Finding Equilibrium

Tension, struggle and balance in the Alburni Mountains of Italy

Feature type Story

Read time 15 min read

Published Oct 07, 2020

Photographer Francesco Guerra

Francesco Guerra
Francesco Guerra Adventure-driven outdoor photographer, born and raised in a Southern Italy city, Francesco discovered the mountains and the outdoor life only in his 20s, making his thirst for the outdoors and adventures unquenchable.

Tension, struggle and balance in the Alburni Mountains of Italy.

Story & Photography | Francesco Guerra

It’s barely 5.30 in the morning. As the sun rises above the horizon, against the shadows of the hills and the low lying cloud, the first rays of the day are magnificent.

“We have to go,” says Alex, drawing to a close our moment of admiration for the dawn. The previous evening, we’d been tensioning a 180 meter highline when a strong wind began to blow. Funnelling through the gully between the two cliffs it was impossible for us to finish rigging the line as one of the two anchor points was forced dangerously close to the rocks. Neither of us slept that night. We didn’t know if we’d find our line still in position by morning.

We are in the Alburni Mountains of southern Italy and we’re way off any tourist trail. These mountains, are known as the Dolomites of Campania and, apart from herders, mushroom pickers and few local hikers, no one comes up here, making the massif a fully-fledged wilderness just steps away from civilisation.

I had met Alex Mignemi in fortuitous circumstances back in 2018. Shooting on the Amalfi Coast, I saw two Sicilian slackliners who where there to rig and walk a line 70 meters off the ground. One of them was Alex. From that day, a strong bond was born. Although we come from different regions in the country and see each other rarely, our shared love for the outdoors and the drive to push our personal boundaries has created a brother-like link. In the way that a highline allows us to connect two distant points, this lifestyle teaches us to build deep bonds that stretch beyond the simplistic meanings of friendship.

The idea to rig a line in the Alburni Mountains came to our minds during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. While I was flipping through a climbing guidebook, I came along the picture of Mount Figliolo – figliolo is an Italian term of endearment for son – a distinctive pinnacle of the Alburni range that fiercely stands out from the surrounding gentle hillside landscape.

Without thinking, I reached out to Alex. Minutes later we were both inspecting Google Earth trying to understand how to get there. Information online was scarce and fragmented, while the guidebook gave no hints at all.

A wilderness like Alburni surely deserved more attention from us than we would have given it before the lockdown.

This year, in the summer months that saw domestic travel restrictions ease, we made it.

Passing through Petina, a village of barely 1000 inhabitants which stands just in the foothills of the range, we approach a road immersed immersed in a lush beech forest before we reach the trailhead – a mule-track used by local herders. As we walk, we joke about surrendering prior to getting to the top of the mountain due to the exhausting heat and the huge weight of our backpacks containing all the materials for camping and rigging. We hike back and forth three times before we call it a day.

Once on the top of Ripa Lunga, for a moment we forget the sweaty shirts and weary bodies: facing us there is Mount Figliolo with its staggering shape. Behind it, the highest mountain of all the Alburni, Mount Panormo.

The happiness to be there, looking with our own eyes at what we had imagined for months, is electric.

What staying at home for so long during the COVID-19 pandemic had taught us was to not take our wild spaces for granted. A wilderness like Alburni surely deserved more attention from us than we would have given it before the lockdown.

“The worst is over,” we tell each other. “Now there’s only fun!”

Alex rappels 50 meters down on the flank of Mount Figliolo, looking for a good spot to create an anchor point for the line. He is very careful not to touch any protruding rocks. The terrain here is unstable, and we do not want to face the chaos that a rock fall could cause.

He soon ascends the rope again, this time with a frustrated energy. The drill bit he’d used to perforate the rock has totally melted. A small metal cylinder is all that remains. The next day, with yet more damaged iron, we drive twice back to the village to recover more bits for the drill.

It’s the dawn of our third day on Alburni. We can clearly see the village of Petina below us, but apart from cows and sheep dogs, we’ve not met a soul up here nor heard a human voice.

Still in the dark, Alex walks fast back to where he was yesterday, and tries again to drill the rock: It works! Finally both of the anchors are created, and from the wall of Mount Figliolo I hear Alex yell, “it’s done!”

We pass a fishing line with a drone from one anchor to another, and attach a kevlar cordelette to it, which will be the key to pass then the proper line. Suddenly, a loud clap of thunder stifles our joy. We have to dismantle our camp, we’re too exposed and we don’t want to risk anything.

The anchor point is dangerously close to the rocks. If it breaks, it’s game over.

We leave the line half-rigged and hike back to the car. Minutes after, the storm announces its triumphant entrance.

We wait patiently for it to pass. The pouring rain creates a river in the road as the thunder cracks just above our heads. If our line is struck, our three days of work would be in vain.

Eventually it passes. It’s still raining, but we hear no more rumbles. “Enough, let’s get to rig the line,” says Alex. At dusk, wet and tired, we cheer from a peak to another. We’ve finally rigged the highline. Just minutes later, a strong unceasing wind howls through the gully. The line is not tensioned yet, but the the wind grabs a hold of it. Rising above our heads before suddenly releasing, violently pinging high over the ground below. The anchor point is dangerously close to the rocks. If it breaks, it’s game over.

Alex is clearly shocked by the situation, and I am too. We do our best to protect the anchor, attaching pads and our stuffed backpacks to keep it safe. We retreat back to the tent for the night but neither of us can eat a bite. After our positivity and resilience of the past few days in the face of the unexpected, this is just too much. Our greatest fear is we don’t find our line tomorrow.

A place seemingly so gentle, an environment we never considered harsh right now is proving us wrong. We are living a proper adventure, with all the possible disruptions, right in our backyard.

I’m nervous. All the plans and the work involved could have literally disappeared with the wind and I can’t stop thinking about the possibility of the weather we have ahead. The forecast so far had proven totally wrong, who knows what we have ahead of us?

Morale is low and the night passes without sleep. From our repaired camp we hear the wind howling and the line cutting through the wind. Because of the storm and the wind, the temperature has dropped significantly. We’re both curled up in our our summer weight sleeping bags, unable to retain our body heat.

The alarm rings at 5am, but we struggle to find the strength to move. Few words are spoken as we expect the worst.

Luckily, there seems to be no damage to the line or the anchors from the wind over night. With the veiled sun unable to warm us, though wind isn’t totally gone, we decide to get it over with and tension the line. The tension pulls the line towards the gully, but in these conditions, it’s the best opportunity we’ve had. We have to take our chances.

Despite such a gentle landscape, we were constantly finding ourselves fighting against the elements and now, as the forecast reports more storms to come, we are fighting with time too. A fight we hadn’t anticipated here in this corner of the world, not in the summer.

Eventually, the line is ready to be tested and walked. 180 meters long at about 350 meters high, the longest and highest ever rigged in the Campania region is ready to be tamed. Tired, but with a renewed morale to the stars, we return to the tent for our final rest, waiting for some stormy clouds to pass over head.

On the fourth day, after three days spent fighting the unexpected, at sunset, attentive and focussed, Alex tightens his harness clenched around his waist and ties the leash that ensures him to the line.

Walking such a highline isn’t just an athletic activity, but a walk that goes beyond that outside of and within ourselves.

The weight of the past few days dissolves. His gaze sharply fixed on the end of the line. In his eyes and movement there is determination, calm and awe for the place that in the previous days had shown us a hard time, so much that we were on the verge of abandoning our mission.

Step after step, breath after breath, he confidently walks, focused at 100%. His back is straight, his arms compensate the balance, his core, engaged and tense.

Keeping control of his body and mind, for every movement he locates a new equilibrium. The line becomes an extension of Alex as he walks it. From his glance one can feel how walking such a highline isn’t just an athletic activity, but a walk that goes beyond that outside of and within ourselves.

Once at the end of the line, I hear my friend rejoice. He has completed the line which he nicknamed Matrigna a derogative Italian word for step-mother, for all the problems we had meet up there, quite in contrast with the meaning of Figliolo – a loving word for son.

While Alex walks back to the anchor, the sun dips behind the pinnacle of our mountain, illuminating the valley below us.

The struggle and joy of the past few days for this intense and unexpected adventure in what we considered a non-hostile environment lands on us all of a sudden. After dinner we sleep soundly and heavily, exhausted but happy.

The following morning, after a quick highline session at the first lights of dawn, we dismantle the line and return to civilisation, which despite its relatively close proximity, feels so distant.

In times like these where traveling to distant places is so complex, to discover the most profound sense of adventure just a few steps from home, complete with all its creativity, risks, unknowns and demand for resilience, is a balm for the soul.

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