Skiing through History: Italy’s Grande Guerra Ski Tour

Italy’s Dolomites, today peaceful and picturesque, once played a significant role in World War I as home to the front line between Austria-Hungary and Italy. Between May 1915 and November 1917, armies on both sides built encampments high in the mountains and fought to the bitter end to maintain control of territory and the crucial mountain passes.  Battles took place at high altitude, often above the snowline, exposing soldiers to risks beyond combat—hypothermia, avalanches, falling rocks, and altitude sickness. In a particularly extreme situation, Austro-Hungarian soldiers even dug barracks, tunnels and storerooms into the ice and snow on Marmolada Glacier creating a “City of Ice.” Today, skiers and hikers flock to many of these same mountain locations. The Grande Guerra ski tour is a circuit that allows skiers to travel through the historic region and ski along the former front lines. With our shared appreciation of historical sites and ski adventures, the Grande Guerra (or “Great War”) ski tour provided a full day of fantastic skiing and panoramic views, all while bringing to mind the events of 100 years ago.

Grande Guerra Logistics

Like the Dolomites’ famous Sella Ronda, the Grande Guerra is a one-day skiing route suitable to intermediate and advanced skiers. The tour covers about 80-100 km (50-60 miles) on marked trails, ski lifts, and some short bus trips (for a map of the route and bus information, visit the Dolomiti Superski Ski Circuit website). There’s even a section where skiers are pulled behind a horse-drawn sleigh! The Grande Guerra route includes four separate ski resorts—Arabba/Marmolada, Civetta, Cortina d’Ampezzo, and Alta Badia—all of which are included on the Dolomiti Superski pass. You can do the Grande Guerra in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction. We chose to do the latter because it features a bit more time on skis and less time on a bus.

Grande Guerra Experience

Starting off from Arabba, we enjoyed a full day of skiing in spectacular scenery, never seeing the same view twice. January 2017 was particularly dry in the Dolomites, so there was very little natural snow around. Fortunately the region has one of the world’s most extensive snowmaking systems, so most trails were open with manmade snow and the Grande Guerra was possible. Because the Grande Guerra tour is longer than the Sella Ronda and a couple connections involve buses, it’s best to start the tour first thing in the morning and keep moving with minimal stops.

From the small town of Arabba, we climbed over the Porta Vescovo slopes, some of the steepest in the region, and headed south in the bright morning sunshine. At the top of Monte Padón, we spotted some old equipment from WWI before starting the long, 6.5 km descent to Malga Ciapela beneath the famous Marmolada Glacier—one of the most famous battlegrounds of the war. The counter-clockwise Grande Guerra tour doesn’t include the glacier (the clockwise version does) and we didn’t have time to detour from our route, so we saved it for another day. Once we reached the bottom, a short walk from the lower tram across the parking lot brought us to our first ski bus. Tickets were €5 and there was just enough space for us to get a seat for the 16 km trip.

The next stop was Alleghe, a beautiful town set right on the edge of a lake, and part of the Civetta ski area. The terrain is all below 2,000 meters and is best suited for beginners and intermediates, so the resort is popular with families. Since Civetta is off the Sella Ronda, it also seemed quieter than other areas we skied. The Grande Guerra took us up three lifts from Alleghe and down the other side to Pescul. Since we knew we had a little time before our next bus, we took an extra run on the highest lift to enjoy the great views of the surrounding mountains.

Another 20 minutes on the bus, including some serious mountain switchbacks, brought us to sun-drenched Fedare. This ski area is part of Cortina d’Ampezzo, a resort famous as the host of the 1956 Winter Olympics and its classy town, but the Grande Guerra includes quieter slopes that are set high above town on a mountain pass, separate from the rest of the ski resort. Over the back side, the Cinque Torri (“5 Towers”) area is one of the most scenic in the Dolomites with its impressive natural limestone columns. This was the only part of the tour where lack of snow changed things up a bit; normally we would have skied from Cinque Torri to the tram at Falzarego Pass, but instead we took our third and last bus ride of the day. This one was free and less than 5 minutes long.

From Falzarego Pass, a crowded tram carried us up to Lagazuoi, at 2,752 meters (9,029 feet), the highest point on the Grande Guerra’s counterclockwise route. This was a crucial spot during WWI and historic photos in the tram cabin and at the top station showed a bit of what happened there. We spent some time at the top, taking in the spectacular panorama, before starting down on the longest run of the tour. The 8.5 km (5.3 mile) intermediate Armentarola trail drops 1,095 meters (3,600′) in elevation from the high alpine, past frozen waterfalls and mountain huts, into the thick forest below.

At the end of the trail, another unique experience awaits: being pulled about a mile to the next lift behind a horse-drawn sleigh!

The horses dropped us off at the northeastern edge of Alta Badia, one of the largest resorts in the Dolomites and home to World Cup ski racing. There are a couple variations of the tour here to ski through different parts of the vast resort. Given the late afternoon hour we were ready to head home, so we got to the town of Corvara as quickly as we could. From there, it’s an easy connection back to Arabba or the rest of the Sella Ronda.

Last run to Val Gardena

Museo della Grande Guerra

While the ski tour gave us a great day out with some incredible scenery, we felt like we didn’t learn a lot about the WWI history of the area. For a more in-depth look, on a separate day we visited the Museo della Grande Guerra on Marmolada Glacier.  The highest museum in Europe (located at 2950 m), it is in the building that connects the second and third trams heading towards the top of Marmolada Glacier. The museum was extensively renovated for the centenary of WWI, and re-opened in 2015. The museum provides an extensive overview of life in the mountains during the war, complete with soldier’s uniforms, weaponry, and other artifacts that have been dug or melted out of the ice or found in old encampments. There is a good overview of life in the region before the war giving visitors a true sense of the diverse population in the area, and how the war pitted neighbors against neighbors based on ethnic and cultural lines.

The museum is on the clockwise route of the Grande Guerre ski circuit, but it is certainly worth a separate trip for history buffs or those already headed up the glacier to ski. The top of Marmolada offers some impressive views and the Bellunese trail, the longest ski descent in the Dolomites. We look forward to exploring more of this fascinating region on future ski trips!

Best views of the Sella massif from Marmolada Glacier

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