You can hear them whispering: if you listen closely, you can even hear the Latemar and Catinaccio massifs whispering their stories. Today’s walkers – Hannes, Valentina and myself – all meet one changeable Saturday morning with Val d’Ega geologist Gerhard Eisath, ready to dive into what was once an undersea world that has left us two reef atolls: the Latemar and Catinaccio massifs.
Wonders of history
In the bar of the Alpenrose Hotel in Carezza, Gerhard, 36, gives us a scientific introduction to the Earth that goes right back to the Big Bang. The story of the Dolomites – more specifically of the Catinaccio and Latemar – are covered by just the last 250 million years, however! :-) In the words of the geologist: “There was once just a single continent on Earth. When this began to break up owing to tectonic events, the massive reefs of the Dolomites were formed by the intrusion of the sea. These grew in a period of 20-30 million years; towards the end the reef could no longer grow upwards – as reefs only form below the surface of the water – but the organisms continued their work so that it continued to grow outwards.” In this way the Catinaccio became a full eight kilometres long. The scientist refers to his notes. “Basin sediments were deposited in a low-oxygen environment in the deep ocean basin, which became serrated with basin sediments during the lateral growth of the reef.”
Our gaze wanders back and forth between Gerhard’s notes and the Catinaccio where these “teeth” can clearly be seen.
He explains: “Although they look similar, Latemar limestone contains only calcium, while the Dolomite rocks of the Catinaccio also contain magnesium. After the formation of the reef, many areas of the Latemar were penetrated and covered with lava. This is one reason that the limestone here was not transformed into dolomite”, he says and shows us microscope images of thin sections in which clams, snails, remnants of shells and bright dolomite crystals are visible. Our geologist then asks: “So now we’ll go fossil hunting – are you ready?”. We certainly are! :)
Walking where the sea once was
“Where we are now walking was once all sea, in front of and behind us was a South Seas island. You could compare the Catinaccio and Latemar to the Bahamas!” laughs Gerhard, as all four of us stand in awe in the car park of the bottom station of the Paolina chairlift under the Catinaccio.
The first leg of the still deserted path leads us up through the forest. Gerhard reveals: “I’ve mapped the other side of the Latemar, but there were not as many outcrops – I mean places where the rock surface could be examined – as here on the Catinaccio.” After walking for a while, we can enjoy unobstructed views of the Catinaccio. “The strata under the reef are known together as the Werfen Formation and are not so easy to distinguish. We are now at the transition from the Seis Member to the Gastropod Oolite where many different types of rock are found: grey, yellow, heavily weathered, marl-limestone or calcareous-marl, which are often hard even for me to tell apart”, Gerhard admits, laughing. A lot of technical terms for non-specialists like us, and I notice that Valentina and Hannes are also trying to remember the chart that Gerhard had shown us earlier.
Seeing – feeling – smelling
What we are doing today is similar to what the young Val d’Ega resident did during his five-year period of studies: we are on a fossil hunt in the mountains as a “research group”, training our eyes on the rock. Gerhard tells us by the first outcrop that sandstone has a granular structure and contains a lot of mica, while dolomite rock is white and glistens on account of its crystals. He takes a 10% hydrochloric acid solution from his rucksack and drips a few drops onto a stone. “If it is limestone, the solution will foam up; if not, it’s dolomite.” Nothing happens, which means that we have now found dolomite down here. “These outcrops clearly show how the individual strata were deposited.” Sometimes you stumble across outcrops by chance, the scientist says, pulling out his geologist’s hammer and breaking a rock apart. Immediately there is a smell of tar. “The parts of plants carried into the sea mean that stones often smell bituminous. The plants couldn’t rot because they were quickly covered by a layer of sediment, which is why you can smell them now.”
Weathering progresses faster in limestone strata than in others. Even the Latemar will not last forever, Gerhard prophesies: “Someday there will just be a hill left,” he says as we subsequently focus our gaze on the imposing “neighbour”. “It is much more vulnerable than the Catinaccio because of its many gorges and large channels.” We are moved at the thought that this powerful great-grandfather in our Earth’s history could be so fragile.
On a treasure hunt in the “Small Canyon”
The atmosphere and the gentle rippling of the water make the next outcrop seem like a small canyon. “This stratum is called the Campill Member and is easier to recognise than the previous one thanks to its red sandstone containing lots of mica and shell layers. There was once a shallow sea here and you can find typical wave ripples and, with a bit of luck, even starfish.” Our competitive spirit is aroused: who will take home the find of the day? :) In contrast to “hobby collectors” like us, the trained eye of a geologist can recognise even the smallest differences and traces of weathering. He thus finds a “conglomerate”, a stone formed of gravels pressed together, which in fact only occurs here in the upper strata. The more Valentina, Hannes and I search, browse and listen, the sharper our gaze becomes and we find lots of samples with fossil remains. “You can often find a fossil inside a stone if you break it apart”, calls Gerhard. We don’t have that sort of luck today, but our “Small Canyon” is a huge treasure trove, one that you would usually just pass by. “Is this a starfish?” I hear Hannes call, and we joke that we feel like kids in a sweetshop here. We put a few finds in our rucksacks. Gerhard laughs: “You often carry a heavy load home after these trips!”
Off at an angle...
On we go. Gerhard points to the giant cliffs above: “That is the Contrin Formation, with the Morbiac Limestone and the Richthofen Conglomerate below.” We are aiming for the Paolina path at the foot of the Catinaccio, where we see other hikers. “As a geologist you are allowed off the beaten track”, Gerhard grins and heads off cross-country, ever upwards between meadows and rocks, where in the scree we find a pietra verde. “This volcanic deposit of ash and tuff was left in the basin inside the Buchenstein Formation,” he delights. It gets steeper and we approach the huge, towering vertical rock walls of the Roda di Vaèl. Dark clouds rise threateningly above and form an impressively dramatic backdrop. We hope that the weather holds for a while and take care with each step that we don’t crush an edelweiss or loosen any scree. Then... a whistling. “Was that a marmot?” asks Valentina – and there sits the little creature, just a few metres away. After this pleasant encounter we return to the level path. “You see that fold over there? A gigantic reef platform, the Contrin Formation, was created here millions of years ago as a result of the sinking of the entire area into a clear tropical sea. Tectonic forces then caused this platform to drift apart and tilt. The entire zone dropped sharply and the huge cliffs of the Catinaccio were formed from Sciliar dolomite. The massive load of this new reef partly deformed the tilted underlying plates”, enthuses Gerhard. “Once it was all flat and now there’s this great dent here!”
…with plenty of colours!
We feel our way along the rock walls. At the last outcrop the rocks are overlaid like tiles along the path. These stones are Morbiac Limestone, deposited in a shallow, muddy sea, Gerhard explains. “Look”, I whisper to Valentina, “how fragile these stones are here.” I can almost take them apart layer by layer. Over our heads we see a hawk hovering in one spot above the peaks. We pause once more and marvel at the breathtaking mountain scenery.
“We’ll take this rather “washed” path down!”, calls Gerhard. It is soon clear why, as we are now surrounded by colourful rocks: the Richthofen Conglomerate appears in all its glory, as if someone had brushed bright watercolours over the landscape. Mother Nature is clearly an artist.
Millions of years ago the Latemar and Catinaccio rose up almost 3,000 metres from the roaring seas, yet they are now so fragile. With this in mind, after almost five hours of non-stop discovering, we descend in a quiet and contemplative mood. I am sure that we will in future keep our eyes open on our walks. After this very special hiking experience we are in any case returning with lots of colourful stones and a new awareness of the Dolomites of the Val d’Ega. Because today, for the first time, we actually heard the mountains whispering.