Thursday, April 23, 2009

Snow Creek Wall - Midnight Rock Closure April-July 2009

We wanted to help the US Forest Service spread the word that Midnight Rock and Snow Creek wall currently are closed to climbing due to Peregrine Falcon nesting.  The closure is effective from April 15, 2009 until July 31, 2009.  There are currently pairs of Peregrine Falcons nesting in both areas and the pair on Snow Creek has eggs on Library Ledge.  

It is vital that climbers respect these closures as failure to stay off these climbing routes could negatively impact future climbing access and will have an adverse effect on the nesting raptors.

For more information, contact the Leavenworth office of the US Forest Service at (509) 548-2550.

Midnight Rock: The closure for Midnight Rock effects the entire crag.

Snow Creek Wall: The closure for Snow Creek Wall currently effects the Main Wall and the Shield area.  This includes the routes Outer Space, White Fright, Orbit, and White Slabs.  

With this in mind the Northwest Mountain School will not be offering guided climbs on Snow Creek Wall until after the July 31, 2009 raptor closing ends.  After July 31 we will commence guide climbs of routes such as Orbit and Outer Space when the USFS lifts the closure.

In the interim, we will still be offering all of the other routes we usually guide in the Leavenworth area such as those in Icicle Canyon and Tumwater Canyon.  For more information on these climbs contact the Northwest Mountain School at (509) 548-5823

Friday, April 17, 2009

Ortler Ski Circuit - 2009 Trip Report

This year's Northwest Mountain School Ortler Ski Circuit provided a delightful trip to the Italian Alps where we visited the Ortler-Cevedale Group.  This mountain range is in the Southern Tyrol and is named for the highest peak in the area, which is called Ortler (3905 M) in German, and Ortles in Italian.  You quickly get used to the fact that everything in the area has a name in both Italian and German, a situation that initially causes some confusion when getting to know the terrain.  More on this in a bit.  Cevedale (3757 M) (aka Zufall Spitzen) is the 3rd highest peak in the area.  Once in the area, however, it is the range's second highest peak, the Konig Spitze / Gran Zebru (3851 M) clearly that captures your imagination and seems the dominant peak despite being about 50 meters lower than nearby Ortler.

The Ortler Tour takes place entirely in Northern Italy in the spot where Eastern Switzerland, Northern Italy, and Western Austria all come together.  No peak in the range quite reaches 4000 meters and the combination of this, the additional effort required to reach the spot, and the fact that little has been written in English about the area, all work to keep American travelers to a minimum.  We first became aware of the area when guiding colleagues such as Martin Volken, Mark Houston and Cathy Cosley started leading commercial ski mountaineering groups to the Ortler Region in recent years.  In total, Olivia and I spent 9 days skiing the Ortler this spring and we were very impressed.  We plan to return in the Spring of 2010 to revisit our favorite ski lines and do a few that were not yet in condition during our visit.

At the center of the range there is a long ridge connecting Ortler, the Gran Zebru, and Cevedale.  This ridge was a highly contested piece of real estate during World War I, with the Austrians on one side and the Italians on the other.  Thrown into the mix was neutral Switzerland.  Both the Austrians and the Italians had to take great care not to accidentally shell the neutral Swiss, and as a result each side evidently vied to place their defensive positions as close to the Swiss as possible in an effort to avoid attack.  Throughout the Ortler Ski Circuit, you are constantly bumping into barbed wire, gun mounts, and other defensive structures scattered along the ridgetops.  It boggles the mind to imagine being a soldier stationed in these spots during the long winter months.  Each of the huts we stayed in displays a collection of shells, shell casings, metal fragments, and other artifacts from the fighting.  Venture north of the ridge and you are still in Italy, but everyone speaks German, step south of the ridge and only Italian is spoken.  

This year's Ortler Ski Circuit participants included: Andy Beerman, Thea Leonard, Robes Parrish, Kari Lundgren, Shannon Griggs, Olivia and myself.  Olivia and I flew into Zurich, Switzerland on March 25, and used a combination of trains and a rental car to reach Milan, where we first linked up with Andy and Thea.  The area can also be reached from Geneva (GVA), Milan (MXP or LIN), or Innsbruck (INN), but we have always found Zurich (ZRH) to be convenient, and at times a touch cheaper than some of these other cities, particularly if your plans include skiing in Switzerland or France before or after the Ortler trip.  If just visiting the Ortler, you will likely find Milan's Malpensa (MXP) airport to be the best starting point.

Andy, Thea, Olivia, and I arrived a couple days early and drove the 4.5 hours from Milan to the North side of the Ortler - Cevedale range to visit the small ski town of Sulden and stretch our legs prior meeting the rest of the group in the equally small ski town of Santa Caterina Valfurvia, located on the southern side of the range.  The drive from Milan to Sulden took us around the south, and then east end of the range and up a broad valley with more limestone than than we could climb in a lifetime.  The countryside was littered with castles and massive views.  We passed through the town of Arco, site of one of the earliest international climbing competitions, and a memory of an impossibly exotic place from Andy's and my early climbing days in the late 1980's.

After arriving in Sulden in the early afternoon we skied from the edge of Sulden up to the Schaubach Hut (aka Rif Citta di Milano).  Although the 650 Meter climb can be avoided by purchasing a 10 Euro single ride ticket, we craved the exercise after all the flying and driving and chose to skin up.  Much to our delight the Schaubach Hutte proved to be one of the nicest places we have stayed in the Alps.  Not often used by American guide services offering ski tours in the Ortler region, because it is so close to Sulden, we found the Schaubach Hut provided some of the best food and lodging on the Ortler Tour.  At the Schaubach we were given a large salad, several bowls of pasta, veal, some vegetables, bread, and finally a massive serving of Tiamissou for desert.  We each retired to our 2 person rooms contentedly stuffed, and with the new realization that we would need some big ski tours to work off these sprawling Italian meals.

While on our trip we stayed in the Schaubach, the Pizzini, the Branca, and the Forni Huts, and at each we were treated to remarkably good food, excellent coffee, hot showers, and even ice cream.  We had also planned to stay at the Marteller Hut, but ski conditions while we were there motivated us to avoid the lower angled climbs out of the beautiful valley where the Marteller Hut sits.

On March 27 we woke to high winds and poor visibility and skinned up to the Madritschjoch (Paseo del Madriccio) at 3123 M and look down into the Valle Madriccio, leading to the Zufall Hut and the Marteller Hut, places we planned to visit later in the trip. The Madritsjoch itself was easily reached, and a miserable wind made for an easy decision to ski back to the car in time to drive around to Santa Caterina Valfurva where we met Kari, Shannon, and Robes, all coming from Milan by car.

On the afternoon of March 27 we rendezvoused just above Santa Caterina Valfurva at the well apportioned Refugio Albert Ghiacciaio del Forni (Forni Hut), which lies near the end of the winter road above Santa Caterina Valfurva.  Santa Caterina itself is just upvalley from the larger resort at Bormio, one of the more famous Italian ski destinations.  At dinner on this night we began to detect a pattern when we were again served veal as the entree, the meat that was to make an appearance on 6 of 8 nights.  Each hut provided nice vegetarian options, so the more sensitive carnivores in the group opted for those, while the rest of us opted for the idea that "when in Rome..."

The first two days of the tour provided a ski touring challenge as new snow, flat light, and poor visibility made for difficult route finding and even more difficult skiing.  This was big terrain, on the edge of the massive Forni Glacier, and not a place to be too aggressive in poor visibility or snow stability.  We moved up to the Branca Hut, dropped some extra gear in their heated ski room,  and then set out for our first day of touring.   We managed to poke around in the murk for the next two days and squeezed in enough vertical to keep the troops happy, but the weather was keeping us from our main objectives, the major lines coming off the big peaks surrounding the Branca hut.

By March 30 the snow and clouds moved on and we hit the higher slopes with a vengence.  On March 30 we put in a 6000+ foot day, our longest of the tour, with climbs and descents from near the summits of Tresero and San Matteo.  Wind slab above 3300 kept us off the tippy top, but the skiing was spectacular nonetheless.    

On March 31 we left the Branca Hut after 3 delightful nights and toured up to the Pasquale-Cevedale Col and enjoyed the best turns of the trip as we made the long descent off the summit of Pasquale (3553 M) all the way down the Cedec Glacier and eventually out to the Pizzini Hut.  Not content to call it a day the entire group had a quick lunch and then made the short trip over to the Passo del Zebru, which was the gateway to some nice skiing on the north facing slopes leading into the Val Zebru.  This evening I turned 40, we celebrated with excellent cheap Italian wine, and made plans for the next day, which we intended to use to climb back to the summit of Cevedale.

On April 1 we woke again to poor visibility and breakable crust on all but North facing slopes, so we changed our plan from Cevedale to a climb up to the Passo del Cevedale and the Rifugio Cassati (3254 M).  From here we climbed the Sulden Spitze and then skied north facing powder returning to the Schaubachhutte (2381 M) for a stunningly delicious lunch of salad, homemade pasta carbonara, espresso, and the motivation for our afternoon adventure.  After lunch we jumped on the upper most chairs of the Sulden ski area and rode them to 3200 M.  This served as the launching point for a ski descent into the Rosimtal (Valle di Rosim).  We had spied this line on our first visit to Sulden and it yielded an 1100 M descent that led right to the base of the ski area, a round of cold beer, and then one last tram backup to the Schaubachhutte, where we decided to spend the night, happy to have turned a low vis start into 7000+ feet of nice, downhill, powder skiing.

On April 2 we were again faced with flat light so we climbed back to the summit of the Sulden Spitze and were pleased that the previous days breakable crust had become a supportive crust and we enjoyed a good "dust on crust" run back down to the Pizzini Hut.

On our last day, April 3, we glided all the way from the Pizzini Hut back down into the Val di Forni, climbed up to just below the summit of  San Giacomo Peak (3281 M), and skied the Val di San Giacomo all the way back to the cars just below the Forni Hut.  

Getting to the Ortler Region: Milan is the entry point to the range for most people.  A large city, with many airports, most international flights arrive at Milan's Malpensa (MXP) airport.  Flights originating in Europe are likely to land at Milan's Linate (LIN) airport.  In either case you will need to rent a car or use public transport to reach either Santa Caterina or Sulden.  Santa Caterina is closer and more quickly injects you into the best ski terrain, but Sulden seems a touch easier, albeit longer, to reach by public transport.  We are happy to share our public transport insights if you opt for that route.  Innsbruck is the most convenient airport to Sulden, but flights are often more and car rental from Innsbruck seemed expensive to us.

Consider Renting a Car:  As we combine our Ortler Ski trips with other programs such as the Haute Route, we have found that it often makes sense to fly into Zurich, take the train to Visp, Switzerland, rent a car, and then drive into Italy.  The drive takes you over the pass near Simplon and is simply stunning.  Along the way it is possible to get in a day tour near Simplon.  This route can avoid all contact with Milan.  At the end of the trip we simply drop the car back off in Visp, and jump on the train an continue on to either Chamonix, Zermatt, or the Berner Oberland, all within a few hours of Visp and efficiently served by the Swiss rail system.

When to go:  Many of the huts don't open until the last third of March each season, so the touring season does not seem to get into full swing until after March 20 or so.  Although conditions vary, you are more likely to get winter conditions in late March than mid-April.  We are often happy to take a bit of weather in exchange for better snow, but if big lines are your goals, you might wait until mid-April as stability is likely to be better.

We already have groups interested in our 2010 Ortler Ski Circuit, so feel free to contact us directly of you would like more information about the area or are looking for a guide organized ski tour to the Ortler.  

Note: All of the best photos on this page were shot by Andy Beerman, one of the owners of Park City, UT's Treasure Mountain Inn.  There are more Ortler photos on the blog at TMI's site.