Century Later Relics Emerge From a War Frozen in Time

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A vestige of alpine warfare, an Italian cannon still stands on Cresta Croce, a 3,000-meter-high Adamello ridge.

The first cold war was fought during the First World War.

Italian and Austro-Hungarian troops clashed at altitudes up to 12,000 feet (3,600 meters) with temperatures as low as -22°F (-30°C) in the Guerra Bianca, or White War, named for its wintry theater. Never before had battles been waged on such towering peaks or in such frigid conditions.

Now, a century later, the warming world is revealing the buried past, as relics and corpses are melting free of their icy tombs.

Greetings from Cercen Pass. It is storming and snow covers the highest peaks. We wait for peace, but the bad weather, the high altitudes … Peace can only come with our death.

—from the May 28, 1916, diary of C.D., a soldier from Italy’s Trentino region

Entire villages of shacks were built, though officers generally lived in old mountain refuges, some outfitted with grand pianos and gramophones. On Marmolada, the highest mountain in the Dolomites, the Austrian Corps of Engineers built an entire “ice city”—a complex of tunnels, dormitories, and storerooms dug out of the bowels of the glacier.

Now thanks to climate change once again ways are open to the frozen graveyard and only people who ventured there were “salvagers”—men who hiked up to collect leftover war materials, mostly metal, to resell by the pound. The most sought-after items were the copper, brass, and lead inside large, unexploded bombs.

“We brought a mallet with us and would pound the bomb at a very precise point so that the casing would break away,” 92-year-old Giacinto Capelli, one of the last salvagers, recalled before passing away recently. “If we made a mistake, the powder left inside could have exploded in our faces. It was such hard work. We went back down the mountain with as many as 70 kilos [150 pounds] on our backs. But there was no work in the village, and salvagers made good money. The first time I came home with 320 liras, my father jumped for joy, crying, ‘Now we can have polenta all year long!’ “

The White War artifacts found by salvagers such as Capelli have seeded several small museums. And the memory of the war continues to be a powerful draw for hikers and history enthusiasts. Luckily, Corno di Cavento holds almost perfectly preserved vestiges of emplacements, communication trenches, barbed-wire fences, embrasures, and shacks. Read More

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Makeshift housing used by Austro-Hungarian soldiers can still be seen on Caré Alto in the Adamello region. Soldiers often lived year-round in such dire—and precarious—conditions. PHOTOGRAPHS BY STEFANO TORRIONE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC-ITALIA

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A grenade shell used as a lamp hangs inside a deep passageway in a Corno di Cavento garrison. The Austrians dug the military post into the rock; the Italians conquered it twice. The cave is now accessible to visitors. PHOTOGRAPHS BY STEFANO TORRIONE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC-ITALIA

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War memorabilia is still being discovered on the Alpine frontier, shedding light on the lives of the soldiers from both sides, including a gas mask, hat, and glacier glasses (left) and a cross made out of barbed wire (right). PHOTOGRAPHS BY STEFANO TORRIONE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC-ITALIA

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At left: A framed mirror holds a woman’s portrait. At right: An oil lamp. PHOTOGRAPHS BY STEFANO TORRIONE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC-ITALIA