During World War I, elite Italian soldiers who were trained to fight in freezing climates climbed high up into the Alps to battle enemies from Austria and Germany. The three-year war they waged, at elevations topping 6500 feet, is often referred to as the White War. Now, 100 years later, that snow and ice is slowly melting—and what lies beneath is like something straight out of a horror movie: The century-old corpses of both Austrian and Italian soldiers, perfectly preserved.
The great thaw seems to have started in 2004, when three Austrian Hapsburg soldiers revealed themselves. Nearly every summer since, the melting ice has given way to a handful of corpses—more than 80 so far. There are certainly plenty more to find: Roughly 150,000 men died on the Alpine front, and not all in battle. In fact, the elements were more cruel to the soldiers than the fighting was, with more than two-thirds dying due to avalanches, frostbite, and illness.
Bodies aren’t the only things hiding under the ice. Incredibly complex tunnels and garrisons were built right into the glaciers and snow; as it all melts, other wartime relics have slowly appeared. Archaeologists have discovered photos of soldiers’ families, letters and diaries, decks of cards, even food that has been preserved in the cold for all of these years. But, in addition to battling the natural process of decay, archaeologists have another challenge: getting to the remains and artifacts before looters unearth and sell them, either for scrap metal in the case of artillery, or online when the items seem collectible.
Despite the incredible preservation, it’s nearly impossible to identify the soldiers. Even so, the fallen men receive respectful military funerals once they’ve been excavated and sometimes studied by archaeologists. In 2013, more than 500 people turned out to honor two soldiers who had died during the Battle of Presena in May 1918.
Editor's note: This story has been updated.