For a Few Meters More at the Ortler Ski Tour

skiing the Gran Zebru, Ortler ski tour
The Ortler ski tour

Nearing the summit of the Gran Zebru/Königspitze, 3851 meters.

The Ortler Ski Tour

Conditions are arid, but it’s last call for turns this April…so we finish packing our gear in the dusty parking lot. The only things missing: motivation and probably snow. In this heat, I’m ready to hang up the avi gear and skis. Our gang is just arriving to start a week of touring in Italy’s Ortler range. Two guys wearing nothing but spandex shorts, boots, and overflowing packs saunter past us. Spaghetti western extras with holstered ice axes and dangling ski crampons. An upsurge of dust follows them. We’re headed into what they’ve just come from, and they nod, knowingly, as they pass. Our goal is to go high. Glaciers and altitude are our best bet for lingering snow, and if that fails, at least, there’s rumor of a sauna and the promise of multi-course Italian dinners at the huts.

We saddle our backs with rope, crampons, warm layers, and skis to begin the walk and ski-carry up to Branca hut, our bunk for three nights. At the hut, we’re happy to hear reports of good snow high-up and huddle over maps with other skiers and guides to discuss the best prospects. The dinner bell rings and the door slides open to a large dining hall. Hungry skiers clamber in, claiming seats at place-marked tables with salads already served and waiting. Antipasto, primo, secondo, some nights a cheese plate follows. The room fills with chewing and chattering. The sun only starts to set as we settle in for dolce.

The Ortler ski tour

2017 was a poor year for snow in the Alps – concern was mounting as we approached the Rifugio Branca.

Based at the Branca hut, we skin and ski Punta Pedranzini 3599m and Cadini 3524m, encountering everything from warm slush to ice to unexpectedly good, old powder. Simon, an experienced mountain guide and friend of Dan and Janine’s, gives us tips on glacier safety and teaches us that touring boots are better for dancing on tables than alpine boots. In the too-hot-to-ski afternoons, some tourers pass the time sprawled over benches in the sun with fistfulls of beer. We play cards – intense showdowns over hands of Exploding Kittens.

After three Italian dinner-gorge-fests, three golden sunsets, three cozy nights at Branca, reaching the two highest summits I’ve ever climbed, and my first time on a glacier, we set off for Rifugio Pizzini via Monte Pasquale 3552m and Cevedale 3769m. More new territory for me: scrambling the rocky edge of Cevedale in crampons, loaded with skis and poles on the pack to reach the summit. It’s not so much the climbs pushing my boundaries this week, but the skiing part of it, the steep downhills. Occasionally Simon or Marine’s guide-instinct kicks in, they’ve sized-up my weakness, sensed my hesitation, and they offer their curving descent lines for me to follow.

The Ortler ski tour

Climbing Monte Pasquale, 3553 meters, with skis on the pack.

We arrive at Pizzini, sunburned and salty. Wearing only white towels, other skiers emerge from downstairs and rub snow on their steaming arms. There really is a sauna up here! It’s just beside the heated ski storage with boot dryer. Add the multi-course dinners and even showers (if you choose – we don’t) and this is some swanky hut livin’. We drink apfelschorle, play cards, and buddy-up to a pair of American guides here on holiday. Then we raid the sauna in wool caps and goggles. Viva Italia!

skiing the Gran Zebru, Ortler ski tour

Heading towards the Gran Zebru/Königspitze

Gran Zebru is the reward saved for our last day. Dan and Janine wanted to make this summit on previous trips, but never had the conditions on their side. We start our watches one more time, and skin towards it, steadily pacing against a surprisingly, wintery wind. A dark cloud tips over the summit as the mountain gathers it’s own weather. The climb is sloping at first, then steeper and icy. I leave my skis at the base of the couloir knowing I won’t want to ski anything above it. Other pairs of skis are posted in the snow, too, waiting at various heights. It’s a steep hoof up, but worn-in steps help grip into the 45 degree icy slope. Some rocks rain down from earlier starters, and Italians in one-piece skimo suits swivel past. I stab my poles through the crust and keep moving. More clouds roll in and out and clear completely as we reach the summit.

skiing the Gran Zebru, Ortler ski tour

Climbing the Gran Zebru/Königspitze, 3851 meters.

Finally tucking beside the thin metal cross at the top of Gran Zebru for a windbreak, I’m reminded that it’s worth it. Most things that ask more effort, cause heavier breathing, and lead us higher usually are. Jagged ridges unfold in all directions like their signifying lines on a map. The whole world seems to be black and white and blue. Only rock, cloud, snow, and sky extending endlessly with no horizon.

We all look to where we started. Far down in the valley below, it’s drier and warmer even than a few days before when we carried our skis up the trail. Greening valleys, speckles of villages, traces of road, all impossibly far-below. I feel an impulse, a spur, a drive to go higher…motivation for next winter. For now, there’s nothing left but coming down.

The Ortler ski tour skiing Gran Zebru

Simon skiing the steep south face of the Gran Zebru/Königspitze, 3851 meters.

Back to the bottom of the couloir and my ready skis, we finally find the anticipated corn, baking in the noon sun, and excitedly speed over the rolling terrain. Wild, whooping, bucking as we go. Not far beyond Pizzini, we straddle rocks on strips of gritty snow until they’re narrower than our skis. Back to brown and dust, but for a few days, we traveled through a wild white landscape. Now we’re the ones with bare arms and burnt faces booting down the road to the bottom of the valley where summer is waiting.


By Kim Strom

Kim is an expat midwestern girl turning mountain woman. She can be found running trails throughout the Alps, except now that she has a taste of elevation, she may start getting high more often. Look for many more stories from Kim in the coming months. Follow her fun at Kimberly Strom.

Planning an Ortler Ski Tour?

For more info about the Ortler, visit our Ortler Ski Tour Trip Page.

Rifugio Branca, Ortler ski tour

Our group, Kim, Marine, Janine and Simon getting ready at the Rifugio Branca.

The Ortler Ski Tour

Marine and Simon just skinning along under the north face of the Punta San Matteo

Ortler ski tour

Simon playing skier in a landscape on Punta Pedranzini

The Ortler ski tour

It’s supposed to be much more white…

The Ortler Ski Tour

Simon says, “Follow me for old powder stashes”.

The Ortler ski tour

Passing amongst crevasses

Monte Cevedale, Ortler ski tour

After climbing Monte Pasquale, we walked over to the next rocky ridge on Monte Cevedale

skiing Monte Cevedale, Ortler ski tour

Marine navigates the glacier off Monte Cevedale

Rifugio Pizzini

Il primo, Rifugio Pizzini. The crew off to a good start.

The Ortler ski tour

Simon says, “Too much food.”

Rifugio Pizzini sauna, Ortler ski tour

Rifugio Pizzini. Sauna, check.

The Ortler ski tour

Leaving Rifugio Pizzini for the Gran Zebru, immediately behind the hut.

The Ortler ski tour

Marine and Simon, a summit selfie of sorts.

The Ortler ski tour

It ended like it started, walking in the dirt – but a whole lot of fun skiing was in between.

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