John Steinbeck – Introduction to "Once There Was A War"
I had just finished reading John Steinbeck’s book the night before we set out for a day tour to Monte Peralba (German name: Hochweißstein) in the Carnic Alps. The book is a compilation of newspaper and magazine articles, which Steinbeck published as a war correspondent during the Second World War. The stories tell of the heroic achievements of American and British troops during the bombing raids of Germany and the invasion of Italy.
Anyway, I had a lot to think about that night, which was certainly not correlated to any of the climbing I had done in the previous days. Most of the people, however, who have travelled the Dolomites or any of the border regions between Austria and Italy, have seen the remains of the fortifications that had been created during the First World War. There are a lot of war memorials in the region and many of the trails which you hike today date back to the pioneer trails which have been built some 90 years ago. And – come to think of it – these trails have been ingeniously designed – if ever there is a best way to reach a ridge or mountain top – you can be sure that one of the old war trails will lead exactly on that best route.
I have travelled quite a lot in these border regions (former and actual) so I was prepared for the obvious signs of WWI – caves – abandoned huts – ruined forts and the odd war memorial at 2500m elevation. The results of the war were minimal in every military respect – no ground gained, none lost. In the Carnic Alps the only real achievement was the conquest of Porze (2589m, Cima Palombino) in the main ridge by Italian troops – but the artillery they carried to the top of the mountain didn’t reach far enough to cause any damage to the nearest village on the Austrian side. Villagers who were not compelled to fight in the war were able to lead their normal life.
But enough of the history for the time being. We decided to climb Peralba mainly because there is a road into Frohntal, the valley which leads directly up to the mountain. Our apartment at Maria Luggau was some 5min away from the entrance to the valley and since you were supposed to be able to drive in there quite a way it seemed a reasonable choice. Especially since the weather forecast had called for a change to the worse with heavy rains in the afternoon.
But what a road it was! It took an hour to drive my (new!) car for 6km (4 miles) into the valley and we didn’t even reach the parking lot. Still we were quite early and set out for our ascent to Peralba. There was nothing remarkable until we reached Hochweißsteinhaus, the refuge which serves the northern part of the Carnic Main Ridge in that part. To reach Peralba from the refuge you have to climb to the Hochalpljoch Pass and there you cross into Italian territory to reach the base of Peralba.
“A thing which would never have been possible 90 years ago.” I thought in my reflective mood.
The pass itself is home to an Italian fort, which – for its age – is in a remarkable well conserved condition. In contrast to most of the other WW I buildings it has been built in concrete and though it definitely is falling apart – you can still see and distinguish the showers and latrines – both being rather crude.
The normal (and easiest) ascent to Peralba now leads to the base of the mountain and then crisscrosses along scree and gravel fields to the “schwarze Rinne” (= black gully), a steep – almost chimney like gully – which leads to the summit ridge between the eastern and main summits (see picture). Again musing about WW I, I could only wonder, how the Italian soldiers were able to move their heavy artillery equipment up such a route! Look at the picture below and you’ll see what I mean – possible – but what an effort!
The summit ridge greets you with a cave (WW I position, what else) and an inscription placed there in memory of a visit by Pope John Paul II, which urges for an end to any hostilities like the ones that happened in and around this mountain. Seeing the summit itself you can easily imagine why it was so heavily contested: it is a very broad summit, almost a plateau, there are numerous possibilities to install artillery equipment and it commands a great view of the surrounding passes. There are quite some fortifications still to be seen on the summit – the most prominent being two walled corners in the southwest and north of the plateau.
I was munching my lunch – still musing about the war – when I got asked by an Italian fellow summiteer.
FS: E' un GPS, quello che hai là? (Is that a GPS, you are having there?)
GH (mustering all my nonexistent Italian): Si.
FS: Come funziona? (How does it work?)
GH (now, that wouldn’t work in my Italian): Ehhmm, do you speak English?
FS (blank expression - English seems to be no option): Da che paese vieni? (Which country do you come from?)
FS: (still drawing blank -German another nonoption): - ??
GH (ignoring any blank expression): This (showing the waypoints) is the route I put in at home.
FS: Si. E hai preparato tutti i percorsi anticipatamente? (And you have prepared all your routes beforehand?)
GH: Si, and this (zooming in a little) is what we actually have hiked today.
FS: Ahhh! Molto accurato! (This is very accurate!)
Though certainly not one of the most enlightening discussions it was quite amusing for both of us and we both were very happy that we had talked to and understood each other. Certainly better than the likes of us had done 90 years before….
The real surprise of the day, however, awaited us when we had returned to the fort at Hochalpljoch Pass. The weather promised to stay dry for another couple of hours so we decided to climb to the Hochalpl summit (2345m) which is just a little higher than the pass. We then intended to follow the ridge line along the Austro – Italian border to Öfner Joch and from there back down to our tortured car. There is no trail along the ridge but we were sure to manage it nevertheless. Hochalpl, by the way, is site of one of the most demanding climbing routes of the whole Carnic Alps. A “mere” UIAA VII+ it has 7 VERY long pitches and after the 5th pitch there is no possibility to return (even with 50m ropes).
What awaited us on the summit of Hochalpl were the actual trenches the Italian Alpini had dug during the war. Never meant to hold out an eternity they had survived 90 years of all kinds of weather conditions on this alpine ridge. We found that having no trail didn’t pose any problems for our hike – there were the trenches. You just had to follow them and could be sure to stay exactly on the border. There was a bunker on one of the elevations and later an artillery positions with trenches running from all four directions to and in a circle around a circular flat top.
Weather finally turned for the worse and we hurried down but this whole day remains a history lesson for me. It inspired me to search my guide books for references on WW I and what I found was quite a number of summits (rather routes), which have been first climbed by unknown soldiers during World War I. I tip my hat to these pioneers (in every sense of the word) and finish this TR with a list of these summits and routes (certainly not complete):
- Grosse Kinigat / Monte Cavallino (western face)
- Grosse Kinigat / Monte Cavallino (north-eastern face)
- Königswand / Monte Cavallino (north-eastern face)
- Porze / Cima Palombino (southern ferrata)
- Porze / Cima Palombino (eastern ridge)
- Monte Chiadenis (western and south-western flanks)
- Monte Chiadenis (south-western ridge)
- Monte Chiadenis (eastern face ferrata)
- Monte Navastolt (western ridge)
- Letterspitze / Cima Letter (north face)
- Eiskarkopf (north face)
- Eiskarkopf (upper military route)
- Rauchkofel (north-eastern ridge)
- vorderer Mooskofel (south-eastern flank)
- Monte Righile (north-western ridge)
- Monte Lastroni
John Steinbeck – Introduction to "Once There Was A War"
Thanks to livioz for the "backwards translation".