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Italy's Ortler Traverse

The Upside of War.
posted: 10/14/2009
Italy's Ortler Traverse

“Scusi!” bellows the human twig in spandex, not skinning so much as running toward me, the tips of his anorexic skis homing in on my own. I consider playing chicken. But to my left gapes a small crevasse. Ahead, the glacier curves and rises steeply to the 12,365-foot summit of Monte Cevedale. Below us, a sharp rock outcropping would shred through clothes and flesh should any of us fall. And I don’t want to get stranded on the snow bridge over the crevasse that lies just in front of me. There’s nowhere to go so I stay put, and the twig somehow threads past me without inflicting bodily harm.

For the past 72 hours, dark clouds killed the visibility and shut down summit attempts in Italy’s Ortler range, a chain of mountains neatly sandwiched along the Austrian, Swiss, and Italian borders between the Bernina range to the west and the Dolomites to the east. Most of the Euros—whose ultralight boots and skinny skis propel them uphill but hobble them on the descent—decided to stay inside and sip cappuccinos in the region’s high mountain huts. That meant no competition for us, a group of 10 friends from North America, as we lapped 2,000-foot runs on glaciers covered in boot-deep down. But today dawned bright and cloudless, causing a minor stampede and thrown elbows in the hut’s boot room during a rush to get out the door.

Skiing powder, drinking beer, sweating naked in the sauna, and gorging on homemade pasta for the past three days hasn’t sucked, but the sudden visibility has sparked a little summit fever in us. So we go for it. Skin tracks lead to the top of most mountains in the Ortler, where the summits hover near the 13,000-foot mark. High on the ridge, when we run out of skin track, we clip on our crampons and detach ice axes from our packs to scratch our way upward.

On top, we find an enormous metal-and-wood crucifix lashed to the wind-scoured summit with metal cables. Crosses perch on most peaks in the area. Some pay homage to the pope. Others, like the one atop 11,798-foot Monte Giumella, memorialize those who fought for “the Fatherland,” a.k.a. Austria, the country that formerly held this sea of mountains. After World War I, Italy claimed the Ortler range. War remnants like barbed wire, cannons, and intact bunker walls occasionally punctuate the otherwise pristine landscape. But what truly distinguishes the ski experience here is how Italian it is—a haphazard mix of nature, art, insouciance, and the extensive wine lists hutkeepers thrust at us in each rifugio.

At Cevedale’s summit, I brace against the wind, strip my skins, and admire what I haven’t seen in days: a horizon of mountains so dense there’s no flatland in sight. Then it’s 3,500 feet of la dolce vita, all the way down to the rifugio for a bowl of fresh spaghetti and a round of grappa.Lodge: Six privately owned rifugi are open for spring ski mountaineering in Italy’s Ortler range. Most charge about 40 euros for a bed, dinner, and breakfast. Your guide should take care of reservations.

Food: Lodging includes four-course dinners and a simple breakfast of bread, meat, cheese, and cappuccino. Lunch, which you can buy separately, is bread and meat. Bring your own snacks and prepare to buy water at the more remote huts.

Max Elevation: 12,812 feet

Max Vertical Drop: 5,500 feet

Average Daily Vertical: 5,000 feet

Price: Most guide companies charge between $1,700 and $2,500 for a weeklong tour.

Guides: Hire an IFMGA-certified guide. Take your pick: hireamountainguide.com.

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