Ortler Circuit Ski Tour - Italy
Want to go skiing with no heavy packs, eat great food, drink good wine and coffee, and sleep in comfortable huts? Interested in peaks over 12,000 feet (3650m) high that you can ski to the top of and then ski off while surrounded by beautiful glaciated terrain? If you answered "yes" to all of the above then the Ortler Circuit Ski Tour is right up your alley.
The Cevedale-Ortler area is located between St. Mortiz, Switzerland and the Italian Dolmites in North-Eastern Italy. To the North, German is spoken, to the South Italian, thus you often see mountains and glaciers given two names, one in each language. Unlike our Haute Route trips, the Ortler Circuit is not so much a traverse, but is rather a loop in the southern corner of the Tyrol region that hops from hut to hut in search of prime skiing, and spectacular scenery, connecting what might be the most comfortable huts in the Alps. The Ortler ski tour takes place within Stelvio National Park, and starts above the town of Santa Caterina di Valfurva, travels in a circle through the mountains, and then ends again in Santa Caterina almost a week later.
The fact that the trip forms a large loop simplifies logistics when compared to a point-to-point trip such as the Haute Route. The Ortler Circuit winds thorough peaks that are just slightly lower than 4000 meters and as a result the area tends to be less traveled than regions of the Alps dominated by 4000 meter peaks. The National Park at the center of this tour holds 14 summits higher than 3000 meters, with the Ortler being the highest at 3905m.
Our Ortler Circuit Ski Tour is similar in difficulty to our Haute Route Traverses from Chamonix to Zermatt. Much of the ski terrain is glaciated and those with some mountaineering experience will feel more comfortable taking part in optional peak ascents that abound in the area. This trip offers the possibility of true ski mountaineering as the nature of many of these high peaks can be reached on skis or by short sections with crampons and many can be descended on skis. For those less interested in skiing off peaks, there is endless opportunity for ski touring without the added mountaineering aspects.
Guided Ortler Circuit Ski Tour ItineraryOrtler Circuit Day 0: Meet at Hotel above Santa Caterina.
We will meet in Santa Caterina, Italy at our hotel at 5 PM with group dinner and orientation to follow.
Ortler Circuit Day 1: Ski up and drop gear at Branca Hut (2487m) and then tour for the day before returning to Branca Hut.
We begin with 2 nights at the Branca Hut, which is a short 90 minute ski from the trailhead. We generally ski up in the morning, drop some gear in the ski room, and then spend the day touring in the immense valley beyond. Options include the Pizzo Tresero (3549m) or the Punta Matteo (3678m), both located to the SE of the hut and approached by the Forni Glacier. On either of these paeks we ski to very close to the summit, stash our skis, and then put on crampons for the final short climb to the top.
Ortler Circuit Day 2: Start at Branca Hut, tour to the SE, and return to the Branca Hut.
On our second day of touring out of the Branca Hut we will return to either ski up and off the peak we missed the day before or take advantage of other local options such as the Palon de La Mare. There is so much skiing to be done out of this well situated hut that when the weather gets rough we occasionally spend a 3rd night here at the end of the trip as there is easily 5 days of different tours here and it sets you up for an easy drop to the car in even the worst weather. Night at Branca Hut.
Ortler Circuit Day 3: Start at Branca Hut and end at Schaubach Hut (2581m).
From the Branca Hut we will move to the North to stay at the Schaubach Hut (2700m), located North of the magnificent Gran Zebru. There are a variety of ways to get to Schaubach, which is located near the top of the ski area above Sulden. Our preferred route is to make the steep climb over the pass between Monte Pasquale and Monte Cevedale and grab an amazing descent from the top of Pasquale. We then climb up and over the steep pass (usually with ski on our back) that leads to the Casati Hut and then weave our way through moderate, but complex terrain before dropping in for a very long north facing shot that leads to the hut. If things feel a bit more dicey, we can alternately tour up the valley adjacent, past the Pizzini Hut, stopping for the night at the Casati if the weather makes it difficult to descend. We generally leave Cevedale for the return trip from the Marteller Hut a day or two along in the itinerary.
Ortler Circuit Day 4: Schaubach Hut to Marteller Hut (2610m).
Wake up at Schaubach and use the chairs to gain some quick elevation by taking a chair up to just over 3100 meters. From here we skin up a few hundred meters, pull our skins, ski a bit, and then cross over the Passo del Madriccio at 3123m. This sets us up for a beautiful 900 meter east and then north facing descent all the way to the Zufalhutte (2265m). After an optional coffee or bite to eat, we then climb about 300 meters back up to the Marteller Hutte (2610m). This day pushes out into a corner of the Ortler that has an even more remote feel with plenty of options for afternoon tours. The Marteller is a bit smaller than the other huts and is always fun to visit. In less than ideal stability we sometimes skip the Marteller in favor of an additional night at the Pizzini or Branca. While all this sounds complicated, the way the huts are arranged allow for some flex in the schedule, which means we can continue to get in good skiing even during most storm systems.
Ortler Circuit Day 5: Start at Marteller Hut and end at Pizzini Hut (2700m).
Today we focus on getting up and over Monte Cevedale to the West. This will put us in position to ski down to the Pizzini Hut (2487m). The usual routes takes us up the Cevedale Glacier and passes massive cannons left over from WWI. From here we have the descend the upper Cedec glacier, which we will have viewed from the summit of Pasquale a few days earlier. This descent is one of the most photogenic of the tour. We will spend the night in the Pizzini Hut. The Pizzini also has hot showers, and a sauna and a bar area that is generally full of happy Italians unwinding after big days in the mountains.
Ortler Circuit Day 6: Start at Pizzini Hut and then finish at the cars.
No trip to the area is complete without getting up on or near the Gran Zebru. On this day we will choose between a climb of Gran Zebru from the Konigsjoch or a ski from the Col Pale Rosso. Ski descents under the south face of the Gran Zebru generally offer long, corn skiing, descents. The climb of Gran Zebru itself requires us to leave our skis for the final section and don crampons as we climb to the summit of the 3851 meter peak. If this is not in shape, we will do an alternate tour. We generally shoot to be out to the trailhead by early afternoon, at which point we have a group lunch, share one last espresso, and begin the drive back out to Milan or Switzerland.
Ortler Circuit Ski Tour QualificationsSki Ability: The Ortler Circuit is not an extreme ski route in any way. It does, however, require participants to be decent skiers. Things you should feel comfortable doing include: skiing with a backpack, skiing a wide variety of snow ranging from powder to breakable crust to corn, and climbing and descending 3500-4500' each day on skis for a week. It is not advised to undertake the Ortler Circuit without any experience outside of a ski area. You will want to do some AT skiing in advance of the Ortler Circuit and will want to show up having used your boots in the time prior to the trip.
It is not uncommon for people to develop very bad blisters if they go from not touring at all to putting in successive long ski touring days. You should be able to efficiently get down black diamond runs in most ski areas. Again, you do not need to be an extreme skier to do this, but there will be spots where it is best not to fall, and you need to be able to efficiently link turns in a wide variety of snow conditions. You should also be aware that skiing on a glacier is much different from skiing in bounds at a ski area. Real hazards exist in these mountains and none are marked. Prior to your trip you want to focus on skiing in control and being able to ski for long periods without falling. You do not need any previous mountaineering experience to do this, but it is nice to have some level of familiarity with the climbing harness, crampons, and ice axe. We use these items very rarely, but you will be more confident if you show up with some level of comfort with them.
Ski Skills AssessmentIt can be difficult to determine where different people are in terms of ski ability without skiing with them in advance of a program. As we don't always have the opportunity to ski together in advance of all trips we have provided the following list so that potential customers can evaluate their ski skills and choose the most appropriate program.
Advanced Ski Skills
- Able to ski fall line in most snow conditions (powder to wind affected snow).
- Able to make parallel or stem-christie turns on 35° groomed or firm snow.
- Able to side-slip on firm slopes up to 40°.
- Able to ski moguls in soft snow.
- Able to do kick turns facing in or facing out on 30° slopes.
- Able to skate on level terrain.
- Able to ski fall-line in tight radius turns in good conditions.
- Able to ski black diamond runs at ski areas efficiently and in most snow conditions.
Physical Condition Evaluation for SkiingSki touring requires a certain basic level of physical fitness to minimize risk and be enjoyable. In addition to a solid base of aerobic conditioning you need to have the basic core strength to ski in a variety of conditions while carrying a ski pack. The best training you can do for ski touring is ski touring. It is best not to go into any extended trip without finding the time to get in a few days of touring in advance to make sure that your feet are conditioned to your boots.
Very Good Physical ConditionFull day tours with 3000-4500 feet of elevation gain while carrying a pack weighing between 20 and 30 lbs. on tours lasting 3-6 days
How do the huts work?In most of the huts we are given dormitory style lodging. Different people have different opinions of hut living. Most nights we are in bed by 9 p.m. and most mornings we are up by 6 am. Most people staying in huts sign up for the dinner and the breakfast option. Dinners are things like pasta, meat, potatoes, a desert, bread, and soup. Breakfast is generally a very simple affair consisting of bread and jam, coffee or tea, and cheese and is designed to get large numbers of people fed and out the door. You purchase water in the huts and it can be surprisingly expensive. In general expect to spend about $4.25 USD for a liter of water. You can often buy boiled water (made from melted snow or collected rainwater) for about half this. For most huts the supplies are flown by helicopter and thus cost seems to correlate to weight as much as anything.
What do we do in the huts?At the end of some days (particularly sunny ones) people often stop in the hut for lunch and then after lunch go back out to ski. On some days we may decided to nap, play cards, or read in the afternoon prior to dinner. Usually after dinner everyone puts in breakfast orders, we settle our bill with the hut manager, and retire early in preparation for an early start.
LuggageYou may store luggage at the hotel. We do not advise bringing laptops or other fragile valuables as luggage is usually left in a ski room. Bring a small lock to secure your bag. When Olivia and I travel to Europe we generally take a large wheeled duffle bag (Patagonia Freightliner Max Bag), a ski bag with both our skis, and a lightweight duffle such as a Patagonia Black Hole Bag. With three bags between the two of us, we can keep bag weights down for the flight and generally avoid excess baggage fees. Once in Europe we empty the contents of the lightweight duffel into our big wheeled duffel and then we can pull the bag on and off trains, through town, etc. The lighter you go the happier you will be, so pack very carefully.
Insurance ConsiderationsThere are several different types of insurance to consider. Travel insurance can protect all of your non-refundable trip expenses (i.e. guide fees, airline reservations, etc) and in some cases might also provide some rescue insurance. NMS does not carry rescue insurance for its guests. We do carry commercial liability insurance, but you are responsible for the cost of your evacuation if injured.
There is huge variability between insurance policies and providers, and even within policies depending on your residence and citizenship. All of the information provided in this document is only meant to help you start to educate yourself about insurance. It is your responsibility to select the products that provide the amount of coverage that you are comfortable with.
Once you have purchased travel insurance please pass this information on to the NMS office. Also make sure to CARRY YOUR PROOF OF INSURANCE DURING THE TRIP.
Travel InsuranceIn addition to providing you with protection should you have to cancel your trip unexpectedly, some travel insurance policies can cover many other aspects of your trip itself. Examples of possible additional coverage include search & rescue for accidents, medical expenses while traveling, and allowances for lost or delayed luggage.
We are a provider of Travelex travel insurance. The following link will take you to the page on our website which deals with this Travelex insurance information »
Our Location Number is 47-0108. You can purchase insurance from another company but we picked Travelex because they seem most well represented by other mountaineering and ski companies. We have also had customers successfully receive compensation for trips interrupted by family emergencies. This sort of insurance has eased the process for both our customers and ourselves as it seems reasonably priced, and takes much of the financial risk out of the equation for you and for us. In order to be eligible, this insurance needs to be purchased within 21 days of the day we receive your application & deposit. The main site for this insurance is: www.travelex-insurance.com
Please make sure to speak with a representative of Travelex to ensure you select the correct coverage. Some of the policies have exclusions for backcountry skiing or mountaineering so you need to make sure these activities are covered. As we understand it the Travel Select Plan with the added adventure pak is probably what most of our customers will need.
Rescue InsuranceIf your travel insurance does not provide rescue insurance you may need to consider adding some other policy to cover this. The list below is by no means comprehensive but should give you a starting point for looking into this. In Europe the cost of rescue is payable on the spot (unlike the US), and can be very expensive.
Austrian Alpine Club: This provides a good rescue insurance option. Most American's that go this route purchase their insurance through the UK branch of the Austrian Alpine Club. Cost for 2013 was £43.50 for those born between 1953 and 1987, £33.50 for those born before 1953, and lower amounts for people born from 1994 onward. There is also a family membership. Last we checked this covered you in Austria for the year enrolled as well as worldwide up to 6000 meters.
We generally advise folks to cary a trip cancellation policy for their primary cancellation or trip interruption insurance and then back this up the Austrian Alpine Club membership. Please note that while we work hard to provide good advice here and in our pre-trip information it is ultimately your responsibility to obtain insurance, understand the policy, and decide for yourself how much insurance you need. As we have gotten older and are now parents we have noticed that we prefer to carry more insurance than we used to.