In 1917 the Mountain War came to an end after two years of bitter fighting between the Italian and Austrian armies in the Dolomite Mountains. Read about my exhilarating via ferrata in the Dolomites – amid the First World War’s most extreme battle ground.
I am hit by a wave of cold damp air as I pass under the archway. The darkness is sudden and complete. We switch on our head torches and begin to climb the rough steps leading into the mountain. My hand brushes the wall and comes away clammy. Tiny droplets of water sparkle in the torch light. A cold splash hits the back of my neck.
Finally a faint light appears ahead. It’s not the end of the tunnel but a ‘window’ hacked out of the tunnel wall. For me it provides views of mountains, a green valley, other walkers and a comfortable red-roofed rifugio. Ninety years ago it was a position from which the Italian Alpini mountain infantry fired on the positions of the Austrian enemy below.
Hundreds of metres of tunnels were dug into the Dolomite mountains along this frontline during the two years of the Mountain War. Fortifications, gun emplacements and bridges were built. Ladders and handrails were fixed along miles of narrow pathways and ridgelines so the soldiers could move about quickly at high altitude. These form the basis of the via ferrata (Italian for “the iron way”) routes we enjoy today.
Pinnacles, teeth or fangs, needles or prongs or vertical flakes of rock. Whatever you want to call them, these rocks thrust up from coral reefs 25 million years ago offer some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the world. The war-time routes have been restored and expanded into a network of ferrata that allows anyone with a head for heights and reasonable fitness to enjoy the exhilaration of being high in the mountains.
This particular tunnel system is part of the Sentiero de Luca/Innerkofler route. It is dedicated to Piero de Luca and Sepp Innerkofler, two mountaineers-turned-soldiers whose exploits on the Italian and Austrian sides were famous during the ferocious campaign. The soldiers also had to survive the hostile conditions of the mountains. Thousands died of cold or in falls or avalanches during winter.
Turning a corner, we are confronted by one of the most iconic images in the Dolomites: Tre Cime di Lavaredo (the three peaks of Lavaredo). These three giant tombstones of rock stand in splendid isolation on what was the Austro-Italian border until 1919. The tallest is 1,640 feet (500m) high. We can see ant-like rock climbers inching their way up the faces of the towers
Appropriately, they are called Drei Zinnen (three battlements) in German. Ninety years ago a battle raged around the Tre Cime. Sepp Innerkoffler attempted to climb the north face of the smallest peak at night to fix a telephone line up to the Austrian frontier post at the top. He was killed by Italian fighters while traversing across to Monte Paterno.
Today the valley is a peaceful place of recreation. As we walk below we are surrounded by the clamour of cow bells in the high pastures. The alpine meadows are full of harebells, hawkbit and the tiniest of miniature pink rhododendrons.
There are groups of walkers and families with children on the paths. It is difficult to imagine soldiers abseiling down cliffs and throwing grenades into enemy strongholds. But near to where we stop for a picnic lunch, there are coils of rust-red barbed wire.
Leaving the tunnels behind we climb upwards along a ridge towards Monte Paterno. It’s a combination of walking and mountain climbing. I snap my carrabiners onto the steel cable fixed into the mountain, reach up to find a hand hold and scramble up the rocky face.
The views from the top are breathtaking; mountains recede into the distance in every direction. We linger and linger beside the iron cross and sad-faced Jesus, taking photos and writing in the logbook. Argue about whether that far off mountain is the Matterhorn. We are high enough here at 2,744 metres to look down on mountain tops.
Descending to the south of Tre Cime we traverse gentle pathways to Rifugio Auronzo. The south faces of the mountains look like gothic carving covered by cobwebs in the evening sun. Tired walkers sit with their backs against the walls of a tiny stone chapel.
At the rifugio our efforts are rewarded by a cold lager and the knowledge that we can look forward to a convivial evening with pizza and pasta back down in the valley. There was no such comfort for the soldiers of long ago.
Tips for Via Ferrata in the Dolomites
Cortina is a great base from which to equip yourself and embark on via ferrata adventures as well as hiking in the Dolomites. It is a glitzy snow sports town in winter but in summer it’s more laid back. Every wooden-shuttered window froths with geraniums. Residents and visitors stroll the piazzas licking their gelati.
No special training or techniques are required to follow via ferrata and there are plenty of guided tours available. You need a climbing harness, a helmet and a specially designed via ferrata kit. This is a Y-shaped rope which is attached to your harness at one end and clipped into the fixed wire on the mountain at the other ends. A friction plate in the middle means that if you fall the shock will be absorbed by the rope. The whole lot can be hired in Cortina sports shops for around 14 euros per day.
The ski runs of the valleys around Cortina are green with grass or grey scree at this time of year and the Olympic ski-jump looks naked. But many ski-lifts and telecabine operate through summer and are useful (and painless) access routes to the higher via ferrata routes.
How to get to the Dolomite Mountains
The closest airports are around Venice. British Airways and easyJet fly to Venice Marco Polo. Ryan Air flies to Treviso. It’s a two hour drive to Cortina.
Where to stay in the Dolomites
There is plenty of accommodation in Cortina and you can get some good deals in summer. There are a number of excellent campgrounds (we stayed at Camp Rochetta). You can stay in rifugios if you want to be close to the action or link a number of walks/climbs together. These are very comfortable and serve delicious food.
Guidebook for via ferrata in the Dolomites
Enjoy your adventures in the Dolomites!
By Natasha von Geldern