Dan and Mo Smilkstein: Hiking the Dolomites’ war caves
Italy via headlamp
Miles from Steamboat: 5,586 miles
Dates: Sept. 1-15
Factoid: WWI fighting in the Dolomites began in 1915 after Italy declared war against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, separated by a 230-mile-long, mountainous border. The battles revealed altitude and terrain as a common enemy, spawning what soldiers called, "A war within the war."
It was a far cry from the local uranium mine cave.
Dan and Mo Smilkstein persevered through dark, dank conditions on a 3,000-foot descent of the near vertical Lagazuoi Tunnel, then stepped gingerly along an exposed ledge in the fog during a multi-day trek through the Italian Dolomites last September.
Many Lagazuoi hikers clip carabiners into a steel cable for protection. But not the Smilksteins.
“That probably would have been a good idea, if we’d been able to see what we could have plunged to,” Mo says. “But it was so socked in we couldn’t see.”
Still, the challenges the Steamboat Springs couple faced were mild compared to the privations endured by the Italian soldiers who laboriously tunneled upward through the rock during an obscure action in World War I at Lagazuoi. Ultimately, the Italian troops succeeded in planting nitroglycerine in the heart of the mountain and blew up the fortress of the Austro-Hungarian soldiers who had been picking them off from above.
Sounds like the script for a black-and-white war movie starring Richard Widmark and Richard Burton but not a great vacation, right? Actually, as with all of their adventures, the Smilksteins loved it.
“It was 3,000 feet of wet, dark caves down through the mountain,” Dan says. “It’s not really recommended for a first date. We dubbed it Torture Mo day.”
In all, the day consisted of 4,000-plus feet of climbing, eight hours of hiking in the rain and fog and descending 3,300 feet through caves with head lamps. Mo says they also had to “walk along a spine at one point on a pretty rickety ladder.”
Still, it was hardly a suffer-fest for Dan and Mo, who have consulted the book “Classic Treks: The 30 Most Spectacular Hikes in the World” for inspiration to tackle massive rambles from the Indian subcontinent to Peru.
In Italy, during the course of their trek, they stayed in mountain lodges known as refugios, each with its own gourmet chef and local beer.
“It was unique for a lot of reasons,” Dan says. “It gave us an appreciation of what humans can do when they’re determined. And it was a great way to get from the summit down to the valley far below. We only went down once, while the soldiers did it all the time while carrying big loads. Afterward, we drank a large beer in their honor.”
Dan has tackled several world-class adventures, including soloing 19,785-foot Tocllaraju in Peru. During a get-away to Zion National Park last autumn, he climbed the cracks of several marquee sandstone spires. And in terms of “hanging it out there,” he acknowledges that ice climbing Vail’s Rigid Designator this winter was a bigger deal than descending the Lagazuoi Tunnel.
But frothy beers and fluffed pillows aside, it was a classic adventure for one of Steamboat’s most adventurous couples.
“If you’re in decent shape and determined, it’s a cool way to see a part of the world not everyone gets to see,” he says. “It’s a great ‘everyman’ adventure.”
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