Posted by Jeremy Cowen on 04/03/2006
Photo: Jeremy Cowen

For the second time in as many months, I was standing at the feet of this giant, gazing at its unwieldy bulk. High above the picturesque village of Seis, the imposing form of the Schlern filled the southern skyline, overseeing all that lay in its shadows.

A complex citadel of limestone towers defined its lower limbs, thrusting upward towards the Santnerspitze, a dominant sentry guarding the shoulder of the summit plateau. Yet its full identity remained unseen; protective vertical armour shielding its head from sight whilst a cloak of cloud shrouded higher reaches, intermittently revealing new features, inviting the unwary to approach.

Since the Middle Ages and beyond, the people of the Schlern region have held strong beliefs in supernatural forces. In such dominant surroundings, this is easy to understand. Here, recent history has failed to eclipse ancient mystique. Realignment of borders after the signing of the Treaty of Saint-Germain in 1919 had consigned South Tyrol to Italy, yet local Austrian traditions prevail. Local dress, music and cuisine is distinctive, whilst stories of witches and demons abound, passed down between generations, inextricably entwined in the lives of those living under the Schlern.

Seis nestles quietly on a shelf overlooking the Eisacktal valley, at the western end of the Dolomite chain. The regional capital of Bolzano, a short distance to the southwest, serves as a gateway into this heartland of South Tyrol. Although the local language is predominantly German, remnants of ancient Ladin dialect are still to be found. Indeed, the name Schlern is thought to derive from “Salara”, a Ladin term for the flow of water, reference no doubt to the incessant trickles from the cliffs also known as “Schlernblut” (Schlern blood). The Italian name for the mountain is “Sciliar” and to compound the confusion, all local place names succumb to such double treatment. However, the region suffers no such crisis of identity as Tyroleans and quiet alpine villages blend into their mountain setting with ease.

Tales of the Schlern witches are well established in local folklore, now told to enchant and amuse. However, several hundred years ago, so strong was the belief in their presence and evil, that hundreds of women were rounded up and condemned to death, burned alive at the stake or drawn and quartered. Unexplained infant mortality and sinister murders of local priests were attributed to the witches, who were further accused of association with the devil and denunciation of Catholicism. Across Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries, countless numbers suffered the same fate with estimates ranging from 100,000 to several million.

A short distance from Seis lies the charming village of Völs am Schlern, where the Urgichten (interrogations) and burning of nine local women at the beautiful Prösels Castle early in the 16th century is well documented, thought to be one of the earliest such cases in South Tyrol. It is said that witches still control the weather. In the nearby town of Kastelruth, three witches in the form of birds will descend from the Schlern and circle the church tower three times prior to every storm. Formerly, at each end of the summit plateau, at Burgstall and Roterspitz, burnings and offerings would be made in an attempt to pacify the coven of witches gathering here at night to dance and plot.

Full of curiosity, the lure was irresistible, and I was soon wandering across the lush alpine pastures of the adjacent Seiser Alm to discover for myself the secrets that lay above. The Seiser Alm is the largest high alpine meadow in Europe, ablaze with colour in spring and summer, and bedecked with snow in winter to form one of the largest connected skiing areas in the world; a true playground for all seasons. From the Alm, the signature silhouettes of the Plattkofel (3181m) and Langkofel (2958m) loom to the east, whilst the incisive Rosszähne guard the horizon to the south, abutting the Schlern plateau. My intention was to spend a night upon the Schlern before traversing the ridge of the Rosszähne by means of the Maximilian Way via ferrata, then onto a circuit of the Plattkofel and Langkofel. Palatial mountain huts are conveniently scattered here, enabling light travel for those seeking adventure of varying ambition.

The trail meanders over a rolling landscape passing numerous farmers’ huts, where fresh hay is gathered for winter. A veil of cloud enveloped the Santnerspitze and its twin peak, Euringer, yet for now stubbornly refused to yield. Steep switchbacks cut up a flank towards the desolate plateau, through forests of ground-hugging conifers. Colours flashed from the undergrowth, the late summer flora strained to absorb the emerging suns rays. After several hundred metres of ascent the angle relents and new horizons emerge. My eye was drawn to the Rosengarten (Catanaccio) chain in the southeast, standing proudly above thickly forested slopes which roll towards the Latemar “Stone Puppets” further south. To my right the mists parted to finally reveal Petz (2563m), the highpoint of the Schlern where a cross adorns the summit rocks, a warning perhaps to evil spirits lurking in wait of nightfall.

A short distance below the summit lies the Schlernhaus, or Rifugio Bolzano, a sturdy haven owned by the Italian Alpine Club, audaciously set on open slopes with commanding views of the Rosengarten. As the evening sun warmed the jagged limestone spires, I recalled the story of King Laurin who is said to have lived here with his loyal dwarves and Simhild, a kidnapped princess, amongst rose-filled meadows below. After seven long years, Simhild’s location was traced. A battle ensued whereupon she was freed. King Laurin was ruined, mocked in captivity, yet finally managed to escape. Returning to his kingdom, weary of conflict and strife, King Laurin realised that the beauty of his realm had led to his demise, drawing Simhild’s saviours to their quarry. Thus, he cast a spell over his garden of roses, turning it to stone, forever to be concealed from view during day and night. The spell was cast, however failed to hide the garden at dusk, which was neither day nor night. One can still see the alpenglow of the Rosengarten at sunset, as the rocks bathe in the fiery setting sun like glowing embers, a magnificent sight, whilst the sound of rockfall is said to betray the presence of dwarves amongst the cliffs.

At dusk I sat quietly on the Petz summit of the Schlern. Weakening blades of light struggled to pierce a distant curtain of cloud. Serene stillness surrounded the peak, as if frozen in time. The summit topography bore a strong resemblance to a volcanic crater, complex boulder fields tumbling into the caldera’s unfathomable depths. Ghostly mists drifted in the golden twilight, casting dancing shadows on surrounding cliffs. As darkness fell the cool air sank slowly towards the valley floor, dragging the mists downward towards sleeping villages far below. Stars glistened overhead as I made my way along the crater rim and retreated into the warm glow of the Schlernhaus. Was there a haunting in those mists? I would never know.

Some days later, the walls of King Laurin’s Rosengarten rose above me, still and frigid in the morning shade. An early chair lift from the Frommer Alm had deposited me at the Kölnerhütte, where climbers made last minute checks of route descriptions and kit before setting off in search of summits. I checked my watch and made haste up the initial rocks that would lead toward the famous Santnerpass via ferrata. A glance to my right identified the descent from the Tschagerjoch over which I would come a few hours later. On the western flank of this mountain wall white scree slopes soon gave way to a rising series of ledges weaving their way into the heart of the mountain, twisting through gullies and beneath spires, cable sections appearing with increasing frequency to protect the more exposed moves. Soon, the narrows steered sharply to the right above a precipitous drop to arrive at the unlikely flattening of the Santnerpass, beneath Punta Emma.

As the early sun warmed the ground, I chanced upon a summit book and left my mark, pausing to gaze westward to the Ortler Alps, home to some of the eighty 3000 metre peaks strewn across South Tyrol. Further north the Ötztaler Alps glistened where, on the 19th September 1991, two German mountaineers had stumbled upon the remains of a body lying in the ice near the Tisenjoch on the Austrian border. In the days that followed, the seemingly suspicious circumstances lead to the launch of a criminal enquiry. However, the ice refused to release its victim until four days later, by which time it had become apparent that circumstances were far from routine as suspicion gave way to intrigue.

The grisly discovery turned into one of the world’s most astonishing archaeological finds of the century. At the University of Innsbruck, an Austrian forensic team examined the body and the accompanying artefacts, performing the first of countless tests. Radio carbon dating established an estimated date of death between 3350BC and 3100BC, some 5300 years previously. This unprecedented find has helped to unravel anthropological mysteries of the region, and now forms the basis for a fascinating collection of related exhibits in the South Tyrol museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, where “Ötzi” now resides in a carefully controlled cold cell, visible to the public.

After a short break, I was on the move again, pausing below the stunning Vajolet Towers, shining as golden pillars set against a deep blue sky. Several parties were moving up the popular South West arête of the Delago tower as others prepared to descend, having made an early start from the nearby Gartlhütte, whilst guided parties arrived to lay claim to later ascents of the day. A path descends to the east towards the Rifugio Vaiolet in the Val di Fassa, where subtle clues point to a transition into more Italian territory. Turning right before the refuge, I traversed underneath the huge 600 metre eastern face of the Rosengarten where familiar chimes indicated the presence of climbers, barely visible, yet making steady progress on the 1929 Steger route. Vowing to return, I turned my back on the looming verticality and snaked my way up the zig zags to the Tschagerjoch before running down screes to complete the loop at the Kölnerhütte, concluding a memorable mountain day.

This picturesque corner of South Tyrol has much to offer all year round for those in search of adventure and relaxation alike. The Dolomite range forms just a part of the South Tyrolean character, which is defined by a unique landscape and eclectic mix of cultures and people. Should one ever find themselves in need of mountains of inspiration, these hills will not fail to provide.

BMC member Jeremy Cowen works as a Patent Examiner for the UK Patent Office, escaping to the mountains whenever possible. He's happiest crunching up frozen nevé on an alpine dawn.

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