Photography: Alex Buisse

content marketing for Arc'teryx

Cortina, Italy. The bus navigates through mountain villages in a choreographed dance with traffic, negotiating corners via a series of steps like a simplified tango, passing within inches of people's balconies on tight alpine roads. If there was an indicator of the pungent history that permeates this place, this was it: proximity, danger and strategy, jockeying for place.

Coming from North America, Europe is always a cultural immersion. Centuries of architecture, delicacies of bread, a pace that is based on civilization, as in acknowledging the importance of time, food and conversation. World Wars are buried under the contours, but remain ever present in local memory. Once a village captured and occupied during the chaos of war, Cortina today is a chichi ski town whose streets are lined with luxury. Shops, hotels, restaurants and in the off season, very few people. It was eerily deserted, with some hotels boarded up until the return of snow.

Brutal shards of cold found their way inside everything he wore, the texture of polished stone, like his pale blemished skin, blunt and unfeeling. He was not an alpinist, he had never left the ground. His hands scrabbled and held onto whatever felt approximately secure while his numb feet searched out the next wooden stemple. At least in the dark he could not see the chasm below, but he could sense the airy plunges, the dim that was neither morning nor evening; it was an immeasurable expanse of time.

"(Late) September has the best light." Our host, Lorena, lived up to an Italian driver's reputation, passing cars and weaving her way up to Passo Falzarego, which was the front line during the WW1 battle known as the Mountain War. "In summer, it's too hot and the air is not clear. This is perfect."

Caught between Italy and Austria for four years, this region of the Dolomites was the site of intense, incredibly elaborate geographical warfare. Like everyone we are to meet in the area, Lorena knows and owns the history. It seems to be written in every café we pass, with its mixed architecture of Bavarian shutters and menus that offer pasta, pizza or schnitzel.

His foot slipped. He fell, wrenching his shoulder. He was clumsy with exposure, burdened with explosives and a shovel. Inside the mountain, other soldiers labored in the tunnel. The enemy was watching and listening. He tried not to think, for that was to become paralyzed with fear.

Clip, clip, unclip, clip. Via ferrata, the fully equipped roads, more commonly referred to as the iron roads, were used to move soldiers more efficiently through treacherous mountain terrain. Once made of rope and wood, now they are systems of bolted metal cable and steel rungs, placed to provide access on exposed or dangerous terrain, to places of great beauty. 

We discover that Lorena has never ventured onto the via ferrata, nor has she explored much of the extensive system of trails that traverse her beloved landscape. She lives perched on the side of a mountain, in a rural existence where alpine knowledge is a birthright and so is the right not to exercise it beyond daily need. It was the same for the soldiers in the First World War. 

War was no longer an idea, it was this: an absurd and frightening disorientation. Moral, physical and emotional. Wool mitts slid on rope; he was to follow the muffled footsteps ahead of him, step by step, along the intermittent lengths of safety. Back inside the tunnel, they would travel downward, to disguise their current position,emptying buckets of quarried rock as silently as possible.

As we started out, it was almost immediately obvious how elaborate and extensive the human efforts were – within a few hundred metres we came upon the ruins of a hospital built into the side of a cliff. Crumbling protective trenches linked buildings on a site that made the most of overhanging features and obscured lines of vision. At the far side was the start of our first via ferrata, leading up into the historic battle zone.

They were a multitude of men, fractured into smaller units and spread out along a thin shelf to avoid fire, traveling north to south, in and out of enemy territory. He had to erase the idea of shooting one of his cousins. He must keep the darkness faceless.

During the Mountain War, alpine passes in northern Italy were chessboards, geographically defensible, providing key access points for offensive thrusts. Large in scale, exposed and volatile with ice and snow, these mountain environments were a hazard as much as they provided cover for furtive movements. In one two day period, 10,000 men were killed by avalanches. On the nearby Marmolada Glacier, bodies of soldiers are still being discovered as the icefields retreat, exposing further the maze of dwellings and travel routes built beneath metres of ice and snow. Incomprehensible today.

Ludicrous to imagine the enemy would not notice. Yet they all believed. At times, he heard voices through the rock wall. Austrians. Speaking inside their own tunnels, less than 2 metres away. Insanity. Una follia.

The Dolomites are difficult, intimidating, and seductive mountains. There are spires and immense, striated faces, crumbling fingers and wet cavernous erosions. Warm, passionate and harsh, they tease you to fall in love and leave you forever wanting.

At every turn were eroding trenches and collapsed barracks of chalky white stone. Holes in the mountainsides revealed themselves to be the entries and exits of an exhaustive series of tunnels and lookouts that required headlamps for navigation and were long enough to moderate the temperature; it would have been constant throughout winter, a refuge from snow, ice and cold. Reprieve from the terror and eventually, harbinger of an uneasy calm brought on by tedium. Even as visitors, a hundred years later, we didn't have to believe in war to believe in misery and domination, or to believe that we would fight for a beauty this transcendent.

Stepping on history is not walking through wilderness. Not a shell or a fragment remains along the signed and well-kept trails. There is the odd twist of rusted barbed wire on a makeshift cross; a chilled presence along the back of your neck – intuition or instinct, like the eyes of a wild animal, stalking from a distance.

My view is a rectangle. A slit that is the width of a sniper's rifle, the height of my fear. Beyond shadows of movement I watch the sky as it turns colour and sharpens the mountains, to keep myself awake and to remind me of love.

Museum plaques built into the ruins hold photographs of the soldiers who spent years in these barracks, reading letters from home, making fine artisanal objects out of empty cans and shards of metal, collecting wildflowers in the spent, broken cases of artillery shells. It was a form of madness, madness of the most beautiful kind – our human spirit.