The photo for the latest edition of this blog represents the only thing I have in common with Sylvester Stallone. “What?” I hear you ask. Patience, all will become clear.
We’re back in the Italian Dolomites, my second home for one near-20 year period of my life. I say “Italian”, but they were not always so. That’s relevant to this photograph. Italy itself is a relatively recent creation, only having been a single country, as opposed to a collection of small city and nation-states, since 1861. To the north, a swathe of mountain country that is now part of the Dolomites was firmly the central southern outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, German-speaking and culturally very different from Italy. When the First World War broke out, it suited Britain and its allies to offer Italy the opportunity to expand northwards, if the war was won, as reward for opening a long, wild battle-front against Germany’s Austro-Hungarian allies. That front ran from around Lake Garda, north-eastwards across the Dolomite mountains to the Balkan states.
The Dolomite mountain war that ensued (sometimes called “The White War”) was a battle for the high places to which artillery could be hauled and used to fire on towns and villages. Much of the trench warfare and close combat fighting in the area was about gaining the heights so that mule trains and cableways could be used to haul up parts of what were then assembled into huge howitzers, field guns, etc. This all required ways in which the troops could move around in relative safety in some of the most improbable and dangerous settings for warfare Europe had ever seen. Networks of high, cable-protected paths, ladders, bridges and tunnels were created by immense, and largely unsung, feats of strength and bravery. Thus was born what today climbers and mountaineers know as “via ferrata” routes. Literally, “iron ways”. These were constructed by both sides. The Austrian troops knew them as “Klettersteige” or ladder-paths.
I was fortunate to become a regular in the Dolomites at a time of huge resurgent interest in that mountain war and the via ferrata routes. Many were in a desperate and unsafe state after more than sixty years of neglect and high mountain weather. However, from the late 1960s onwards, some had been stabilized, re-established or improved. They had slowly become popular as breath-taking ways to travel through the high Dolomites, and I climbed on them often in the 1980s and 1990s.
One via ferrata became a firm favourite with the groups I took into the mountains back then. This was no doubt helped by the fact that it had a tiny, eccentric cable-car which ran to almost 2,900 metres on Monte Cristallo , and a comfortable mountain refuge perched just above it, in an astonishing position, even for the Dolomites. The mountain hut is called the Rifugio Capanna Lorenzi, and one of the via ferrata routes that starts there is the Sentiero Ferrata Ivano Dibona. These days, the route even has its own Wikipedia page, so you can see that I’m not making all this up! Oh, and it had been a movie star, too.
The Dibona begins with a series of near vertical ladders, and a tunnel. It pops out of this and the climber is faced with an amazing wood and wire suspension bridge, over a very big drop indeed between two summits. That’s, of course, the bridge in the photograph above, with the Lorenzi Hut right of shot. On the visit in question, I had been keen to assess how the whole Dibona route, which takes six or seven hours to cross in its entirety in summer, could be done as a winter adventure. I’d been along it maybe a dozen times by then and it had become like an old friend. Several months later, that winter attempt happened (see photo below). We allowed at least two days for it, but failed at a bivouac cabin after a day of really hairy, slow climbing and scrambling, when we realized no one had the fuel for our stove with them. That was a cold night, followed by an even colder direct descent off the mountains!
Eighty years earlier, the 1915-17 mountain warfare had ground to a stalemate, but post WW1 treaties ceded land from the Dolomites up as far as the current day Austrian border to Italy. This area – the province of Alto Adige – retains German as a first language, and scant allegiance to the Italian state.
These days, on a fine day, you will queue for many of the steep sections of the Dibona, and have to wait while just about everyone doing the route poses for their photograph to be taken on “Ponte Cristallo”, the bridge. This has become a real symbol of the Dolomites and that’s been helped by Silvester Stallone. Ever seen the film “Cliffhanger”? Much of this piece of adventure nonsense was shot in the Dolomites in the early 1990s. The Ponte Cristallo (or a replica of it) appears prominently in the later stages of the action.
Not much of a connection with Stallone, I admit, but hey, do you have one?