Cortina d’Ampezzo sits in the midst of the Dolomites in the Italian Alps. It is a well-known resort town made famous, in part, as the host city for the 1956 Winter Olympics. The village is nice enough but, like many ski resort towns, it is not the primary attraction. The area’s prime attraction are the dramatic UNESCO designated Dolomites mountains.
The Dolomites are made of dolomite. It should always that easy. Dolomite is a relatively soft sedimentary rock composed of calcium magnesium carbonate. The area’s geology and the rock’s mineral composition produced distinctive rugged, pale-gray mountain peaks. In amongst these peaks, in a beautiful green valley, sits pleasant Cortina. But it is the mountains, the dolomite when it comes down to the chemistry, that draw visitors to Cortina.
There is plenty of opportunity to examine the Dolomites’ rocks and alpine terrain. Lifts and cable cars that take skiers up the slopes in the winter are available during the summer to transport trampers and bikers. A ski lift ride was integrated into most of our days’ activities, whether it was hiking or mountain biking. The day’s exploration often began at the top of the lifts.
The skiing infrastructure is, in part, a legacy of the region’s WWI history. Before the Great War, Cortina, then named Petsch-Hayden, had been under Austrian control for over 400 years. During WWI, all around Cortina, the Italian and Austrian alpine troops battled high in the mountains. At the end of the war, Italy took control of the region. Trails, tunnels, trenches, and via ferrata from the war still remain in the mountains high above the village. These war installations provided footholds for the rifugios and ski lifts that came later.
Fighting a war high in the Dolomites seems improbable if not impossible. Both the Italians and Austrians employed unusual tactics. One mode of attack involved tunneling through the mountain’s rock to place explosives in a position to take out an enemy bunker. Months were spent building a single tunnel for the sole purpose of setting off a massive blast that would reduce the mountainside to rubble and take out an enemy gun emplacement. In the end the alpine environment took more causalities than did enemy fire. Avalanches, frostbite, and mountain hazards killed more soldiers than did the fighting. On one day in December 1916, now known as White Friday, 10,000 troops were lost in avalanches. The Dolomites are an unimaginably inhospitable place to fight a war.
Our closest view of the battle fortifications came with a ski lift ride up to the Cinque Torri or five towers area. In the area is now an open-air war museum that meanders through the Italian wartime trenches and bunkers. Nearby Cinque Torri’s spectacular rock spires loom. It would have been like fighting a war in a national park.
Cinque Torri is renowned for its rock climbing. When we visited, climbers were seemingly on every portion of the rock formation. Climbing here is civilized. At the end of their days on the rocks, the alpinists can stroll a short distance from the base of the towers and enjoy a cold beer and hot food at the ski lodge. No tents, bivouacs, or freeze-dried food needed here. It is much better to be a modern climber than it was to be a WWI soldier in the Dolomites.
We saw even more elaborate and exposed examples of the WWI fortifications when we climbed Via Ferrata Marino Bianchi. Stay tuned for more about that adventure.
More pictures are on Picasa.