From my lofty perch 8,900 feet above sea level in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains, the view is spectacular. Towering peaks frame an idyllic Alpine valley, with deep-green pine forests and golden foothills.
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It’s hard to believe that just 90 or so years ago, during World War I, these mountains were wracked by violence: explosions blew off summits and shrapnel pierced tree trunks. Even now, the ground is littered with bits of barbed wire and other debris from the conflict.
Thanks to a network of fixed climbing routes installed during the war, this breathtaking vista and history-rich area is accessible to anyone, not just experienced climbers. The routes, rigged with cables and ropes, were developed by troops as supply lines, to haul gear up the mountains. After the war, mountaineers appropriated them, creating what’s known as the Via Ferrata, or “Iron Way.”
My climbing partner, Joe Wilcox, and I chose September, the end of the climbing season, to explore the routes. We based ourselves in Cortina d’Ampezzo, a ski village with cobbled streets, small inns and chic shops—and the setting for the 1956 Winter Olympics and the 1963 movie The Pink Panther.
The gear list for climbing the Via Ferrata is short: a waist harness, helmet and Y-shaped rig of short ropes. The tops of the rig end in carabiners—metal rings with spring-hinged sides that open and close—which clip onto a permanent metal cable bolted to the mountain. The cable is the climber’s lifeline. The carabiner-free end ties to the harness.
Electrical storms kept us from climbing the first day, so we took a cable car up a nearby peak, 9,061-foot Lagazuoi. When Italy declared war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire in May 1915, this border area of South Tyrol was under Austro-Hungarian rule. To more easily defend the region, Austrian troops moved from valley towns like Cortina to a line of fortifications on Lagazuoi and other peaks, forming the “Dolomite front.” Both sides built supply lines up the mountains.
On the night of October 18, 1915, Italian soldiers scaled Lagazoui’s east flank to a ledge midway up the mountain. Under the ledge, the soldiers were protected from Austrian guns above and able to fire on Austrian trenches below. The Austrians tried dangling soldiers from the top of the mountain armed with grenades to toss on the Italians encamped on the ledge, with little success. With both sides stymied by not being able to directly reach the other, the war went underground.
From the summit of Lagazuoi, Joe and I walked east to a tunnel complex inside the mountain dug by Italian soldiers during the war. Both the Austrians and the Italians tunneled, to create bunkers, lookout positions and mine shafts under enemy bunkers, which would be filled with dynamite and detonated. Five major explosions rocked Lagazuoi from 1915 to 1917, turning its south face into an angled jumble of scree, wood scraps, rusted barbed wire and the occasional human bone.
Next we headed west across the rubble-strewn peak to the Austrian tunnel complex (enemy positions on Lagazuoi were as close as 90 feet). The Austrians built narrower and shorter tunnels than the Italians, both here and elsewhere in the South Tyrol. The Italians typically chiseled upward, letting gravity dispose of the rubble, then loaded the tops of the tunnels with dynamite to blow up the Austrian bunkers above. The Austrians dug downward, lifting out the chopped rock, to explode dynamite in a mine shaft that would intercept an Italian tunnel heading upward. On Lagazuoi, outside an Austrian tunnel, we uncovered rusted coils of iron cable, the kind still found on the Via Ferrata.
The next day, the weather clear, we headed out to climb the Via Ferrata at last. The route was three miles east of Lagazuoi on 8,900-foot Punta Anna. We clipped our ropes onto a cable and began the ascent, a mixture of hiking and climbing. The cable is bolted into the rock face about every ten feet, so at each bolt, we paused to remove our carabiners and move them to the next section of cable.