Formation & History of the Dolomites

Formation & History of the Dolomites

The Dolomites are part of the Southern Alps and are striking because of their unique pale Dolomite rock. Geographically they straddle the borders of three Italian provinces: South Tyrol, Trentino and Belluno.

The characteristic rock of the Dolomites consists of fossilised coral reefs formed during the Triassic Period (around 250 million years ago) by organisms and sedimentary matter at the bottom of the ancient tropical Tethys Ocean. The Alps arose as a result of the collision of the African and European tectonic plates, forcing the rocks at the point of impact to soar skyward. The western part of the Tethys Ocean which formerly divided these two continents disappeared. The Dolomites became mountains.

The varied composition of the rock formations is striking. The Sciliar/Schlern and Sella massifs take the form of table mountains with extensive high areas of grassy meadows such as the Alpe di Siusi/Seiser Alm between them. Elsewhere rugged, fractured massifs soar in sharp contrast, for example the Tre Cime di Lavaredo/Drei Zinnen and the Catinaccio/Rosengarten. The reason for this lies in the base rocks which are volcanic in origin. They erode more easily, giving rise to fracturing and rounded-off areas of level land. The only remaining glacier in the Dolomites is the Marmolada in the Province of Belluno.

The mountain range and its characteristic rock take their name from the French geologist Déodat de Dolomieu (1750-1801) who made the first scientific study of the region and its geology. Before him the mountains were widely called the "Monti pallidi" - "Pale mountains". The actual "dolomite" described by Dolomieu is a type of mineral consisting of calcium magnesium carbonate found in varying proportions in the whitish-grey sedimentary limestone rock of the Dolomite mountains.

The Ladin language has survived in the seclusion of the once inaccessible Dolomite valleys. Ladin is a Rhaeto-romance language. As its name implies, it developed from old Rhaetian which according to Roman scholars was an Etruscan language, and Vulgar Latin. Centuries ago it was far more widespread in the Alps, while today it survives only in tucked-away enclaves (the Dolomites and the Engadine dialect of the Grisons in Switzerland).

Furthermore, the German and Italian language boundary runs through the Dolomite area. For this reason all three languages are spoken in the South Tyrolean valleys Val Badia/Gadertal and Val Gardena/Gröden.

Numerous legends have grown up around the origins of the mountains and natural phenomena such as why the west-facing Dolomites glow crimson in the sunset. In the Dolomite sagas various mythical figures populate the mountains, including moon princesses and dwarf kings.

The history of mountaineering in the Dolomites began on 3 August 1802 with the first attempt to climb Marmolada, which at 3,342 metres is the highest of the Dolomite peaks. At that time, an expedition of 5 men—3 priests, a surgeon, and a judge—dared to summit Marmolada’s second highest peak: the Punta Rocca. Throughout the course of the nineteenth century, Europe’s alpine pioneers conquered all of the important summits, often with the help of local mountain guides. The opening of the Brenner Railway in 1867 made the region more accessible to travellers. Initially, it was mainly thrill-seekers that answered the call of the unknown, but ordinary curious tourists hailing from all over Europe soon followed suit in paying a visit to the Pale Mountains.

The Austro-Hungarian and Italian border ran through the Dolomites from 1866 to 1918. South Tyrol, Trentino, Buchenstein and Cortina were Austrian. Italy joined the Allies during the First World War, after which the mountain front ran through the Dolomites from May 1915 to November 1917.

The scars and traces of the war can be seen in numerous places, for example as dugouts and tunnels excavated through the rock. In April 1916 the Italian army tunnelled beneath the Austrian position on the Col di Lana, placed explosives there and blew it up. The gash in the mountain can still be seen. Today the Dolomites are entirely in Italian territory, distributed in roughly equal portions between the provinces of South Tyrol, Trento and Belluno.

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