From South



Rich Galli

The Dolomites need the warmth of the sun, without which they would be insipid, dull and lifeless, sometimes a dirty gray, sometimes faded yellow. But one ray of sunshine is enough to give them life, the effect of kindly warmth is to make them shimmer, take on color and charm for all of their verticality…. Better here to come to terms with the terrifying void which will be your closest companion on the ascent of wall or pinnacle. In other districts the walls are abrupt and very steep. Here they are quite geometrically vertical; and some of them, also geometrically, overhanging.

      Gaston Rebuffat from Starlight and Storm

Italian Mountain Top Outpost

Situated northeast of Cortina D'Ampezzo, the Tre Cime di Lavaredo 2999m. are three enormous freestanding limestone towers. This trio of peaks are amongst the most beautiful and recognizable mountains in the Dolomites, the Alps and the World. In the Great War this area of the Alps echoed with gunfire and would become, without doubt, the most surrealistic battlefield in history.

In the half century before World War One, the Tre Cime or Drei Zinnen Group [of surrounding peaks] were unique for their advanced vertical rock climbing, which was an exciting new aspect of alpinism. Most climbing in the Alps had been mountaineering, to the summit on steep glaciers with the occasional rock outcropping or ridge. Local mountain guides developed techniques and gear for 90-degree rock face, chimney and crack. The clear dry air and spectacular sunlit golden rock that had attracted the aristocracy and upper classes for decades now saw the arrival of a growing middle class of Europe for both exercise and relaxation. A new school of painters, writers and naturalists also came to the Dolomites to record what seemed lost in the Industrial Age. Today the challenge of the great rock faces continues to make the area as well known to climbers as Yosemite or Patagonia.

Austrian View From North

In May of 1915 war came to the Dolomites. Italian Alpini raced Austrian Kaiserjager for control of summit and pass. The names of these natural citadels would become synonymous in history with alpine warfare- Marmolatta, Tofane, Monte Piano, Col di Lana and the Tre Cime. Each great mountain was the lynchpin of their sector, serving a purpose similar to today's reconnaissance satellites. From their outposts enemy movement could be observed and attacks directed. Possession of these summits became a priority mission. The first summer of war saw several Italian successes in the capture of major peaks and in withstanding Austro-Hungarian counterattacks. The Deutsches Alpenkorps sent several battalions to assist their Austrian allies. Enemy gunfire might be deadly, but the logistics of transport and supply in these mountains was the ultimate challenge of any nation's army. Supplies were carried on the backs of troops and mules, with loads averaging 25 and 100 kilograms, respectively. Entering "leeward" cliff faces into a labyrinth of tunnels, cable cares known as teleferiques were built to supply the growing forces of both sides. On the other side of the mountain or ridge was the battle zone. Iron ladders led to the highest positions. The snout of cannon and machinegun poked from concealed openings, often with hundreds of meters of vertical rock face below them and an unlimited view. [Or zero visibility if clouds were present.] Cheap, portable and easy to conceal, the machinegun was the most effective weapon in mountain warfare. In the hands of a well trained gunner, it was able to control an entire pass, mountainside or valley.

Austro-Hungarian Troops on Nearby Peak

The Tre Cime became an Italian fortress of cannons, spotlights and a hornet's nest of machineguns. [see map] Nearby Austrian forces reciprocated with their own defenses at the Schwabenalpenkopf 2685 m. and Raut Kofel 2607 m. also known as Monte Rudo. Here were found similar batteries of cannon and mortars, trenches connected by deep tunnels and fields of barbed wire. The Austrians' forward observation post was atop Torre di Toblin 2613m. To the front of the Tre Cime was the most advanced Italian outpost, atop Monte Paterno 2746 m. All Austrian forces lay below the Alpini forward observers, and the results were deadly. To capture or neutralize this post would take extraordinary climbing skills. The Austrian army had one such man, the master of the cliffs around the Tre Cime, the renowned guide Sepp Innerkofler, then a sergeant in the Standschutzen mountain militia. The climb and battle of Monte Paterno on July 4th 1915 is perhaps the greatest legend of alpine warfare. [See article on Sepp Innerkofler on this La Grande Guerra site.] As thousands of men watched, in a storm of mortar, cannon and machinegun fire, Sepp Innerkofler died- killed by an Alpini thrown boulder.

The alpine winter arrived in September and tactical operations in the Dolomites shut down. For both sides simple survival from the wrath of the mountains' two great killers, avalanches and cold became an endless, unforgiving occupation. The summer of 1916 saw several pitched battles around the peaks, ridges and valleys of the Tre Cime group and neighboring ranges, but the shooting soon subsided. Both sides' mountain fortresses eventually resulted in an impenetrable, deadly stalemate. In addition, the attrition of other battles and fronts became a steady drain of both sides' troops. Italian and Austrian light, regular and mountain infantry were sent to the Isonzo or Altipiano; German forces went away to Verdun and Flanders. Battles for outposts, raids, patrols and underground mines continued to take their toll, as did all the natural dangers of the high peaks. The winter of 1916/17 and its avalanches was the deadliest in history. During one 48-hour period in December of 1916, 10,000 men from both sides would die as a result of avalanches in the Dolomites. At first regular troops were replaced by reservists, but the meat grinders of Ortigara or Bainsizza demanded their presence as well. By 1917 the Isonzo or Altipiano [or Russia] had siphoned all but the minimum needed to control the area. In November of 1917 the Italians abandoned the Dolomite front they had fought so fiercely for, as their armies collapsed or retreated from Caporetto to the Piave River and Monte Grappa. Austrian troops followed to their fate on these lower peaks and plains. The Dolomites returned to nature's silence.

Drei Zinnen Up Close

To this day, around Tre Cime the trenches, tunnels and iron ladders remind visitors of the fierce fighting witnessed by these peaks during three summers. The entire Dolomites, as well as ranges to the north became Italian territory. Climbing, hiking and skiing are once again the reasons to experience the Tre Cime.

Sources and Thanks: Photos from the author's collection and courtesy of Bernhard Muhr and his site Berg Der Welt.

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