A History of the Via Ferratas in the Dolomites

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Once known as the “War to End All Wars,” World War I has spent the better part of the last century in the historical shadow of the even more devastating conflict that followed. But the more we study the Great War, the more we realize how much there still is to learn about the many facets of this global conflict. Today, remnants of World War I are scattered across the world, memorialized by monuments and museums. But there are a few distinct pieces of history preserved high in the Dolomites that are often overlooked.

Italy's “Iron Roads,” or “Via Ferratas,” were a series of ladders, cables, and other makeshift tools used by soldiers to not only pass through but live in the Dolomites mountains during the Guerra Bianca, or White War. More than 100 years later, the frozen implements have thawed out and are offering new insights into the battles waged in the area.

The White War

The Dolomites mountain hut near the Bocca di Brenta pass.
Credit: ullstein bild Dtl via Getty Images

Taking place in temperatures as low as -22 degrees Fahrenheit and at altitudes up to 12,000 feet, it’s easy to understand how the “White War” was named. The fighting took place between the Kingdom of Italy on one side and Austria-Hungary and Germany on the other; conditions were so inhospitable, however, that the true battle was with the elements. Most of the nearly 150,000 casualties were due to mines caving in, avalanches, and soldiers freezing to death rather than actual skirmishes between the combatants themselves.

In 1917, war correspondent E. Alexander Powell wrote that “On no front, not on the sun-scorched plains of Mesopotamia, nor in the frozen Mazurian marshes, nor in the blood-soaked mud of Flanders, does the fighting man lead so arduous an existence as up here on the roof of the world.”

Today, what makes exploring the Via Ferratas so incredible is that it isn’t just a history lesson — it’s an adrenaline-pumping adventure. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009, the Dolomites are part of the Alps and cover an area of 6,155 square miles; also known as the Pale Mountains, they abound in long-distance footpaths that would take roughly a week to traverse in their entirety.

People climbing a fixed-rope route, via ferrata, to the summit of Mt. Lagazuoi.
Credit: Frank Bienewald/ LightRocket via Getty Images

Italy and their opponents both used the Via Ferratas during the war, relying heavily on mines to protect them from the elements. However, it didn’t always work; roughly 60,000 soldiers are estimated to have met their ends here via avalanches alone, with many more perishing due to exposure. Called “il Fronte Verticale” (the Vertical Front) by the Italians, the Italian front was a place of extremes — it’s unlikely they had much, if any, time to admire the beauty of their surroundings in the midst of life-or-death circumstances, but it certainly provided a marked contrast to them.

Reinhold Messner, a mountaineer who made the first solo ascent of Mount Everest as well as the first person to ascend every 26,000-foot-tall peak in the world, is particularly taken by the Dolomites. “Each mountain in the Dolomites is like a piece of art,” he once said. “Le Corbusier called them the most beautiful buildings in the world. He said God built them; I’d say nature did.” Were the Dolomites not so striking, their status as a frozen-in-time World War I museum might not be so remarkable.

A Natural History Museum

View of the Italy Dolomites rope bridge via ferrata Tridentina.
Credit: AGF/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images

For decades after the war ended, many of the leftover remnants — weapons, clothing, furniture, and everything else required to live among the clouds year-round — were seen only by salvagers who ventured up there in order to claim the valuable raw materials (mainly copper, brass, and lead found inside unexploded bombs) they could then sell upon returning from their trek. That ascent isn’t much easier today than it was a century ago, technological advances notwithstanding. This only makes the relics that await all the more incredible to see: cannons, grenade shells, and barbed-wire fences, but also personal effects like photographs, laundry, and decks of cards.

The reason why these objects have become more accessible in the last 10 to 20 years isn’t a happy one: climate change. The Vedretta di Lares glacier atop Corno di Cavento, an 11,051-foot-tall peak, used to hold an entire “ice city” and has now melted considerably. But while the circumstances that led to these discoveries are unfortunate, there’s no denying the historical significance of what the thaw has revealed.

Today, visitors to the Dolomites can test their bravery by climbing a Via Ferrata with an experienced guide along the same routes the military used. Those who prefer to appreciate the sheer magnitude of the Pale Mountains from the ground, however, will enjoy a trip to the Museo della Guerra Bianca in the alpine village of Temù to see recovered remnants from the war and learn more about the history of the battle.

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