A “Sacred Mountain” for the centennial of the Gran Paradiso national Park

A “Sacred Mountain” for the centennial of the Gran Paradiso national Park
A cultural project

The preamble
1922. That is a historical date for nature conservation in Italy. This is the year when the Gran Paradiso National Park (PNGP, Parco Nazionale Gran Paradiso) was established, a few weeks later also followed by the establishment of the National Park of Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise (PNALM, Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo, Lazio e Molise).

The establishment of these first two Italian national parks – among the first also in Europe – saved three “iconic” species of the great Italian fauna from extinction: the ibex in the PNGP, the Marsican bear and Abruzzo chamois in the PNALM. Their establishment also allowed the protection of landscapes, ecosystems, communities and animal and plant species of extraordinary scientific and cultural value and marked the birth of Italian pioneering environmentalism.

Next year, 2022, will therefore mark the centennial of the two Parks, the “flagships” of the system of national protected areas. The anniversary will be an occasion for events, debates, exhibitions, meetings and publications, already being prepared by the two organizations. Perhaps, for such an occasion, something more should be proposed.

The foundation of the Park was a response to the environmental challenges of that century. A hundred years later, environmental issues have shifted from a local to a global level. Nature conservation now deals with challenges connected to climate change, overpopulation, pollution, resource depletion and the tendency of humanity to invade and permeate the ecosystems. Furthermore, pristine nature, free – or almost free – from “the human footprint”, is relegated to a few corners and to increasingly limited extensions of our planet.

Panoramic view of Monveso di Forzo (the highest peak in the image), taken from Punta Rossa 2707 m, on the Piedmont side of the PNGP (photo Federico Raiser, 1998).

The PNGP territory, like that of most of the world’s protected areas (85% of them does not exceed 1,000 km2), covers a relatively small area (710 km2). The Park protects the biological diversity contained within it, but it can do little towards problems of a global scale.

Yet not entirely so.

For its history, for all that it has represented and still represents in the panorama of conservation, even at an international level, the PNGP can and must provide, on its centennial, a strong cultural signal for the protection of nature, a message of responsibility, a new and radical statement, comparable to what its institution meant a hundred years ago.

The centennial of PNGP (as of PNALM) is a great opportunity to rethink the role of these institutions. A role of reference, more incisive than it has hitherto had, to ensure that the ecological transition is not only entrusted to technology, but is also and, above all, a cultural transition.

The first consideration
The year of the pandemic, the year of the confinement of men to their homes, saw animals reappear in “human” spaces with surprising speed. We were closed, they were free. But this confinement has also led to produce, as soon as the regulations have allowed it, an explosion of human presence in protected areas, like never ever before. A situation which imposes new reflections on the need to respect and protect the most delicate natural areas.

It is evident, in fact, that even “green” recreational activities (hiking, cycling, running, climbing, ski mountaineering, canyoning, etc.) pose problems with an impact on the environment. Impact is determined not so much by the means (in themselves, ” eco-compatible “) with which activities are performed, but by the intensity (number of people) and frequency (temporal recurrence) of the phenomenon. Moreover, the impact is not disconnected from the awareness with which the activities are practiced. That is a nature enjoyed by most as a space, as a training ground for their activities, a place of action and personal satisfaction and not as a perhaps fragile and exclusive, environment of life of other beings.

Everything leads to the presumption that numbers and manners of this playful-sporting-recreational use of nature will be maintained or even will increase in coming years. The first problem for conservation in protected areas is already, and will increasingly be, the mass tourism / recreational impact.

The PNGP contains a piece of extraordinary alpine environments. Environments that could appear as untouched by their very nature of inaccessibility. In reality, that is not the case. All the peaks of the Park are “classic” mountaineering destinations. Climbing, on rock or ice, is widely used and practiced by significant numbers of people. There are no places or areas in the Park that are closed to men or not reachable by expert climbers.

Other considerations
Invasiveness and otherness. Man is by far the first and most important invasive species. Since leaving Africa (the “Out of Africa” theory) Homo sapiens has – as the only living species – gradually reached and colonized every corner of the world, excluding Antarctica. Its expansion was accompanied by the disappearance of the “others”: the three-four cousin species of the genus Homo that existed before and then thousands of other species (how many disappeared before being described?), in very high percentages among the larger and insular ones.

We are now nearly 8 billion and the number will grow even more, to over 10 billion. What space will the “others” have in an increasingly highly populated and man-made world? Limited to restricted areas (numerically small populations), the species inevitably will become extinct and not all will adapt to living in anthropized environments.

Independent of any direct human gain, it is our ethical responsibility to hand over to future generations the biological wealth we have known. To do this, we must think of leaving room for “otherness” (what is not us), deciding to keep out our presence from given areas of the Planet, to be consecrated to others. This is the idea recently expressed also by Edward O. Wilson – the Darwin of the 21st century – with his book “Half-Earth”.

Conquest and limits. The idea of conquest (the “mad ambition”), the same that has led us to every corner of the Earth, to the Moon and, in a few years also to Mars, is deeply inherent in human nature, so much so that it may have a genetic basis. The idea of conquest is, above all, strongly rooted in mountaineering culture. It is, in some way, its very soul. Alpine nature, from being an object of aesthetic admiration of the romantics, has become with mountaineering (and with science) a place of conquest and submission, for military, sporting and now above all for tourism purposes.

A soul that has, moreover, been greatly transformed in recent years, with the prevalence of social performance over simple private satisfaction. It is the moment of protagonism, of self-celebrating sports performances, practiced by people who are indifferent (in a non-negligible percentage) on respect and knowledge of the area, as well as the relative impact of their presence. Open-air gyms more than environments, as has been said, favored terrain to stage the overcoming of all limits (that of verticality, fatigue, performance, speed, crowding, deterioration of natural habitats …).

Perhaps the time has come to set limits. Perhaps it is time to change. Conquests no longer physical, but rather spiritual. Peaks as places to be left “untouched” by aspirations of physical “possession”, but sources of inspiration, contemplation and interior reflections.

The Sacred Mountain
The proposal is simple, without costs and prohibitions: the establishment of a Sacred Mountain in the Gran Paradiso national Park, that is a mountain consecrated to nature from which any human presence will be excluded, as a clear and concrete message to the centennial of the Park. A “revolutionary” design idea – as it overturns cultural models: from no-limits to off-limits – of great symbolic value, more than directly aimed at conservation (as in the case of special protected reserves).

An idea that was never realized before in the Western world. Sacred mountains exist in other cultures, in the religious sense of the term. Sacred to local cultures are Machapuchare 6993 m (Nepal) and Kailash 6638 m (China), barred from human access and, therefore, to mountaineering, and Uluṟu – Ayers Rock, in the Australian national park of the same name, where tourist access was prohibited in 2019.

In our case, the term sacred wants to emphasize another meaning. Sacredness is, in fact, a cultural construction, with different meanings in different cultures, even as a secular vision. The oldest etymology of the term, on the other hand, indicates a high and inaccessible place, fascinating, regardless of religious cult.

Sacred Mountain as a place to be left exclusively to “others”, as an affective and emotional symbol of Nature entirely for its intrinsic value, not in a human function.

Not everything we can do has to be done. Not all the mountains that we are able to climb must be climbed (conquered). For once, in one place at least, the idea of abstention may prevail. In this case, abstention, rather than taking away, gives something away. It is a profound symbolism, a symbolism of dialogue with the natural elements without being overwhelmed, which stimulates feelings of fascination and affiliation. They are the two constructs identified by Edward O. Wilson in his biophilia hypothesis.

A place that will increase its symbolic value over time: with which eyes will that peak be looked at after generations of human absence?

The Sacred Mountain will not be a place of prohibitions. A cultural project cannot be based on imposition. There will therefore be no formal ban, no access prohibition, no financial penalty for those who do not want to “abstain”. Much more simply, the commitment not to climb to the top will be a suggested and argued choice, in order to be respected by all. We are absolutely respectful of everyone’s freedom, but we will make every effort to ensure that our vision is understood and shared by most, not as an act of force but, on the contrary, as a responsible and liberating gesture.

This project proposes a new form of use of the Park, totally different from the current ones. Around the Sacred Mountain it will be possible to build, with the collaboration of stakeholders, itineraries and stopping points that place the emphasis on observation and not on conquest, on the moment of knowledge and contemplation rather than on sports competition. In short, an approaching way which would generate reflections on our relationship with nature and promote a different culture of the use of the mountains and, more generally, of natural environments.

Which and why?
The project proposes to elect Monveso di Forzo 3322 m as the Sacred Mountain of the Gran Paradiso National Park.

The choice is motivated by the following reasons:

a) It is “one of the most elegant mountains in the Forzo valley” (https://vallesoana.it/attivita-sportive/alpinismo/monveso-di-forzo/), whose shape is a “slender quadrangular pyramid” (Andreis, Chabod & Santi, CAI-TCI 1980) – from whatever side you look at it – represents the icon of the Alpine peaks in the collective imagination.

b) It is located on the watershed crest between Piedmont and Aosta Valley and is therefore shared by the two Italian regions of the Park (fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Location of Monveso di Forzo (red circle) within the borders of the PNGP.

c) On the Piedmont side, the summit is located at the head of the Vallone di Forzo (Val Soana) and, together with the Torre di Lavina, characterizes the landscape in an important way (fig. 2). The top is clearly visible from the middle valley. On the Valle d’Aosta side, it is located on the right side of Vallone di Valeille (Val di Cogne) in the group of peaks called “Le Arolle” (fig. 3), and is visible from Gimillan and, even if less prominently, from the town of Cogne. The Monveso is visible from the Canavese plain.

d) The Le Arolle group, of which Monveso is part, contains “beautiful and solitary mountains” and where “human encounters are on the verge of non-existent” (https://gognablog.sherpa-gate.com/le-arolle- beautiful-and-lonely-mountains /). The Monveso is, in fact, a mountaineering destination that has always been very little frequented, due to its isolation and the great effort required to reach its summit (difference in height of 2144 m from Forzo and 1700 m from Lillaz).

The establishment of the Monveso as a “Sacred Mountain” would therefore lead to human exclusion from an area (the entire pyramid) which is currently used in a very limited way for mountaineering and hiking purposes. However, it is to be assumed that its very institution would constitute a “unicum” attraction, for a responsible and remote tourist use, particularly relevant for the Valle di Forzo.

 Fig. 2. Panoramic view of Monveso di Forzo (the highest peak in the image), taken between Ingria and Ronco, on the Piedmont side of the PNGP (photo Toni Farina, 2021).

Fig. 3. The Monveso di Forzo seen from the ridge between Valeille and Valnontey (Val di Cogne), on the Aosta Valley side of the PNGP (photo Luciano Ramires, 2010).

For more informations: montagnasacra22@gmail.com

The promoters
Giuseppe Barbiero – ecopsicologo, Univ. della Valle d’Aosta
Enrico Camanni – scrittore, giornalista, alpinista
Duccio Canestrini – antropologo
Daniele Cat Berro – redattore rivista “Nimbus”
Guido Dalla Casa – filosofo e scrittore
Toni Farina – membro Consiglio Direttivo PNGP
Franco Ferrero – Direttore Consorzio Operatori turistici Valli del Canavese
Alessandro Gogna – alpinista, guida alpina e storico dell’alpinismo
Pietro Lacasella – blogger Alto Rilievo
Beppe Leyduan – blogger I Camosci Bianchi
Massimo Manavella – gestore Rifugio Selleries, Roure (TO)
Antonio Mingozzi – zoologo, Univ. della Calabria, già Direttore PNGP

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