Thursday, October 16, 2014

Ortler Range Ski Touring

Laure, Peter, and I toured the Ortler range of the Alps for a week this Spring.
The Ortler range straddles the borders of Italy, Austria, and Switzerland. 
The Ortler range is an immense mountainous area with many beautiful peaks, good snow, and comfortable huts with delicious food. There are other more famous tours in the Alps, but they usually require many people to travel on a rigid itinerary from point A to B. In comparison, Ortler tours typically focus on going where the snow and weather are best for skiing. The area is also relatively snowboard friendly, which is an advantage for Laure and me.

Day -1: Heading out

We decided to leave Zürich a couple of days before our first official day in the Ortler range and spent a night in Zernez at the edge of the Swiss National Park.
Laure got a fancy cappuccino 
To our surprise, Google Maps directed us to drive onto a train that took us through part of the Alps. We did not realize what was going on until we were almost on the train!
Driving onto the train at the Vereina tunnel.

Day 0: Munt Buffalora

Next morning we decided to climb a peak at the edge of Swiss National Park -- Munt Buffalora. This short climb gave us a chance to wake up our legs and work out any last minute kinks with our gear. The snow was old and dense, but it was still a worthwhile exercise.
Munt Buffalora summit.
Squint your eyes to find Laure and Peter descending Munt Buffalora.
After our climb, we headed out to our hotel in Stelvio, where we met our guide Walter Andrighetto from OnTop Mountaineering and discussed our options dependent on weather.

Day 1: Tons and tons of snow at Sulden

Our original plan was to jumpstart our tour by taking a few ski lifts at the nearby ski resort Sulden. But then it snowed. A lot.
Morning snow at Sulden.
Another reason we had chosen to go to Ortler range was that the southern Alps had received record breaking amounts of snow that season. And just when everyone thought winter was over, they received another huge dump of powder.

Since the snow conditions were a bit sketchy and visibility was terrible, we decided to ski at the resort for the day. At first, we skied some higher elevation slopes but had trouble seeing more than a few meters in front of us. But then we started skiing the tree areas and we were in heaven. Each turn kicked up a cloud of fresh powder covering us entirely causing what skiers call "face shots". I can't believe how many face shots we got that day.

Day 2: Heading out to Marteller Hut and Cima Marmotta

Next day, the weather seemed promising enough to really start our backcountry touring itinerary.

Not all lifts were open, which forced us to hike up a bit in order to cross the nearby ridge. Since we were the first group to leave the resort after the storm, we (actually, our guide Walter) had to break trail through the deep powder.
Walter breaking trail with powder up to his waist.
Laure and Peter following.
Visibility was better but still poor.
At the top of the ridge, Walter assessed the snow conditions and deemed it sufficiently safe for descent. As we were the first to climb the ridge after the storm, we were also the first ones to come down the other side. An amazing feeling for any skier or snowboarder, but we had to be extra careful about avalanches.

As we came down from the ridge, the weather cleared up a bit. It was really amazing to be in that vast area alone with the surrounding mountains and a ton of untouched snow. The powder plus low angled terrain meant that Laure and I had to work hard to move on our snowboards. Fresh snow creates a lot of friction and makes it nearly impossible to move on flat terrain where snowboarders cannot simply walk like our skier friends. We came up with a system where Walter and Peter laid the tracks on their skis, packing down the snow, before Laure and I would try to snowboard as fast as possible without stopping. It worked fairly well but we definitely had to break a sweat.
Walter and Peter laid down tracks on the low angled terrain.
Then Laure and I blasted down as fast as possible.
As is usually the case with ski touring, hard work paid off. Once we were out of the flat area, we started carving down the hills with our skis and snowboards again.
One, two, three, four tracks.
At the bottom of the valley, we transitioned into touring mode and climbed up to our destination for the day -- Marteller Hut.
The Ortler range is sprinkled with beautiful ice falls.
Arriving at Marteller Hut.
Marteller Hut.
Photo credit: Peter.
Before coming to the Ortler range, we had heard great things about their legendary huts. Large, comfortable, and, best of all, great food. Marteller Hut did not disappoint.
You would think this is the kitchen of a regular restaurant instead of a remote alpine hut.
Cappuccino with a smile.
After we took a short break at the hut, I was still itching to climb a peak and ride more powder. So Walter took me up to a nearby peak named Cima Marmotta. As we would be cutting close to sunset (and dinner), we moved fast in order to make it all the way to the top. My god, I don't think I had ever felt so exhausted from touring.
View from the peak of Cima Marmotta.
This photo captures pretty well how I felt at the end of the day.

Day 3: Over the glacier to Pizzini Hut

As luck would have it, Walter and Laure both got some stomach bug. But they were strong enough to press on and cross the Zufallferner glacier. We broke trail on most of the ascent. The weather started out promising but then turned cold, foggy, and windy.
Crossing the Zufallferner glacier.
At the ridge above the glacier, we stopped at Casati Hut, which Walter dubs as "The Shining" Hut for the spooky empty sensation you get when visiting.
Cappuccino from The Shining.
After our break, Walter and Laure were feeling a bit better and we proceeded to descend down the other side of the ridge to our stop for the day: Pizzini Hut.
Many were climbing up the ridge heading the opposite direction.
Our stop for the night: Pizzini Hut.
Photo credit: guy using Peter's camera.
While Walter and Laure recuperated from their stomach sickness, Peter and I decided to do a tiny tour on a nearby hill while trading roles: I skied while Peter snowboarded. I felt a bit weird skiing in powder with those fat skis, but Peter was definitely out of his element snowboarding goofy with a backpack. The backpack really throws off the balance on a snowboard for people that are not used to it.
Peter's successful turn on a snowboard riding goofy with a backpack.

Day 4: Climbing Monte Pasquale and heading to Branca Hut

Next day, Walter and Laure were feeling much better. We left the hut and climbed a nearby peak called Monte Pasquale. Parts were icy on the climb and also on the descent. We came across some traces of Sahara desert sand from earlier storms in the winter. Nonetheless, the views were as astonishing as ever.
On glacier walls, we saw layers from the seasonal cycle over multiple years.
Walter and Peter.
On top of Monte Pasquale.
But could really be anywhere.
After summiting Monte Pasquale, we skied down to our next stop: Branca Hut.
Yup, that's our guide.
Photo credit: Peter.
Rooms with heaters at a ski hut.
One of many reasons why Europeans do not snow camp.
Braulio is an alpine herbal digestive popular in the area.
It tastes like cough syrup.
Towards the end of the day, we thought hard about where to go the next morning. Walter repeatedly checked weather updates and talked to all the other groups to get a scoop on surrounding conditions.

Day 5: Palon de la Mare

We decided to climb a nearby peak named Palon de la Mare. Probably the main convincing factor was how the route between the hut and the peak is always uphill, which is more welcoming for the snowboarders on the way back down.

Laure was still a little weak from her stomach bug, so we had a few contingency plans in case she felt too weak to summit. But she pulled through like a champ even at the cold and windy parts towards the end.
Wind scour, rocks, low temperatures, and low visibility.
Why are we doing this, again?
You will find a cross at the top of most peaks in the Alps.
Or less after a snowy winter.
Frankly, we did not have much hope of good skiing because the visibility was awful on the way up. Alas, after a few hundred meters, the fog cleared up and the awful visibility was replaced with awesome views.
And that's why we put up with painful climbs!
Photo credit: Peter.
Laure.
Towards the lower elevations, the snow became a little heavier. It brought nostalgia for those of us that have not recently snowboarded on "Sierra Cement", which is the nickname the heavy snow that is often found in the Sierra Nevada.
One, two, three, four tracks.
Stick a fork in it.
There's the fork!
When we arrived back at Branca Hut, we learned that the other groups had attempted climbing another popular peak further south. But unfortunately the snow condition seemed unstable at the top and the visibility was poor, so everyone turned back before summiting. It seems that we made the right (or lucky) decision.

Day 6: Long way home

It was finally time to return home. There were basically two choices: one long way with a multiple ups and downs, and one long way with one up and one down. Frankly, we were pretty spent, and I think Walter saw it. We decided on the easier route. Most of it was pretty relaxed apart from a steeper section on the way to The Shining Hut.
We had to hike up the steepest section to Casati.
The large but uninviting Casati Hut.
There we tried another local liqueur: Génépi.
I later found out it is made from alpine wormwood -- similar to Absinthe.
After Casati, we went up a neighboring peak named Suldenspitze - our last climb of the trip. From there we were very pleasantly surprised that much of the terrain on the path back to the ski resort was still untouched and in very good condition. Ironically, the best snow quality turned out to be closest to civilization. It helped that the weather was gorgeous and the visibility was perfect.
Our last summit, Suldenspitze.
Photo credit: Peter.
There goes Peter.
Peter (on the right) did not want to spoon.
Oh yeah, we're still on a glacier.
Back in the ski resort.
After arriving at Sulden ski resort, we decided to go for one last off-piste run from the highest chair lift. It turned out to be very unsatisfying. The snow was almost completely chopped up and we had to work hard to find untracked powder. Peter pointed out this was a good reminder of why it pays off to ski tour.

Final thoughts

From my experience, the Alps are the most beautiful mountain range of the few I have visited. It typically does not receive as much snow as other popular ranges, but the sights are hard to beat.

In the Ortler range we were lucky enough to get the best of both worlds: the sights and the powder. I could not imagine a better combination. The fresh snow complicated things for me and Laure to travel over flat areas in the beginning of the trip, but the benefits were absolutely worth the effort.

Another decision that really paid off was to choose a local guide. From my online research, most English-speaking guides are not from the area, unlike Walter Andrighetto or others from OnTop Mountaineering. Walter is a native Südtiroler and knows these mountains like the back of his hand. As the conditions constantly changed after the big storm, Walter was able to confidently adapt our plans on a daily basis to ensure safety. He also adjusted plans based on our skills and preferences. We noticed guides from other groups seemed a little more reluctant about changing plans that they had made months in advance. Lastly, Walter told us exactly what we needed to bring without overpacking unnecessary gear including ice axes and certain glacier rescue equipment. We had a great experience with him.
Our guide Walter.
Photo credit: Peter.

Stats and Route

In total, we climbed (without lifts) no less than 5,200 vertical meters (17,000 feet). We hit our highest elevation at Palon de la Mare at 3,703 meters (12,149 ft).

Here is our trip's approximate route:
You'll have to imagine the countless switchbacks missing in the video.