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Piccolo Lagazuoi as seen from Cinque Torre, an Italian position overlooking the front line (Joe Wilcox)

Climbing the Via Ferrata

In Italy’s Dolomites, a Hike Through World War I History

The first rule of climbing the Via Ferrata is preserving a constant connection with the cable. This means moving the carabiners one at a time. Up we went, slowly, around the ragged cone of Punta Anna, until we reached a vista overlooking a valley. On our left, the village of Cortina, at the foot of a snowy massif, looked like a jumble of dollhouses. Straight ahead were a cluster of craggy spires called Cinque Torri. On the right was the peak Col di Lana, site of one of the area’s most famous World War I battles.

Like Lagazuoi, 8,100-foot Col di Lana was held by Austria at the start of the war. In early 1916, the Italians decided to dynamite Austria off the mountain. They spent three months carving a tunnel that climbed at a 15-degree angle inside the mountain. By mid-March, Austrian troops in their bunkers atop the mountain could hear chiseling and hammering beneath them.  Instead of abandoning their post, Austrian troops were commanded to stay.  Military strategists feared that retreating could open up a hole in the frontline, leading to a larger breach. But, says local historian and author Michael Wachtler, there was also a mind-set on both sides that troops should stay on summits regardless of casualties.

“The big decisions were taken far away in Vienna, and there the deaths of more or fewer soldiers was not so important,” says Wachtler. “The opinion of the supreme command was to hold positions until the last survivor.”

On April 14, 1916, the noise finally stopped. Italy’s tunnel was by then about 160 feet long and ended 12 feet below the Austrian bunker. There was nothing to do but wait—it became a matter of which Austrian troops would be on duty when the summit exploded.

It took Italian troops three day to load five and a half tons of nitroglycerin into the underground shaft. When it was finally detonated at 11:35 p.m. on April 17, one hundred men died. The mountain’s summit was now a crater and about 90 feet lower than before. Inside the Austrian bunker, 60 troops remained, prepared to fight. But after realizing fumes would kill them if they stayed, they surrendered.

By the time the Dolamite front was abandoned in late 1917, some 18,000 men had died on the Col di Lana, according to Wachtler. About two-thirds of these deaths were caused not by explosives but by avalanches. A record snowfall in 1916 dumped as much as 12 feet of snow. Tunneling inside the mountains by both the Austrians and Italians served to increase the risk of avalanches. As two enemies fought to capture a mountain, it was ultimately the force of the mountain itself that inflicted the battles’ greatest casualties.

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