To modern travelers, the Natural Park of the Ampezzo Dolomites appears as a pristine nature preserve surrounded by stately, pointy mountains. There are waterfalls, evergreen forests, and wild foxes. Astute visitors may notice that there are also a series of man-made tunnels, evidence of detonated grenades, heavy gunfire, and other somber reminders that some of the most brutal battles in World War I took place in the shadow of one of Italy’s most stunning mountain ranges.
One of the most striking remnants of World War I in Italy’s Dolomite mountains is a compact alpine shelter that was constructed over 2,700 meters above sea level. Italian soldiers used the small dwelling to escape explosions, fire fights, and other calamities triggered by heavy fighting with Austro-Hungarian forces at the base of the mountain.
The alpine shelter is built into the side of a vertical mountain peak on Monte Cristallo. From a distance, Monte Cristallo’s alpine shelter appears completely inaccessible. Italian soldiers created a via ferrata—or secured climbing route—to scale the steep mountain. A via ferrata features a series of pathways and ladders that allow hikers to use harnesses and other special hiking equipment to fasten themselves to cables so that they have a better chance of avoiding injury. Via ferratas were born out of necessity during World War I and World War II to help troops transport supplies and secure certain remote areas. In recent years, via ferratas have gained popularity among thrill seekers intent on exploring steep mountain terrain.
The route to Italy‘s most precarious alpine shelter isn’t for the faint of heart. Climbers must scale a rickety wooden stairway sprinkled with loose rocks, and walk on a series of less than sturdy wooden planks. From the base of the mountain, climbers ascending Monte Cristallo look like they are perched on a narrow ridge. To an onlooker, it appears that the slightest wind could cause a hiker winding their way up the mountain to lose their footing and topple over Monte Cristallo’s edge.
Those brave enough to reach the alpine shelter’s narrow stone porch are greeted by a breathtaking panoramic view of the Dolomites. Scaling a steep mountain and seeking refuge in a tiny dwelling in an attempt to evade explosions, gunfire, and avalanches must have been taxing beyond belief for Italian soldiers during World War I. Surely the alpine shelter’s magnificent view provided some measure of peace and comfort to war-weary soldiers.