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It was one of those quintessential Dolomites days that convince me – for the nth time – that these are by far my favourite mountains. The sky was clear blue, swept clean of clouds by a brisk wind from the north that inevitably blows up in the wake of summer thunder storms. The amazing Sella massif rose up before us looking for all the world like a fortress, its sheer flanks severe and impenetrable. 'This is the life!' I thought, smiling to myself, pretending I wasn't about to tackle a testing climb. We'd just set out from the comfort of the rifugio at Passo Gardena. It was that magical time of day when your skin's still cool and your T-shirt's deliciously fresh and sweat-free, and your rucksack weighs (almost) next to nothing. So bright was the sky that I'd already detached the polarising filter from my camera lens, thinking the extra-intense blue would produce over-the-top colours.
For the time being the Sella's northern flanks shaded us, and we sauntered towards a strategic cleft, Val Setus. This rubble-filled gully meant a serious near-vertical slog. Time to adjust gear and engage at a slower pace. Endless zigzags, the odd cascading rock to be dodged, and we gained the first of the Sella's vast natural terraces. Panoramas sublime opened before us – not to mention welcoming Rifugio Pisciadù for a drink. We'd already ascended 450 metres, but the day was too perfect not to make the most of it, so the decision to press on was unanimous. The landscape was lunar, no other adjective fits so well. Plant, insect and animal life were apparently absent – preferring lower altitudes where winds blow more gently, shelter exists and a greater choice of nutrients is available. However, stark as it was, clumps of minuscule pink cinquefoil were in blossom along the way, and as we halted for refreshments, cheeky coral-beaked alpine choughs materialised out of nowhere – they apparently inherit special long-range hearing that is activated at the mere rustling of a plastic picnic bag.
(The mighty terraces of Sella above Passo Gardena)
Another 400 metres higher, and the Altopiano delle Meisules stretched out as a sandless desert. Not another human was to be seen. Just blinding white rock and rugged crests and towers. But then in the distance a four-legged creature came into sight. Out with the binoculars! Even from this far away it was clearly an ibex, at rest with a small herd. Its hefty notched horns and stocky body are a give-away. (It could only be confused with a chamois, a daintier creature with short horns like crochet hooks and distinctive black–white rear quarters.) What a thrill! I had no idea that the flock reintroduced to the southern Dolomites had made their way this far north. The animal hails from the Gran Paradiso in Italy's north-west, the sole herd to have survived the ravages of war and hunting.
Excited, I carefully unsheathed my camera, adjusted the lens and gave my companions strict instructions to stand perfectly still and not move a finger lest they interfere with what was clearly about to become an award-winning photograph (wildlife image of the year perhaps?). Hardly daring to breathe myself I advanced tiny step by step, shooting picture after picture as I did, and praying that my film wouldn't run out. The wind was clearly favourable to me as the animal didn't budge a centimetre. Miracle! What luck! Closer and closer I crept, the camera working overtime. I got within spitting distance of my target when she nonchalantly stood up, stretched her legs and yawned, took a perfunctory glance at me and simply turned her head away as though fed up of waiting to be immortalised. She'd clearly been surreptitiously tracking my progress! My companions, recovering from violent suppressed fits of the giggles, caught up with me at last. They'd taken the winning photos: a sequence of me creeping towards the ibex, and being completely ignored. Humiliating to say the least ...
Written by Gillian Price