What the Mountains Hold: A Writer's Trek Through the Dolomites of Mark Helprin's WWI Italy
by Shannon Huffman Polson
My unseen tears are like this stone.
Death is paid by the living.
-Giuseppe Ungaretti, Italian infantry WWI and poet
In the middle of September, in the mountains of Italy close to where the character of Alessandro Giuliani lived and fought in Mark Helprin’s novel A Soldier of the Great War, my husband and I headed out in rain gear while snow fell heavily. At a local’s recommendation, because of heavy snow we had cut out the first half of our planned day walking toward Lagazuoi and any hopes of travel along the via ferrata, or “iron ways” of more exposed and technical travel across the rock. The mountains hid in billows of white, and we set our poles and boots on icy trails ascending steep and rocky trails criss-crossed by the roots of pine and fir slick with snow.
The first few miles we climbed through deep forest. Finally we broke out above the tree line close to the Cinque Torri, or Five Towers, a dramatic formation of rock made up of towers and a tumble of boulders. The wind picked up, having nothing to stop its wildness, and we zipped our Gore-tex over our chins for the last stretch before ducking into the Rifugio Scoiatolli that appeared through the clouds.
“Prego?” asked the woman behind the counter.
“Deu cappuccino, per favore,” I asked, deploying the full measure of my Italian.
“Si,” she said, and as we walked to a table, I heard the whirring of coffee beans grinding and the welcome whoosh of foaming milk.
A Storied History
I’d heard that I’d be able to use a little of my high school German while in the Dolomites given the still strong Austrian influence, but so far that hadn’t been the case. We’d find out later from a shuttle driver that two of the five valleys of the Dolomites tended toward the German, two toward Italian and one toward neither; the ancient Ladin influence was strong throughout. The Valle del Boîte, where we had begun our trek, favored the Italian, as well as the town where we’d begun, the town of Cortina d’Ampezzo. Cortina is known for hosting the 1956 Olympics (WWII put an end to its scheduled Olympics in 1944). Our shuttle driver insisted that the area had been well known even before then for its beauty and a popular place for wealthy visitors and royalty in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He and his wife were of the older Ladin group, which he explained, claims a written history going back over five-hundred years. The Ladins later organized into a community owning 80% of the land in the Dolomite area. The group recognizes membership only by male descendants of the group. The civilization of the Valle del Boîte, however, goes back into prehistory, with the discovery in 1987 of a primitive tomb at Mondeval de Sora and the discovery of 5300 year old Otzi in 1991 in nearby Bolzano. The bodies of soldiers from WWI continue to be discovered especially as Italy’s glaciers melt, with the remains of three soldiers believed to be from the Austrian-Hungarian Army discovered on the Presena glacier in 2012.
We’d come to the Dolomites for the same reason as many Europeans in the last one hundred and fifty years, to climb in its beautiful mountains. A placard outside one rifugio credited Englishman John Ball the first summit in 1857 of Mt. Pelma, a huge massif we would circumnavigate on our last day. The Austrians followed avidly, and the first alpine huts now deemed “rifugios” were built by the Austrian Alpine Club in the late 1800s. The Dolomites themselves, a section of the Italian Alps, are uniquely spectacular for their jagged ridges and precipitous peaks, though their relatively small scale is deceiving, permitting a satisfying and constantly changing landscape over the course of a day’s travel in and out of multiple valleys. A Frenchman identified and named the “Dolomiti” rock in the 1700s, white grey sedimentary rock similar to but slightly harder than limestone and composed primarily of the mineral dolomite. Like limestone, dolomite is believed to have originated in warm shallow seas 250 million years ago, a hypothesis supported by fossil evidence even at the top of the precipitous and jagged peaks. The peaks themselves rose 100 million years ago as a result of pressure of the African plate moving under the Eurasian Plate. Midway through our trek we would find the well-documented dinosaur tracks running up a slab of rock close to Pelma’s base. For both its beauty and the history written across the landscape, it is clear why the Dolomites are designated a UNESCO Heritage Site.
Discovering the Dolomites of WWI
We found our way to a table by the far window of Rifugio Scoiatolli and pulled off our coats. In the warmth, the blood rushed back into our fingers and faces with sharp stabs of pain. But for one table across the room occupied by two other synthetic-clad trekkers, the tables were empty. The woman who had taken our order delivered round shallow coffee mugs on saucers with tiny spoons and sugar, and we gratefully sipped the warm foam from the top of the cappuccinos. Outside, the dark shapes of trekkers moved against the whiteness, the snow accumulating to several inches on the deck outside the window. Then, the snow still falling, the clouds thinned to reveal the Cinque Torri. The towers stood out against the clouds like sentries, their dark and precipitous shapes beautiful in their extremity.
We finished our cappuccinos. It was only mid-morning, and having cut out the first half of our hike for weather, our rifugio for the night was only a half hour hike away. Donning our jackets and hats, we headed out to circle the Cinque Torri.
The earliest part of our hike we had been forced to abort would have passed the front lines between the Austrians and Italians from the first World War, replete with long tunnels and caves. We’d been sad to have to miss it. Shortly after beginning the circuit of the Cinque Torri, however, began a network of well memorialized and maintained remnants of WWI fighting. These comprised the second line, looking down on the intense fighting below, spotting for artillery.
A few years ago I walked with my family in the trenches of the Somme. This is the place I most associate with WWI, the lines and lines of trenches in the mud where Wilfred Owen penned his “Dulce et Decorum Est,” and John McRae “In Flanders Fields,” and where small cemeteries lie littered throughout the French farmers’ fields, bodies buried where they fell. I had never considered the war in the Dolomites, and first saw it referenced with reading about an early and world-class French aviatrix and athlete, Marie Marvingt, who was not permitted to use her considerable aviation skills in the war and instead is believed to have disguised herself as a man to fight at the western front until she was discovered. When she was forced to depart, she is believed to have joined in military operations with the 3rd Regiment of Alpine Troops in the Dolomites.
There is no place for small cemeteries in the rocky Dolomites. The bones that have been recovered, both Austrian and Italian, lie in a tower in Cortina which did its best to remain neutral during the fighting. Before WWI, the town was a part of Austria, but according to one placard mounted in the trenches, the mayor advised residents to welcome the Italian soldiers to the city and not to meet them with hostility. The fighting would be left to soldiers. Other sources suggest the military aged men of Cortina made an unsuccessful attempt to fight the Italians.
Along 400 miles of front in the Dolomites, broken by the severe terrain, 689,000 Italians died (out of a population of 35m) and 400,000 Austrians between June of 1915 and October of 1917, though the sparse record keeping makes any exactitude impossible. Italy had entered the war late, hoping for territorial gains. At the end of the fighting, they were awarded the Dolomites region, soaked in Italian blood. According to Iraq veteran Brian Mockenhaupt writing for the Smithsonian, it was fighting “like none the world had ever seen, or has seen since.” Over 100 years ago, E. Alexander Powell wrote for the New York World that “On no front, not on the sun-scorched plains of Mesopotamia, nor in the frozen Mazurian marshes, nor in the blood-soaked mud of Flanders, does the fighting man lead so arduous an existence as up here on the roof of the world.”
The Dolomites in WWI Literature
This is the terrain—or not far from it-- best known through Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, and I was excited to read a newer, if also fictional, account of the war in this place. I’d begun reading A Soldier of the Great War before arriving in Italy, a novel following the extraordinary military career of an Alessandro Giuliani through remarkable and horrific experiences in WWI Italy and beyond, including two tours in the Dolomites mountains. He spent his childhood in an affluent family climbing and skiing in the Alps. Unlike most of the soldiers who headed north, he knew as a child how the “mountains acted upon them and their spirits were calmed and enlarged.”
Giuliani initially serves to defend what he calls “the Bell Tower” along the Isonzo front, the Italian name for Slovenia’s Soca valley where most of the Italian casualties occurred (and where Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms takes place), north and east of Cortina. It might be any piece of the Dolomite line, as the shapes of the huge formations all lend themselves to similar description. The details of trenches and facilities are grim, though the soldiers take liberties and risk to sneak out of their lines to swim in the river at night. At one point a soldier holds a helmet on a stick above the trench, and it is immediately shot by the Austrians. One has the sense of misery and constant engagement at close quarters, despite the beautiful setting.
In his letter home, the character Giuliani writes “it’s too tense here, and everyone is too unhappy… we are constantly expecting an Australian to come from nowhere, throw a grenade, fire some shots, and bayonet a poor idiot coming out of the latrine. This kind of thing makes you tense 24 hours a day. So do the shells. On average, 8-10 a week hit the Bell Tower and you never know when they’re coming… Another sense of tension here is that we have no privacy… I don’t care about our claims on the Alto Adige, so I’m fighting for nothing, but so is everyone and that’s not the point. A nightmare has no justification, but you try your best to last through it, even if that means playing by the rules.” Much later, Giuliani is sent back to the mountains where he is told “in the mountains the trench works are shallow and inadequate.” As he reports in his letter to his family, when morale sagged, the inept generals of the Italian Army resorted to the ancient Roman practice of decimation, executing one man out of every ten at random.
The Third Enemy
Historian Mark Thompson describes the weather and terrain in the Dolomites as a third enemy, accountable for more deaths than the bullets of either side. The Italians called the fighting in the Dolomites “il fronte verticale.” On December 13, 1916, what became known as White Friday, an avalanche covered over 10,000 soldiers. Both armies took to using huge amounts of explosives to not only create tunnels for movement, but using the rock itself as ammunition. The challenges of hauling ammunition and artillery pieces up sheer cliffs and across snowfields and glaciers resulted in casualties as well. For two years, soldiers died, and no gains were made by either side.
The maze of trenches cut and maintained in the rock around Cinque Torri lead at times to caves cut into or under the rock where mannequins demonstrate what troops might have been doing, and one expects there are tunnels here as there are across the valley. The snow blows into these trenches as well, so walking there we find only small escape from the wind. Soldiers would have had little respite. Our trip is technically a summer trek, and we have not brought gloves, which we regret, yet other than the wind the temperature likely hovers just below freezing. Soldiers who were stationed in this piece of high mountain rock would have experienced much worse, temperatures 40-50 degrees below zero and howling sustained mountain winds. I stand in one bunker and look out beneath the low cover at the valley across, imagining incoming artillery fire, imagining that there was no rifugio in which to dry my clothes and crawl into bed, imagining the terror of the enemy, of the terrain and of the leadership, imagining the unimaginable physical and psychological fatigue and the resignation to death.
A short hike beyond lay our refugio, named Averau for the peak just above it. It was here that the Italian soldiers were able to take refuge themselves, in quickly constructed dormitories. The Italian army set a wooden staircase up the side of Averau to put in an observation point for three soldiers, to observe Austrian movement, take photographs and illuminate attacks, and adjust artillery fire by using Morse Code with a large spotlight. There are no trees this high; all movement on the steep rock must have been at night.
Traveling Sacred Ground
Around the Cinque Torri, a cross still stands in the rock off one of the trenches, a reminder that this scene, this landscape, is not to be traversed lightly. How do you travel through sacred ground? Pain and tragedy lives alongside the harsh beauty of the light stone. My husband has gone ahead down the trail, and through the wind I hear the click of his trekking poles against the rock. I look up at the rock towers above. As a native Alaskan, I’ve always gone to the mountains for solace, for peace, for challenge. I love the roughness of steep terrain. The soldiers who came here, though, would have come from the flatlands far below. Despite the character in A Soldier of the Great War, most would have thought these mountains, as did HG Wells who visited in 1916, “grim and wicked.”
When we embarked for the Dolomites, we came for the peace and vitality of the mountains, the clarity that comes from pushing our bodies in high rocky places, but these trenches give me pause. I too have worn a uniform, followed orders, accepted the rigor and discomfort of circumstance, if at a different time and in a different way. In the midst of the blowing snow come whispers of the valley’s history across all of time, adding gravitas to the already stark requirements of mountain travel. This land is sacred ground. If not soldiers of my country, they were soldiers here nonetheless. All those who take an oath or submit their lives to service share a bond, even across the years. I know the feelings of despair, elation, resignation and fear. I wonder if I might honor them if not by memory, by imagination.
Our trek has just begun. Tens of miles lie ahead of us, in and out of other valleys, over other passes and high places. As we’ve traversed the Cinque Torri, still visible through the cloud, I wonder if those soldiers one hundred years ago might have paused amidst the horror, and while they watched for enemy saw too the light across the faces of the mountains and if, the way I know it, they found a sense of peace. Helprin must be sharing his hope that this is true; when Giuliani is sent back to the lines, where he and his fellow soldiers assume they will die, his commanding officer delivers a resigned message to the troops. “Should you not make it back to the table in the piazza, you will have died in the best place for dying the world has ever known. What I mean is, here, you’re practically at the gates.” The Italian poet Giuseppe Ugaretti found glimpses too, among the carnage:
high above the rubble the pure
of the infinite appears
Shannon Huffman Polson is a leadership speaker with Keppler Speakers, and the author of The Grit Project, committed to changing the conversation about women in service and leadership by sharing profiles and lessons learned of exceptional military women available at medium.com/@aborderlife. She is on the web at shannonpolson.com.
She enjoys writing about the borders we navigate every day. Her first book, a memoir called North of Hope, was released spring 2013 by Zondervan/Harper Collins. A short book of essays, The Way the Wild gets Inside, was released in December 2015. Her essays and articles have won recognition including honorable mention in the 2015 VanderMey Nonfiction Prize, and appear in River Teeth Journal, Ruminate Journal, Huffington Post, High Country News, Seattle and Alaska Magazines, as well as other literary magazines and periodicals. Her work is anthologized in The Road Ahead, More Than 85 Broads and Be There Now: Travel Stories From Around the World.
After a childhood in Alaska, Polson studied English Literature and art history at Duke University. At graduation she was commissioned as a 2LT in Army Aviation and became one of the first women to fly Apache helicopters, serving on three continents and leading two flight platoons and a line company. In the midst of school and flying came skydiving, scuba diving, big-mountain climbing and long-course triathlons. To turn all that into something practical, she earned her MBA at the Tuck School at Dartmouth, and worked with some excellent people in the corporate jungle for a few years in the medical devices industry and technology. She then started an MDiv (part-time), and decided not to pursue it, returning to her love of words with an MFA.
Polson describes her writing as a way of wrestling with life by way of words to find its beauty and possibility. Current published and pending work is in non-fiction and some fiction, both journalistic and creative, but one day soon she hopes to start sharing work in poetry as well.
Outside of work, she works as an artist-in-residence with Methow Arts. She and her husband are co-founders of Methow Episcopal and volunteer in various ways in their community. Occasionally she procrastinates by reading, painting, classical choral performance, playing piano or heading out in the mountains with the greatest adventure of her life, her husband Peter and two young boys.
In 2009 Polson was awarded the Trailblazer Woman of Valor award by Senator Maria Cantwell.