You can imagine the intense cold they would have felt – crouched shivering, watching, waiting for the next shell to explode. Ten metres of snow had fallen that winter and they wore standard issue tweed and leather boots. Freezing, tired, undernourished. So different from us clad in our lightweight waterproof, Gore Tex coats exploring the tunnels that they had dug by hand a century before.
Passing machine gun placements and trenches, lookout posts and barracks, all hewn into the rock, you can only wonder at the Austro-Hungarian and Italian troops as you follow one of the easiest via ferrata routes in the Italian Dolomites – once a battlefield.
Via ferrata literally means ‘the iron way’. It was originally installed in the mountains of (now) northern Italy during the First World War. After remaining neutral for a long period, in May 1915 Italy declared war on Austro-Hungary. Austro-Hungarian troops fortified their positions on the mountain tops and used explosives to create avalanches and rockfall onto the Italians troops below.
The armies needed to move quickly and safely around the mountains so they installed a system of iron cable routes onto which the soldiers could clip The original iron cables are still evident on many of the routes now used by climbers.
During our week in the Dolomites we completed eight via ferrata routes of varying severity. The Lagazuoi Tunnels revealed the incredibly harsh conditions in which the troops lived and how this brutal war was fought.
We start the route at the top of the Lagazuoi cable car and begin our 650m descent through the old wartime tunnels. It is cold and damp. Water droplets fall from the low roof. The pitch black is punctuated by bright sunlight bursting through the occasional lookout ‘window’ or gun placement. We explore the twists and turns of the tunnels, heading up ladders to look-out points, enjoying the brief feel of sunshine before we delve back into the dark. A small detour takes us by century-old sandbags to the tiny wooden barracks perched on a small ledge where the soldiers slept.
This easy route takes around two hours (including exploring the various lookouts and detours) and brings you back, via a well-marked path, to the bottom of the cable car.
The Italian Dolomites saw some of the fiercest fighting in World War One – and none fiercer than Lagazuoi. Some of the wartime artefacts are still there, preserved in time, as if the armies left just yesterday. Exploring the tunnels gives you a sense of what life was like living for months on the mountain-top with both the war and weather raging against you.
Via ferrata equipment
You don’t need to be an expert rock climber to use the via ferrata but you do need to have the correct equipment including harness, helmet, gloves (cycling gloves work well) and the right lanyards to clip on to the iron cables (a pair of slings will not do). Some of the routes end with a glacier crossing, so additional equipment and experience of alpine mountaineering is required for these routes.
When to go
Dates: June to September (dependent on snowfall)
Grade: Varies from very easy and escapable (1A) to steep, exposed and committing (5C).
The Lagazuoi Tunnels (Falz2) route is the easiest via ferrata grade of 1A. You can get away without a harness and lanyard for this route – using the cable as a kind of handrail – but a headtorch, gloves and helmet are essential.
Cost: There is no charge for using the via ferratas, although you may choose to take the odd cable car up the mountain. You can refer to the guidebook and self-guide yourself (indeed one of the beauties of via ferrata compared to traditional rock climbing) is the cable makes route finding a doddle!
Guidebook: The guidebook Via Ferratas of the Italian Dolomites: Vol 1 (North, Central and East) by John Smith and Graham Fletcher, published by Cicerone, is very good – the routes are well-graded and easy to follow.
There are also companies that run via ferrata group trips including Colletts.
Photos: Copyright Chris Stavrinides