Issue No. 8 // Terra Firma

Photographer: Alex Buisse

Location: Arco, Italy

Editorial  //  by Jill Macdonald

TERRA FIRMA

"Between heaven and earth". It describes something we all feel at times, suspended in the drama of life, witnessing beauty so intense that our senses can hardly process the experience.

Humans need anchors. Terra firma allows us to locate our earthly existence. It gives us confidence, ignites curiosity, restores perspective. It is part of our collective subconscious.

This issue celebrates place. Places of refuge and identity. Places that move us, teach us, and reflect what we have already learned. The ideal world is not in our imagination; it is terra firma.

TAKING BACK THE LAND

In the Yukon, First Nation youth are building world class singletrack trails and ski touring, redefining their people's mountain culture and leading their elders toward a new future.

READ MORE

EL FIN DEL MUNDO

Patagonia: land of refugees and romantics, restless souls and wilderness crusaders. What it is about this place that compels people to gamble all that they know for the chance to explore its volatile nature.

READ MORE

UPSIDE DOWN

Sisters Zoya Lynch, photographer, and Izzy Lynch, skier, face a moment of existential doubt. 13,000 km from home, in a New Zealand mountain setting, each rediscovers her way.

READ MORE

COMMON WEALTH

BC photographer Jordan Manley set out to capture the unique identity of rock climbing in the UK. He brought back a vision that connects land to building to human movement and culture.

READ MORE

MADNESS

Via ferrata were systems of steps and ropes used in WW1 to move soldiers through treacherous mountain terrain. Today they bring us to places of great beauty. History and the human spirit.

READ MORE

"The choice to explore outer reaches where ancestors didn’t dare to tread."

Photographer: Derek Crowe

Subject: Carcross/Tagish First Nation community

Words and Photography by Derek Crowe

TAKING BACK THE LAND

In the Yukon, Carcross/Tagish First Nation youth are building world class singletrack trails and ski touring, redefining their people's mountain culture and leading their elders toward a new future.

Legend has it that Tsélgi Shaa, or Montana Mountain, is one of four peaks in the Carcross area that Game Mother used to string up a hammock and gather her animal creations before she released them to live across the land. "Carcross" itself is the truncated version of "Caribou Crossing", the original name for this funnel point in the migration route of a herd once so plentiful that its downslope movement in the fall created the surreal impression of mountains crumbling.

The preamble and aftermath of the Gold Rush, and manic rush of the Alaska Highway some 45 years later, changed all of this. Endless streams of people and riches flowed through these valleys, first in a stampede that posed a brief and annoying interruption to daily life, and then as a lingering houseguest who brought with them a highway, guns and trucks full of booze.

Decades of boom-bust industry have left their mark on Montana Mountain. The daring feats of catskinners are etched across the mountainside, permanent reminders of industry's dogged pursuit of silver and gold. Far below in Carcross, the scars are more subtle, but equally persistent—the decaying foundation of the former residential school, empty liquor bottles discarded under groves of spruce trees, caught along the stunning, windswept expanse of beach and dunes extending beyond the schoolyard fence.

Once a boom-town, an aerial view of Bennett Lake Station

In 2006, Carcross/Tagish First Nation (C/TFN) undertook a small initiative with a big dream. The Singletrack to Success (S2S) Project's vision was to "build a destination, one trail at a time," and to employ its youth in doing so. It was the year before C/TFN signed its land claim agreement with the Yukon and Canadian governments, marking the return of autonomy over its lands, resources, and people. The question of economic self-sufficiency loomed large on the collective conscience of C/TFN citizens. The environmental impacts of mining were deemed too great; no, this Nation needed to find another way. Tourism offered a viable option, and trails—the "paydirt" of the adventure-fueled travelling set—were a tangible starting point.

Niko Helm and Shane Wally began their working lives with S2S, building and restoring trails on their ancestral mountain. My wife Jane and I moved to Carcross in 2006 to shepherd the project along and have remained closely involved ever since. Niko, Shane and I spent months together on that mountain, toiling, problem-solving, laughing, and learning. The last weeks we shared were in the waning summer of 2010, when we constructed a 900-foot boardwalk mid-mountain, the final piece in the restoration of a 105-year old wagon road. In retrospect, that boardwalk could be viewed as a symbolic point of divergence for the two young men; in the years that followed, Niko headed for the alpine to explore the boundaries of rock and ice, while Shane returned to the village below to mentor the next generation of youth. But a closer look reveals a convergence of their efforts: both are at the forefront of redefining the mountain culture of their people.


Youth are striving to maintain their nation’s connection to the land and animals through building and riding trails.


The discovery of gold in the Klondike forever changed this land. Between 1896 and 1898, some 30,000 stampeders forged their way from tidewater over the Chilkoot trail into the Yukon interior. The Chilkoot traverses a weakness in the Coast Range, terminating some 50 kilometres south of Carcross, and was for centuries the exclusive trading domain of the interior Tagish people and their coastal cousins, the Tlingit. Where the Tagish and Tlingit approached the trail with expedition-like efficiency, the stampeders arrived hapless and ill prepared.

In an effort to stave off their inevitable famine, the Canadian government mandated that one tonne of supplies had to accompany each stampeder into the Yukon. Almost overnight, virtually every able-bodied Carcross/Tagish person, women and children included, was employed in the packing trade. The average load for a male packer was 57–73 kilograms, and the journey—some 42 kilometres over 1100 metres of elevation gain—completed in 12 to 14 hours. A Chilkoot packer could net a daily wage of up to $1500 in current dollars—not bad for a first foray into wage labour.

Racism and romantic preoccupation with more glamorous Gold Rush characters cast a shadow on the remarkable mountain sense and abilities of the Chilkoot packers. Keish—a packer for the European explorers of the 1880s and later the discoverer of Klondike gold—earned the nickname "Skookum Jim" by hauling a legendary load of bacon over the Chilkoot Pass. Niko's ancestors Billy and Dan Johnson forged their own legends on the trail. But none of these larger-than-life characters ever rose to the prominence of Tenzing Norgay roped up to Edmund Hillary. Only in the past few decades has written history begun to account for the significant role the Carcross/Tagish played in one the grandest and most treacherous mass migrations the planet has ever witnessed. The oral history never forgot though, as the stories passed down from generation to generation in Carcross can attest. Throughout the post-Gold Rush chaos and 20th government policy intended to abolish First Nation cultural practices and language, the Carcross/Tagish people have never faltered in their deep connection to the land.

Niko's family trapline boasts a unique pedigree, being the only one situated along the Chilkoot Trail, which is now protected and managed via a joint US/Canada historical park that has employed Niko for the past three summers. It was a brisk day early this October when Niko and I set out to ski a remnant of an ancient glacier high on Montana Mountain. When Niko first started building trails at age 17, he had just quit high school. There were times when his family worried for his future, and wondered whether he would make the right choices. Today, Niko's home bears testament to those choices: several pairs of fat skis leaning in a corner of his tidy living room, his Parks Canada uniform hanging in the closet, his calendar too full with future plans to dwell for long on that hard-fought high school graduation.

Niko's ancestral cabin on the shore of windswept Bennett Lake


Niko wants to become a professional ski guide. It's a bold and somewhat unprecedented dream for a kid from Carcross. To that end, for the last few winters Niko has been tail gunning for Yukon Alpine Heliski, a unique operation that has expanded on the local tradition of camping at the high mountain passes separating the Yukon interior from the Alaskan ports of Haines and Skagway. Owner/operator Peter Wright uses a contract helicopter, RVs, and mobile sauna to chase fresh snow across the region—a quirky setup reminiscent of early days in Valdez. In the spring, Niko and Pete scouted a bold new 90 kilometer route, traveling jumbled, heavily glaciated terrain. Months later, Niko is still buzzing from the experience.

Before leaving, we stopped to visit Niko's mom, Donna Geddes. In the populated southern Yukon, carrying out a traditional lifestyle requires every technological advantage. A quick survey of the property revealed the full gamut of state-of-the-art boats, ATVs, and snow machines—the tools that Donna and her husband, master carver Keith Wolfe Smarch, use as needed to live both on and off the land. Tired after 27 days at a remote alpine camp, her annual moose hunt was successful. The massive carcass—enough to feed four families for most of the upcoming winter—was hanging in the shed. She traced out the final butchering cuts for me. "My kids grew up not knowing about gristle." Even so, moose are scarce—as hard to come by as a powder day in the fall.

In a boardroom in Carcross early this past summer, a respected Elder describes the seasonal movements of caribou on Montana Mountain to decision makers in the Carcross/Tagish First Nation government. A young voice is up next, respectfully correcting certain details and expanding upon others, confident and knowledgeable in the topic at hand. Those gathered listen with a mixture of pride and surprise. The voice belongs to 25 year-old Shane Wally, who has amassed a decade of firsthand knowledge about the mountain owing to his membership on—and for the past four years, leadership of—the S2S trail crew.

In 2006, Shane was the only kid in town with a decent mountain bike. Skinny, shy and helmet-less, he would spend hours building plywood ramps to launch his bike. It was his first job, and there was much to learn. Each morning he would dash to the local gas station to acquire the day's provisions: packaged hamburgers, a bag of chips, and a few cans of energy drink. A heavy camouflage jacket barely kept the rain out on the miserable days. It took time for his humour, creativity and bush smarts to emerge. One particular day, mindful of his Elders' teachings, he led the crew around the remains of a bull caribou as a show of respect. Later that summer, after I chose a terrible "shortcut" that resulted in wet feet for the entire crew, Shane quipped: "Never follow a white guy through the bush." His insecurities, eroded by time on the land, gave way to its day-to-day rhythm.

Still, the patterns of small town life were hard to break. Sometimes Shane was late for work, other times he failed to show up at all. During his fourth season on the crew, he passed out in a snowbank on his way home after a party, an all-too-common story in a part of the world where suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading cause of death for aboriginal youth. Slowly freezing to death, Shane awoke just in time, alive. The following summer, "the Wallyman" emerged. Towering at 6'3", he broke axe handles and shovels with his seemingly boundless strength. Crafting hand-built singletrack became his passion and motivating a new generation of youth, all of whom watched in awe, his calling. He was a young man discovering his inner and outer strength.

Shane Wally

High up on the slopes of Montana, permanent snow squeaks winter underfoot. Strapped to Niko's pack, his tried-and-true technological advantages: frame bindings, four buckle boots that are a bit too tight and his skis, plastered with stickers from the latest industry flicks. Tired and sweaty, but happy to be where we are (after some dubious route-finding by yours truly), we bust open a package of salted moose nose from Donna. On an outing a week or so earlier, we had visited the skeletal remains of Niko's ancestral cabin on the shore of windswept Bennett Lake. Inside was a note etched in pencil on a piece of wood, "April 1933. Going to Teslin tomorrow. Goodbye to you," written by his great-grandfather.

Few people held out any real hope of the S2S project living up to its potential. The obstacles were simply too great: a run-down, ramshackle town rife with social problems, disaffected youth, skeptical Elders. The project exposed a generational divide between those who reminisce about the old ways and those who seek to redefine those ways through recreation. Some Elders still struggle to understand the notion that the youth are striving to maintain their nation's connection to the land and animals through building and riding trails, and that to them, the spirituality of this sacred place is upheld by sharing it with others.

Four of the new recruits on Shane Wally's crew this past season were too young to remember Carcross before these trails. Accolades and media have poured in from unexpected places—Japan, France, the UK, with publications like Outside and video crews coming to capture the 65-odd kilometres of this emerging destination. Real estate is being sniffed out by young families and active retirees.


Past, present, and future all converge in these storied and sacred mountains.

Past, present, and future all converge in these storied and sacred mountains. On the face of it, the Chilkoot packers bear little resemblance to Niko and his fat skis, or Shane and his trail crew swinging pulaskis to the beats emanating from a Bluetooth speaker. The life-or-death imperative of traversing these peaks and valleys has been replaced by sheer enjoyment and choice: the choice to harvest animals versus visiting the grocery store; the choice to explore outer reaches where ancestors didn't dare to tread; the choice to air that gap jump instead of planting feet firmly on the ground.

But a century and its technology are dwarfed, trivialized even, by the time immemorial existence of the Carcross/Tagish in this place. Change has been the constant, its presence signaling a millennia-old cycle merely beginning anew. Chilkoot packer or backcountry skier, these are Canada's original mountain people, and they'll continue to adapt and thrive in both peak and valley, on their own terms, in their own time.

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"The sense of having been somewhere so distant that you can never really come back."

Photographer: Steve Ogle

Location: Patagonia

Words by Andrew Findlay, Photography by Steve Ogle

EL FIN DEL MUNDO

Patagonia: land of refugees and romantics, restless souls and wilderness crusaders. What it is about this place that compels people to gamble all that they know for the chance to explore its volatile nature?

Rare are the places in the world that are as evocative as Patagonia, where the raw solitude of wilderness mingles with a certain sense of potential, where refugees from oppression, wilderness crusaders and restless souls seem to congregate in a vast cathedral of fjords, glaciers, mountains and grasslands.

The scale is such that you could point a compass south on the Carretera Austral from Puerto Montt, Chile, where Patagonia approximately begins, and drive 1,200 kilometers to the highway's terminus at the dusty town of Villa O'Higgins near the Argentine border, and not have reached its furthest corners.

It is a place of soaring tangerine coloured granite towers, windswept plains of pampas grass, estancias (ranches) the size of small countries and weather systems that can turn cobalt blue skies into a surging turmoil of cloud in the time it takes to down a glass of Malbec and a meal of freshly grilled meat.


THE WILD

Alejandro Galilea Carrillo steers his truck onto a gravel road east from the bustling provincial hub of Coyhaique. Here on the eastern frontier, rolling grasslands along the Argentine border and groves of native beech trees unfold like a ruffled blanket, toward skies so wide and open you can sense the curvature of the earth. This is ranching country and it's the reason Carrillo's Spanish forbearers settled here generations ago.

Estancia Punta del Monte covers some 12,500 hectares, with 12,000 head of sheep and 200 alpaca. As Carrillo drives into a rising sun, we spot a rare heumul deer bounding up a hillside, justifiably nervous; its species has been nearly hunted into extinction. Carrillo is excited. He hasn't seen a wild deer on his property for years.

On foot now, we climb a trail scratched through copses of beech trees to a golden hilltop. Carillo walks over to where the ground falls from a precipice into air. A frosty wind sweeps up the cliff side. Far below, spires of volcanic rock tower high on an ancient seafloor that is a barren moonscape. Somewhere out on that surreal flat is a hopelessly arbitrary line demarcating the Chile-Argentine border, but it's a term only; psychically and even emotionally, Patagonia sits on either side, a country unto itself.

A condor passes so close we can hear the whistle of wind through its mottled white, brown and black feathers. Although there is not a single river or creek in sight, our discussion turns to hydroelectricity. The Chilean government, in partnership with an Italian-Spanish firm, wanted to build five major dams on the Baker and Pascua rivers to feed Chile's ravenous resource-based economy. Public opposition is fierce; sacrificing wild habitat to play the role of the nation's power supply doesn't sit well with Patagonians, or for that matter, anyone who has spent time here. With a sweep of his arm, Carrillo tells me to close my eyes and imagine this same scene with power lines cutting across it.

"For me, there are fewer and fewer places in the world that are wild, where the air is clear. Patagonia is a patch of wilderness in the modern world," he says, adjusting his black cowboy hat.


ESCAPE

Isolation itself can be a form of attraction, especially for people on the run. The cast of Patagonian émigrés is as long as it is varied–Italians escaping Mussolini's fascism, Chileans fleeing the persecution of the late dictator Augusto Pinochet, or those who have abandoned a stultifying future for unknown opportunities elsewhere. No matter where they come from, these refugees eventually consider themselves Patagonians first, Chileans or Argentines a distant second.

On my first trip to Patagonia, my host Christine Kossmann took me to her family lodge next to a fjord in Aysén, one of two provinces that comprise Chilean Patagonia. In many ways the Kossman family story rivals a Le Carré spy novel; in 1961 her father, the Kossman patriarch, escaped from East Germany, the year the Berlin Wall was completed. "My father dove beneath a lake with a snorkel and a skindiving suit made from tire tubes. He had a small film copy of his passport." Chance brought him to the port city of Valdivia in southern Chile, where work in the shipyards gave rise to a family shipbuilding firm that became an empire.

Christine's friend Luisa Ludwig, has a similar story. Her Austrian-born father landed in Puyuhuapi in 1935, age 23, with three fellow exiles from the emerging extremism of Nazi Germany. "They were full of romanticism," Ludwig says. "There were still some empty white spots on the world map so they decided to head to Southern Chile." In many ways Patagonia remains a land of "empty white spots."


POTENTIAL

Even if you know nothing about Patagonia other than the name, it has an undeniable cachet. "El fin del mundo"—the end of the earth. I have made several trips here, drawn by tangled geography, omnipresent winds and subtle mystery, like a baptism in poetic contradictions.

"There's so much in Patagonia in terms of remote, unexplored peaks and valleys. But for me it's not about climbing or descending into them as much as just being there. Being there doesn't come easy either—it's a slog to get anywhere. At the same time, it's character building and pioneering." My friend and photographer, Steve Ogle, would know. He has several Patagonian epics to his credit.

In 2008, during an attempted ski traverse of the Cordillera Darwin's rugged icecap, Ogle and two partners were pinned in a tent for weeks by ferocious weather. On day 37, they ran out of food. Relentlessly fierce weather is a hallmark of this far flung land. It would be logical to think that repeated forced entombments on glaciers, hunkered down against savage wind and precipitation would be enough to kill enthusiasm for a place. But not a place like this. Ogle recently completed trip number eight, part of an ongoing photography project that he says is chronically unfinished. Perhaps subconsciously he wants it that way. Leaving the door open to return yet again.


THE FUTURE

Patagonia has, and perhaps always will, fire peoples' imaginations. People like Marc-Andre Leclerc, an Arc'teryx athlete, belong to a youthful vanguard of alpine explorers drawn to the end of the earth. Contemplative and thoughtful, Leclerc seems older than his 22 years might suggest, and he is already on trip number three to Patagonia. A next level alpinist in terms of ability, focus and humble maturity, he spent three weeks in October soloing routes on peaks like Cerro Pollone and Aguja Standhardt, enjoying the solitude and lack of climbing scene, being the only North American climber hanging out in El Chaltén.

"Patagonia is one of the most beautiful places on earth, without a doubt," Leclerc says. "The quality of the rock, the large scale and the technical difficulty of the climbing combined with the relatively low altitude make it a very appealing destination for climbers around the world." Yet as much he enjoyed climbing ice-choked granite fissures, some days he simply walked on the windy steppes and took in the views. Compared to the focus in Yosemite on faster, harder, multiple routes-in-a-day link ups and other contrivances, "being alone in Patagonia allowed me to mentally filter my thoughts and separate ideas that have come from outside sources, versus those that truly come from within." There is an aesthetic to the mountains that borders on the sublime. Leclerc says the peaks remind him of a giant Salvador Dali painting—approach too closely and they dissolve.

Patagonia has been—and continues to be—at times a sanctuary from oppression, a blank canvas on which to live out dreams of adventure, and a wilderness too beautiful not to be protected. It may sound like a cliché to encounter a pair of gauchos astride their steeds, berets tilted against the rain, so cool they could be a 1970s Marlboro cigarette advertisement, but once you have witnessed that, you are left with the sense of having been somewhere so distant that you can never really come back.

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"Rather than focusing on what the mountains had given me over the years, suddenly all I thought about was everything that I had to lose."

Photographer: Zoya Lynch

Subject: Approaching Black Peak Hut, New Zealand

Words by Izzy Lynch, Photography by Zoya Lynch

UPSIDE DOWN

Sisters Zoya Lynch, photographer, and Izzy Lynch, skier, face a moment of existential doubt. 13,000 km from home, in a New Zealand mountain setting, each rediscovers her way.

For as long as I can remember, mountains have been the place where I felt right and skis have been my vehicle to access energy, motivation and inspiration. Fortunately I have been able to gather the support that allows me to dedicate much of my time to being out there, setting goals, achieving objectives, and building strength with each season.

Recently however, a string of close calls, lost friends and nagging injuries infected my mind with doubt. Risk. Injury. Death. Questioning. Rather than focusing on what the mountains had given me over the years, suddenly all I thought about was everything that I had to lose. An opportunity to explore the magic of New Zealand's Southern Alps with my sister could not have come at a more perfect time.

I felt a bit wary showing up on another continent with my skis and no set objectives. But Zoya, a photographer and artist, reminded me that strict itineraries often mean missed opportunities and we should just go with the flow. Our first hit was Black Peak Hut. It was a place of contrasts; nothing but white peaks in one direction and dry valleys in the other.


For the first time in a long while, the mountains felt like home.

As kids we tromped around alpine meadows at our family cabin on backcountry ski trips, changing direction whenever we saw a fun cliff to jump off, or a cave to explore, or a nice spot for lunch. Every day was a grand adventure, but it was never about the lines we would ski or objectives we would accomplish. It was about play and letting the mountains guide us, getting fresh air and spending time with each other.

Zoya's camera lead us north, from Arthur's Pass to the club fields and Mount Temple. Before we knew it, a week had gone by, in the company of new friends, new lines and beautiful light. For the first time in a long while, the mountains felt like home. Inspired by my sister's motivation to capture the beauty of New Zealand's landscape, our journey had helped me let go of the pressure to constantly push harder and further, and to appreciate where I was. By going down under, I landed right side up.

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Izzy Lynch

I grew up in the city, but the mountains are most certainly what raised me. Driving to and fro between the concrete jungle of Calgary, AB to the frosty peaks, icy rivers and wildflower-filled meadows of the Canadian Rockies weekend after weekend as a child ingrained a deep appreciation for all the freedom and comforts that the wilderness provides...

Read Izzy's Bio 

  

"We shape and are shaped by where we live."

Photographer: Jordan Manley

Words and Photography by Jordan Manley

COMMON WEALTH

BC photographer Jordan Manley set out to capture the unique identity of rock climbing in the UK. He brought back a vision that connects land to building to human movement and culture.

Traversing a country's roadways can be a great way to recognize subtle but significant patterns in the landscape, both human and environmental. In an age where it has become desirable to think and eat locally, it is interesting to see that ‘build locally' was the order of the day hundreds of years ago.

Last spring, I spent two weeks searching out climbing zones with British Mountain Guide Chris Ensoll and Arc'teryx athletes Katy Whittaker and Mina Leslie-Wujastyk. Over thousands of kilometres, zig-zagging from North Yorkshire, to the Lake District, to the Peak District, to North Wales, to the Isle of Skye, and finally, to the Old Man of Stoer on the high Scottish coast, I asked climbers that we met what made UK climbing so unique? Young and old, weekend warriors, camper van dwellers, and veritable legends, with a single voice they answered: It's the diversity.

As we drove through the lakeland fells, Chris told me about his shepherd friend, a man in his nineties who had walked and scrambled over the fells his entire life. He had a particular dialect, highly precise, to describe the landmarks vital to everyday living, working, and moving around. Termed as the ‘mountain languages' of the British Isles by author Robert McFarlane:

Shreep: slowly clearing mist
Fèith: a fine vein-like watercourse running through peat,
often dry in the summer
Zawn: a wave-smashed chasm in a cliff
Roarie bummlers: fast moving storm clouds
Tor: a high rock or pile of rocks on the top of a hill

Each time we made our way through a new township or shire, the ubiquitous dry stone walls that shaped the roadsides also appeared in the surrounding buildings. Built in part to keep sheep out of traffic, the drystacks were a form of art, a live geology.

This relationship was a kind of lithic telltale, and it became a predictable rhythm where the built landscape inevitably gave way to unsculpted stone outcroppings.

Katy's descriptions of differing rock were a form of poetry. "The grit has excellent friction but is quite rounded so you need to be good at holding slopers. The climbing is usually very subtle and technical. It also requires the climber to have excellent body positioning, movement, and trust in their feet."


Observing the relationship between people and their naturally occurring and built structures.

Slate, with its cleaved surfaces, "has barely any friction and is usually slabby… Like the grit, body positioning and movement are useful, but rather than smeary footholds, you have to be able to stand on tiny edges."

Watching her move up a nearly featureless arc was to discover the gift of precise body positioning, the imaginary line in space where there is just enough friction to overcome gravity.

Quarries, crags, outcroppings—are these natural or human landscapes? After observing the relationship between people and their naturally occurring and built structures, I was left with the feeling that they are as equally historical and cultural landscapes as they are natural. We shape and are shaped by where we live.

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Jordan Manley

Jordan Manley is commercial and editorial mountain adventure photographer, based in North Vancouver, BC. As a senior photographer for Bike and Powder magazines, he has travelled from the Arctic to Antarctica capturing people who live, work, and play in the mountains...

Read Jordan's Bio 

  

"Stepping on history is not walking through wilderness."

Photographer: Alex Buisse

Location: Cortina, Italy

Words by Jill Macdonald, Photography by Alex Buisse

MADNESS OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL KIND

Via ferrata were systems of steps and ropes used in WW1 to move soldiers through treacherous mountain terrain. Today they bring us to places of great beauty. History and the human spirit.

Cortina, Italy. The bus navigates through mountain villages in a choreographed dance with traffic, negotiating corners via a series of steps like a simplified tango, passing within inches of people's balconies on tight alpine roads. If there was an indicator of the pungent history that permeates this place, this was it: proximity, danger and strategy, jockeying for place.

Coming from North America, Europe is always a cultural immersion. Centuries of architecture, delicacies of bread, a pace that is based on civilization, as in acknowledging the importance of time, food and conversation. World Wars are buried under the contours, but remain ever present in local memory. Once a village captured and occupied during the chaos of war, Cortina today is a chichi ski town whose streets are lined with luxury. Shops, hotels, restaurants and in the off season, very few people. It was eerily deserted, with some hotels boarded up until the return of snow.

Brutal shards of cold found their way inside everything he wore, the texture of polished stone, like his pale blemished skin, blunt and unfeeling. He was not an alpinist, he had never left the ground. His hands scrabbled and held onto whatever felt approximately secure while his numb feet searched out the next wooden stemple. At least in the dark he could not see the chasm below, but he could sense the airy plunges, the dim that was neither morning nor evening; it was an immeasurable expanse of time.

"(Late) September has the best light." Our host, Lorena, lived up to an Italian driver's reputation, passing cars and weaving her way up to Passo Falzarego, which was the front line during the WW1 battle known as the Mountain War. "In summer, it's too hot and the air is not clear. This is perfect." Caught between Italy and Austria for four years, this region of the Dolomites was the site of intense, incredibly elaborate geographical warfare. Like everyone we are to meet in the area, Lorena knows and owns the history. It seems to be written in every café we pass, with its mixed architecture of Bavarian shutters and menus that offer pasta, pizza or schnitzel.

His foot slipped. He fell, wrenching his shoulder. He was clumsy with exposure, burdened with explosives and a shovel. Inside the mountain, other soldiers labored in the tunnel. The enemy was watching and listening. He tried not to think, for that was to become paralyzed with fear.

Clip, clip, unclip, clip. Via ferrata, the fully equipped roads, more commonly referred to as the iron roads, were used to move soldiers more efficiently through treacherous mountain terrain. Once made of rope and wood, now they are systems of bolted metal cable and steel rungs, placed to provide access on exposed or dangerous terrain, to places of great beauty. The origins are here.

We discover that Lorena has never ventured onto the via ferrata, nor has she explored much of the extensive system of trails that traverse her beloved landscape. Typical; how often are we ever tourists in our own backyard? She lives perched on the side of a mountain, in a rural existence where alpine knowledge is a birthright and so is the right not to exercise it beyond daily need. It was the same for the soldiers in the First World War. Alpine guides were few.

War was no longer an idea, it was this: an absurd and frightening disorientation. Moral, physical and emotional. Wool mitts slid on rope; he was to follow the muffled footsteps ahead of him, step by step, along the intermittent lengths of safety. Back inside the tunnel, they would travel downward, to disguise their current position,emptying buckets of quarried rock as silently as possible.

As we started out, it was almost immediately obvious how elaborate and extensive the human efforts were – within a few hundred metres we came upon the ruins of a hospital built into the side of a cliff. Crumbling protective trenches linked buildings on a site that made the most of overhanging features and obscured lines of vision. At the far side, our first via ferrata, leading up into the battle zone.

They were a multitude of men, fractured into smaller units and spread out along a thin shelf to avoid fire, traveling north to south, in and out of enemy territory. He had to erase the idea of shooting one of his cousins. He must keep the darkness faceless.

The passes in northern Italy were chessboards, geographically defensible, providing key access points for offensive thrusts. Large in scale, exposed and volatile with ice and snow, these mountain environments were a hazard as much as they provided cover for furtive movements. In one two day period, 10,000 men were killed by avalanches. On the nearby Marmolada Glacier, bodies of soldiers are still being discovered as the icefields retreat, exposing further the maze of dwellings and travel routes built beneath metres of ice and snow. Incomprehensible today.

Ludicrous to imagine the enemy would not notice. Yet they all believed. At times, he heard voices through the rock wall. Austrians. Speaking inside their own tunnels, less than 2 metres away. Insanity. Una follia.

The Dolomites. Difficult, intimidating, seductive. The mountains are spires and immense, striated faces, crumbling fingers and wet cavernous erosions. They are warm, passionate and harsh. They tease you to fall in love and leave you forever wanting. At every turn were eroding trenches and collapsed barracks of chalky white stone. Holes in the mountainsides revealed themselves to be the entries and exits of an exhaustive series of tunnels and lookouts that required headlamps for navigation and were long enough to moderate the temperature; it would have been constant throughout winter, a refuge from snow, ice and cold. Reprieve from the terror and eventually, harbinger of an uneasy calm brought on by tedium. Even as visitors, a hundred years later, we didn't have to believe in war to believe in misery and domination, or to believe that we would fight for a beauty this transcendent.

Stepping on history is not walking through wilderness. Not a shell or a fragment remains along the signed and well-kept trails. There is the odd twist of rusted barbed wire on a makeshift cross; a chilled presence along the back of your neck – intuition or instinct, like the eyes of a wild animal, stalking from a distance.

My view is a rectangle. A slit that is the width of a sniper's rifle, the height of my fear. Beyond shadows of movement I watch the sky as it turns colour and sharpens the mountains, to keep myself awake and to remind me of love.

Museum plaques built into the ruins hold photographs of the soldiers who spent years in these barracks, reading letters from home, making fine artisanal objects out of empty cans and shards of metal, collecting wildflowers in the spent, broken cases of artillery shells. It was a form of madness, madness of the most beautiful kind – our human spirit.

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