Monte Pasubio, a rocky summit in Vicenza, was the site of some of the most important battles of the Italian Front in the First World War. Today it attracts hundreds of hikers each day who come to climb and even scramble up its steep trails and tunnels.
The two hour drive from the tiny town of Cornuda passes through vineyards, corn fields and other villages before arriving at Paso Xomo. Yes, unlike Italian, there are x’s in Venexian the language of my ancestors which is spoken in these parts. At Xomo, there is parking available for 5 Euros. The trail head begins with a large sign marking the entry to the Strade Delle 52 Gallerie as well as information plaques in Italian, German and English.
The 52 Gallery Hike
The hike takes you up a 6.5 km mule track that served as a supply road for the Italian military positions here in the First World War. 2,300 meters of the path are contained within 52 tunnels and the 2.5m wide path has an average incline of 12%, with 22% at its steepest.
Recognizing the importance of holding onto Mt. Pasubio and the whole alpine plateau, The Italian miners constructed this supply route in just 9 months. The road and tunnels are a fine example of Italian alpine engineering and hard work: Tunnel n.19 is the longest excavated passage at 320m and tunnel n.20 makes 4 helical turns as it rises steeply inside a rock spire which provides access to higher portions of the mountain. It is akin to walking inside a giant corkscrew.
Not far from the exit of tunnel n.52 is the Porte del Pasubio, the final halt of the Austro-Hungarian Strafexpedition (Punitive Expedition) offensive. One hundred meters from that is the Refugio Generale Achille Papa, a lodge where weary hikers can refuel with local meals like polenta e funghi or minestrone.
I made my descent from Porte del Pasubio at 1928m, via the Scarubi road, a much wider supply road that winds its way down the northeast face of Pasubio, to Paso Xomo at 1058m.
History of Monte Pasubio
Monte Pasubio was of great strategic importance to both the Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces and huge efforts were made to gain control of it. The Austrian offensive in the Trentino was comprised of 18 divisions, 400,000 men and more than 2,000 cannons. By 1916 at least 50,000 Italian soldiers were living, fighting and dying on Pasubio’s windswept slopes. The Italians constructed makeshift huts that were attached to the side of the mountain and safe from Austrian artillery.
In the winters most of the fighting subsided as both sides were busy just trying to survive the frigid temperatures and the terrifying threat of avalanches. During three winters of alpine combat at least 60,000 soldiers were killed by avalanches. To put that into perspective, on the entire Western Front a total of 25,000 troops died as a result of poison gas attacks.
With fighting on Pasubio resulting in stalemate, each side began mining under each others’ positions in an attempt to detonate explosives underneath sections of the opposing forces’ front line. On March 13, 1918 the Austrians ignited a 50,000kg explosive under an Italian position completely destroying it.
However, Monte Pasubio never fell and the forces of the Triple Alliance were eventually repelled as Italy marched to victory in 1918.