Conquering the peaks
”A young Alpine mountaineer climbs the Dolomite peaks. He admires them, loves them, and feels his heart leap with joy as the subtle natural beauty of the mountain heights lies before him. He instinctively feels he should capture the moment. He’s able to do this with the modern – albeit rudimentary – photographic equipment available at the end of the 1800s, even though it is an arduous effort to carry his portrait cameras, dry plates and tripods up to such altitudes, sometimes involving ascents onto rock walls.” (Theodor Wundt, Wanderungen in den Ampezzaner Dolomiten, 1895)
His hard work is rewarding: the pictures taken more than a century ago by the pioneers of mountaineering in the Dolomites evoke admiration and profound feelings even today. At the time, the magnificent works by German and English photographers that made the Dolomites known to mountain enthusiasts at the end of the 1800s – an important time in mountaineering – greatly encouraged travel to in the areas and valleys, from the sublime basin of Ampezzo that already welcomed thousands of tourists per year, to the Sella valleys: Fassa, Val Gardena, Val Badia and Livinallongo.
Although many famous adventurers are included in the first pioneering phase in the Dolomites, historiographers usually attribute the leadership of “inaugurating the Dolomite era” to Vienna outdoorsman Paul Grohmann (1838-1908) because of his feats and, particularly, his writings. Grohmann was a founding member of the Austrian Alpine Club Österreichischer Alpenverein and reached Cortina in 1862. He was stunned to learn that nobody had ever climbed the magnificent peaks around the village. In the years to follow, Grohmann reached the summits of several peaks with the help of Francesco Lacedelli – nicknamed “Checo da Meleres”, who at age 60 became the first Alpine Guide in Ampezzo – and Angelo Dimai. He conquered Piz Boè in the summer of 1864 with Giuseppe Irschara, only to find signs left behind previously by a shepherd or a hunter. The same year, on September 28, Grohmann was the first to ascend the peak of Punta Penia (3,343 m a.s.l.) on the Marmolada together with Ampezzo guides Angelo and Fulgenzio Dimai. He was also the first to reach the summit of Sassolungo on 13 August 1869 with Peter Salcher and Franz Innerkofler. Following this feat, the same year Grohman was the first to climb the Cima Grande (“big peak”) of the Tre Cime di Laveredo with the guide from Sesto Pusteria, Franz Innerkofler.
In 1875 Grohmann significantly contributed to bringing the Dolomites to fame by publishing a detailed color map – the first of its kind – entitled “Karte der Dolomiten-Alpen”. Two years later he collected the most important aspects of his numerous ascents in the Dolomites in a travel book; “Wanderungen in den Dolomiten” (1877) was published in Vienna and covered Grohmann’s experiences between 1862 and 1869. The publication was an enormous success in all of Europe and stimulated mountain tourism in the Dolomite Ladin Valleys considerably, in particular to Cortina d’Ampezzo.
The first stage of pioneering ended when there were no more major first-ascents left to conquer. Mountaineers then began to search for new adventures on increasingly difficult rock walls, through single climbs, and winter ascents, sometimes with skis.
In the last two decades of the 19th century and in the early 20th century, enthusiasm for alpine mountaineering adventures still ran high. To capture this eagerness, mountaineering turned its attention towards first-ascents up minor peaks, many of which were in the Dolomites, and towards finding new routes to summits that had already been conquered. It was during this search for new adventure that new climbing styles were developed: guideless climbing (climbing without an expert mountain guide), single climbing (without a rope team), winter mountaineering (involving the different and very challenging problems that snow and ice-covered mountains, extreme temperatures and potential avalanches can pose), and ski touring (covering long distances in the “backcountry” on skis). These were the years of impressive personal achievements, such as the first winter ascents to Lavaredo’s Cima Piccola (“small peak”) and the Tofana di Mezzo in 1893 by the German climber Theodor Wundt, and feats by other great alpine mountaineers such as the Austrian Paul Preuss, the German Hans Dülfer, Tita Piaz from Val di Fassa – nicknamed “the devil of the Dolomites” for the audacity of many of his exploits – and Angelo Dibona from Ampezzo. Considering the rudimentary equipment available at the time, these mountaineers achieved an extremely high level of knowledge and skills – facing primarily Grade V difficulties. Most of the routes conquered during this period satisfy today’s numerous alpine mountaineers because their overall difficulty is no longer as extreme and their beauty is exceptional.
During the thirty years preceding World War I, a new force began to slowly and consistently energize the lives of the people living in the valleys in the entire Dolomite region. The local population began to see alpine tourism as an important opportunity to boost their otherwise precarious and extremely harsh economical and financial situation, and as a beacon for social change. The continuous and growing success of tourism in the Dolomites was favored by the construction of the Brennero and Val Pusteria railways, and led to improvements in the existing – albeit few and extremely modest – local hotels. Many inns were transformed into comfortable hotels; homes became inns, and modest restaurants opened. The mountaineering clubs, especially the Austrian and German Alpine Club“Deutscher und Österreichischer Alpenverein” (D.u.Ö.A.V.), and the Italian Alpine Club together with the important “Società Alpinisti Tridentini” (S.A.T.), competed to build numerous shelters for mountaineers, even on some of the Dolomites’ most remote peaks.