Originally Published in the MVSTA Trails magazine, October 2010
I am convinced that “Prego” can mean almost anything in Italian. When I am completely unsure what to say in a situation, I simply respond with a vigorous “Prego!” It’s our third day on the Ortler tour and my head is spinning from foreign languages. Our first few days saw the majority of folks speaking German. Today, everyone is speaking Italian. Unfortunately, I speak neither and am only able to converse with the hut keeper in French and I marvel as she seamlessly flows from one language to the next with each successive customer. It’s hard not to notice that almost no one speaks English.
While skiing off of the top of the 11,650’ Mt Pasquale today, our group was joined by a charming older woman named Daniela. Daniela only speaks Italian, and through a series of pantomimed attempts at conversing, she realizes that I am the guide, and soon it becomes clear that she is interested in skiing down with us. She is from the nearby town of Bormeo and has skinned all the way up here as a day trip. She has ascended this steep, glaciated peak all by herself and would like some company for the descent. It doesn’t matter to her that no one in our group can speak Italian. In fact, though communication is difficult, this doesn’t slow Daniela’s talking in the least. In time, I am able to surmise that she was one of the first women in the Lecco Spiders, a famous group of climbers hailing from the Italian city of Lecco. She proceeds to list off many of the climbs she has done throughout the Alps over the years. She has a climbing resume that I can only dream of. Daniela then tells me she is 70 years old. Now I begin to worry about this descent….
Located in northern Italy in the center of the SudTirol region, the Ortler Group is a range of mountains just shy of 4,000 meters, though still heavily glaciated and offering an abundance of vertical relief. And while the Alps to the west are much more famous, hosting such fabled ski traverses as the Haute Route and claiming many 4,000 meter peaks, in the Eastern Alps, there remain hidden areas, slightly lower in elevation and harder to get to, but with equally spectacular mountains and much, much quieter valleys.
The Ortler region is one such place. High mountain huts sit scattered about throughout the range, often only a few hours apart, making this a paradise for ski mountaineering. These huts offer all the creature comforts a wary skier could ever ask for: a warm bed, a hot meal and cold beer. In fact, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to creature comforts. Many of these huts offer private rooms, complete with bathroom and shower, gourmet food, Italian wine and of course, cappuccino like only the Italians can serve up.
Throughout the Ortler region, every sign is in both German and Italian, and it’s often hard to know what the local dialect will be. During World War One, this region was home to some of the fiercest and highest battles fought in the Alps. The land went back and forth from Austrian control to Italian control as soldiers on skis triggered avalanches as weapons against their enemies. Throughout the mountains, relics of these battles remain. Skiers can make a side trip to the Tre Cannoni and see three old Cannons left from the Great War. Each of these cannons must weight several tons and one can only wonder how they got here in the first place. In several strategic locations the remnants of old bunkers remain where skiers can take refuge from the elements while getting ready for the next descent. And while the history here is fascinating, it’s the skiing that brings me here, again and again.
Our group removes the climbing skins from our skis as we prepare to drop into the steep head of the valley that leads to the Branca Hut, our home for the next several nights. The snow is still a touch variable, spring corn snow that hasn’t yet softened completely. I study Daniela’s skis and note that they are skinnier and straighter than any skis in our group. With a sigh, I drop into the fall line and wonder how I find myself in these situations.
The Branca Hut is the quintessential Ortler hut. Situated high on a south facing hillside with no less than six different summits accessible as a day trip from the hut, its deck out front will be packed each afternoon with skiers enjoying their favorite libations while basking in the dazzling views of the range. While the ski options are plentiful, it’s the food that the Branca is known for. Reputed to have the best food of any hut in the Alps, one can easily gain weight if not careful to turn down second helpings during the four course meals. Various types of Pasta start every meal, before salad, meat, vegetables and finally a desert are brought out. I made the mistake of taking seconds on the pasta my first night there, thinking it was the main course. Later, I was so full I could barely get up from the table.
The first few hundred feet into the bowl offer some challenging skiing with variable snow and steep terrain. I watch in awe as Daniela handles it with the ease and grace of someone who has spent a lifetime in the mountains. Several of the skiers in our group young enough to be her grandkids are having more trouble with the skiing. Quickly the snow softens and transitions into perfect, buttery corn. Now everyone is skiing like a hero and each pitch ends with laughs and smiles. Daniela stays with our group the entire way to the hut, and while it’s clear she is more than capable of making it out on her own, she seems to be enjoying the camaraderie of skiing with a group of friends in the mountains. Once down at the hut, she thanks us and glides off, down the valley, out toward the trailhead, putting an end to another day in the Ortler Mountains. We, however, walk inside the Branca Hut and in the best Italian we can manage, order the first round of cold beer.