Tales from The Pale Mountains
My summary of the past fortnight goes something like this: World Cup, World Cup, World Cup. Biting. More World Cup. England’s woes turned into hopes resting on a Scotsman’s shoulders, only to be destroyed by a Bulgarian called Grigor Dimitrov… Notwithstanding all this drama, the Boheim Family had a good week during which we chose to celebrate the birthdays of my older daughter and better half in San Cassiano in South Tryol, Italy. The only blip on our trip was having to endure my (Austrian) better half ruing the day Austria handed over the area.
“Well,” I said to him, “they lost the war.”
“And?” I was flummoxed by his answer. Instead I said,
“Does it really matter?”
“Of course it does,” he said. “Just imagine someone decides to take Cornwall from the UK.” I rolled my eyes and looked out onto the passing scenery.
It’s the people that make the place; and a beautiful place it is – in this case, the culture and traditions preserved by the Ladin people. The Dolomites – or The Pale Mountains – have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for their breathtaking rock forms which take on an ethereal pink glow with the setting sun. It’s one of my favourite places and a place we return to regularly.*
These mountains have inspired an array of myths and legends. In 1913, a travel journalist, Karl Felix Wolff, first compiled these tales into an anthology entitled, Dolomitensagen**. One of the more haunting stories passed from generation to generation by Rasteladores (girls who used to rake hay together once the grass has been cut) tells of a royal lady who had been cursed with daughters, including a foster child – Conturina. This girl was prettier than all the others and suitors were only interested in her. The mother grew sick and tired of their persistent demands for her foster daughter and prohibited Conturina from appearing in front of these men. But this didn’t stop them from asking for her. So, Conturina was allowed to meet them, but was forbidden to say anything. Deaf and dumb was the mother’s explanation of her foster daughter’s silence. Yet the suitors persisted and in desperation, the mother had a sorceress turn Conturina into stone. But even still she was marvelled at. And so the stone Conturina was banished into the “terrible abyss” of the highest mountain in the Dolomites: Marmolada.
Years passed and Conturina’s disappearance remained a mystery. Yet from time to time, shepherds reported the sound of a girl singing coming from the rock desert of the Ombretta Valley running along the Marmolada. One night, a young man on duty in the Ombretta Valley heard the singing and this time he could make out her words of fate and sorrow. He called up to her and said he would climb up at first light to rescue her. “It’s too late,” the voice replied. “Seven years have passed and now I must remain here until the promised time.”
And to this day people still report the sound of a girl’s voice in the mist. While they worked, the Rasteladores used to sing the so-called Conturina song. Only one verse of this song has been preserved:
I am of stone and I don’t move,
I am of rocks on the Marmolada,
I am an abandoned girl,
And I don’t know why.
It isn’t hard to imagine voices when you’re alone in the mountains. The rock faces amplify any noise. And when everything’s still, the silence encroaches all around you as if it’s your only companion. My better half and I decided to do a hike we’ve done a few times before. It starts with an amble from Capanna Alpina along a path following a snaking river. With the trickle of water beside you, the forest green and meadow flowers it’s a bit like Hobbit territory. But this lasts only a little while and before you know it, the path veers to the left and starts to zig-zag steeply. Every step scrapes each breath away. But it’s all right as you know it can’t last for that long. But it does. Each tight bend leads you on, letting you think for a second that you’re almost there. And you are, you tell yourself again. And again. The mantra begins to wane and you continue to huff and puff until you finally reach a green plateau with a small hut – Scotoni together with a farm. From 100 metres away it looks like a mirage. Thankfully it isn’t, although you half think that a unicorn or winged horse will appear among the sheep and rabbits. Of course none appear, but you’re so exhausted that anything you focus on looks mythical.
The first time we did this hike, I thought it ended there. It doesn’t. You have to cross the plateau to a waterfall. A narrow path edges up it and you scramble among the rocks to get to the top. After the path to the Scotoni hut, your lungs are used to the steepness, but tiredness sets in when you realise this stretch leads to another plateau – one less welcoming than the first. Yes there is a lake (Lake Lagazuoi), but it’s tiny and serves as a mirror to the peaks of the Fanes-Dolomites. There’s no hut either; no greenery to speak of. If you’re lucky, you may see a bird or an eagle fly above you, but forget catching sight of a friendly mountain goat or sheep. Just calcified boulders surround you, forming a lunaresque landscape. Then you look up: sheer rock faces, ashen and coarse, tower over you. It’s as if they’re reminding you who’s boss. These mountain peaks of Conturines, Lagazuoi and Fanes have lasted millennia. They’ve played host to landslides and avalanches. They’ve witnessed the worst storms billowing through them. Fear pricks at you even though you’ve done this hike before.
The landscape remains unchanged for the rest of the hike, but this time around, knee-deep snow covers most of the path. You trudge on along the Dolomites ridgeway, running parallel to the granite giants, Fanes and Lagazuoi. Clouds creep across the sun and you try to ignore its dark magic on the scenery. How many times have I done this, you say to yourself. You think of the mountaineers – John Ball, Edmund Zsigmondy, Paul Grohmann – who conquered these rock faces long before Gore-Tex, telephones and GPS. This path you tread is nothing compared to the paths they forged to scale those heights. Regardless of what you tell yourself, the surroundings saps your energy. Snow covers some of the markings but hallelujah for the two hikers fifteen minutes ahead of you, who’ve kindly left their footprints for you to follow. So you do just that, clambering in and out of 30 centimetre footholes boring through undulating territory. You fall silent as you stumble along the terrain, the blue sky now wholly obscured by thick cloud. Another half hour passes; you’re hot, your sweat freezes against your skin and you shiver. And then you see it: the Lagazuoi Hut, sitting at 2778 metres, overlooking Passo di Falzarego…
… Your heart sinks. From your vantage point, the hut is smaller than the tip of your finger. Without snow, it would take another thirty minutes, maybe more to get there, but not that much. In snow, it takes longer. You keep going. You’re nearly there you tell yourself. And you are, you’re really nearly there. You slip, you fall on your backside. You try to laugh it off, but really you’re cursing yourself for choosing this flipping hike in the first place. Of course you can’t turn back. So the only thing now is to make it up the 200 metres of a near vertical climb. And yes, that’s also covered in snow, but remember the footprints of those two hikers who you could kiss when you see them, except you won’t and you’ll just nod to them and say Bonjorno. Up you go, trying not to slip down, but it’s one step forward, two steps back. You look to the left: in the rock lie tunnels dug by the Austrians during WW1 to defend Habsburg territory from the Italians. You wonder about the incompetence of both sides, the thousands of lives lost on these mountains, the desperate conditions of those huddled in tunnels or the Italians (mainly Sicilians with no experience of snow) cowering in their tents at the foot of the mountain on the other side. In the hush you can almost hear their ghosts: orders called out over intermittent gun fire, cries of the dying and the odd explosion that comes to nothing. You hear singing to buoy the spirits and conversations concerning loved ones at home and when will this all end. So this hike of yours: it’s really nothing. And it stirs you into action. You stop your internal complaining. You keep going because life, actually, isn’t that bad.
Max Gissing – my main character in The Silent Children – wouldn’t let anything like this get to him. He’s probably climbed a few mountains – maybe Mont Blanc among them. Nothing gets under his skin. He has that cool detachment that’s a little like James Bond. But then it all changes when he inherits his estranged mother’s house in Ober St. Veit, Vienna.
Until next time!
** The full name of Wolf’s compilation is, Dolomitensagen. Sagan und Ueberlieferungen, Maerchen und Erzaelungen der ladinischen und deutschen Dolomitenbewohner – which basically means something along the following lines: Stories, Customs, Fairy Tales and Myths of the Ladin and German people in the Dolomites.