It would probably be trivial and kind of disrespectful to describe this as an ordinary itinerary. Due to its circumstances and more generically to mountaineering history, this route requires a greater effort on our part. Preconditions to face this itinerary is to strive to take a leap into the past, more precisely in August 1869, when mountaineering was a phenomenon excluded to most of the people, yet capable of attracting the brilliant minds of the upper class of London.
Among the first members of John Ball’s Alpine Club, founded in London’s Ashley’s Hotel in 1857 and milestone of what will be remembered in history as the Golden Age of mountaineering (1854-1865), was a young Leslie Stephen, who became president of the Alpine Club from 1865 to 1868.
Having been married for two years with Harriet Marian Thackeray and about to turn 40 years old, while carefully taking notes for the drafting of what will later become one of the classics of mountaineering (i.e. The playground of Europe), Leslie found himself in the uncharted territory of Primiero.
“[…] I read […] that the mighty Tuckett himself, and the equally mighty Melchior Anderegg, had pronounced the peaks of Primiero to be inaccessible”
Being amazed by the peaks he could admire from the village of Fiera di Primiero, as he was preparing to face another mountaineering challenge, Leslie wrote:
“I stood silent before the peaks of Primiero, and saw in them a new land, still untouched by the foot of the tourist.”
Perhaps, this was the reason that led him, in that morning of August, to leave the hotel where he was staying (Aquila Nera, in Fiera di Primiero), looking for new horizons and unexplored peaks, in what in his heart he knew was a territory full of fantastic and sharp peaks only waiting to be climbed.
“I was alone (at 6.45 A.M. on a brilliant morning of August 1869) in the quiet street of the lovely little town of Primiero. […] Above the meadows of the Primiero valley there rises a long slope, first of forest and then of alp, to the foot of the mighty peaks which spring at one bound to a height of some ten thousand feet. Behind them (ndr Sass Maor, Cimerlo, Madonna), I knew, lay a wilderness of partially explored summits, with sides as steep as those of a cathedral and surrounded by daring spires and pinnacles, writhing into every conceivable shape and almost too fantastical to be beautiful.”
As Leslie wrote, the Alpine Club of London had kept its distance from exploring the Pala Group, but this was not causing any problem for Leslie. Quite the opposite, it seems, since it fed his desire to plan a new route.
“The Primiero peaks seem to have a double measure of enchantment; some strange magic had held the Alpine Club at a distance. […] I had a Spanish wine-bottle slung around me, a crust of bread in my pocket, and an ax in my hand; but alone, and determined to come back in one piece […] I shall not even assert […] that at any given point a false step might have broken my neck.”
Perfectly aware of the possible risks and with the bare minimum of equipment, Leslie left for heading towards Val Canali, admiring its wide meadows, after passing at the foot of the castle of Castel Pietra.
“My way led at first along a good road, to the foot of the castle of La Pietra. […] This valley, called the Val di Canale, stretches north-east-ward into the heart of the mountains […] Such a meadow as that I was crossing would have been simply a commonplace pasturage in Leicestershire. Contrasting it with the mighty cliffs that enclosed it on every side, it was a piece of embodied poetry. […] only it was such a park as we may hope to meet in the Elysian fields […] I was evidently contemplating one of the great scenic effects of the Alps, not, to my taste, rivalling Grindelwald, Macugnaga , or Courmayeur, but yet in its own style almost unique. The huge barrier before me was the defence of that fairyland into which I was seeking entrance. The cliffs rose abruptly and with tremendous steepness”
During the ascent along the valley of Canali, Leslie decided to follow the natural line provided by the valley of Pradidali and, back at the time as now, the ascent to the place that later will host the hut of Rifugio Pradidali was somewhat challenging, so much so that he thought at some point to stop and simply enjoy the view, rather than proceed with his plan.
“[…] I thought it best to enter the broadest and most accessible of these gashes, which lay immediately behind the Sas Maor, and is known as the Val di Pravitali. […] By following this route I should at least pass through the very heart of the mountains. […] In the gully which I was speedily climbing, there was not a breath of air. I was in good training, but without the stimulating effect of company […] Why not break the mountaineer’s code of commandments? Why not sit down in the first bit of shade, to smoke my pipe and admire the beauties of nature?”
After this first stretch, 5 hours before the start, a perplexed but enchanted Leslie Stephen arrived – presumably – in the basin that leads from Rifugio Pradidali to the gap of Passo di Ball, where he stood admiring the surrounding peaks, not hiding a strong doubt about the success of his crossing, given the total absence, apparently, of any logical line of ascent. At that point Leslie spotted an isolated peak, to the south, which would have allowed him to have a clear view of the surrounding geographical shapes, thus letting him plan his way back to the valley.
“A few minutes more and I entered a very remarkable grassy plain, on which I shall again have occasion to speak, and after five hours’ walk from Primiero, sat down on the col I have mentioned to determine my future course. […] I was fairly perplexed and bewildered. On every side there were gigantic cliffs soaring pinnacles, and precipitous ravines. […] The fantastic Dolomite mountains rose all around me in shapes more like dreams than sober realities […] I was at the foot of the promised peaks […] I could not even guess which was the right line of assault, and in which direction the main summits lay. I might descend the ravine which I saw plunging rapidly downwards amongst the roots of the mountains on the other side of the col, but by such a course I should see no more […] After some reflection and hesitation it became obvious that the single fact of which I could confidently rely was that the great mass of rock to the south, on my left hand, must intervene between me and the valley of Primiero. If it were possible to climb it, I should get a more distinct view of the mountains to the north, and might possibly find a short cut home across the ridge.”
Despite his doubts, yet strongly determined in being able to get to the ridge – from where he imagined he could approach the “mighty” peak – with the help of the ice ax he continued climbing on the snow, on the ramp that from Passo di Ball led him to the gap of Forcella Stephen.
“I ascended rapidly, cutting a step or two in one place, and on reaching the head of the snow, I took to the ridge of rocks at the point where a very remarkable pinnacle of great height rises […]”
Looking south from the gap, Leslie could admire entirely the pinnacle and the summit of Cima di Ball (anonymous back then). But at this point the problem of timing crossed his mind; without making him discard the idea of climbing to the top of the summit (from his description – presumably – along the current “Via Normale”).
“It was growing late, and I had reason to suppose that my absence, if much prolonged, might cause some anxiety to those I had left at Primiero. I resolved that I would turn back under any circumstances at 2.30 […]”
Once Leslie reached at the top of Cima di Ball, looking at the beautiful peaks of Sass Maór and Madonna to the south, Pradidali to the east and Val di Roda with the whole plateau in the background to the north, he began to fantasize about how to climb Sass Maór (an achievement that was managed a few years later, in 1875).
“If I had limited my reflections to the question of ascending the Sas Maor, I should have simply returned by the way I came. Another plan, however, occurred to me with irresistible force. The rockets were so good that I inferred the possibility of descending straight to the Primiero valley, i.e. by the opposite ridge of the mountain to that which I had climbed.”
Along with these thoughts, however, perhaps fueled by the fact that he could see the entire Primiero Valley on the horizon, a crazy idea occurred to him: to close his route by descending from the opposite side of the summit (to the south), avoiding repeating the grueling crossing of the valley of Pradidali, by descending (presumably!) towards the gap of Forcella del Portón.
“I could see the Primiero valley in its whole length, lying almost at my feet […] I might reach the valley in a very short time, and save the trouble of descending the tiresome Val di Pravitali.”
Leslie started the descent by climbing down on the rocks not without troubles, also dropping at some point his ice ax while finding dangerous and totally unexpected walls.
“It is an unpleasant peculiarity of the Dolomite mountains that such vertical walls of rock, which of course are invisible from above, frequently run for great distances around the base of the peaks. […] I must probably have spent the night upon the rocks. […] I was quite certain that I could not climb back. To be imprisoned on such a ledge would be no joke”
Once he got on the other side of the ridge, Leslie headed back to Fiera di Primiero at dusk, after “an interesting 12 hours’ walk”.
“The valley by which I ultimately effected my descent is that which descends from the col between the Sass Maor and the peak (to the north-west) which I had just climbed. […] I ultimately reached Primiero soon after dark, having had an interesting twelve hours’ walk”
Later, it was Sir Leslie Stephen himself, as he wrote in his book, proposing the name of Mr. Ball to the summit he climbed during his long itinerary (later officially proposed by Herr Suda and approved with the name of Cima di Ball), as a sign of gratitude to Mr. Ball for providing him all the necessary information and suggestions to complete his hike.
For more than two years we have tried to document this fascinating itinerary, first noticed in the book “Camminare” by Scalet. Our ambition is to propose it, with the appropriate changes in order to adapt it to hikers, making it something unique, reserved for the few who are able to enjoy this long and historical route, through the beautiful words of Leslie Stephen himself. Everyone facing this itinerary should surely remember that, at the time, there were no accurate maps, no modern equipment and no paths…
The trail we propose is not perfectly matching the original one, also because it would be almost impossible to follow the same lines. Therefore, we have modified some stretches, in such a way as to make it attractive to all experienced hikers. If you feel particularly inspired by Leslie’s words, however, you can always do as we did and leave at 6.45 A.M. from Fiera di Primiero!
- From the main square in Fiera di Primiero (Piazza Cesare Battisti, 710 m as), follow Via Terrabugio, cross the Cismón torrent and proceed along the Canali torrent heading towards Tonadico,
- From the village of Tonadico, take the Signpost No. 734, leaving it at the crossroads shortly after passing the church of San Vittore and taking the path that, proceeding along the contour, leads to Signpost No. 719,
- Ascend along the Signpost No. 719 up to the meadows of Prati Piereni, then proceed along the gravel road called “Fratte” until reaching the location of Pedemonte / Portèla,
- From Pedemonte (1,640 m asl), follow the Signpost No. 709 towards Rifugio Pradidali,
- From the hut of Rifugio Pradidali (2,278 m asl), proceed along the Signpost No. 715 towards Passo di Ball,
- From the gap of Passo di Ball (2,443 m asl), climb up along the Signport No. 714 (Via Ferrata “Nico Gusella”) until you reach Forcella Stephen,
- [VARIANT] Reach the Cima di Ball (2,802 m asl) along the so-called Via Normale,
- From the gap of Forcella Stephen (2,705 m asl), proceed downhill along the Signpost No. 714 (Via Ferrata “NIco Gusella”), then along the Signpost No. 739 (Via Ferrata del Velo) until getting to the hut of Rifugio Velo della Madonna,
- From Rifugio Velo della Madonna (2,358 m asl), descend along the Signpost No. 713 “Lasta Moia” until reaching crossroads by the remains of the hut of Malga Sóra Rónz,
- From the crossroads, proceed along the gravel road towards Prati Ronzi,
- From the meadows of Prati Ronzi, descend along the paved road towards Sirór,
- From the village of Sirór (765 m asl), descend along the cycle path leading to the village of Fiera di Primiero, passing through the park of Vallombrosa. ✓
- Stephen, L. (1871), The Playground of Europe. Longmans, Green and Company.
- Scalet, S. (2013). Camminare. Sentieri nelle valli di Primiero, San Martino, Pale di San Martino, Rolle e Vanoi. Versante Sud.