The Dolomites: A Treasure for Climbers and Science

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Dolomites make up a vast mountain range in Northeastern Italy. They are a treasure for climbers and the scientific community.

the dolomites south Tyrol italy

When we think of the Dolomites, we think of the late Tom Ballard, who felt the most at home in this Italian paradise. Stretching across 350,650 acres (141,903 ha.) of rocky summits, this mountain range has been appealing to mountaineers and scientists for decades.

How the Dolomites Got Their Name

It was in 1846 that the Dolomite mountains got their official name. But naming this mountain range wasn’t as simple as it sounds. The Dolomites were named after a mineral, that was named after a scientist.

For this, we have to go back to 1791 and the career of Déodat de Dolomieu (1750-1801). The year was 1791, and Dolomieu has now visited the Dolomite mountain range several times, beginning in 1789.

Observing the mountain’s geological structures, he came across some rocky samples that resembled limestone. The subsequent year, he had them sent to Swiss mineralogist Nicolas de Saussure and analyzed. To his surprise, he had discovered a new mineral.

Two years later, in 1794, it was Richard Kirwin who suggested the mineral should be named after the man who discovered it. Henceforth, this mineral would be known as dolomite CaMg(CO3)2. 

But how did the Dolomites get their name? What’s the connection? Well, the Dolomites’ official name was cemented in two books. According to a Forbes article by geologist David Bressan, in a book titled “The Horns of the Dolomites”, published in 1846, was the first time a mineral had been documented as having been used to name a mountain.

Later, in 1864, alpinists J. Gilbert and G.C. Churchill reinforced this name in their guide book, The Dolomite Mountains.

The Scientific Importance of the Dolomites

The Dolomites can be considered a giant encyclopedia of the natural history of planet Earth. Both vertically and horizontally, this mountain range tells the story of rock formations, landscape changes and animal evolution dating back to the Paleozoic era 250 million years ago.

During the late Permian era, the location in which the Dolomites now stand was completely underwater. For over 200 million years, these structures built themselves up as coral reefs in the depths of the primordial ocean called Tethys that covered this vast landscape.

As the water rose, these coral reefs built up their barriers higher over time. Eventually, when the continents collided and the sea receded, what was left were the iconic spires and jagged summits of the Dolomites we see today. Essentially, these mountains are nothing more than coral barriers that have been fossilized over millions of years.

The unique history of the Dolomites makes it a prime location for fossil research, as they are easily found in the area and comprise everything from early mollusks to the imprints of ancient foliage.

Climbing the Dolomites

The Dolomites have been a fascinating location for notable people for centuries, climbers included. Here, young climbers make a name for themselves speed climbing peaks and attempting to climb as many of them as possible.

Dani Arnold Speed Record on Cima Grande

In recent notable history, Dani Arnold set a new speed world record on the Cima Grande North Face. His time to beat was 1 hr. 5 min on the Comici Dimai Route (550 m). Arnold made it to the top in 40 min. 30 sec.

Tom Ballard, “A Line Above the Sky

The late Tom Ballard, King of the Alps, was most at home in the Dolomites. In 2009, his family moved from Scottland to the Alps where he later settled in at the base of Val di Fassa in the Dolomites. Here, he set out to establish his climbing career, and with these mountains in his literal backyard, Tom shortly began to claim the territory as his playground.

In 2015, he was proclaimed King of the Alps after climbing all six great North Faces of the Alps in a single winter season, a feat his mother, Alison Hargreaves, accomplished in a summer season. Later, in 2016, he created what at the time was considered the hardest dry-tooling route in the Dolomites and in the world, “A Line Above the Sky.

Located at Tomorrow’s World Cave situated at the base of Marmolada, “A Line Above the Sky” was labeled a D15 climb. At the time, Tomorrow’s World was Ballard’s biggest project, having begun bolting and developing the cave in October of 2014 when he discovered it.

The Highest Point of the Dolomites

The Dolomites are a vast section of the Alps. Within this mountain range sits the highest point of Marmolada. Measuring 10,968 ft. (3343 m), Marmolada was first ascended by Paul Grohmann in 1864 via the North Route. In 1901, Beatrice Tomasson, Michele Bettega and Bartolo Zagonel were the first people to climb the South Face.

The Six Great North Faces of the Alps – Cima Grande di Lavaredo

Within the Dolomites Mountain Range is one of the six great North Faces of the Alps, Cima Grande di Lavaredo. It is also the most iconic structure of the Dolomites, standing firm as three great barriers.

cima grande di lavaredo in the dolomites

Many alpinists vie to ascent all six of the Great North Faces of the Alps. Cima Grande di Lavaredo is made up of three peaks,

  • Cima Piccola, “little peak”
  • Cima Grande, “big peak”
  • Cima Ovest “western peak”

The Cima Grande North Face was first ascended in 1933 by Emilio Comici. Individually, the three Cima Grande di Lavaredo peaks were summited by different climbers with approximately one decade between them.

As mentioned, Paul Grohmann completed the first ascent of the Cima Grande on 21 August 1869. One decade later, the Cima Ovest was first climbed by Michel Innerkofler and G. Ploner on 21 August 1879. Two years later, the Cima Piccola was first ascended on 25 July 1881 by Michel and Hans Innerkofler.

These three peaks remain apt challenges for experienced climbers, particularly the route carved by the Innerkofler’s on Cima Piccola, which is considered the hardest of the three normal routes.

The Cima Grande di Lavaredo is the second of the Six Great North Faces of the Alps. The other five are:

  • The Matterhorn
  • Petit Dru
  • Piz Badile
  • The Eiger
  • Grandes Jorasses

Traveling to the Dolomites

The dolomites remain a major tourism attraction for climbers, hikers, nature enthusiasts, scientists and more. But travel to these great mountains can be a bit tricky. So if you’re planning on taking a trip to the Dolomites, here’s what you need to know.

Which is the closest airport to the Dolomites?

Depending on where you’re coming from, there are three airports that are best for traveling to the dolomites. If you’re coming from a non-euro location, the Venice Marco Polo (VCE) airport is the best choice, especially if you’re going for a ski trip to Cortina d’Ampezzo, Arabba Marmolada or Civetta. Alternately, you can try Munich International Airport (MUC) or Milan Malpensa Airport (MXP).

If you’re traveling from a European starting point, Innsbruck Airport (INN) in Austria is the best choice.

Transportation From Airports

If your destination is Venice Marco Polo or Venice Mestre Train Station, take the Cortina Express or ATVO bus services. These offer the fastest, most direct travel options. Alternatively, Flixbus offers a cheaper option for travel to Cortina from Venice.

Overall, the Dolomites are and will continue to be a treasure to both climbers and the scientific community. If you get the chance to travel there, don’t miss it.

One response to “The Dolomites: A Treasure for Climbers and Science

  1. I think if you like being one with the wilderness, you could live in the Dolomite valleys forever and never get tired.


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