Dolomite history

The name, Dolomite, is derived from the type of carbonate rock that was first described by Deodat Gratet de Dolomieu, a famous French mineralogist. The dolomites are a range of mountains in the northern Italian Alps. There are 18 peaks, which rise to above 3000m, the highest of which is the Marmolada at 3,343m, and it features some of the most beautiful mountain scenery anywhere in the world.

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the dolomites were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Italy spent the first year of the war negotiating with the two sides to see which would offer the best terms in a post war settlement. When it became clear that Italy’s interests would be best served by joining the alliance, it declared war on Austria. The Austrians, who were heavily committed to fighting in Russia, had to hastily form a defensive line that ran through the Dolomites. Between May 1915 and October 1917 the dolomites became a scene of ferocious fighting between the Austrians and Italians, as the Italians joined the alliance, which included Britain, France and Russia. The two opposing armies endured horrific suffering and hardship in a war that saw huge loss of life. During a particularly bitter winter of 1916, 10000 men from both sides were killed from avalanches alone. Both sides built a network of tunnels and trenches to bypass and surprise the enemy, but it was a war fought with close quarter fighting with bayonets or hand to hand combat to gain ground that, more often than not, was immediately taken back.

The Via Ferrata, which is Italian for “iron road” are a network of routes that were put in place to help the troops move across the mountains and negotiate the steep faces with equipment and often in very difficult conditions, as both armies sought to establish positions as high as possible. The routes were made up with fixed ropes, wooden ladders and bridges, trenches, dugouts, gun emplacements and tunnels. Thousands of troops from both sides died in the mountain war, not only from the fighting but also from the harsh winter conditions, avalanches or from falls. The weather, and high altitude proved to be just as big an enemy as the opposition.

Today the network of routes have been restored, with permanently fixed steel cables replacing the ropes and metal ladders have replaced the wooden ones, making the routes accessible to climbers of all abilities. The Dolomites are also famous for skiing, and were the site of the 1956 Winter Olympic games.

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