Last year, beginning on March 2016 was an opportunity to tell a story that was on my mind since I was a child, “The Belluno, Dolomites”. The desire to occupy myself with this “Highlands”, where I actually come from, has kept growing when I got back to Italy after years as a sort of “migrant” in Europe. Before I get to the “juice” of   this tale I’ll have to step back a little, when just over 20 years ago, it all begun. At the Time, I was living in what is now one of the busiest and most technologically advanced railway Hubs of the world, “King’s Cross – St. Pancras” in the Borough of Camden, in North London.

In 1994, I was the “resident” assistant photographer in a stylish, newly opened Photographic Studio. The place around though, was an “Urban Zoo” made of crack junkies, petty prostitutes and serial “no-good-doers”. The kind of people that like in a “Taxi driver” scene  were adorning a huge “district size” building site, covering most of the King’s Cross area, what became the New British Library  and the new terminal for the Eurostar among other things. That microcosm surely exerted a lot of interest for my young, unexperienced and curious eyes. I was “barely legal” and for my 20th birthday, I could not have expected anything better from life.

In the midst of that Dantesque pit of hell, especially at night, took form what I can only describe as, the most complex and surreal underground scene in Europe. Inside the protected Studio walls, in which I was working, beautiful models where alternating daily, covers of famous glossy magazines like, among some of them, Elle, Marie Claire, Vogue and Skin Two, were produced. Well known Designers and pop bands of the like of the “Duran-Duran” where also, often on the “menu”. Eventually what mostly caught my attention were the photographers themselves and their medium format cameras, the tools of the trade.  I was observing their every move, attempting to catch “creativity at work” and the approach taken, time after time, depending on the subject and task “at hand”.  That glittering and talented world had created a breach in me, undoubtedly clarifying what path I would have ultimately chosen in life.

Murales near Shatila refugee camp, Beirut. Photo by Patrick Comiotto

I soon got my first real camera a 35mm Nikon F3. The years that came after that were intense and ripe with interesting events, which I will spare you right now but that were, nevertheless, very influent in my personal as well as professional growth. Starting with encounters with people like Juan Carlos Gumucio and Matthew Campbell. The first a “true Bolivian rebel”, once a member of the Associated Press Agency in New York and Spain’s Journalist of the year in 1995 and a prolific war reporter in the Middle East and Europe (Iran-Iraqi war, Lebanon, IRA in Great Britain) until his tragic death in 2002. The second still a very successful reporter for the Sunday Times. Both taught me to look at the world with different eyes, and before anything else to ask oneself questions and seek the answers. Not just by giving everything one is being told or shown for granted, but to “get a move on” and take oneself to see with his own eyes. To finally get a true unadulterated “Image”.  Even today, the memory of our conversations is for me one of the most precious legacies of my European diaspora.

Feltre City with Vette Feltrine on the backside. Photo by Patrick Comiotto

My passion for images and photography has survived even the decline of the studio in which I worked. As every “trend” it had its time, and with its closure and era was at its end.  On the other hand, the “roulette” of survival for me had just begun, marked by fallback employments that little had to do with my personal aspirations.  I decided to give photography a chance at my return to Italy. Life took me back to the village where my mother was born. Carve a small hamlet in the borough of Mel in the province of Belluno. The first few years were “pretty hard”, I must say. I was struggling to find a way to integrate and mix in with the Crowds. To be honest there were no actual crowds to be “mixing in with”.

Demographic Dimension lists Belluno at the 90th place over 110 provinces in Italy. Forget walking down an Oxford Circus like street or a bustling, multiethnic place like Time Square. People kept to their own, and I felt “scanned” by everyone trying to make out what this strange new being was, whom he was, and what was he here for anyway?  I started asking myself, what would have I done. I kept travelling here and there and I kept taking pictures. A trip that still brings good memories was in the Todra Gorges and the Moroccan Atlas mountains where I met up with Russ Clune one of the true American Climbing “legends”.

There was a clear contrast between my lifestyle in Belluno and the one I got used to in previous years. After the ocean trips, on a sailing boat to Morocco, desert and dust eating journeys in Asia, North America, Syria and Lebanon, after soul changing experiences with the political analyst Gabi Jammal in the Palestinian camps around Beirut. Until the Far East of Asia to the corners of the Golden Triangle between the Northern Peaks of Laos and the beautiful bay of Cat Ba in Vietnam, finally here I was. Back to where I started as a small kid living with my grandparents in the tiny village of “Carve”, and there was still more to see, much more!

The author climbing Outer Limits, Yosemite. Photo by Patrick Comiotto

This is when, in 2009  just by chance I read an article on a magazine called “PARETI” and it was talking about a certain Manrico Dell’Agnola living just on my newly found doorstep, actually a couple of km from it. Suddenly I looked outside and there it was all along, all very tall exceptionally beautiful and unique the newly constituted “UNESCO World Heritage Site”, the Mighty Dolomites. So, over a cup of coffee and a few beers with Manrico I set off to a whole new journey made of sweat, rocks and dedication. I was climbing for a couple of years already but all I managed was at best “amateurish” and the first thing I did, with my usual direct and almost irreverent manner, was asking him to take me climbing sometime… real climbing, on a real mountain! So I had the chance of setting foot and hand on the “Civetta” right where Manrico around July 1990 Ascends, climbing solo, the “Philipp-Flamm” dihedral in 2 Hours and 40 Minutes. After some “training” for me, we took off to the incredibly beautiful Yosemite Valley. While testing a few pitches of “The Nose”, and some of the historical single pitches in the valley like “Outer Limits”, I met other Respectable Italian Climbers the like of “Beppe Chiaf” which tragically died just after returning from that trip back in 2011, on a col October Sunday morning on the North Wall of Cervino. I remember him on a route on the “Elephant Rock” in Yosemite; the heat was on for me, while the other three guys (Manrico, Andrea Tocchini and Beppe) where enjoying themselves. On the way back, exhausted, while rappelling down I stopped at one of the first anchors where Beppe looked at me and with a funny Smirk on his face just blurted right out “Tachet mia ai Bafèt ne?” which, in the dialect from Brescia means “don’t hang from the loose rope” !! That evening we had an incredible feast of meat at the base of the wall in the middle of Camp 4 between the laughters and legendary “granite ascents” stories looking at the star studded sky above the Risen Valley.

Beppe Chiaf, Manrico Dell’Agnola and Patrick Comiotto on the Nose, El Cap. Photo by Patrick Comiotto archive

Back from that, my passion for photography only got stronger, and a deeper sense of purpose placed “on the road” once again. This time to visit a few of the climbing modern Meccas of Europe like the Verdon Gorges where Filming became a natural evolution for me. By now, Digital had already taken over the old, bulky, and very expensive, 16mm film cameras and getting good footage was finally possible without breaking the bank. Marco Bergamo (Alpine Guide, Val Biois) was repeating the “Pichenibule”, a masterpiece by Jaques “Pschitt” Perrier in the Escales section. It was “freed” for the first time in 1980 by no less than Patrick Berhault.

My aptitude in telling about Rock Walls and Mountains was clearly defining itself. Later on I met Marco Preti and I was lucky enough to be able to collaborate and assist in the making of some his beautiful documentaries.  I certainly learned a lot from him in a short time! A very skilled writer that certainly knows how to tell a story. Published Author, by “Mursia Editore”, with “Il ghiaciaio di Nessuno” and recently by Versante Sud with “The HUT”. Acclaimed climber until the Age of 30 which was the prelude for most of his early work. In 78 (Five days on El Capitan – 8mm) and 1980 (“Lotus Flower Tower” – 8mm) he assists Kurt Diemberger on the documentary “K2, the Italian mountain” – 16mm, 1983.  And so, with my usual direct and irreverent manners … I started asking him about the possibility of filming around my home, Belluno. More than a request, mine was a constant nagging which, in March last year, finally gave way to a “near Solid” Yes, let’s do this, let’s tell the story of the province of Belluno and its Dolomites. The Direction of Geo, that Marco collaborates with, accepted the idea. Honestly, for what concerns me, I was just ecstatic!  Belluno after all was not such a bad place and discovering the Dolomites from a human perspective made it even more special. I was in the place where I grew up as a kid, and after gathering new perspective travelling all over, and in all kind of situations it was time to tell the story of Agordo, Sappada, Feltre and Mel, Auronzo and Alleghe, San Vito and Cortina. A way to present these places to a multitude of spectators on National Television.

Ready to fly. Photo by Patrick Comiotto archive

Not everyone knows that The Dolomites are a “place” that sits for the most part in the province of Belluno which touches and in some cases “owns” 5 of the nine Dolomitic Systems: Pelmo – Croda da Lago,  Marmolada, Dolomiti Settentrionali, Dolomiti Friulane e D’oltre Piave, e le Pale di San Martino – San Lucano – Dolomiti Bellunesi – Vette Feltrine. The last ones in particular are at the center of the new Documentary recently aired on Geo, RAI 3.

With the Direction of Marco Preti, the story started to take shape and to have its deserved beginning. After various conversations and interviews with the “Careghete” (chair Makers) of Rivamonte, The Alpine Rescue Team of Agordo, Mask makers in Sappada, Forest Guards at the “Piani Eterni” (Eternal Plains) and all sort of people and their care and dedication , we got together a well-deserved middle and an even more deserved end.  Thanks to the decades of experience of Marco, the story became a reality and we ended up documenting, through his writing and directing, a part of Italy that is one of the most magnificent places on earth “Le Dolomiti Bellunesi” and its people.

Traditional masks from Sappada Photo by Patrick Comiotto

I believe that no one did anything like this in recent years. At least not in this way and I am sure proud of having had my good part in it flying around in helicopters and chasing mouflons and deer in a “Lord of the rings” like, natural scenography.  There are three parts to the Documentary; the first one revolves Around Agordo and its peaks, like the “Moiazza” or the mighty Agner. The second around “Cadore and Comelico” where the River Piave is born and the third and last one (aired a few days ago) On the Vette Feltrine, Feltre and its rich history.

The epilogue of this tale is at the same time a thanksgiving and an admission of guilt. Even though I grew up in these parts, never before taking the camera in my hand I could really grasp the grandeur of my lands. The “lens” has helped me to focus my attention on nature, on its beauty and on the history that are around me. I can certainly say I lived an enlightening experience, with an intimacy that has changed forever the way my eyes will look at these incredible rock monuments from now on. For this, I deeply thank Marco, and all those who took part in this project, irreplaceable companions of one more Journey.

Bruno, traditional chairs manufacturer from Rivamonte. Photo by Patrick Comiotto