Marmolata of the Dolomites

WHEN I was a child the sea was my desire and the horizon of its gray my magnet. What a mountain might be, I little knew or cared.

Later, I faced the Alps. For a short time my confused vision wandered confined over palisaded lakes and looked with intense loneliness over uninhabitable heights, lacking the vivifying mark of man’s ploughing and kneading. Just once, however, the need of mankind, the suspicion of solitude, were forgotten. Far above the black Sacred Wood a trailing cloud wavered and recoiled. A flashing radiance, silver-smooth, lifted far within toward the sun. That, then, was why men climbed!

Then, for long, sea and inlet, marsh and the sound of waters claimed me, and filled all my memories of youth as the tides fill, silently, completely.

Years later, the gates of high Alps opened, and as I wandered over pasture and col came the silent power and influence of high places. After I had watched a faint white cone grow higher and rosier as we drew up the great terraces of valley moraines all day, had seen the writing of the past on worn rocks below crumpled glaciers, and had faced the slow pageantries of sunset and moon and morning across great plains and drifts and peaks of snow, then only came a haunting desire : it was to walk at peace on still paths beside the mountains’ quietude, breathe the air drifting past their cool brows, and sleep where the pine made music.

Then I began to wonder. And most of all I wondered at the latent strength of a mountain range. The power of this array of chained giants terrified me. Not the demons of steam, nor the genii of electricity, so stirred me.

I remember once looking from chestnut-shaded terraces, deep in a vale, up broken precipices to the white edge that masked the vast unseen reservoir of a dozen glaciers. White and streaming torrents shot from the height. The June thunder of Bregaglia spoke of a fearful power that should cleanse and cool the gasping plain of Lombardy and lead the proud husbandmen to sing among ripening fields.

This unquestioning servitude of withdrawn high places, solace of an unknown humanity, endowed them with mentality. The hills were foreordained, predestined to be guard and savior. Even the wild ruin their burdened watercourses flung in spring, the waste of power, but ultimately led to that which was not evil. One only had to trust the far-off mountain, seeing whole cities and provinces refreshed, sustained, as by springs of plenty. The farmer planted and digged in accordance with the almanac of the waters. Districts never dreamed of by the passer on routes of men flourished remotely, renewed and graced by the bounty and splendor of streams. When the last rivulets died in July, and lovely sounds in valleys were stilled; when the great river shrunk to a coil of bluish silver, a mirage over the burning dazzle of white-hot sand, then, by the token, the passes were free of snow.

But already the vine was a garland of beauty, maize springing tall and silken, the market supplied. As locust and cicala sighed in heavy August heat, and leaves wilted while cattle lowed for water, the divide caught up vapors from the superb plain, massed them in white confusion.

Thus, after the work of the ground avalanche is done, that of the cloud continues. It gives its life back that the valley may drink. Then the unwearied mountain spins again the white aureole about her venerable head and, Mother of Abundance, sits above the herdsman and his rude pipe, broods over her bare downs and lightning-struck goat, her wizened Arolla pine and fairy flowers. Her great brow, scarred with the weariness of ages we barely can compute, faces the vale. Far down, they call her wiseacre, soothsayer. Still and terrible amid the uproar of boulders leaping down her glaciers, the whistling of her shrieking winds, she divides her gifts blindly, equably. For be it north or south, she quickens harvest and gives the boon of bread.

She rends clouds with thunder, cleaves by lightning, casts them out of her icy alembic, down, rattling down the steep. Then the hill peasant hears the roar and sees the bore of the waters, racing down the dry torrent bed, raiding village garth and field, rolling stones and muttering over them, a yellow coiling dragon. Branches, dead wood ripped from pine and alder, wisps of grass, refuse, such are its burdens. Long after the pass has finished with its heavenly chemistry, shining pale and uncertain in that light of gratitude the opening west sheds on it, the flood growls over pebble and boulder. Far off, the plain is to know that on the mountains there was rain.

On the water-shed least of all, may her gifts be known. There, on a day of beauty, sighting two kingdoms and the rivers deep below, flashing in summer channels, only cloud and dreaming sky and the top of the world are to be seen, all at gentle play. Never a trickling in the short coarse grass. But these lovely high moors, swept by an air of ice, danced on by shadowy clouds, hold little marshy pockets here and there. They are the mossy beginnings of such a stream as rushes under the old wooden bridge at Bassano and waters the plains of Veneto. From cleft and gorge, threads of water issue to join drops trickling through moss and short grass. Wasting snow-banks, low-arched over black dripping earth. let through musical streams that whiten the hillsides below their dirt and soil. Every spring, every rill, carving the mountain, hurries by miniature gully and ravine to join that headstrong brook which shall rise in an hour when clouds burst on the mountain, carrying the very alp itself to raise the valley’s level.

Such a pass is untired. Never far from frost, never forgetful of long snows, visited by summer hail, bitter tempests, she broods in short weeks of sun over her children, — fragile, passionate blossomings of intemperate sudden heats, white dervishes of butterflies, sturdy bees. Energy and vitality, immense, far-reaching, leap from the very marrow of this concentrated abundance.

After the long loneliness of winter, as the snow recedes, flowers follow. Every hollow first becomes a drift of blue or delicate purple. Heartsease, drifts of forget-me-nots, blue bubbles of great bells. The patines of yellow poppies shine against precipitous talus. Highest of all, rude crannies give soil for hardy edelweiss; on barren ledges, defiant, remote, starts the edelraute.

I have loved many a pass, — for outlook on broad glaciers, for ice tarns, for ragged peaks, for a homely inn. One is best loved. Deep in the Dolomites is the Sellajoch, where Sella guards the pass to the east with its walls and towers. Thence one sees the Marmolata.

You may mount the velvet moor sweeping to the ridge, and find the casque of Marmolata’s hanging glacier shining out beyond you. You may drop beside the feeding sheep and watch soft summer clouds playing little fleeting layers of lilac shadow over the glacier, dimpling and clustering about the lazy mountain, lying in summer splendor above ravines and ferny streams and wide high pastures. The great bergkraxler, proud mountaineer, will pass, wreathed in manila and crampons, yet you, poor jochvogel, bird of passage, are contented to breathe this air and face that glacier.

Coral islands or not, you often dream of atolls and the sea in these forever curious Dolomite regions. Surely here washed the wave. The mountain groups are islanded, concise, compact, isolated by clasping valleys. No melting each to other, no sliding of ridge to peak. From the Brenner line the careless traveler may get two or three glimpses of odd serrated reefs, like pen-drawings of Doré, walled in summer gardens by far lower cliffs and outposts. The south blows gently over pass and ridge, and Italy enters this enchanted sequence of cloisters. One range may simulate a vast secluded monastery, chapter-house, or bishop’s chair; another may rise like domed choir or ruined chapel from a flower-tufted close.

Farther still within, this Marmolata of Italian Tyrol is guarded from vulgar gaze by jealous ranges. If you love her, you must seek. Not like the virgin Weisshorn, glowing from miles away, nor Tödi, startling you from the clouds, nor that ranged splendor of Jungfrau and her court.

Once discovered, you long to see her from every side. Style in a mountain counts for more than brute size.

Marmolata, in lonely white, shines among the warm rock-pinnacles and grass alps. Her south side is horror of precipice. Her hanging glacier, the only one of like size in the Dolomites, faces the north. Edges of blue ice are shorn as clean as the lip of a conch-shell; wrinkled spaces of green, stains of dull rose, tint the modulated surface. This glacier, below the compact snows forming the mountain cap which stands free from surrounding higher peaks (itself the highest in the country), receives but little waste or drain from the small ridges that rise above the ice. It is therefore bare of the grime and weathering of the larger glaciers.

Italy and Austria share the crest followed by Grohmann in 1864. He looked down the sheer southern cliffs, now fitted with irons, from the Punta Penia (11,020 feet), but returned to Caprile by glacier and pass, leaving the conquest up and over to Michael Innerkofler, who died on Cristallo’s ice. So died a certain Terza in 1804, one of the first to feel the magnetism of Marmolata — lost on her snows.

Italy and Austria divide the deep Fedaja — valley and pass at once — of chattering stream and green lake. Tyrol speaks a strange dialect where the mountain flings shadow in afternoon. It is a region of images. Punta Vernale — how wintry and bleak! The Ombretta Pass — a stony way of shadows. Marmolata suggests in her name a wall of marble in this green land or, when lit at sunset, brings up the name and color of the rosy “ mandorlata ” quarried above Verona, which deepens in the well-patted friendly lions by dim old church doors into the true tones of the porphyry Dolomites. The new Bindelweg, literally, the binding or connecting path of frontiers, runs at a height of seven thousand feet across the Fedaja grass alp facing the glacier.

We have so loved the Marmolata that the jealous gods have been kind to us. All the well-trodden ways of the Dolomites are left behind. From dust, noise, and the tourists’ whip-snapping way, faint paths or mule-tracks lead up and away to larch-curtained alcoves. Beside the bee on the moor, or the cattle on the sixty-mile Seiser Alp, we have followed the click of bergstock, the pipe aroma of silent lusty Germans, into uplands where no dust lies on the poppy, and where hill folk are calm and kind. Over pasture and pass lies the good Tyrol.

Of all my memories of Marmolata, I hold fast three.

We had walked the Falzarego Pass to Andraz by wood-paths rosy with rhododendron. From the new road, built high along the hills, came that startling view of Civetta, amber across gulfs of air, rising from the tragic green waters of Alleghe, where a drowned village sleeps. To the right, rough shaggy hills above the rushing Cordevole opened like Limoges doors of a reliquary. Marmolata, Madonna of Snows, in splendor of opaltinted glacier, stood within.

We sat in silence where the forest ended, gnarled, terribly scarred in age. Down its precipitous darkness came a blind fagot-bearer, grandmother of all good witches, slowly following trails known since childhood. Tawny bent peasants of Buchenstein, quaint in highwaisted, gathered skirts, embroideries, and steep Welsh hats, passed smiling, — good-natured gnomes. Behind them the vast mountains ripened in the autumn of evening to the mellow bloom of fruit, long and slowly sunned.

A year later, one noon, we climbed from Wolkenstein, engaged a room at Sellajoch clubhouse, white as a nun’s cell, piled with crimson feather-beds, and turned to the pass.

Stretched like skin, the brown yet greening moor was moulded over core of rock. Three gaunt groups of terrible pinnacles sat down on it to the right, Langkofel and the rest. To the left, Sella hid the Boé. The air was tingling bright. Sheep were cropping the small close flower that looks an orchid. We reached a hooded crucifix, that all the winds may shake, yet it stands; looked over and out. Marmolata returned the gaze. Her glacier took the sun. The desolate rock amphitheatre and scarred empty ravines of wild Contrinthal, the splendor of light and purple shadow playing about lower wood and warm headland gave Marmolata’s white beauty distinction. I remember how Rodella’s crag hung out over the fiord of Fassathal; how silver jodels dropped out of the sky where guides and men wrestled with rock chimneys and crannies in the Five Finger. All day, even after the three menacing rocks crouched there sent a shadow chill that we inhaled like ether, we watched bending clouds touch the glacier and fleet into the immense air with their light burden of freshness.

It is a serious thing to watch the earth at her renewal.

Later, following the Bindelweg, perhaps an old smuggler’s trail, now a new club path, we climbed the Padon grass alp to its pass, looking from nearly eight thousand feet into the very heart of Marmolata glacier.

Not from the deep ravine do we know a mountain. Not from the long valley, where ice and water have long since bossed and scooped rock-folds; where we must plod and toil to near the crest, to get above worn-off angles, and face the upthrown crag, its teeth set against ravaging winds that blow along the mountain wall.

That strong quiet elusiveness of a mountain draws our heart to it. Once at its altitude, we begin to share. Priestlike, through dazzling air and shining ice, it offers a nobler deliverance than the plain, gives clean youth to them that ask.

For this then, men climb! To the valley, harvest; to us, a heavenly wine.

Where great golden foxgloves nodded against a broad sky of untroubled blue, we turned to Marmolata last of all before going down into the cornfields. The mountain was grave. Like a Holy Grail, the glacier cup was upheld in a white light of noon.

And so we left it then, — that which we still must follow.