It was very cold. The thermometer in the car read a constant -14 °C, despite the fact that it was daytime and the sun was shining brightly. In the heart of the Stelvio national park, winter had brought several metres of snow. The bright, clear days looked promising. For about five days we had been searching for the lammergeier, the majestic alpine vulture reintroduced into the park a few years previously. With the help of the forest rangers and park guides, we had scoured all the areas frequented by this splendid bird. Near the nest, around the perches, in its hunting grounds. But we had seen nothing, not a single trace. Filled with dismay, I and my partner Carlotta, who has always helped me with my naturalistic productions, decided to give up and head back to Rome. The documentary on Italian vultures would have to be postponed. As we made our way back down the mountainside I spotted a little church, surrounded by a particularly striking light. “I'll just stop for this last shot.” I took my tripod, camera and wide angle lens, and jumped out of the car. As soon as I started to look through the lens, I noticed a huge shadow passing over my head. “It can't be…”. It was.
The lammergeier landed right in front of me, no more than 150 metres away, with no cover, and no fear. Unbelievable. The light shining on him was simply perfect. He began to dig and to eat pieces of marrow from some buried animal. I was so excited I froze. Then I saw Carlotta's hand appear alongside me, passing me a nice telephoto lens, and I was aroused from my trance. I silently fixed it onto the camera and began to shoot some of the luckiest footage in my life.
To produce nature documentaries you have to know the environment you're working in, the behaviour of the animals you want to film, you have to recognise dangerous situations and you have to be physically fit. But if you aren't at least a little bit lucky, then your work as a documentarian will be a truly arduous undertaking.
Even more so if you live in a country like Italy, where the television market is focused on other genres of production. For this reason, having worked for years with Geo&Geo on Rai Tre, I began to produce documentaries for a number of different international circuits.
People often ask me how I can spend hours and hours sitting in a little hut just to get 20 or 30 seconds of footage of an animal.
They are moments of indescribable beauty: capturing that instant of intimacy is like feeling you are part of the story that nature writes every day before our eyes.
The collaboration with National Geographic Channel Italia has finally crowned the dream of a lifetime.
Over the years I have broadened my horizons, starting to explore adventure stories. I met Paolo Aralla in Slovakia during a documentary for Natgeo on a group of freeriders. We struck up a great friendship and an excellent working relationship, despite the age difference (I bet you can't guess which one of us is more than fifteen years older!). In 2010 we produced a major documentary together, filmed in Pakistan on the glaciers of the Karakorum, and distributed to almost all the networks around the world. And now here we are, working for National Geographic in the heart of the Italian Dolomites.
I heard noises in the distance; it was dark. I had got used to the creaking of the glacier moving under the tent, but this sound was different. What woke me sounded more like a metallic knocking. Someone had probably already got up to help us prepare.
It was 3.30 in the morning, on a rather special day.
I slid out of my sleeping bag, already dressed, put on my gloves and hat, and opened the zip of the tent a few centimetres to check the weather. And I smiled. The sky was clear, there was no wind, and the porters in their tent were already making quite a din.
The full moon lit up the whole valley. At the foot of the glacier, the highest mountain I had ever seen rose up majestically.
A perfect pyramid, built by nature with mathematical precision. A hypnotic scene, equally beautiful and dangerous: the legendary K2.
With the preparations completed, we set out. We had been at base camp for two weeks, halfway between K2 and the Golden Throne. Ahead of us lay the Terzano peak, a fundamental point in our mission: to study the conditions of the glacier by comparing photographs from 100 years ago. So we had to find the exact same spots where those photos were taken, and shoot new ones. All we had to help us were Terzano's pictures and some vague geographical indications. With my video camera I had to tell the story of this all-Italian expedition, the brainchild of photographer Fabiano Ventura.
It was the tenth of August, and above our heads dozens of shooting stars kept streaking across the sky: an incredible sight at 4,000 m above sea level. The sky really gave you a sense of infinity.
Ahead of us stretched a wall completely covered with stones, a kind of immense scree. For every step forward, we slid back two. I thought the climb would never end.
Hassan, our guide, thought he knew the viewpoint from which we wanted to shoot, but when we reached the top of the wall, we realised we had got it wrong.
The sun began to appear between the snowy peaks, and we decided to follow the ridge and climb higher, trying to find the right view.
Without thinking twice, Hassan went to check and clean the wall to make sure there wouldn't be any problems during our climb. We roped our waists and climbed, armed with nothing more than our courage. No harnesses, no karabiners.
We reached the peak at about 9.30, the sun was already high in the sky, and the most incredible scenery stretched before us. I looked at the altimeter: it read 5,430 m. I realised I had never climbed this high before. I allowed myself a moment’s exhilaration before extending my tripod, setting up the camera with a wide-angle lens and taking the most exciting picture of my life: a panoramic shot close to 180° taking in a glacier 90 km long and 4 km wide: the Baltoro glacier, running in a trough between the most imposing peaks of the Karakorum.
I was up there, after years of filming sports of all kinds, thanks to the intuition of Massimiliano Sbrolla, producer for National Geographic, who chose me to film the project “On the Trails of the Glaciers”.
We had only met a few years previously, on the Tatra Mountains in Slovakia. Massimiliano saw me at work on the snow, while I was following a group of professional freeriders. He liked my work, and that was the beginning of a great friendship and a professional partnership, which continues to this day, and brings us here to the peaks of the Stelvio, ready to film an enchanting sunrise from an altitude of 3,000 metres.