by Leslie Anthony
The towering peaks of the Italian Dolomites rise above the surrounding countryside like so many limestone fortresses. When you dig a bit into their history, it turns out many of them were actually used for just this.
You could go pretty far back in time to chart the many times this ragged range stood in the way of one invader or another, serving the purposes of defense for those who occupied the area, but the most interesting chapter in these chronicles of conflict occurred during the First World War, when Italy joined the fight against the aggressors of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1915.
Mountains figure into war and other battles because of the notion that higher ground is advantageous for many reasons, not least of which is that it’s easier to defend (provided you have the resources for a prolonged siege). War and skiing don’t seem like good bedfellows, but at times are quite intertwined: for instance, those folks who conducted mountain warfare in the Alps for the U.S. in the Second World War as part of the vaunted 10th Mountain Division went back home to seed the very robust U.S. ski industry by starting a dozen famous resorts and ski schools, and without them and the passion for the mountains developed as soldiers, things would have progressed a lot differently. Though I have no idea of their eventual influence on the sport one way or another, the Dolomites saw their first skiing troops long before that.
Though the First World War was fought all over the Dolomites, one peak in particular—Piccolo Lagazuoi—became the scene of a unique battle known as the “war of the mines.” Once the surrounding peaks were all captured and held, the war went underground at the peak where the front line lay— Lagazuoi. Here, the Italian and Austrian troops dug extensive cave and tunnel systems through the considerable limestone ramparts of Lagazuoi’s 300-metre face, creating a network from which they could not only overlook and defend the front lines, but also blow up the enemy from below. Five enormous mines—chambers packed with up to 32,000 kg of explosives—exploded within this mountain, leaving their indelible marks for all to see. Amazingly, nothing was accomplished militarily by all of this, and the armistice that ended the war was declared shortly after the last fruitless explosion in 1917. The tunnels have recently undergone major reconstruction to create an open-air museum, and walking through them, especially in winter, is an experience not to be missed.
While staying a couple of nights at the Rifugio Lagazuoi at 2,700 metres with a film crew on a recent trip, we had the chance to check out the tunnel system. It was impressive, with many gun placements and lookouts through dizzying portals on the mountain face. I left the film crew there and decided to ski past this madness and make a run to the valley, cutting in under the face onto the mountain’s flanks to look back up at this improbable vertical battlefield. Sidehilling virtually from one side of the monolith to another before I began a descent through 30 cm of angel-feather powder blanketing the meadow above the tram station, I would notice later on an old map that I started my traverse just above the Italian trenches that had been dug below the mountain and crossed completely to the Austrian trenches to begin my descent.
It was kind of weird but also kind of interesting. Since the troops were up there all year, some of them surely had skis. I wondered if they thought about skiing while they were languishing at their icy stations in the mountains. I know I would have.