Constructing the wilderness

, 15 January 2020

Starting from the exploration of the so-called “viàz”, an arduous mountaineering route in the Zoldo Dolomites, Silvia Segalla reflects upon the concept of “wilderness” as applied to the mountain, which within the social imaginary seems to have become a reserve and bastion of nature. In an era in which a revision of the relationship between “human” and “natural” has become increasingly urgent, the article critically observes the transformations of the alpine environment and the practices that traverse it with an approach that combines textual research with direct observation.

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The viàz and their context

Viàz is a dialect term from Belluno, a city in the Veneto region in the north of Italy, that means “trail”. It denotes the Alpine tracks, created by chamois and hunters, typical to the Dolomites mountain range and its surrounding regions. Viàz unfold through ledges, canals, gorges and ridges, demarcating daring connections between mountain slopes. Famous amongst these is the viàz del Gonèla, which crosses the rocky ramparts of the Spiz di Mezzodì peaks, in the Belluno “Zoldo” Dolomites. Here a dense interweaving of peaks, towers and pinnacles dominates two small plateaus: the pastures in which the disused cheese huts of Mezzodì (1349m) and that of the Casel Sora ’l Sass, today converted into the Angelini Lodge (1588m), both stand. Three main peaks stand out against the multitude of minor elevations: the Spiz Nord (2305 m), the Spiz di Mezzo (2324m), the Spiz Sud (2309 m).

The path, marked by cairns, unfolds in a context that is both magnificent and formidable, with an almost constant exposure to the elements. Although the technical climbing difficulties are limited (maximum grade III), the itinerary requires good climbing skills, orientation and confidence with the rough aspects of the mountain environment. In terms of attendance there are only a few ropes teams per year. In most cases, these are composed of hiker-mountaineers coming from the valley below or from the adjacent ones.

The daring itinerary owes its name to the almost legendary hunter Giacomo Pra Baldi (1822-1907), known as “el Gonèla” (literally “the skirt”), to whom we owe access to the main ledge. Rediscovered for mountaineering purposes in the early decades of the twentieth century, it was extended to concatenate, through a ledge, the main peaks. The context is Val di Zoldo, a frozen land characterised by emigration (in particular to Germany), historically dedicated to pastoralism, the iron and nail industry and the related work of the charcoal burners.

 

The history of the viàz, and the environment in which it is located, traces the fate of many other Alpine and Dolomite locations, which, during the twentieth century, underwent transformations for recreational and touristic purposes. Further down, at the wooded base of the Spiz, numerous paths have been abandoned: the grassy tracks, still visible in the beech woods, testify to the restless work of woodcutters, charcoal burners and other workers. Nonetheless, the toponymy, although faded in the local memory, suggests a geography of labour: the pàuse (breaks) that mark the ascents, the aialèt (circular clearings of the charcoal burners), the festil (where the animals would drink)… even the very names of the viàz, amongst which stand out the aforementioned the Gonèla viàz (from the name of the legendary hunter), and the Oliana viàz (formerly Giuliana Lazzaris, a war sutler) (Cason Angelini, 2008). Whilst some paths were disappearing, the local section of the Italian Alpine Club, founded in 1966, assured hikers and tourists the viability of others – clean, branded, numbered – through the work of its volunteers.

The structures were destined for a similar fate. The Mezzodì dairy, abandoned as an alpine hut, was adapted and converted into a shelter (currently closed to the public). From the ruins of the Casel Sora ’l Sass, once used by shepherds, a bivouac was erected in the seventies, then later transformed in the early nineties into a managed refuge. It is now a destination for day trips and high-altitude trekking undertaken by hikers and tourists from increasingly varied origins. In 1970 the Carnielli-De Marchi bivouac (2010m) was also inaugurated as a shelter for climbers intending to tackle the western side of the Mezzodì.

The discovery and enhancement of the Spiz for mountaineering and hiking is linked to the scientific curiosity of Giovanni Angelini – a Bellunese doctor and mountaineer who, together with his brother and some friends dedicated himself to the discovery, tracing and dissemination of possible routes, ascents and connections. Amongst these routes, the Viàz del Gonèla is described with admiration as a “masterpiece of ledge architecture, of intuition of game and hunter […] a wonderful and protective alpine route” ( Angelini G., 1950, 94) which unfolds in “a grandiose and solitary environment, with the impressive splendour of the looming Spiz and the vision of the precipices of the valley” (Angelini G., 1968, 58-59).

The explorations of Angelini and his group, intermittently active since the 1920s, became the heirs of fundamental knowledge that risked being lost: that of local shepherds and hunters whose population in the Zoldo mountains was diminishing. The area was searched, old paths were retraced, new ones were opened.

The results of this passionate activity have marked the history of Spiz: the numerous publications resulting from these systematic surveys have, in fact, decisively contributed to the enhancement of this mountain group, which was previously relatively unknown to climbers and visitors. In the context of the Dolomites, today intensely marked and infrastructured by tourism, the Spiz di Mezzodì remain detached from mass visitation. However, they do see a good number of hikers who undertake, in particular, the Italian Alpine Club official paths (marked, maintained by volunteers and indicated in the maps on the market). The same valley, surrounded by much more famous peaks, sees tourism as an important source of income, particularly in light of the gradual divestment of the productive activities which characterised it in the past.

In this context, an itinerary such as the viàz del Gonèla remains, for the most part, the prerogative of a limited audience of mountain enthusiasts as well as visitors from neighbouring areas. For them, the knowledge of the route represents significant cultural capital that goes beyond mountaineering purposes. It also plays into the intimate relationship that is established with the environment, an environment that is shared, willingly or unwillingly, with flows of people who pass through it and sometimes exploit it without sharing its daily history.

Popularising the wild

Like many mountaineering itineraries, and unlike the Italian Alpine Club trails, the viàz does not have “official” signs and is not equipped. There are only cairnes, a few nails to protect the most delicate passages, possibly cords left along the way. The relationship of the path – or the sequence of explanations needed to identify it – is documented in some guides related to the Spiz.

In recent decades, some publications have been dedicated to the discovery and rediscovery of the “wild paths” of the Dolomites, amongst which the viàz stand out (Bonetti, Lazzarin 1986; Bonetti, Lazzarin 1996; Bonetti, Lazzarin, Rocca 2006; Mason 2013). Many factors combine to bring (at least ideally) a viàz like that of Gonèla into the category of these itineraries: the type of route itself (neither path nor rock route), the scarce celebrity of the mountainous context, the severity of the environment, the difficulty of the ascent, isolation. Although seemingly self-evident, the definition of “wild” within these texts, nevertheless deserves to be analysed critically. Indeed, the comments made by the authors themselves allow us to understand that this term does not simply pertain to those itineraries where anthropic traces are limited. Rather, the “wild” characteristic seems to be more precisely relating to the preservation of an exploratory nature that challenges the intuition and the abilities of each individual hiker, allowing them to live the mountains as a genuine, immediate, emotional experience, and not only as a sporting enterprise.

In fact, if the Gonèla viàz can be defined as “wild”, it is only on the condition that one bears in mind the contradiction of considering “wild” a path that was created and handed down by men that were deeply immersed within specific cultural, social and economic contexts. The men who created these tracks did so firstly, for the very pragmatic need to find food, and subsequently to “discover” the natural as an antidote to an increasingly urbanised life. Nonetheless, for current visitors, the experience of the “wild” through walking along a viàz lies in the balance of being alone in facing an isolated environment with arduous terrains, and the ability to identify – starting from an oral or written identification – the anthropic signs camouflaged in the path: a cairn, a broken mountain pine branch, faded footprints on exposed gravel. Furthermore, it is not a question of identifying a connection between the beginning and the end of a “horizontal route” (Mason 2013), but rather, to use intuition and observational skills in order to transform a project of traversing that is virtually feasible into a path that practically so, through the retracing of previous footsteps and the physical that others have passed down to the hiker.  At most, it is up to the latter to identify plausible variants and alternative connections. In addressing the viàz, the dichotomy between human and non-human results in a balance of presences and absences: on the one hand, an excess of signs or equipment could invalidate the sense of challenge of identifying and facing the path autonomously. On the other hand, however, the complete absence of human traces would make the satisfaction of being able to trace, with their own steps, precisely those steps that history has handed down, the vertigo, the solutions, the games of balance that others tried, told and described. Mountaineering fair play requires each player to engage in the feat with loyal awareness of their own means (Carusano 2011, 115; Mummery 1895) and to limit their inevitable tracks, in particular, those which as the most extraneous to the context, thus preserving the soil intact for those who come after. This attitude necessarily deals with the path, both in its materiality (as a path not officially marked on rock) and in its “virtual” existence (as a narrated path that is socially shared and diffused).

In presenting the itineraries, the authors of the volumes on the “wild” and “unexplored” Dolomites openly ask themselves if it is right to publicly disclose these secrets. This dilemma sums up an era in which mountain areas experience opposing trends: in some, the impact of mass tourism risks a Disneyfication of the territory, de-qualifying its environmental characteristics and depleting the experience of enthusiasts, whilst in others the abandonment of productive context and depopulation cause the wilderness to take over entire areas, with the consequent erosion of the system of knowledge, biodiversity and trails from which these contexts were created (Varotto 2017). Finding a solution once again requires overcoming the contrast between the human and the natural, promoting a qualitatively (and not quantitatively) high attendance, capable of a conscious relationship with the mountains.

Normally, the reports make the reader aware of the commitment that undertaking the viàz requires. The difficulty referred to goes beyond the usual technical challenges, in part due to the mixed environment in which they are, but refers to the more elusive and perhaps more intimate question of confidence within the alpine environment (orientation, intuition, hardiness, control, autonomy in the face of an accident… ). In this context, knowledge of the itinerary generally stems from the fact that one is already part of a relatively competent group, so that the hiker’s journey begins well before the ascent, and includes all the knowledge and experience previously gained in the Alpine environment. Safety also depends on your previous of the mountain: since infrastructure (e.g. markers or fixed ropes) are absent – safety hinges on one’s ability to choose the route according to the limits one’s own ability. Paradoxically, it is not the accessibility, but the inaccessibility of the itinerary that diminishes the possibility of serious accidents. It is no coincidence that, in all volumes, the itineraries are recommended to those who are already experienced, with the suggestion to proceed humbly and progressively when facing even the most demanding routes.

Constructing the wilderness

Although evocative, defining the viàz as a “wild” path awakens the contradictions implicit in the history of the concept of wilderness (Cronon 1996, Ward 2019). Born in a natural and cultural context in the United States dominated by the myth of the frontier and the hero who challenges it, the idea of the ​​wilderness clearly forms a dichotomy between nature, enshrines with positive values, with culture, accused of malignant artificiality. Whilst European romanticism had already identified the sublime in the wild, the increasing urbanisation and growing industrialisation taking place across the Atlantic, contributed to the shaping of an environmentalist thinking in which the natural is conceived as a reserve to be preserved and protected. However, this tendency inherited, albeit somewhat unconsciously, is a foundational colonial and masculinist myth, based on the annihilation of every other culture that the frontier progressively crossed. The concept, which was imported, mutatis mutandis, into the diversely structured and anthropised European geography, tends to maintain a dichotomous system that disqualifies all human activity in a “natural” environment. Structured as such, the concept appears to be of little use for the critical analysis regarding the human practices that construct nature (for example, the design of natural parks), as well as for everything within the continuum between the natural and artificial (for example the biodiversity of some cultivated areas or the results of the reintegration of man-made environments).

Thus, in this reflection, the example of a route such as the Gonèla viàz seems paradigmatic: created by the locals in the context of a “poor” mountain yet crossed by productive activities and pragmatic needs that were later abandoned, rediscovered by citizens with a new exploratory and playful attitude to the mountains, and today a possible counterexample of a conscious attendance of the alpine environment, far from the dynamics of the tourist monoculture.

In conclusion, the most recent definitions of the route are significant. Currently, it is possible to find online advertising of the viàz that presents it as the “The Wild Blue of the Dolomites” (the name refers to a trekking route on the Sardinian coast which, through the combination of the thrill of technical paths with the characteristics of the landscape, has witnessed an extraordinary success in the last decade in terms of attendance). Whilst the presentation of the itinerary returns with growing pathos to the theme of the wild, the unexplored, and the adventurous, the technical specifications of the route, regarding the possibility of following it guided by a professional, classifies it as a “basic level” course. The redefinition of the difficulty highlights the different type of these new visitors: no longer the niche enthusiasts that were usually drawn by the paper guides, but a much wider public who, guided and insured (both materially and psychologically) by the specialist and professional competency behind the offer, is able to virtually eliminate (in mountaineering: artificially overcome) the difficulties of the challenge. Once again, the process of the domestication of the wild evokes contradictory results: whilst it defines the subjective relationship with the wild as the great reward for a dedicated understanding of the alpine and natural space, it also shapes it as a quick, exotic and painless digression from everyday life, that reaffirms, precisely through its interruption, the hegemony of the urban. All that remains is to hope that the route will continue to attract, despite its constant renewal,  discreet and respectful visitors that are conscious of the inseparability of natural and human history that it recounts.

 


About the author

Silvia Segalla is an Italian researcher and mountain enthusiast who lives and works in different cities in the Veneto region. She holds a Ph.D in Social Sciences from the University of Padua and, since 2015, has been working in an alpine refuge in the Belluno Dolomites.


Footnotes & references

Angelini, Giovanni,1950, Contributi alla storia dei monti di Zoldo, in «Le Alpi Venete 1949-1953», Venezia

Angelini, Giovanni,1968, Pramper- Mezzodì, in «Le Alpi Venete», Venezia

Bonetti, Paolo, Paolo Lazzarin, 1986, Dolomiti. Il grande libro dei sentieri selvaggi, Zanichelli, Bologna

Bonetti, Paolo, Paolo Lazzarin, 1996, Dolomiti di Zoldo, 61 escursioni fra Pelmo e Civetta, La Genzianella, Pieve Emanuele

Bonetti, Paolo, Paolo Lazzarin, Marco Rocca, 2006, Dolomiti. Nuovi sentieri selvaggi, Zanichelli, Bologna

Carusano, Pietro. 2011, Fra natura e società: il caso dell’alpinismo, in «CAMBIO – Rivista sulle trasformazioni sociali», Anno I, Numero 1/Giugno 2011

Cason Angelini, Ester 2008, Oronimi bellunesi. Monte Punta, Fagarè, Spiz di Mezzodì. Quaderni scientifici della Fondazione n. 9, Fondazione Angelini, Belluno

Mason, Vittorino, 2013, Il libro delle cenge. 56 Vie Orizzontali nelle Dolomiti, Panorama, Trento

Mummery A.F., 1895, Le mie scalate nelle Alpi e nel Caucaso, Vivalda, Torino (2001)

Varotto Mauro, 2017, Montagne del novecento. Il volto della modernità nelle Alpi e Prealpi venete, Cierre Edizioni, Verona


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