Colorado is famous for its splendid mountains, to which John Denver’s anthem is dedicated. Dirk Rohrbach seeks their unique thrills, biking over some of the highest passes in the Rocky Mountains.
Heidi is the tale of a little orphan girl who seems perpetually on the verge of bursting with happiness – so long as she’s allowed to stay with her crotchety grandfather in the Alps. She leaps over streams, tends sheep and goats, and skips merrily through lush mountain fields, picking flowers and laughing. The story takes place in the Switzerland, but no matter. The important thing is that there are mountains – kitschy, romantic ones.
Then there’s my own story. I wasn’t exactly an orphan girl, but something like it. My first train ride without my parents was to the mountains, to South Tyrol. I was exactly the same age as Heidi: five years old.
I was going not to a mountain pasture but to a convalescent home for children. And I didn’t understand what was happening.
I watched my parents waving from the platform in Cologne as the train set off, much to my horror. It drove on and on and I cried and cried. My eight-year-old sister tried to comfort me, though she was as helpless and sad as I was. Around us were other much-too-small children with much-too-big suitcases. Never has a train journey passed more slowly, and never have I felt so profoundly abandoned and desperate. Then, at long last, just as I had run out of tears and was down to the last few suppressed, shaky sobs, the train ground to a halt.
The next day the following headline was splashed across the newspapers: Bombs Detonated in South Tyrol. Activists were using bombings to try and wrest autonomy from Italy. That night in 1961 was the ‘Night of Fire’, the last armed struggle over the province.
After this experience, I wanted nothing more to do with the mountains. I didn’t like them; they seemed eerie and strange. Only when I went skiing, once the snow had covered the harsh rocks and steep slopes in a sugary white powder, did I begin to warm to them.
But now, many years later, I want to know: can I feel at peace in the mountains, even in summer? Can I let go of the shadows of the past? I love the dry mountain air, the broad expanses and the down-to-earth people in the Andes. So why not in the Dolomites? Off we go, then. I can always turn back.
Everything’s fine on the high-speed train as far as Bolzano. Much quicker than usual. After that the trains get increasingly smaller and slower. Coniferous forests go by outside the window before the first masses of rock come into view, reawakening my childhood fear. It must have been awful for my parents during the war: as children they were constantly being sent away to unknown places. And what must it be like today for the children of refugees from Syria, Eritrea or Somalia? How much pain can young souls tolerate? How much injustice can people bear? All the chaos in the world, its crises and misery, the apparently endless stream of bad news that washes over me every day via the internet and the media – that too is driving me into the mountains. I’m looking for peace. I’m looking to shut down the system completely, recharge it and press start.
They say there’s an energy in the mountains. Please, dear mountains, share some with me, and bring me back to earth.
Instead of being brought back to earth, I start by walking over a rickety transporter bridge. Instead of silence, there’s the furious rushing of the waterfall.
I’m in the Foresta dei violini (the Violin Forest) in the Fiemme Valley. It smells of spruce. The air, gentle and scented, streams into my lungs. This 20,000-hectare area is half covered in forest, and the mountains, meadows and woods are under collective ownership and management. The forest became famous because its spruce trees produce wood of extraordinary quality: used to make violins, it commands top prices. The great maestro Stradivari is said to have gone there personally to find wood for his violins.
The most important person in such a precious wood is the forester, and I’m about to meet him.
Guiliano laughs. When his mouth isn’t laughing, his eyes are. This man loves his job, and when he’s not tending to the forest he’s guiding people through the mountains. I’m gobsmacked when he tells me where he’s already been: the Peruvian and Ecuadorian Andes, Argentina, Nepal, Tanzania, Turkey and Morocco. And nothing on earth causes him the least concern. Ever. Unlike me. But he’s always happy to be back home in the Dolomites, because they’re the most beautiful of all. Says Guiliano.
Guiliano takes me with him. ‘Up there,’ he says with a grin. ‘Where the trees don’t grow anymore, to the rock massifs of the Rolle Pass.’ Wow – yeah, those are the Dolomites! Like jagged teeth, like fountains of stone they jut abruptly out of the rich, green meadows. Across the whole of South Tyrol and Trentino, clusters of Dolomites with their crests and peaks emerge like islands of rock. They have sonorous names like Langkofel, Plattkofel, Latemar, Sella, Marmolada and Civetta. At the moment we’re standing in front of the Pala Group, the main peaks of which are Pala, Vezzana and Bureloni. Their colours change according to the light, weather and time of day.
Since 2009 the Dolomites have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and they number among the fifty most beautiful landscapes in Europe. ‘Where does the name come from?’ I ask Guiliano. ‘From the kind of rock?’ Guiliano laughs. ‘No. The name actually comes from France – or rather, from a Frenchman.’ It’s probably a good thing that they don’t bear his full name, because it goes like this: Déodat Guy Silvain Tancrède Gratet de Dolomieu. The little man with a big name lived from 1750 to 1801. A geologist, he discovered in Trentino a ‘strange type of rock that looks like limestone but isn’t.’ With that, dolomite was born, and this region of the Alps has been called the Dolomites ever since.
‘They can be white as snow, yellow as the sun, grey as the clouds, pink as a rose, red as blood. What is the colour of the Dolomites?’
The higher I get, the more my thoughts seem to wander. I’m now 3,000 metres above sea level, and the air is clear as glass. I sit and stare in wonder. It’s unbelievable that all this was once a sea and the tips of the Dolomites were reefs in the water! It took 280 million years for this rock to emerge from the ocean floor. Coral, photoautotrophic algae and shells all played their part. 80 million years ago, the African tectonic plate butted up against the Eurasian one and the earth folded in on itself. Coral reefs and the ocean floor appeared: the Dolomites. Somehow it’s calming to know how much time and what natural forces have shaped these stones. This persistence, an expression of solidity and strength, is something I find lacking in our fast-paced lives, where everything changes the moment you get used to it.
* * *
I was immediately keen when I heard about the concert. ‘Sounds of the Dolomites’ is an institution in Trentino. The festival takes place during the summer months, and always in very unusual locations. When my alarm clock goes off at 3.30am, my enthusiasm has dwindled somewhat, but my hostess surprises me with coffee and croissants (at this hour!) and my mood improves dramatically. It’s still dark and chilly. The cable car is packed, just as it would be in the middle of winter. All these people have willingly got out of bed in the dead of night, I think. Later I realise that there are around 3,000 of us climbing the mountain this morning to hear the concert at sunrise. Mario Brunetti and Dave Douglas are carrying their heavy double basses on their backs. Their wives lug their sleeping children upwards. As the cable car reaches the top, the view of the scenery takes my breath away: dawn is already breaking, and the mountain range on the horizon is shaded in various tones of blue and grey.
Like a caravan, musicians and audience members climb the approximately two-kilometre path upwards to where the stage is set up. Among the rocks there are already hundreds of people, some of them in sleeping bags, swaddled in blankets and drinking tea or coffee from thermoses. The air is cold, as are the rocks. My neighbour passes me a blanket to sit on. To this day I’m still grateful to her: although during the day it can get hot in the mountains, at night it can cool to ten degrees below zero. I sit and watch. Slowly the sky turns red. The musicians tune their instruments. Between the expectant audience, the stillness of the morning and the reddish tinge of the sky, a very special atmosphere hangs in the air. And then the music begins: Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in E minor. Pure goose pimples, though I’m not sure whether that’s down to the music, the setting or the sunrise. I’m more than moved to tears. I cry.
When the concert finished to rapturous applause and I’ve finished my interviews, it’s ten o’clock. The sun is shining and the air is gradually warming up, despite the altitude. In the valley, the temperature during this period reaches above thirty degrees, in Bolzano up to thirty-eight. Very unusual. It’s an ideal moment to escape into the cooler mountains. Perhaps that’s why so many people have come.
I make the descent by foot. No, really! After a while I leave the broad, well-worn trail and take the so-called ‘Shepherd’s Way‘. On this narrow path, I walk down the mountain then up a little, through sweet-smelling meadows and past cows and goats.
Then the path begins to lead consistently downhill. I’m tired, my out-of-practice legs are aching and my shoes pinch. ‘Mummy, are we there yet?’ asks my inner child. My two-litre bottle of water is soon empty and I haven’t really eaten breakfast yet. I try to keep cheerful and not think about hunger, thirst or pain, and end up thinking about hunger, thirst and pain. Then I remember a yoga exercise, a breathing meditation called ‘so ham’ (meaning ‘I am’). I think ‘so’ on the in-breath and ‘ham‘ on the out-breath. Gradually I reach a genuinely meditative pace, putting one foot in front of the other, breathing in, breathing out, and it’s as if my aches and pains have been whisked away. I reach the valley around one, and from there head straight back to the cabin in a cable car. I’m not taking another step today. I swear! A proper meal with plenty of calories – I’ve earned it.
* * *
Next morning: an unpleasant awakening. I can only manage the stairs down to the breakfast room backwards. My muscles ache so badly I could scream with every step. But am I about to give up? Hell no! By now I’ve made friends with the mountains, and tonight I want to sleep up there. A storm is in the offing, but hopefully we’ll make it up to the cabin before the thunder and lighting set in. From Campitello it’s flat (woohoo!) all the way to Canazei, then we’ll take the cable car for a bit (cheating) and go from there to the Rifugio Sasso Piatto. I’m a newbie at hiking and I have a sense of direction like a demented compass needle, so I’m extremely glad that Alice from Canazei is coming with me.
Alice was born and brought up here. She speaks Ladin, and is therefore essentially one of the region’s indigenous people. The Val di Fassa, thanks to its high peaks and the nearly impassable landscape through which we’re currently walking, was protected from the outside world, preserving its language – Ladin – for more than two thousand years. This is how it sounds:
Maybe I can learn a bit of Ladin on the go, I think. But Alice soon disabuses me of this notion. ‘Which Ladin do you want to learn?’ she asks. ‘The one from the upper, middle or lower Fassa Valley?’ 30,000 inhabitants can’t agree on a language? Amazing. And being the tradition-conscious people that they are, the Ladins have numerous festivals and rituals to soothe evil spirits and keep the nice ones in a good mood. No wonder: in an environment where hail can abruptly ruin the harvest, where landslides can bury entire villages and storms make the earth tremble, a belief in witches and spirits isn’t unlikely. So even today, the Ladins still tell fairy tales and sagas from the Val di Fassa.
We stop to meet another Ladiner, the sculptor Rinaldo Cigolla. He’s over eighty years old, and still works in his atelier. ‘The view of the mountains from the window,’ he says, ‘gives me so much strength. Whatever happens in the world, it doesn’t worry me. I’m completely carefree.’ Wow. I’d love to be able to say that of myself. ‘And what if somebody promised you a big villa and lots of money somewhere else in the world that was also beautiful? Would you accept?’ I ask.
I think to myself: these people have roots that go deep into the earth. They stand like spruces, swaying in the wind and storms, surviving heavy snows in winter and gazing constantly at the mountains. They’re tough. I’m a bit envious, actually. We continue our hike. Step by step we climb higher and higher. And the higher I get, the lighter feels the weight of the world. My shoulders relax, my upper body light and my lower half heavy. My feet are like lead, but my body is free. Above me, the sky darkens. Is the thunderstorm going to catch us? But then it clears up again, and I’m pretty relieved: getting struck by lightning is not a challenge I’d like to undergo. From the safety of the cabin, however, with a roof over my head, I’ve got no objection to witnessing that kind of natural spectacle. I imagine it would be wonderfully scary. But there’s probably not much chance of that.
By now we’ve reached the Sasso Piatto mountain. We sit, untie our shoes, stretch our legs and look around. Glorious. We’re starving. Ham and cheese, bread and fresh butter – delicious. All homemade, from happy cows and goats. A small bell rings. A marmot whistles. Otherwise all is silent. A sparkling wine spritzer. Life can be so easy.
For the last ten years, Roberto has spent three months every summer working on the mountain. He has 400 sheep, twenty cattle, seventy goats, five pigs, ten horses and ten milking cows. Gosh! That sounds like a lot of work. It is indeed. This is what his mornings look like – and they’re not for the faint-hearted:
4.30am: Fetch and milk the animals
5.30am: Check on the sheep
6am: Light the oven and knead the dough
7am: Eat breakfast, bake the bread
etc. etc. etc.
9pm: Go to bed
Then do the whole thing seven days a week for three months.
Now I’m not envious any more.
Nonetheless, Roberto wouldn’t trade his situation for anything. The mountain is addictive, he says:
It’s beautiful here. But three months on a mountainside! Would I want that? I don’t think so. It looks like pretty hard graft, even though I can imagine that one’s soul and perpetually frantic mind could find peace here. No question.
My time in the mountains has done me good.
Although I nearly gave up on the climb down: I walked down the final bit of sloping path backwards, because my knees were crunching and shrieking with every step. Now I’m sitting on the Piazza in Trento with a glass of wine, thinking about my visit to the Dolomites. It was certainly beautiful – very beautiful, even. I’ve made my peace with the mountains and left the shadows of the past behind me. Walking makes your muscles sore, but it frees your body; it’s as if your inner horizons widen. I feel lighter than when I arrived, and more grounded. There’s no less chaos in the world, no less suffering.
But does carrying all that chaos around with me help the world? No.
So next time I get the chance, I’ll be back – to bring myself back to earth and recharge my batteries.
* * *
Translation by Caroline Waight