The Via Ferrata
In the steps of history; following the route tackled by World War 1 soldiers in the Dolomites
Article by Justine Gosling
I was devouring my cheese roll held in my right hand and staring out at the dark clouds gathering above the mountain peak. We’d make this lunch stop a short one, keen to get to the next hut before the storm arrived. Curious, my left hand scoured the ground next to where I was sat. It was littered with tiny scraps of rusting metal and nails, resting between the pretty yellow flowers and stones. There I saw it. A small, metallic, not perfectly moulded sphere. It stood out because of its shape and lack of corrosion. Once I picked it up and felt the weight of the small piece of lead, I knew that it was a bullet.
Almost without a doubt fired over 100 years ago in the ‘White War,’ this little lead bullet and the 22” shell I found nearby weren’t the only reminders of the horrors of World War 1 in these mountains. Built by the soldiers over a century ago, the via ferrata, translated as “Iron way,” was one of hundreds of cabled climbing routes that bought me to this lunch spot.
I was high up in the Italian Dolomites, a UNESCO world heritage area on a week-long hut to hut tour, traversing the mountains just as the soldiers did over a century ago on the cables they installed to assist the mobility of troops and supplies. After the Great War, mountaineers appropriated and expanded the routes. A via ferrata is a steel cable that climbers clip their harness onto which is periodically fixed to the rock, limiting any fall. Additional climbing aids such as steel pegs, carved steps and even hundreds of meters of ladders and bridges are often provided.
I was here because as a non-climber, I wanted the metal and physical challenge of climbing as well as the spectacular views. But what I was really interested in was the history of how the “Iron way” came to exist and how much of it was still here. Between June 1915 and October 1917, the Austrian and Italian armies fought a ferocious war in the mountains of the Dolomites, the border between the two countries; not only against each other but also against the very hostile conditions. Named the “White War” due to the freezing, high altitude, snowy conditions that the soldiers fought in, the battle was like no other the world had ever seen, or has since. The front line was 600km long with over 100km situated above 2,000m. More troops perished from the cold, rock falls and avalanches than in combat. An estimated 60,000 soldiers died in avalanches alone. After heavy snowfalls in December of 1916, avalanches buried 10,000 Italian and Austrian troops in just two days. Soldiers used the terrain as a weapon by simply pushing rocks over the mountain or provoking avalanches to wipe out the enemy. Hundreds rest where they fell, under the ice or down crevasses. It was only in 2012 that the bodies of two Austrian soldiers were discovered after the glacier, due to climate change, had retreated 150 feet from where it was a century ago.
The war was never won. In the autumn of 1917 the Italians retreated from the mountains in order to defend Venice. Both sides simply upped and walked down the mountain, abandoning everything. An estimated 600,000 Italians and 400,000 Austrians died on the Italian Front. Despite these unique and hellish conditions, the Italian mountain war remains today one of the least-known battlefields of the Great War.
Our trip departed from the chic alpine town of Cortina. Now part of Italy, pre 1918 this whole mountainous area of Tyrol was under Habsburg rule. Day one eased us in gently with a beautiful hike up to our first mountain hut, Fonda Savio (2367m). We slept snugly in dorm rooms that had no lights except the burning orange horizon that poured through the window and faded as my eyes closed for the night.
The second day gave us our first taste of via ferrata and the precarious heights on the grade 3B Via Merlone route. The Italians called the front line the “il fronte vertical”. As I stood hanging off a rusting ladder hundreds of meters above the ground, I understood why. In the war, progress was measured in vertical centimetres rather than substantial horizontal distances usually associated with battle fields.
As a group we didn’t talk much whilst climbing, I had to concentrate on every hand hold and foot placement as well as unclipping and clipping of the carabiner back onto the safety cable. I learnt to the trust the cables and my harness quite quickly. The security of the via ferrata gave me the confidence to stretch out across the mountain, reach for that slightly higher hand hold and step across the wide gaps. In times of fear, I told myself that I was lucky I had all the necessary safety equipment, that it wasn’t snowing or blowing a gale, I’d had a full meal and that I wasn’t being shot at. It took over an hour to reach the summit, but we were rewarded with a spectacular panorama of Monte Piana and Monte Piano as well as the iconic towers of the Tre Cime di Laverado. The views offered by the Dolomites was perfectly described by John Murray in 1840;
“They are unlike any other mountains, and are to be seen nowhere else among the Alps. They arrest the attention by the singularly and picturesqueness of their forms, by their sharp peaks and forms, sometimes rising up in pinnacles and obelisks, at others extending in serrated ridges, teethed like the jaws of an alligator.”
Day four’s via ferrata Sentiero de Luca (graded 2B) took us to the summit of Monte Paterno (2,746m) and its spectacular 360 degree. Beams of sun penetrated the clouds to light up patches of the valley far below. It wasn’t that incredible view, but what I saw along that route that I tell everyone about now I’m back home. I was fascinated by the decaying remains of the tiny wooden huts, rusting tin food cans that surrounds them and the barbed wire that ‘sprouts’ from the ground, all now slowly tumbling down the mountain in regular rock falls. I tried to imagine what it would have been like here for the soldiers. Alongside the new one we crossed, just a couple of planks of broken wood remain on the cable bridge spanning the drop hundreds of meters below whereby I could see the outline of enemies trenches at ground level; it really hit me here how at times close the enemy was.
From Rifugio Dibona we took path number 404 beneath the imposing Tofana di Rozes (2,740m) to the ladders that lead up to the ‘Galleria del Castelletto’ tunnel. Italian military engineers constructed tunnels as they offered a degree of cover and allowed better logistical support. Unable to break the stalemate of trench warfare, they began tunnelling with pick axes under no man’s land and placing explosive charges beneath the enemy’s positions.
The Austrians had an outpost here called Castelletto that gave them valuable control of access to the valley below. The Italians couldn’t knock them off their post, so changing strategy they decided to tunnel beneath them and blast them off the mountain. It took six months to dig the 507metre long tunnel we entered. At the very end of the tunnel and at our exit point, they placed 35 tons of dynamite. The Austrians knew what was going on, and could hear them chipping away at the mountain and even hear their conversations, but there was nothing they could do. They were ordered to hold their position at all costs and simply awaited their fate. On July 11th, 1916, at 3:30 a.m. a huge explosion blew away the whole summit. Such was the anticipated significance of this battle for Italy, Italian King Victor Emmanuel III and General Luigi Cadorna, the army chief of staff, watched from a nearby mountain.
Without head torches, the tunnel was a black hole whereby I may as well have been walking with me eyes closed. Upon entering, the temperature plummeted from the suns burning rays outside that left me shivering as the sweat on my back suddenly cooled. Drops of water continuously fell upon me, almost like an open tap and I repeatedly lost my footing slipping on the slimy wet rock under foot. The tunnel was steep. Over the length, the height gain in the tunnel is 120metres. I’d estimate that some sections were ascended at a 70 degree incline forcing me to crawl like a mole through this man made cavity in the mountain.
We had head torches, I wondered what the soldiers used to light the way? Fuel would have been too precious and limited as a resource to burn due to the difficulties in getting up the mountain. I imagined the soldiers above, listening and waiting for their fate as the Italians cut through the mountain beneath them.
Giovanni Lipella via ferrate (graded 4C) began at the exit of the tunnel and took us to the summit of Tre Dita where I found my bullet. Our longest and hardest climb included over hanging ladders, some big hand hold reaches and jumps over drops with hundreds of meters below. The mountain side was riddled with openings to caves and tunnels. Never before had I felt so close to the events of history, I was almost on guard, expecting the enemy to strike I was so absorbed in the time warp.
The war here was a sideshow to the fighting on the Isonzo, which was itself a sideshow to the Western and Eastern Fronts. Essentially, the war in the Dolomites earned no rewards for either side, it simply kept soldiers away from other, more strategically important battle fronts. But for the solider, all that would have mattered was his patch, and trying to stay alive.
I simply can’t imagine what those soldiers must have gone through. I was here in the height of summer, well fed and our group were mostly alone. The physical challenge now was significant, my muscles ached at the end of each day from the steep hiking and hauling myself up the mountain. But I wasn’t undertaking this challenge in the depths of winter, starving, nor was I hauling up heavy vital supplies that I, and others depended on. When surrounded by such beauty it was hard to reconcile with what happened here a century ago.
These mountains could tell some epic stories, of heroism, comradeship, hellish storms, and of life and death. Climbing the via ferrata has to be the closest experience you can have to understand their lives up here. Whilst climbing the soldiers were always in my thoughts. I felt as though by being here I was paying my respects to them and the via ferrata routes mean that they will never be forgotten. The immersive and eye-opening trip really brought to life the hardships and challenges the soldiers faced and sacrifices they made.