of-season party.
Branca was a cute, comfortable, and extremely efficient family business of a hut. Eugenio Alberti, the keeper, is third-generation in the business, and hosts along with his wife and son. The position of the hut is incredible– close enough to town to permit easy access and a quick exit, but also poised on the edge of a huge glaciated valley home to some of the best ski-mountaineering in the Ortler range. The keepers also don’t mind a little fun, and hosted a happy-hour dance party with free food and drink accompanied by blaring italian dance-pop on our second afternoon there. When we inevitably return, we’ll need more time here than we gave ourselves on this trip.
For our last full day on the Ortler circuit, we opted to climb and ski Pizzo Tresero, the peak at the tip of the valley that looms large over the town of Santa Caterina. Our route led us up the Ghiacciaio Forni to a few steeper pitches below the summit. Our luck with weather was starting to run out, and as we neared the summit, foggy clouds swirled in and out.
The summit of Pizzo Tresero is host to one of the more magnificent crosses that I’ve seen atop a mountain, and it also houses the Madonna of K2, a small figure standing guard over the ski alpinisti of the range.
I led the descent through a dense fog and challenging snow, encouraging Taylor to forget the exposure below and just make turns as usual. She managed it beautifully, and once on the Forni glacier, the clouds opened again. We were able to ski corn down its white expanse and a couloir on its flank brought us back to the valley.
At the hut for a final night, we celebrated our great luck in weather and marriage with ‘an Italian classic’, Amaretto Disaronno. The weather forecast was deteriorating, our legs were tired, our skins were soaking wet, and we were satisfied.