Wire and War – the top five vie ferrate for WW1 history

WW1 ruins and a view of Marmolada from the Via delle Trincee.
WW1 ruins and a view of Marmolada from the Via delle Trincee.

Vie ferrate have much of their origins in war.  As the Italians and Austrians fought a war of attrition in the passes, summits and ridges of the Dolomites, they built vie ferrate to help the movement of troops and supplies.  Now these routes are a major leisure activity, with climbers clipping to metal cables fixed to mountainsides to protect them as they climb ladders and scramble over rock.  Via ferrata are an incredibly fun way to explore the mountains and in the Dolomites they also provide one of the best ways of learning about an aspect of World War 1 of which many people are unaware.  Seeing the tunnels, trenches, emplacements and debris of this mountain war can begin to bring to life the hardships and sacrifices of the men who fought on what the Italians called the “il fronte vertical.”

The Mountain War

From June 1915 to October 1917, Italy and Austria (or the Austro-Hungarian Empire as it was then) fought among the mountains of the Dolomites.  Both sides tried to gain the high ground and set up positions and fortifications on mountain summits and ridges.  Cold and exposures were just as much of a danger as bullets and shells and avalanches were a particular danger.  It’s been estimated that at least 60,000 soldiers were killed in avalanches.

This was a war of attrition in which both sides tried to break the stalemate by tunnelling and mining to undermine enemy positions.  In the end, events further south largely brought the mountain war to an end.  In late 1917 an Austrian and German offensive broke through the Italian lines at Caporetto and the Italians retreated from the mountains in order to better defend Venice.

A WW1 bullet casing on Tofana di Dentro on the Via Ferrata Lamon.
A WW1 bullet casing on Tofana di Dentro on the Via Ferrata Lamon.

In the 1930s the Italian Alpine Club began to restore the old via ferrata routes and to build new ones as a way to attract tourists.  This process continued after a break caused by World War 2 and the development of vie ferrate since has seen them become a major attraction.

Climbing to learn

Many vie ferrate pass through, or by, the remains of the mountain war.  Some of these remnants have been restored to provide a better understanding of what happened in these mountains.  Some remnants are little more than broken wood, old barbed wire and falling down defences.  Seeing ruined buildings perched on steep ridges, walking down long tunnels dug into mountains and looking at trenches hacked into rock is a practical lesson in the hardships and toil soldiers faced in the Dolomites.  Vie ferrate provide a means of having a fun climb while getting closer to this history and learning more about a conflict that is too often forgotten.

WW1 fortifications on Monte Piana.
WW1 fortifications on Monte Piana.

Below are what I think are the top five vie ferrate for both learning about the mountain war and having a good climb.

1) Via delle Trincee

This stunning via ferrata above the town of Arabba follows a high mountain ridge.  As you ascend and descend along the ridgeline the climbing is varied, engaging, exposed and often fairly hard (it’s graded 4B on a scale in which 5 represents the hardest technical difficulty).  Added interest comes from a suspension bridge and a few sections of stemples.

Me climbing the Via delle Trincee.
Me climbing the Via delle Trincee.

The views are also stunning, with the mighty Marmolada and its glacier filling your view to the south.  This via ferrata is also named the Way of the Trenches for good reason.  Ruined WW1 buildings balance precariously on the ridge and the final third of the route is past gun emplacements and along tunnels.  If you choose to walk back on the slopes to the south of the ridge you also pass the remains of extensive trench systems.

2) Via Ferrata degli Alpini (AKA Via Ferrata al Col dei Bos)

The ruins of the old military hospital.
The ruins of the old military hospital.

This via ferrata was not put on up in World War 1, but in 2007 by the Alpini Brigade (Italian mountain troops) for training purposes.  As such, the construction and protection is fantastic.  It also seems to be have been built to give you the most interesting and varied line up the peak of Col dei Bos.  The climbing is that right balance between being a little bit challenging in places and having sections where you can just enjoy scrambling up the rock (it’s graded 3B).

Valerie climbing the Via Ferrata degli Alpini.
Valerie climbing the Via Ferrata degli Alpini with the old military hospital and old military road below here.

This via ferrata is situated above Passo Falzarego and the views of the surrounding mountains are excellent.  As Passo Falzarego and the area near it saw a lot of fierce fighting in WW1, it has a lot of history.  The walk-in goes along part of the old military road linking the pass to Cortina and the remains of the old hospital of the 5th Alpini Brigade sit near the start of the via ferrata.

3) Via Ferrata Delle Scalette and Sentiero del Curato Militare Hosp

Me climbing the ladders on the Via Ferrata Delle Scalette.
Me climbing the ladders on the Via Ferrata Delle Scalette.

The Via Ferrata Delle Scalette (graded 3B) climbs to the summit of Torre Toblino, which was an important Austrian observation post during WW1.  The route follows the line that the troops stationed on the (really quite small) summit had to take up a rock chimney.  This really enjoyable climb involves a mixture of ladders, which either zigzag up the chimney or follow the exposed ridge on its outside, and rock climbing.  This includes the fantastic crux that requires you to bridge your way into the chimney.

Valerie climbing the crux on the Via Ferrata Delle Scalette.
Valerie climbing the crux on the Via Ferrata Delle Scalette.

Descent is via the Sentiero del Curato Militare Hosp (graded 2A) on the other side of the tower.  This is a straightforward scramble that’s mostly on easy angled rock.

There are stunning views from the top of Torre Toblino.  The walk to Torre Toblino from Rifugio Auronzo (which you can reach by taking the toll road up from Misurina) passes the beautiful and iconic Tre Cime di Laveredo.

4) Sentiero de Luca / Innerkofler

Monte Paterno and the Rifugio Tre-Cime-Locatelli.
Monte Paterno and the Rifugio Tre-Cime-Locatelli.

Monte Paterno is a mountain that essentially consists of three sharp ridges that join and rise together into a single summit.  It’s a lovely looking mountain.  During WW1 it was extensively tunnelled and the route from Rifugio Tre-Cime-Locatelli climbs a lot of this mountain from the inside.

The route of the Sentiero de Luca / Innerkofler.
The route of the Sentiero de Luca / Innerkofler.

The route then exists these tunnels to climb to a col (with an optional detour to the summit) before descending to follow the line of the ridge south.  Ledges carved into the rock face eventually bring you to a particularly low and narrow tunnel and an exit on the crest of the ridge at Forcella Lavaredo with some great views of the Tre Cime.  All of this feels like a fairly grand mountain day, even if none of the climbing is particularly hard (its graded 2B).  It’s also a fascinating route that’s full of history and with great views.

5) Via Ferrata Ivano Dibona

Me on the suspension bridge on the Via Ferrata Ivano Dibona.
Me on the suspension bridge on the Via Ferrata Ivano Dibona.

This via ferrata is a long traverse of the main ridge in the Cristallo group of mountains.  It’s high level and in good weather the fantastic views seem to take in the whole of the Northern Dolomites and some of Austria as well.  This via ferrata is also famous for having the longest suspension bridge in the Dolomites.  These facts make it well worth visiting in themselves, which is good because the climbing is middling (it’s graded 2B).  There are some interesting ladder sections and the optional detour to climb Cristallino d’Ampezzo is engaging and fun.  However, there is quite a lot of walking rather than climbing.  This walking is only made interesting by the sharpness of some of the ridges, the views and the ruined WW1 buildings and emplacements that you pass.

WW1 ruins on the Via Ferrata Ivano Dibona.
WW1 ruins on the Via Ferrata Ivano Dibona.

And finally

There are a couple of places that I’ve excluded from this list because they don’t provide good climbing.  However, they are still historically very interesting.

The Lagazuoi Tunnels are a complex of tunnels in the Little Lagazuoi above Passo Falzarego.  This pass was a strategically important location during WW1 and the area is full of the remnants of the war.  These have been restored and the area is now a giant, open-air museum of which the Lagazuoi Tunnels are a highlight.

Descending the Lagazuoi Tunnels.
Descending the Lagazuoi Tunnels.

Italians dug the tunnels as they tried to dislodge the Austrians from the mountaintop.  Some of the tunnels were to place mines under enemy positions, some were for firing or observation, others for access and some to counter Austrian tunnels.  These efforts included, in June 1917, the detonation of 33,000kg of blasting gelatin under the Austrian positions.  No Austrians were killed because they had heard the tunnelling and left.  The Italians did gain the Austrian positions.  They also blew the top off the Little Lagazuoi, leaving a gap where the summit had once been.  You can now walk through this gap and explore the tunnels.  The guidebooks often say this will take two hours, but it will only take this time if you just walk straight down the main tunnel and its worthwhile giving yourself more time to explore the many other tunnels.

The Little Lagazuoi, with the left side showing the damage (and the absence of a summit) caused by the Italian mine.
The Little Lagazuoi, with the left side showing the damage (and the absence of a summit) caused by the Italian mine.  If you look closely in this picture you can also see some of the windows for the tunnel complex.

Another fascinating place to see the impact of the war is Monte Piana outside Misurina.  The two armies each held one of the two summits on this mountain and covered it in fortifications, trenches and tunnels.  It’s now an open-air museum.  An occasionally precarious path runs around the main summit and has sections of via ferrata cable (it’s graded 2B and via ferrata kit is a good idea).  When I went here in 2012, some of these cables were in serious need of repair and so take care if you visit.

Climbing on the via ferrata on Monte Piana.
Climbing on the via ferrata on Monte Piana.

Climbing vie ferrate involves a lot of risk, particularly as the vie ferrate described here are in alpine environments.  Please don’t attempt any of them unless you are suitably equipped and skilled.  There are tips on doing vie ferrate elsewhere on this blog, including tips on how to get safely started at climbing vie ferrate

Have fun and be safe.

Further information

The main, English language, guidebook for these vie ferrate is Via Ferratas of the Italian Dolomites: Vol 1 and is published by Cicerone.

Via Ferrata: Climbing the Iron Paths of the Dolomites
This webpage provides a good introduction to via ferrata and an overview of their history in the Dolomites.

Trails and Trenches of the Dolomites
A brilliant Financial Times article that describes the mountain war and its legacy.

La Grande Guerra
This website provides information on the open-air museum around Passo Falzarego.

Via Ferrata – Protected Climbing Paths in the Dolomites

A great and comprehensive website that provides route descriptions and photographs of many via ferrata in the Italian Dolomites.  An interactive via ferrata map is a useful tool for planning a trip and routes are also listed by mountain group and name.

Planet Mountain – Via Ferrata

A brilliant website that provides very detailed and clear route descriptions of vie ferrate in the Italian Dolomites.  A search function allows you to look for via ferrata by mountain group and name.

Further useful links.

13 thoughts on “Wire and War – the top five vie ferrate for WW1 history

  • Great choice of routes to highlight the WW1 connections. My own favourite I’d add is the Ferrata Giovane Lipella on the Tofana de Rozes, which links two very historic wartime sites with a long, exposed and majestic route. My own website has two galleries of Dolomites photos including many from via ferrata http://www.tomphillipsphotos.co.uk/styled-2/styled-20/index.html

    Lovers of Dolomites history etc might also be interested in my other site at http://www.thegreatdolomiteroad.co.uk/index.html which tells the story of the 100 year old road from Bolzano to Cortina through photos taken from the time the road was built, through to the present day. A number of these have WW1 connections.

    • Thanks.

      The Via Ferrata Giovanni Lipella is on my list of via ferrata that I really want to do.

      The photos on your websites look great – thank you for sharing them. The old photos of the road from Bolzano to Cortina are particularly interesting and give a real sense of how challenging driving then must have been.

      Best wishes

  • Yes,via ferrata Giovanni Lipella is really beautiful and historically remarkable;headlamp necessary for its long gallery and sometimes iced in its upper part,which cables few years ago have been broken by lightnings and now completely restored,although this winter was particularly snowy so i wouldn’t swear about its real conditions. Another historical via ferrata not very known is the Kaiserjager (Col Ombert,Dolomiti di Fassa),right past that new via ferrata dei Magnifici Quattro,technically the most difficult in the Dolomites.

    Best Wishes

  • Great selection of routes and well blogged. Makes me wish I was there again.
    I did the Lagazuoi Tunnels the hard way, going up ascending the tunnels and then descending by the Austrian Paths, an easier 1A. Its worth doing earlier in the day to avoid the corwds descending the tunnels.

  • It’s really interesting reading different impressions about the Dolomites,so familiar for me,through competent blogs like yours and the websites above and also photos taken from a new point of view;i reckon it as an hidden invitation to keep my eyes open because mountains are never banal but always absolutely indifferent to our life.

    Best Wishes and thank you!

  • Thank you for another fascinating and informative post. A timely article too – soon it will be 100 years since the horrors and particular hardships of the mountain war and the last of those with first hand memories will have long passed away. It is a curious turn of events that the most enduring physical legacies of the war: the vie ferrate constructed to better enable fighting, killing and destruction have ended up being used for leisure and more pleasurable – even life-affirming pursuits. It reminds me of the way that sunken warships become wonderful new reefs for sealife to thrive on. Time has shown the mountain war to have been all but futile, but in the long run something good does seem to have come of it too. And as experienced climbers and intrepid sightseers marvel at the breathtaking views and scenery and also have the opportunity to survey the extraordinary detritus of war, there is perhaps no better way to appreciate the history of the vie ferrate and take a moment to honor the dead: “lest we forget…”

    • Thanks Richard. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

      You make very good points.

      It’s a strange juxtaposition that when you’re enjoying climbing a via ferrata and seeing the beautiful Dolomites you are can be among the remnants of a conflict that saw so many suffer and die.

      Best wishes

  • Great pictures and with your write-up I feel much better informed on the history of the via ferrata. The comment (May 2013) on the history of the via ferrata vs its life today and your response articulate very well what I was feeling while hiking alongside those trenches. Thank you

    • Thank you. I’m really glad you enjoyed the post. I also liked reading your account of walking in the same area.

      It is a moving experience to walk and climb in the remains of the mountain war. The ruined buildings, the bits of barbed wire, the trenches and the tunnels make a bit more real and immediate something that’s now a hundred years away.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s