HIKING through the foothills of Italy’s Dolomite mountain range in gorgeous sunshine, it’s easy to forget that this tranquil, green idyll was once ravaged by war.
In the town of Cortina d’Ampezzo locals speak proudly of the region’s role in holding back Austro-Hungarian invaders during the First World War, but the landscape will forever carry the scars of this horrific conflict.
Both the allies and invading forces used devastating mine blasts to bury their enemies and artillery at key battlegrounds, with relics from these brutal operations still being unearthed to this day.
Nowhere is this more visible than in the Falzarego Pass, where modern day climbers begin every trek up the mountainside by hiking over the rubble the war left behind.
The Iron Road
Many of the routes climbers and hikers use in the Dolomites to this day were created by soldiers building bridges and hammering metal pins into the mountains to create the via ferrata – the iron road.
Lagazuoi mountain, standing at 9,300ft, is one of the best places to visit if you want to begin to understand what troops on both sides went through during this conflict and why they needed these ‘roads’.
The climb is steep and treacherous because of how loose the rock can be underfoot. My guide tells me he will not entertain me trying to climb even part the way up the peak without me wearing a safety harness.
Walkers and hikers are encouraged to clip themselves onto these decades old – but still solid – iron pins and bridges as they ascend and I was not about to break with tradition.
When the sun goes behind the clouds, the grey mountain seems to merge into the sky, giving me a feeling of being in limbo as I ascend.
After climbing for over an hour I arrive at a network of tunnels carved out by soldiers and left open to this day as a tourist attraction.
Appropriately, very little has been done to change this subterranean system over time. They are the same for today’s visitors as they were for troops during the war.
Standing in the relative cool of this underground network, it’s hard to imagine how life could feel anything but hopeless for the soldiers fighting there.
The featureless, complacent stone seems like it’s ready to swallow you up just for daring to be there.
Perhaps what is best preserved in those tunnels is a sense of complete indifference from the landscape – this mountain will endure no matter who goes there or why.
Back Into The Light
Emerging from the tunnels into a blinding golden glow of sunshine feels like a weight coming off my shoulders.
Once again I’m reminded what a majestic, rugged landscape this is. Every now and then a sharp sting of wind cuts through the warmth of the day and catches my cheek.
At this point my guide tells me this region of the Dolomites was picked to be the location for much of the filming for the 1993 action film Cliffhanger. Later I learned it’s been used as a backdrop for other Hollywood movies, including as a setting for 2018’s Solo: A Star Wars Story.
You don’t have to be a cinematographer to see why the area is so popular with filmmakers and visitors alike.
Its past may be dark, and that can certainly be seen and felt in the mountain range to this day, but the Dolomites are just too grand and too beautiful to be brought down by the weight of their history.
By Dan Goater