In the Dolomite mountains of Italy, a system of metal cables, posts, and rungs offers less-experienced climbers the chance to survey sweeping vistas that might otherwise be inaccessible without some serious mountaineering chops. And although the via ferrata, or iron road, offers up scenic beauty today, it is a remnant of a military campaign in which thousands of men lost their lives.
As Dylan Thuras explains in the new Atlas Obscura video above, when Italy declared war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1915, soldiers on both sides began fighting at the top of the Dolomite Mountains. They built storerooms and barracks on the peaks, and waged battles at altitudes up to 12,000 feet. To ferry soldiers and supplies up the grueling route, the Italian military also constructed an elaborate system of cabling and iron rungs—today known as the via ferrata.
By time the Dolomite Front was abandoned in 1917, 150,000 men had died on the mountains, though more because of cold and exposure than bullets. When WWI ended, the military abandoned the via ferrata, but the route began to be cared for by local mountaineering groups and turned into a tourist attraction. Today, you can climb the route at your leisure, as well as visit the bunkers and tunnels of the front. Vie ferrate, as the plural is known in Italian, have also been expanded to other areas of that country as well as all over the world.