Pilate's Lake - a hike in the haunted Sibillini Mountains

Wednesday, 16 November 2016
A hike in the haunted Sibillini mountains

I couldn’t find a single trace of the gallows but the ghosts of the dead hung heavily over Lago di Pilato (Pilate’s lake) a small glacial lake in the remote heart of the Sibillini Mountains in central Italy.

It had taken a long drive and three hours of hiking to get to this wretched lake.  I left Spoleto in the dark, driving through the Nera River valley, past Norcia and then tacking up to a pass under Mt Cappellatta.  I pulled over at the ridge and took a photo of the spectacle that lay below:  the Piano Grande, a five-kilometre high plain rolling out in the morning sun like a magic carpet, the famous wildflowers just starting to punch their way through the prairie grass.  It is bounded on either side by treeless hills and closed at the end by the wall of Mt Vettore, a bulging black mountain streaked with snow that rises 1200 metres above the valley floor.  Lago di Pilato lies on the other side of the mountain.  Apart from a long straight road and scattering of grazing horses, the only sign of life here were the ramshackle houses of Castelluccio, a village that crowds around the ruins of a medieval castle at the end of the valley, still in the morning shadow of Mt Vettore, picture perfect from a distance, depressing up close. 

After driving past Castelluccio, I turned right and climbed up to the Forca di Presta, a saddle at the southern end of the mountain that forms the border between Umbria and Le Marche, between the Papal States and Dukedom of Ancona.  I parked the car, took my pack out of the boot and hunted around the back seat for a bottle of water, realising then that I hadn’t packed a jumper, a first aid kit or a map nor had I told anyone where I was going. 

There were a number of goat trails emanating from the car park.  I picked the most likely, adjusted my backpack and started up the steep slope, boots crunching on gravel.  After ten minutes climbing, I stopped to catch my breath, turning around to take in the sweeping view:  far below me the forested valleys of La Marche rippled east towards the Adriatic Sea, the occasional belltower breaking the surface of the thick layer of clouds that still sat between the ridges.

It wasn’t just the scenery that had drawn me to this hike.  The real reasons I had come here were the marvellous legends that captured the Medieval imagination making this range a Mecca for practioners of the black arts for a number of centuries. 

The most famous story (first recorded in the 12th century) tells of the body of Pontius Pilate (who had been murdered in Rome) being taken over the mountains back to his home in Bisenti in Abruzzo on a wagon drawn by two oxen.  The cart tipped and tumbled down the side of a ravine, taking the driver, oxen and Pilate’s body with it, finishing in a deep dark lake at the bottom.  Proof of this event occurs each summer when Pilate’s blood turns the waters of the lake a rich red (which we now know is caused by microscopic crustaceans mating in the warmer conditions). 

Another legend which caught the chivalric imagination, told of the Sibyls, ancient soothsayers, taking refuge in these mountains after Christianity had driven them out their grottos near Naples.  The old hags would transform themselves into fleshy damsels, covering their cloven feet with flowing robes, tempting questing knights their doom in subterranean lairs.  Their cave was found deep into heart of the mountains in 1948 and the range is dedicated to the memory of the old hags: Monti Sibillini.

True or not, for several hundred years, necromancers were drawn to the mountains, believing that dipping their books into the red waters of the lake would give them unearthly powers.  Hence the gallows.  Startled by this state of affairs, the local authorities in Norcia banned access, building a wall and gallows on the shore of the lake, and executing a wrong-doer each spring, leaving his body dangling to discourage the visitors.

How could I resist?  The Sybils’ cave was too far away but I figured I could visit the lake in a day.  Buttoning up my jacket, I turned away from the view and continued my slow progress up the trail, head down, pausing to admire clumps of tiny wildflowers that were pushing their way through the rocky terrain.

It took thirty minutes to get to the first ridge from where I could see the end of the ascent, a small ‘rifugio’, or mountain bivouac (2250 mts) tucked under the Cima del Redentore (the Peak of the Redeemer) protected from the fierce northerly winds.  I saw a small figure flit across the wall of the rifugio.  It was a relentless scramble. I was breathing heavily and my muscles ached but I had hit my stride and by the time I hit the first unexpected snow drift I was relishing the challenge and felt that I could climb forever.

It took another hour to get to the rifugio.  I didn’t realise until I was looking at my map back in Spoleto that the indistinct, unsigned donkey trail that I had climbed up actually marked the divide between Umbria and Le Marche and for the previous hour and a half I had been walking a tight-rope between the two regions.

I collapsed onto the brick apron very pleased with myself, not even bothering to unclip my backpack.  I took a deep draught of water and looked south over the concertinaed valleys of La Marche.  The gnarly snout of an old black dog appeared around the corner of the building followed by two younger hikers.  They had set out from Amandola in the north the day before and had camped at the rifugio.  After they waved goodbye, the trio headed off down the trail I had just climbed.  They were the only people I saw that day.

After enjoying the sunshine for ten minutes, I dragged myself up and walked around to the other side of the building.   A small worn by trampers wound up to the ridge.  I slung my backpack onto my sweaty back and headed, scattering small birds that were hunting insects spongy alpine grass that surrounded the hut.  At the top, I was greeted by one of the most desolate spectacles I have ever seen.  I was standing on the rim of a vast glacial valley.  On my right a smaller path wounded up to the Cima del Rendetore, topped by a distant black cross.  On my left, another small path led around the edge of the rim to the eastern face of Mt Vettore which, so benign and bulging on the western side, had been gouged empty by the glaciers, leaving a shell that was nothing more than streaked black cliffs, that fell 800 mts into the valley where Pilate’s lake was hidden.  The view was no cheerier looking north:  a godless landscape of boulders and ravines that had been shaken and shattered by earthquakes, stretching all the way to the horizon, not a tree or a touch of green in sight.  I had read that the over two metres of snow falls here each winter and that the narrow defiles generate winds of up to 180 kilometres an hour - no wonder the legends thrived.

I took the third trail that wound down the hill to a precipice on the edge of a second deeper valley.  Far below, at the northern, separated by a thin strip of ground covered in snow, two-almond shaped pools filled with aquamarine water twinkled at me like snake eyes, Lago di Pilato.  A trail tacked down steep scree slopes through patches of deep snow.  I bounded down, each step setting off a slide of small flat stones that clattered down into the valley.  The pools were no more than one hundred metres across.  Thin sheets of ice floated on the surface.  I circled each of the pools, bouncing off large slippery boulders.  No signs of the gallows, not even the remains of a wall. 

I sat down on a flat rock on the strip of land that separated the lakes and started chewing on on of the cheese and ham pannini that I had snaffled from the breakfast table.  The story went that the necromancers would lay out a circle of stones here between the lakes and spend the night here, immersing their book of spells into the water at midnight, so sealing a pact with the devil himself. 

With lunch finished, I rolled a cigarette and lent back on the rock.  As I rested, the light breeze from the north that had been gently rocking the lake began to pick up.  Clouds closed in and the sun disappeared, changing the pretty green waters of the lakes to a dull grey.  The sheets of ice began to collide, snapping like glass.  The temperature dropped, the wind began a low moan and heavy banks of storm clouds began rolling in, transforming the valley from a spring idyll into a very gloomy place indeed.  It had taken me nearly an hour to get down here and it was definitely time to leave. 

I flicked my butt into the lake (suck on that Pilate), stuffed the remains of my lunch into my pack and ran up the side of the valley, wading straight up through knee deep snow rather than fiddling around with the winding path.  Lungs heaving, I didn’t stop until I got to the lip of the first valley, collapsing onto the shingle, my boots filled with ice.  Once recovered, I continued up the trail, over the ridge and took shelter on the verandah of the rifugio.

I had panicked.  Alone beside a remote lake without any cover was no place to be caught in a snow storm but it was more than that, it had felt like someone had walked across my grave.  The fright of being trapped, that brief glimpse of my own mortality, had opened a crack in my soul and let the spirit of that wretched place seep in. 

The storm didn’t amount to much, some thunder and heavy shower.  After ten minutes, it had passed, leaving behind a thick mist.  I spent the next hour and a half slipping and sliding down the path, barely able to see 5 metres ahead.  At a certain point the mist briefly lifted and I caught a glimpse of my little red Fiat far below in the car park, not stolen and promising some warmth and quick trip back to Spoleto. 

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