Rapha Mondial: Rocks of Ages

We ride events such as the Etape not just to pedal in the tracks of our heroes but to answer the call of the mountains. In this piece from the Mondial Archives, Julian Hoffman explores why mountains occupy such a special place in the human imagination.

21 June 2018

It was all sky and stone as we neared the ridge, a circle of rising ravens like a wreath above us. They revelled in the spring wind with silent ease, with the same playful grace as dolphins sheering through water. As we’d climbed I’d watched trees shrink to shrubs, the long, clasping cold of the uplands keeping them from straying too high. Angling sharply across the mountain slope, we tried making ourselves as small and unthreatening as we could, hunching down into our clothes and speaking as little as possible. With each step we crushed a carpet of wild thyme, its scent trailing behind us like the wake of a boat.

Whenever there was a need to change direction Vladimir Dobrev pointed to our route without a word. After only a few hours in his company I could already feel how at home he was in the mountains of south-east Bulgaria, his easy affability and naturalist’s keen eye a perfect accompaniment to the deft lightness of his steps.

Reaching a grassy hollow, Vladimir motioned for me to wait. He unstrapped a collapsed tripod and telescope from his pack, then scrunched himself small to slink forward with the gear. From my angle it looked like he’d reached the lip of a crevasse, and I watched him glance over the edge before swiftly planting the telescope, spinning the focus wheel until a place somewhere below him eventually became clear.

“Your turn,” whispered Vladimir, beaming as he reached me. “Just remember to be quick. No more than a few seconds”.

In the moment before I peered through the telescope, I saw how the ridge fell sharply away, forming one wall of a deep but narrow canyon. Closing my left eye, an extraordinary, prehistoric-looking bird filled the other through the lens. It was perched in a stone alcove on the opposing rock face like some ancient guardian of the abyss, the all-seeing keeper of the canyon. Secluded in its remote chamber, the Egyptian vulture stayed faithful to its nest while its partner sought carrion across the windblown Eastern Rhodopis range. It dwelled in a realm of stone and stark precipices, living apart from other animals and beyond the reach of most things, peerless in its ascetic attachment to cliffs. For a flicker of time on that ridge, it felt as though we’d peered into another world.

“Landscape may have no plot,
but it has much by way of revelation.”

– Anne Enright

Landscapes can elicit echoes in our perception of them. Whether it’s a shared affinity of shape or mood we discern between otherwise dissimilar places, or the repetition of a distinct detail that we notice within a wider physical space, like a particular style of drystone walling or some recurring natural feature, we are acutely receptive to the presence of correspondences and patterns in our geographical experience. They act as anchors in the wider landscape of our lives; they lend coherence to our crossings.

Coming down the mountain, I couldn’t help but think of all the rock niches I’d seen that morning as we drove through the Arda Valley towards the site, the strange and beautiful alcoves that are the relics of a vanished race. Entire cliff faces in the Eastern Rhodopi mountains are inset with intriguing hollows. Hewn as high as 50 metres up sheer limestone, sandstone or volcanic tuff walls, some of the niches are scattered in small clusters while others are arranged in sets of long, neat rows like an extravagant suite of windows. Cut by the ancient Thracians, the trapezoidal spaces, sometimes numbering as many as 100 or more on any given rock face, remain an enduring enigma. While no one is entirely sure what precise purpose they served, it’s believed the niches played some part in Thracian burial rites. A number of scholars and archaeologists have claimed they might have been used to store sacred objects on days of ritual celebration, while others have suggested they acted as symbolic gateways to the afterworld. There is also a strong possibility that urns of cremated remains were placed inside the high, empty chambers, meaning the cliffs we’d passed that morning may long ago have been cemeteries, steep walls of remembrance and mourning.

Standing beneath them it’s difficult to fathom how large numbers of the niches were even reached some 2,500 to 3,000 years ago, when it’s believed they were carved. This puzzle adds to the powerful, magnetic pull they have in the landscape. In form they share similarities with the alcoves found in Greek homes and churches where candles and pictures of patron saints are placed, but in spirit their mountain settings are far more redolent of the Egyptian vulture’s remote dwelling. Regardless of the many questions surrounding their use, it’s clear the Thracians invested high places with considerable meaning.

Mountains have long held significance for the human race as places where our divine stories are written. Whether it’s Mount Kailash in the Himalayas of western Tibet, considered sacred to Jains, Buddhists, Hindus and the indigenous Bon religion, or Mount Olympus in Greece, the country’s highest mountain and the dwelling place of Zeus, Hera, Apollo and the other Olympian gods of the ancient Hellenistic world, the high peaks and pinnacles of the planet have raised human imagination and spirituality into their soaring spaces. Alongside these loftier associations, though, mountains are home to our more earthly stories as well, acting as repositories of the human histories enacted upon their surface.

On 19th September 1991, Helmut and Erika Simon were hiking in the Ötztal Alps of Italy’s South Tyrol region, descending from the Finail peak beneath a flawless blue sky, when they decided to take a shortcut off the marked mountain path. Threading through a granite gully pooled with meltwater and ice, they suddenly saw something brown and unsettling jutting from the glacial slush.

The mummified corpse they discovered that day became known as Ötzi the Iceman, astonishingly well-preserved by snow and glacier, encased for more than 5,000 years amid the high cathedral peaks of the well-trodden Alps. Naturally mummified, together with his clothing made from various hides and skins, as well as equipment that included an ash-handled dagger and a bow carved from yew, Ötzi was an unprecedented discovery and allowed an extraordinarily intimate glimpse into the life and times of Stone Age man and his relationship to the mountains. As glaciers across the world continue to recede in the face of climate change, alpine landscapes are revealing such celebrated archaeological finds more frequently. But they also preserve a more prosaic and everyday history, a shared fund of common memory.

When my wife and I first moved to a village in the mountains of northern Greece beside the Prespa Lakes we spent five years working the land as market gardeners. With the gracious help of villagers only recently met we managed to rent fields at the foot of steep slopes that rose to a sharp granite ridge marking the border with the former Yugoslavia. In spring, as a ripple of green grass swept steadily up the mountains, we would take spades to the earth. In the upturned soil, still claggy from winter rains and melted snow, lost objects would occasionally resurface.

The first coin was so tarnished that I mistook it for a rusted bottle cap; but when brushed clear of soil and rinsed at home the delicate Arabic script of the Ottoman Empire that once ruled over these mountain villages was clear. The next one had been worn as thin and smooth as a blade, perhaps regularly worried by its owner’s fingers, the same fingers that wore the hole in a trouser pocket that the coin may have slipped through to hit the earth. Though fainter on this one, the Arabic script was again unmistakeable. By the time we’d found a third coin a year or two later – a silver piece minted by the Kingdom of Greece in 1912, decorated with the little owl sacred to the goddess Athena and with a hole punched through the centre – I had begun to understand that these mountains were intimately layered with the history of our new home.

I could look up from the fields in summer’s dizzying sunlight and see abandoned huts and shelters studding the lower slopes, the stone ruins that spoke for all the shepherds who once led their animals inside in the thinning light of dusk to keep them safe from the bears and wolves that roam there at night. Evidence of the animals’ extensive grazing could still be seen in the nearly treeless mountain rise, a stark reminder of a time before the Greek Civil War ravaged the region, emptying it of all but a handful of people, in the late 1940s.

So dense were the flocks of domestic animals back then, when the population of our village was 3,000 instead of the 150 it is today, that the mountainsides must have seemed to be perpetually on the move, wavering like a forest of rippled leaves. And where the animals were forbidden to graze you can still trace across the mountains the outlines of abandoned agricultural terraces, waves of levelled land rising to some of the highest peaks in the massif, hand-worked for subsistence cereals and eventually worn down like that smooth Ottoman coin by weather and emigration. Over the course of many seasons the mountains were a book that had been opened for us, their slopes inscribed with myriad stories, history clinging to them like stubborn spring snow.

In the summer we moved to Greece some 15 years ago we spent time with a Slovenian friend before setting off on the last stage of our journey south. Of all the resplendent landscapes we discovered with her that month the Julian Alps glittered brightest. Part of the Southern Limestone Alps – spanning Austria, Italy and Switzerland as well as Slovenia – the mountains were the same misty grey as the feathers of a dove, clad in a skirt of dark-green larch trees and studded with sharp and magnificent pinnacles. Snow still gleamed off the highest spires, a beguiling winter light that shone deep into our summer stay. But as striking as the Julian Alps are in their physical appearance, part of their appeal stems from their specific geological heritage.

Limestone is the unrivalled history book of place. If we had some way of decoding all its varied and complex signs, some Rosetta Stone to aid with translation, limestone would be the most telling of geologies. It is a stone that is largely composed of the fragmented remains of marine organisms, the compressed microskeletons and shells of antique sea creatures that sifted downwards through water at their deaths. To walk a limestone ridge, whether in the Julian Alps or the Jura mountains of France and Switzerland, is to make your way crab-like across the bed of an ancient ocean, clambering across countless compacted life forms that have been lifted into the sky by powerful tectonic movements, becoming in their transfigured state the ideal realm for vultures, gods and the human imagination.

However, limestone’s unique appeal does not stem solely from it being a store of ancient aquatic creatures – that “crushed reef of memory”, as Anne Michaels so memorably describes it in her novel Fugitive Pieces – but also because it weathers and ages so easily, reminding us that even stone is in motion in its lifetime. As though in solidarity with its oceanic origins limestone is soluble, slowly but irrevocably dissolving upon contact with water. Each and every rainfall since its creation is recorded in the grooves and runnels of the rock; each season of snowmelt archived in its deepening hollows and dips. Limestone is an almanac of precipitation, inscribed with ever greater lines and creases as it grows older, ageing and weathering like the human face. And just as the experiences of the world score our features, so we leave marks and traces on the surface of the earth.

At 1,611 metres, the Vršič Pass is the highest crossing in the Julian Alps. From it you are nearly encircled by astonishing peaks, brought so near to their jagged grey pedestals that it can feel like you are soaring alongside them. But long after we had scrabbled up a slope of scree to reach the summit of Slemenova Mountain, where the Julian Alps spread in all directions as though we rode the high crests of a roiling grey sea, it turned out to be a human tribute in those mountains that lingered with me most vividly. The exquisite wooden chapel is set amid larches on the north side of the Vršič Pass, and its unlikeliness in the landscape is striking: a bulbed tower on either side of the nave; a set of simple graves; a small stone pyramid inscribed “To the Sons of Russia” in Cyrillic script.

In memory of the men who lost their lives in these mountains, the chapel was built in 1916 while the First World War raged across Europe. As the Vršič Pass took on increasing strategic significance as a way for the Austro-Hungarian Army to supply its soldiers battling Italian forces on the Isonzo Front, the authorities ordered a military road to be built up and over the Alps to reach them. It was Russian prisoners of war who carried out the work.

Officially renamed the Russian Road in 2006, the prisoners’ combined and arduous effort rises through two-dozen hairpin bends on either side of the pass, an astonishing 15 miles laid through the alpine wilds. Begun in the spring of 1915, the road was completed by the end of that year, a remarkable feat of labour and engineering; but to make the supply route traversable in all seasons the PoWs were ordered to keep the road shovelled clear of even the heaviest snows. So it was that in March 1916 an avalanche buried the work camp, killing hundreds of Russian prisoners and dozens of their Austrian guards. To commemorate their comrades the remaining PoWs built the chapel of dark-stained wood that still stands near the pass.

The chapel was locked on the day we were there so I peered through a window, discovering a black-and-white photograph framed on the vestibule wall. The photograph I took of it through the pane of glass now sits on my desk – an image nested within an image, like one of those Russian babushka dolls that contains an even smaller one inside. It shows the chapel backed by a sparser, more ragged winter forest, presumably cut for building materials and the army’s ravenous need for fire and fuel. At its front, where I’d climbed the limestone steps to the door, are gathered hundreds of men. Judging from their uniforms, those who are seated appear to be Austro-Hungarian officers and soldiers while the Russian PoWs stand at the back, several of them wearing the tall fleece hats of the Cossack regiments.

As far as I can tell the photograph was taken in 1916 during the opening ceremony for the chapel. Even with the aid of a magnifying glass the men are too small to divine much beyond their solemn expressions, but long after they walked away from the Russian chapel, returning to their respective wartime duties as guards and prisoners that winter, the story of their time on the mountain will be visible. They scored the limestone with an unforgettable line.

During the years when those Ottoman coins we found in our fields were the currency of these lands, Greek Orthodox monks retreated to the high landscapes around the Prespa Lakes. For centuries they cloistered here; ascetic, remote, alone. Men who had shed some of the world as a way of contemplating its essence. At the edge of a mountain lake they lived lives pared down to clear symmetry, in the way a piece of bone is carved slowly into shape, made meaningful by what is shed.

The limestone slopes of Mount Devas end abruptly in a peninsula that is stilted above the lake on tall cliffs. Pale as the winter moon at its tip, the crescent coast mottles to mineral brown as it bends south, a curve of steep stone trellised with creepers and fugitive trees, anchoring the ancient junipers that grow gnarled and woven on its surface. Fissured with countless caves, the cliffs house large colonies of chambered bats. And it’s here on this stone headland that those monks dwelled, the relics of their residency still visible in the collapsing eremitic cells and fading frescoes of saints, the hermitages enclosed by rock walls. For a remarkable number of sacred systems mountains have been revered as the distilled essence of their worldview –from Mount Fuji in Japan, long ascended by pilgrims and named after a Buddhist fire goddess as well as being the home of a Shinto deity, to the mountain range above the Barron River gorge in Queensland, Australia, that the ancestral being Damarri transformed himself into according to the Dreamtime creation stories of the aboriginal Djabugay people.

Human cultures have long connected the planet’s high places to their foundational beliefs, but for this community of monks the Prespa landscape provided another advantage common to highland regions: it offered refuge and sanctuary. Far less accessible than the lowland plains when Ottoman rule swept across the Balkans, this remote peninsula was encircled by high peaks which enabled it to become a centre of Christian pilgrimage and prayer.

While some monks lived inside caves, others carved beds from the cliffs, little more than hard, ungiving lips suspended above the lake. The old timbers of the chapel interiors where they came together have been blackened by candle smoke but outside, in the crush of summer light, the heat is gathered by the suntrap of white, coastal stone, reflected until it wearies with its intensity. The heat is dry and withering, and perhaps that’s what the monks sought from this peninsula that slides from the highlands into a bowl of blue water: to live in the mountains but know the light of their desert fathers.

We discover mountains in countless, unexpected ways, their stories disclosed to us by chance as much as by delving beneath their surface. I had journeyed to Bulgaria to learn about the plight of the Egyptian vulture in the Balkans. Once as common as the myths and legends that surround high places, there are now fewer than 70 pairs across the entire, vast peninsula, nearing extinction in the wider region as a result of, poisoning, power-line collisions and poaching, either there or on the birds’ wintering grounds in Africa. As its population sinks ever lower each year, the Egyptian vulture has made the Eastern Rhodopi Mountains the heartland of its kind in south-eastern Europe, the exact same place that the ancient Thracians chose to carve their high, mysterious niches. The meanings of mountains are many, defined and articulated within the overlapping orbits of culture and historic age, the Thracians perceiving highlands through a cosmological lens particular to their place, time and race. The canyons and cliff faces of their niches express some unknown essence of their relationship with the world, symbolic of their ancient longings, vision and beliefs, just as in the modern western world mountains are often perceived as physical and mental challenges, places of intense personal engagement and rich aesthetic pleasure that reflect our cultural foregrounding of beauty and the individual. For many of us mountains lend a sense of liberty to our days, an expansive freedom gained from the breathtaking combination of height, space, adventure and vista. But for all the solitude of mountains, it’s rare that we are alone in our experience of them. We walk, cycle and climb over landscapes already crossed, following paths pressed into the earth by others, while adding to them with our own. Each time we layer the land with new stories.

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