How the road to Vršič was built

Beautiful Russian mountain road to Vršič pass at the sunset

How the road to Vršič was built

The diary of Franc Uran, who lived on Vršič from 1909 to 1916, takes us live into the times when and, above all, how the road to Vršič was built.

(Planinski vestnik, XIII / 1957, s.151-163)

How the road to Vršič was built

There have been several writings about the road over Vršič, both in the old Yugoslavia and now after the liberation, but these descriptions were brief and incomplete because the authors of these lines were not familiar with the location well. I believe that it is necessary for the public to become well acquainted with the history of this road, which remains tremendously important even today.

Since I lived near the source of the Soča River for a full seven years. t. j. from 1909 to 1916 and was employed in the construction of this road from beginning to end, t. j. Until the arrival of that terrible avalanche on Vršič, which buried 110 Russians, I consider it almost my duty to describe this event, as I was present during this catastrophe.

In January 1909, I started working for Ivan Zakotnik, the master carpenter and mayor of Gornja Šiška at that time. Shortly after I started working, a trader from Kamnik named Franc Cvek came to Zakotnik and offered to sell him the Velika Planina forest in Trenta.

The personal diary of life on Vršič pass when the Russian road was built.

How the road to Vršič was built

The Russian road…

Zakotnik decided to make the purchase, and at the end of March of the same year, Zakotnik, Cvek, and I went to Kranjska Gora, where we visited the innkeeper Pristavec. Pristavec was the owner of the forest, and he had bought it from the municipality of Kranjska Gora. At that time, there was almost a meter of snow in Kranjska Gora. We decided to go to the forest the next day, for which we had to prepare thoroughly because we were warned that there was a lot of snow at the “top”. Therefore, we equipped ourselves with snowshoes and set off early the next day from Kranjska Gora. We were led by Mrak, a local official who was familiar with the situation.

The journey went relatively smoothly until we reached Klin, as the road was already cleared up to that point. From Klin onwards, we had to put on snowshoes because we were walking through deep snow. We couldn’t see the trail at all. Those who were familiar with the old trail, which was extremely steep, will surely admit that walking with snowshoes on deep snow was extremely exhausting. We took turns breaking the trail through the snow so that one person wasn’t always leading the way. Pristavec was a heavyset man and he struggled the most during the hike.

Finally, we arrived at Močilo, from where we could also see the then-called “Vosshiitte,” but it was closed at the time. We had to continue further, and with great difficulty, we finally reached the top at Jezerca, as the locals from Kranjska Gora called it, or Kranjski Vrh, as the people from Trenta called it.

The forest we went to see started immediately below the summit on the left side of the current road and extended down along the Lepa River, where the nursery is located today, towards Zadnji Prisojnik, all the way to the Razorska Korita and towards the summit of Prisojnik, as long as the spruce and larch trees grew. We couldn’t see much of the forest because the path into the woods was impassable, and we were already quite tired. Therefore, we only explored a part of the forest near Leme before continuing down into the valley. By the way, we also visited the source of the Soča River, which was buried under the avalanche, and we had to use a candle to find our way to the source beneath the snow. Then we continued our journey to Log in Trenta, where we stopped at Čot (Zorž) next to Baumbach’s inn.

For me, it was an incredibly exhausting journey because at that time I wasn’t yet accustomed to the mountains. We stayed overnight at Čot’s place, and the next day we continued on foot to Bovec since there was no means of transportation available. From Bovec, we traveled by mail carriage to Sv. Lucija, where we once again spent the night. The next day, we took the train towards Jesenice. During the journey, the bargaining progressed to the point where we stopped in Bohinjski Beli got off and went to the first inn there, where the deal was finalized. In the afternoon of the same day, we traveled to Ljubljana.

So the forest was purchased, and I was assigned to oversee the work in the forest. We searched for lumberjacks and carpenters. As soon as we learned that the snow had melted, we headed to the forest in May of the same year.

I went with them as well. Since the Vosshiitte was already open at that time, I temporarily stayed there. Meanwhile, the lumberjacks felled some spruce trees and used spruce bark to make makeshift roofs. I must also mention the road from Kranjska Gora to Vršič at that time, which we couldn’t see in winter due to the snow.

The forest path was poorly maintained until Klina, where there was a makeshift bridge over the Pišenca stream. From Klina onwards, it was actually just a narrow trail that ascended very steeply in some places. At Žlebič (below the current Mihov Dom), there was a spring where people would usually take a break. Od Žlebiča dalje je bila steza na več krajih razrita od hudournikov, malo pod Močilom pa je bila zasuta od peska in kamenja od plaza. Even from Močilo onwards, the path towards the summit was often buried by avalanches. A pedestrian could easily reach the summit, but it was impossible to reach it by carriage or vehicle. Therefore, at that time, food and drinks had to be carried on one’s back to the Vosshiitte.

How the road to Vršič was built

Russian road on Vršič pass

How the road to Vršič was built

The other side towards Trenta was even worse. On the Kranjska Gora side, some forest owners would occasionally transport timber towards Klina, which somewhat cleared the path to Klina. On the Trenta side, the path was left to its own devices and therefore severely neglected, usable only for pedestrians. It was a narrow goat path that wound along the slopes of the current road to Huda Ravne, past Komac’s monument, and further on to Lepa, where the current nursery is located. From here on, the path is still exactly the same as it was 45 years ago. That’s how the passage from Kranjska Gora to Trenta was back then, only suitable for pedestrians and definitely not for any vehicles.

The locals in Trenta said that a few years before I arrived there, the Austrian army had conducted exercises in the area. They mentioned that during that time, some smaller cannons were brought over Vršič and even transported to Trenta, but with great difficulty. They also mentioned that some of them slid off the road. At that time, no one could have imagined that a motor road across Vršič would be feasible.

Therefore, it was necessary to ensure first and foremost the construction of a suitable road that would enable the transportation of supplies and tools needed in the forest, as well as the transportation of felled and processed timber back. My task was to take care of all of that. I hired workers in Kranjska Gora and Trenta. We started the work in Kranjska Gora and focused primarily on clearing, repairing, and widening the road from Kranjska Gora to Klina, making it suitable for vehicles during the summer. At that time, there was only a bridge over Pišenca in Klin, so we had to build a new bridge. From Klina onwards towards the summit, I had to stick to the old forest path because the local landowners would not allow any new route through their forests at that time. Tracing a new road would have been too expensive as well. This path was extremely steep in some places, often interrupted by torrents and landslides. The small bridges over the torrents were in ruins.

We managed to overcome all these obstacles as best we could. We widened the path wherever possible, built new bridges over the torrents, and generally prepared the route for drivers, all the way to the top of the pass. Of course, at that time, nobody anticipated the arrival of autumn and winter, along with the torrents and landslides they bring. Nevertheless, the road was ready for vehicle traffic in just over two months. During that time, I resided in Voss Hut because our settlement was not yet completed.

In the meantime, we searched for a location where the headquarters of our company would be established, along with the necessary buildings for the accommodation of staff and workers, barns, and so on. Due to the risk of avalanches, we had to seek advice from the locals, and the people from Trenta advised us to establish the facilities in a small basin below Huda Ravno, where there was also a spring of good clean water, which unfortunately no longer exists today. Here, we first built a log house (Blockhaus) covered with spruce bark. This is where we had the temporary living quarters for Zakotnik and myself, as well as the office. The other part of the house was for the lumberjacks and carpenters. At the same time, we started building a beautiful mountain hut on a nearby hill, with four rooms, a kitchen, a cellar, and an attic. The hut was equipped with iron stoves and a stove for cooking. So I moved from Vossova to our own hut at the end of June.

How the road to Vršič was built

Beautiful Russian mountain road to Vršič pass at the sunset

How the road to Vršič was built

The first year, t. j. In 1909, we were only cutting on the left slope of the current road towards Prisojnik, while also working on improving the road to the top, which was in very poor condition. We had to wait until winter for transportation using sledges on the snow. Since there wasn’t much timber on that slope, but rather the main part of the forest was on the southern side of Prisojnik, it was necessary to take care of the road to that part of the forest. The only trail in Zadnji Prisojnik was the one that led to Prisojnik’s window and further up to Prisojnik itself, which branched off slightly below the window to the right towards Zadnji Prisojnik, and the trail over Robec. Both trails were not suitable for exporting timber from Zadnji Prisojnik. So I traced a road from our settlement across Šupca and then further towards Zadnji Prisojnik through the plain called “Na Leže”. “Na Leže” was a flat area where we established another settlement. The construction of the road from our settlement below Huda Ravno to Šupca and further to Na Leže was extremely challenging and dangerous due to steep slopes and unstable ground. Similarly, the area beyond Šupca presented similar challenges. It would have been impossible to construct a road beneath Šupca because it would have required cutting into solid rock, which would have been too costly. We did not continue the road construction beyond Lež because the army surpassed us in that area.

We continued with the logging of the forest until 1914 when the war started. During the summer, we would cut and prepare the timber, and in winter, we would transport it to the station in Kranjska Gora. We usually had lumberjacks from Bača pri Podbrdu for cutting, and carpenters from the Loška Dolina region, as well as some from Trenta, for timber processing. Until the start of the war, we did not have any accidents at our facility.

How the road to Vršič was built

Mountain road covered with snow. The Russian road was built during the war, and it takes more than 10.000 lives when was built.

How the road to Vršič was built

We also got used to winter conditions and took precautions in time to protect ourselves from avalanches.

The avalanche below Močilo, the one from Slemen that usually went towards Vršič Pass, and the avalanche below Mojstrovka were particularly dangerous. During winter, we used to plant long poles in the snow from Močilo to the summit so that the drivers could orient themselves when they arrived late in the evening from Kranjska Gora. As soon as it seemed that avalanches might occur, we would stop all traffic over the pass. Once the avalanches had cleared, we would create a path over them for sleds and continue with the transportation. We were never overtaken by any accidents.

I spent all my free time climbing all the peaks around there: Mojstrovka, Prisojnik, Razor, Jalovec, and so on. I often visited Zlatorog on Log, where I would meet with the innkeeper and the then-mayor Cundro, p. d. Tondrom was a very good friend. Today he lives in Maribor, where he had to move after his estate in Log was sold. I used to hike alone most of the time, but occasionally I would take along a worker who enjoyed the mountains.
In my cabin, I often had various visitors. During that time, it was very rare to find a Slovenian who would come across Vršič to Trenta. There were often Czech visitors, among them two, one of whom was supposedly named Dvorsky, who would come to the Julian Alps every year. There were many German visitors, especially from Carinthia, and also some from the Reich, mostly Bavarians. Many of them stopped at our settlement, rested, and asked for information. Even Dr. Kugy and Bois de Chesne stopped by us on several occasions.

Many came to us for official purposes, including foresters from Bovec and Tolmin who indicated the wood for us. With them always came Andrej Komac (Mota), the son of guide Andrej Komac, who has a monument on Huda Ravna, where he froze to death a year before our arrival. I became friends with Andrej Komac and visited him several times at his home in Log. During the First World War, he disappeared without a trace. “Špik” – Tožbar from Sv. Marija also came several times, whom I visited at his home a few years ago. He did not recognize me anymore as he had lost his memory in old age. Among Slovenian tourists, I remember only Dr. Bogdan Žužek, who was once with his mother in our cottage.

In 1910 Prof. Ludwig, then President of the D.U.O.A.V., came to Zakotnik and agreed to extend the then Vosshiitta. I was commissioned to draw up a plan and a budget, and indeed the opening of the enlarged Voss hut took place in 1911. The eastern wing of the current Erjavčeva mountain hut, where the bedrooms are, is as I designed it at the time and has not been altered.

Among the workers, many of whom were Trentarians, there were also a number of poachers. Since I started, I have had no way of knowing who is fishing. We knew he had a hidden gun somewhere near the settlement. As dawn broke, a wild goat fell somewhere in Prisojnik. Finally, we found out that it was Škafar and Vertelj Anton, who were each hunting for themselves. As we sat around the fire in the bailey, they told us various adventures about these poachers: how Škafar carried a chamois through Pi-isojnik’s window to escape the hunters, how the poachers tied the game warden Košir from Kranjska gora above the anthill with his head above the anthill, and how he was accidentally saved by a shepherd so that the ants didn’t devour him. Škafar was said to have fished for trout in the Soca. The hunter watched it with binoculars from the top of the hill. Škafar went home with his prey, and the hunter made a trail in the sand and went to Škafar’s home to prove the theft of the trout. The proof failed, however, because the footprint in the sand did not match the shoes, because Škafar had a pair of huge shoes that were not suitable for his feet.

Our settlement consisted of an administrative house on a hill, a building for workers, a kitchen, a smithy, a charcoal store and two stables. We had 6 to 8 horses, sometimes more. Šmon, a saddler from Črnuče, repaired the horse equipment. Once he asked me to go with him to Mojstrovka and to collect some mountain pine trees to take home. I led him from the top over the scree behind Sito, so that we could then go along the ridge to Mojstrovka and collect the mountain lilies there. My husband was very excited to get so high. But when we came out from behind Sito on the ridge, where there is a very nice view of the upper Trenta, Grintovec, Jalovec, etc., his head spun, he covered himself with his cape, sat down on the ground, and I couldn’t get him out of his seat any more. I took him by the hand and led him back to the scree, where he was relieved. I went to collect the mountain lilies for him. Apparently my husband still lives in Črnuče.

How the road to Vršič was built

Russian road on Vršič pass

How the road to Vršič was built

The winter of 1912 was extremely severe. A lot of snow fell and we stopped all work over the winter, including sending the horses to Kranjska Gora. Before Easter, I came to our settlement to sort out a few things. I was alone. Meanwhile, it has started to snow and it is a terribly cold night and day, without a break.

I tried to snowshoe my way to get over the summit and into Kranjska Gora, but with the greatest effort I barely made it to Huda Ravna. So I went back to the hut and gave in to fate. I had enough food to get by, but it was monotonous. Days passed and 14 days passed, and still no one from Trento was there to go to Kranjska Gora. That day Šilov Lojz brought me some milk and eggs, because in Trento they knew that I was alone in the hut. I was very happy to see it. I still didn’t dare to go over the top because the snow was soft. So I was left alone for three whole weeks. After three weeks, the first Trentars arrived, paving the way over the summit, and we arrived together in Kranjska Gora. At home, they were convinced I was snowed in. Nobody could reach me from Kranjska Gora either. This was the time when the “Titanic” sank and Dr Cerk was killed a short time later on the Stool.

As spring began, avalanches began to rule. From all sides, from Prisojnik, Mojstrovka and Travnik, they made their way into the valley. Then there was thunder and roaring, especially at night, so that it was impossible to sleep. Huge masses of snow used to pour down into the valley. A particularly large avalanche came every year from Travnik and rolled into the ravine below our settlement. It never reached our settlement.

The most dangerous avalanche for our settlement was the one from Prisojnik. That’s why we didn’t dare to cut any wood above our settlement, because every year it was the forest that held back this avalanche. The forest was under the protection of the forestry administration and we were only allowed to clear certain areas, and not densely.

Our hut was built with a very strong ceiling over the cellar, so that we could hide there in case of danger. This cellar still exists today, but the hut was washed away by an avalanche in 1917.

In those days, it was a real pleasure to walk from Močil over the summit and on towards Trenta. In spring, all these slopes were a single rose bush. On the Goriška side towards Huda Ravna, there were mountain flowers of all kinds.

I have always felt very comfortable among the Trentarians. I loved them. They were good, soft-spoken people who were a pleasure to talk to and listen to. Trentar was used to suffering and was content with little. For a year and a day, he ate only polenta and sometimes “chompas”. He did not know bread.

Only if he went to Kranjska Gora did he buy it. He drank Trentar “gajst”, i.e. j. He bought some plain spirit, which he diluted with water at the first well. Every Trentar carried a bottle of this when he left home and offered a sip to everyone he met. At that time, the Trentans went shopping in Bialystok.

How the road to Vršič was built

The curves of Russian road in winter from the drone

How the road to Vršič was built

They also drove their small livestock to the seminary in Bialystok. They usually went there to see a doctor. So he walked the whole way, first over Vršič and then over Podkorensko sedlo.

If Trentar went to Kranjska Gora, he said he was going over Kranjski vrh to Kranj = Kranjska Gora. But no one said it was going over Vršič. The Kranjska Gora people said they were going to “Jezerec” because at that time there was a small lake right on the pass, which never dried up. Our road withdrew, and then the military road broke it up. Voss’s hut was called both by the Trentars and by the Kranjskogorci the Hut on Močil. Officially, it was then called Vršič Prelaz Mojstrovka. During the war, the military commandos also called Vršič “Mojstrovka-Pass”.

But when the First World War broke out in July 1914, we had to temporarily stop all work because the workers had to leave for the war. In the autumn, we started work again, but on a very reduced scale. Despite the triumvirate, Austria had no confidence in Italy and slowly began to prepare for war against it. In the meantime, negotiations continued, but, as is well known, they failed. Thus, in the autumn of 1914, the High Command began preparations on this section as well.

One of the most important issues for trips to the mountains in that era was the question of good shoes. The first time we walked across Vršič in the winter in the snow, I was wearing ordinary walking shoes, which of course got soaked immediately and I suffered a lot on the way. Later, when I came into contact with hunters and foresters in Trento, I saw that they had excellent, strong, waterproof and brilliantly shod boots. Such shoes were worn by Črnigoj, a forester from Bovec, Andrej Komac-Mota, Tožbar-Špik and others. When I asked where such shoes, which are indispensable in Trento, are made, I was given the address of the shoemaker who makes and supplies them. This was Franz Plieseis, a shoemaker in the village of Goisern in Upper Austria.

I wrote to him immediately and got an immediate reply that he was ready to make my shoes and that I should send him the measurements as soon as possible. Such shoes cost 10 crowns at the time, with a box of excellent lard. I stayed in contact with this shoemaker until the First World War, and I was constantly ordering shoes from him for myself and my acquaintances. The shoes have always been excellent and everyone has been happy with them.

At that time, it was not possible to buy mountaineering shoes in Ljubljana or elsewhere. It was only after mountaineering became more developed and the shoes of the Goisern cobblers became better known in the mountaineering world, that similar shoes started to be made in our country and were called “gojzerji”. The first and true mountaineering shoes came from the village of Goisern. The shoemaker Franz Plieseis died at an old age about five or six years ago in Goisern. He is, in fact, the inventor of the so-called ‘Goisers’.

In autumn, the military commandos sent 25 Russians to Kranjska Gora. They were Siberians themselves, tall, dignified people, who were accommodated in the Pečar’s salon. They were guarded by Austrian soldiers. Every morning they went from Kranjska Gora, each carrying a bar of iron, which they then handed in at Močil. These iron bars were then used as wire barriers on Vršič. This was the daily work of these Russians. In the evening, they usually sang various Russian songs, and the locals loved to come and listen to them and bring them treats. Initially, the Austrian Guard did not defend this, but later any contact with the Russians was strictly forbidden and also dangerous, because anyone was immediately considered a traitor to the Fatherland.

This was only the beginning, as the state of war between Austria and Italy had not yet begun. That winter, there were no major war preparations on Vršič and in this section. As soon as the month of May was approaching in the spring of 1915 and it was certain that Italy would take the other side, the

Preparations for the road over Vršič to Trento. The women’s corps arrived with engineers and they started to measure and route the road to Trento. They brought a lot of building materials to Kranjska Gora, and more and more Russians came with them. Various barracks, warehouses, offices, etc. were built in Kranjska Gora. There was, in fact, a huge amount of traffic. The route to Trento was soon completed and divided into 12 or 13 sections. One engineer took over each section. The engineers were mostly Czech Germans and a few Hungarians. The commander at the time was still Major Rimi, also a Czech German, but not a bad man for the Russians. The first section from Kranjska Gora (from Baba) to Erika was assigned to Slovenian Eng. Beštru, who was not particularly popular with his German colleagues, among whom were also many Jews, because of his Slovenian origin.

How the road to Vršič was built

Postcard from Erjavčeva koča

How the road to Vršič was built

But when on 24. Italy officially declared war on Austria in May 1915, work on the road across Vršič was already in full swing. At that time I was also called up for the war, but because of my position in the construction of this road I was temporarily exempted from military service.

The military administration occupied our settlement and our work in the forest was completely stopped. The tremendous overhead in the forest almost ruined him financially and he was on the verge of collapse, because he was only eating the forest and not giving enough of himself. But when he saw that the war administration had decided to build a road across Vršič, he had the good idea to cash in the wood from his forest. He went to Bialystok, where 6 was stationed. General Rohr, to whom he suggested that he would be prepared to make a so-called avalanche protection roof over Vršič from his own wood (Lawinenschutzdacher), thus ensuring safe passage for the Austrian army over Vršič, even in the winter when snow fell. The Military Administration approved Zakotnik’s proposal and the construction of these roofs over Vršič began.

The military route of the new road followed our road only as far as Erika, where it crossed Pišenco and then gently ascended with a few curves to Mihov’s home. There it crossed with our road, left it again and then only met again a few times until it reached Močil. This route took a completely different direction and came back to our road at Močil, followed it for a while, then took a turn and rejoined the old road at the top of the pass.

On the Goriška side, our road, except for two curves, goes continuously to Huda Ravna, t. j. to the Komac monument, which they wanted to demolish at the time, but I went to Ing. Schutt intervened to keep the monument. The route then follows our road back to our village and then on to Šupka and then on to Lez. From here on, the route is completely new, because from here on, there was no track at the time. It winds its way and over very rough terrain; it finally reaches the valley at the present bridge and from here on to Logo in Trenta. The tunnel did not exist then. This was later done by the Italians.

The new road was built exclusively by Russian prisoners of war, around 12 000 of them. They were accommodated in various barracks from Kranjska Gora to Trenta. These barracks were very primitive and very cold in winter. The food of the prisoners was very poor and insufficient. They were divided into squads of 25 men, guarded by one Austrian soldier and one Russian interpreter, usually a Jew, who did nothing. There were also many Germans from the Volga among the prisoners. The prisoners were poorly dressed. Because they had to work in good weather and bad, most of them had their uniforms torn. The Austrian military administration did not give them any other clothes. As a result, various diseases such as dysentery, dysentery, cholera and smallpox spread among them and many died.

The Russians were treated very badly. Some engineers and officers in particular behaved savagely towards prisoners. For the slightest offence, the prisoner was tied to a tree and fainted in no time. Then they splashed cold water in his face to make him conscious again and left him hanging like that for two to three hours. The wildest of the engineers was Ing. Kavalir, a Hungarian, who built the section under Močil. When he was drunk, he would come with a heavy stick into the street among the Russians and he would beat the Russians with the stick, no matter where it fell. Many Austrian guards also liked to beat up Russians. An appeal was impossible. When the guards brought the captured Italians along the new road, the Russians always attacked them with picks and shovels, saying that it was the Italians’ fault that the army was still going on, because the army would have been over a long time ago if Italy hadn’t helped.
To the Russians. They barely kept the Italians from being killed on the spot.

So, as soon as Zakotnik got the go-ahead from the military command to build the flood-proof roofs, he teamed up with Weissbacher, a master carpenter from Ljubljana, and the two of them immediately started preparations. In particular, they got us to move back into our settlement, which had been occupied by the military. Half of the rooms in our cottage have been returned to us, i.e. j. two rooms, and the soldiers kept the other half. At that time, loggers, carpenters and drivers were mobilised all over Slovenia and even in Tyrol and Solna Graz to work on the road over Vršič. These flood protection roofs were to be built from Močil over the top and then a little further on from Tičar’s house. The flood protection roofs were designed to be raised on 35 X 35 cm strong columns to which strong rafters would be attached and then embedded in the ground above the road. The rafters would be roofed by 6 cm thick slabs, over which the avalanche would then slide. But it was all connected by strong iron couplings. In theory, this was a good idea, but practice and the avalanche have shown otherwise.
The construction of the columns and rafters started immediately. At Leža, the prisoners of war were sawing the slabs by hand, with one prisoner on top and two prisoners holding and pulling the handsaw below. In this way, up to two wagons of slabs were sawed daily at Leža.

Work started at Močil. In the meantime, I got another bowmobile with a circular saw and we started sawing sheets with the circular saw at our hut. Meanwhile, the road was being worked on with all haste. The road was not solid because round spruce wood was used for various trusses, which could not hold for long. This became apparent later.

At the same time, a cable car was built to take people from Kranjska Gora to Vršič, where the station was located. The second station was in the ravine below our settlement, and the third was at the footbridge as soon as you get to the valley before the source of the Soča River. The cable car could pull up to 60 kg and mainly transported food for the army, hay for the horses and various tools. At Huda Ravna, the cableway went so low that the terrain had to be dug up. Here, various sacks of food were stolen several times by both Russians and Austrian soldiers. Guards also stole or were caught in the act. Most of the thefts took place when the so-called “Liebesgaben” were sent to the front. When the cable car was being built, I said that it was not the right way to go because it would be taken away by an avalanche, and they laughed at me, saying that it was not as dangerous as I thought it was. Many officers and engineers even laughed at the flood-proofing project.

The road works were progressing at a very fast pace, so that 1. In October 1905, the later Emperor Kari already drove a car along it. He drove to the Soča River in Trento, where there was a military reception. At the time, it was rumoured that he had contracted cognac at lunch and had fallen into the Soca River drunk. We had to hold the torch at Mochil.

The main construction team was based in Kranjska Gora. Then there were various intermediate commands, and Major Rimi built his villa above the Russian church. The second team was in Vosshutta and the third in Tičar’s home. In Huda Ravna, he built himself a magnificent one-storey villa, ing. Schutt. I advised him against the place where he started building because it was dangerous for a landslide, but he didn’t believe me. The villa was swept away by an avalanche that winter, but Schutt luckily still had his head. The foundation of this villa can still be clearly seen on Huda Ravna. The last commando was then in our hut. Strict care was taken to ensure that no one rode uphill on a horse-drawn carriage, and special road traffic wardens were set up.

As soon as the road was passable, the material, the cannons, started rolling down it. Dr. It was constantly occupied by various military columns. The wounded were being taken back. When the 24. May, the war with Italy began, there were no troops in the Soča Basin, except at Predilo. There were only 4 gunners in the firing trenches near Bovec, among them was the sentry Pogačar. They had rifles placed in the trenches at certain distances. The Italians were cautiously getting very close, but they didn’t dare to go any further, because these gunners were going from gun to gun and shooting all the way there in one day. It was not until much later that the first Austrian units arrived and took up positions there.

November has arrived. Meanwhile, the first columns for the flood protection roofs on Močil have started to be erected. But there was still no snow. Even in December, there hasn’t been any snow yet. Officers, engineers and the team that knew me, they were all making fools of me, Chesh, where are the avalanches. Christmas 1915 has come. During the night, some snow fell on Štefanovo, so that a small avalanche struck from Slemena, just above Močil, and buried two Russians up to their waists. Laughing, they dug themselves out of the snow. But everyone who saw it laughed at them, and even more at me.

Traffic therefore continued to flow uninterrupted across Vršič, because even in January 1916 there was still no snow. The work on the avalanche protection roofs has also progressed well and the second turn towards the top has already taken place. A lot of material has been swallowed up by these roofs. There was a constant need to bring in wood and everything seemed to be going well. Everyone also believed that the structure would be able to withstand any snow pressure, because it was really extremely strong and solidly built.
Meanwhile, a monument to Archduke Eugene, the commander-in-chief of the front against Italy, was being built at the top of the pass, where the Italian Carousel is today. The road over Vršič was also named after him “Erzherzog Eugen- Strasse”. The monument is meant to be something huge, an eternal symbol of Austria’s greatness. Over 200 Russian prisoners of war were employed in the construction of the monument’s frame alone. I also told the builders of this monument that it would be taken away by an avalanche, but they told me that it would be made so strong that it would withstand any natural force.

At the beginning of February, we were sunbathing shirtless on Huda Ravna. Still no snow and I was targeted again. I was almost ashamed, because I had never really experienced a winter like this before.

At the end of February, it starts snowing. Slowly at first, but then more and more, and finally it started to get so bad that we had to clear it off the road. The snow was dry as flour. That’s when some people started to believe that my promises were not for free. The Russians also said that while there is snow in Russia, they do not know the quantities. I could not have imagined that disaster was so close.

How the road to Vršič was built

Russian prisoners built the road to Vršič pass.

How the road to Vršič was built

8. On March 1916, after lunch, I was heading to the top to see the work. I walked from our hut to the summit at one o’clock. It was a real blizzard. When I reach Huda Ravna, I hear a single terrible scream from countless throats, but it is immediately silenced. I go slowly forward, but soon Russian prisoners come towards me with frightened faces: ‘Avalanche, avalanche’. Some Austrian guards also arrived. All those who came down from the top were so frightened that we could not get anything clear out of them. We couldn’t get anyone back either. They all said they would rather be killed than go back. The officers and engineers also lost their heads and didn’t know what to do, because all communication with Kranjska Gora and the commandos there was cut off at the drop of a hat.

All work has come to a standstill. We knew nothing of what happened on the other side of Vršič. But no one ventured to the top. That day it was absolutely impossible to prepare the Russian prisoners for any rescue action and the Austrian officers had no will or courage to go to the scene of the disaster. We started to guess how many victims there must be. It was not yet possible to find out exactly, because Russian prisoners were also employed on the other side of the pass. We realised right about then that about a hundred Russian prisoners and a few Austrian guards were missing. The officers from Ticar’s home also came to our side and declared that everything on the top was destroyed and that Ticar’s home was completely emptied.

The command for our sector was in the so-called Schuttbaraka on Huda Ravna, and the Russian prisoners’ camp was a little lower down in our settlement. The next morning all the officers and engineers from Schuttbaraka came to our settlement. They were all armed with revolvers, which was not usually the case. They demanded that all Russian prisoners of war should come forward. When the prisoners arrived, a detachment of three Russians came out of their ranks and declared to the commander at the time that they would no longer go to work on Vršič because this work endangered their lives and they were not to be used for such work by the Austrian military commandos. Eng. Schutt threatened them again that if they continued to resist, he would be forced to use his weapon. The Deputation replied that all the prisoners were ready to be killed, and that they would no longer go to work on Vršič. They also refused to call for a rescue operation, saying that it would be futile because everything that was alive at the top had been destroyed. Only some of the prisoners were willing to go to the top in case something could be salvaged. But the Austrians, with their engineers and officers, were even more afraid to go to the top than the Russians.

Nevertheless, a few of us got together and we threw it on Vršič. When we got there, we found terrible devastation. Where the almost 20-metre-high frame of the Eugene Monument had been the previous day, there was nothing else to be seen, just a broken beam or plank lying here and there in the snow. There was a lot of snow, it was packed. As it was still snowing and the whole summit was in fog, there was no way of knowing where and how the avalanche had come from.

The avalanche was dry. I assumed that the Mojstrovka ridges must have been hit by a boulder falling on the avalanche area and triggering the newly fallen snow. There was therefore still a risk of further avalanches, all the more so because there was no view of the peaks to judge where the danger was coming from.

We did not see any human bodies. We went to Tičar’s home. The avalanche stopped at this hut. There was more than three metres of snow in front of the door, which was covered with snow. We started digging to get to the hut. Soon we unearthed two Russians, both of whom were already dead. It seemed that the fluff had killed them. Although at the time when Tičar’s home was being built, care was taken in finding and defining a place to make the hut safe from avalanches, it was only a short time before it was carried away by this avalanche, which was so violent that it tilted the hut by about 15°. Even today, you can still see that the walls of the hut are not vertical. This is particularly noticeable in the case of entrance doors, which are at right angles.

We took the two dead Russians with us and buried them on Huda Ravna. But when, on this occasion, at the funeral of these Russians, the other prisoners realised that a rescue operation at Vršič was all that was needed, they decided to start digging. Not all of them went, but the next day a lot of them went to Vršič and started digging, because the snow had stopped. The snow was hard and the work was difficult. Some 15 prisoners and one guard were unearthed. They were all terribly disfigured. The trams knocked some people’s heads, arms and legs off. There was no question of there being living creatures under the snow. Shortly after work, on the same day, the avalanche struck again in the same place. This made any digging work impossible, and the prisoners no longer had the courage.

How the road to Vršič was built

Road conditions over Vršič Pass

How the road to Vršič was built

Avalanches also buried the two cable car stations at the top and in the ravine below our settlement. So the disaster was complete. All traffic over Vršič was stopped. We had no idea what was happening on the other side of Vršič. So we waited for about 14 days for the commands. The snow has stopped and beautiful sunny days have arrived. But as something had to be done, the commandant asked me if I would dare to go over Vršič to Kranjska Gora to the commandant’s office, where I would take a report on the disaster and get further instructions there as to the fate of the construction personnel and prisoners on our side. Since they couldn’t prepare anyone else for the journey, I went.

So I went to Kranjska Gora and the same day brought back orders that all Russian prisoners were to be taken down to Sv. Mary and to be accommodated in barracks there. As for the technical team, it should go to the Soca in Trento and wait for further orders. Also Eng. Gregor and I were ordered to go to Soca, where we arrived the same day. I stayed at the Flajs Inn, where I was still well acquainted with the innkeeper from the old days.

We waited in Soca for a few days, and then we were ordered to leave with Eng. Greger will take the truck to Srednji Log pod Mangrtom the same evening, when it gets dark, where we will take the elek. Mine railway to Rabelj. At that time, Bovec was partly in Italian and partly in Austrian hands. The road over Kal and Koritnica past Bovec, at the crossroads, was passable but impossible during the day because the Italian artillery always had the road under fire. At night, the Italians also repeatedly caused a scare on the road. It was impossible to get across the Predil by truck at that time. That is why the mine railway served well, because the traffic over Vršič was cut off.

They really loaded us on the truck and we drove towards Kal and Koritnica. But as soon as we got there, the Austrian artillery started teasing the Italians. Our truck accidentally came under artillery fire. In the confusion, the driver swerved into a ditch, where we got stuck. We quickly jumped out of the truck with our luggage. Fortunately, another truck pulled up behind us, loaded us up and drove us on to Srednji Log.

The electric railway was already waiting there and we drove on to Rabelj. The shaft is about 230 metres deep. The crane pulled us to the top and we were in Rabl around 1am, which was all in darkness because of the Italian shelling.

First we went to a bakery where we got fresh bread. There was no one on the road. Everything was closed. Finally, we saw a glimmer of light near a house. When we got there, we saw that there was a military guard in front of the house, who saluted us as we entered, thinking that we belonged there. We arrived in a rather large room, nicely lit, with a long table in the middle, filled with a variety of food and drinks. But there was not a soul anywhere. We had our fair share of all the goodies and finally we had a drink. Then we lay down and fell asleep. We never gave anyone a bill for this service.

The truck then took us to the station in Trbiž, and from there we took the train to Kranjska Gora, where we reported to the command. In Kranjska Gora we learned that the avalanche on this side also caused a lot of destruction, but there is no precise information yet, because no one has been to Vršič since the disaster. In the meantime, however, the total number of dead prisoners was found to be 110, plus 6 or 7 guards. These were the official figures at the time, but they were reported in confidence to higher commands and kept from civilians.

The command in Kranjska Gora had emptied all the buildings up to Vršič and there was no one left in the buildings and barracks. The Russians were so panicked that the commando almost realised that it would not be able to do much to help them. The soldiers and their officers were no less frightened. Everyone wanted to get away, even to the front, just to be away from those damned avalanches.

So we all waited in Kranjska Gora for further orders. 3. In April I received an order from Lieutenant-Colonel Riml (by then already advancing) to go with 25 prisoners to Voss’s hut and to start digging up the road so that traffic could be restored as soon as possible. So I went with the prisoners to Mochil, where I wanted to accommodate them in the barracks that were still intact. Now there were no more prisoners, they were all gone like camphor. I look around to see where they have gone and see a hole in the snow. I walk along it and see only the soles of the prisoners’ feet. The prisoners were huddled in the implantation holes of the military oven, which was still intact and completely covered with snow. The oven was full of baked bread, which the prisoners smelled. I left them to pick at will and they were happy. “Hlubb harasho” they used to say, even though he was already more than three weeks old.

How the road to Vršič was built

The curves of Russian road in winter from the drone

How the road to Vršič was built

Then, in the following days, more prisoners and officers and engineers came after me and we started digging up the road. I was assigned by the commandos to be a weather prophet because of the avalanches. She also gave me a lieutenant who was originally from Tyrol and, as he said, knew the mountain and snow conditions well. We walked together and looked at the avalanche fields and peaks there. The Lieutenant found the snow drifts on Mojstrovka, which were huge, the most dangerous. So my assumption that an avalanche had been triggered towards Tičar’s home turned out to be wrong, because the bricks were still hanging on Mojstrovka, and I told the lieutenant as much. He said that he would soon help us so that we could be safe. Indeed, two days later we had two 75 mm guns and the lieutenant started firing at the snow drifts on Mojstrovka, first with grenades, but as nothing hit, he started firing shrapnel, but even with these there was no success. He sent more than 50 shots against Mojstrovka, but no success. It was then that I began to doubt that a bang or a scream could trigger an avalanche in the mountains. When he saw that his efforts were fruitless, he stopped firing. Meanwhile, work continued with snow shovelling. I pointed out to the Lieutenant that the main avalanche (the Grundlavine), which usually came from the Ridge every year, had not yet arrived. He replied that it was not dangerous and that we could not worry, and I expressed my doubts. We were all accommodated in Voss’s hut. Among the other officers was a lieutenant, a Czech German, who was literally going mad at night because he was afraid of avalanches and disturbed the sleep of all of us who were in the hut.

At that time, on the saddle of Vršič, there was a stable with 7 noble horses, which were the property of officers from the Tičar House and Vosshiitta. We were ordered to get these horses to Močilo and from there to Kranjska Gora. We tried every possible way, but it didn’t work, because the snow was hitting the horses and there was a risk of breaking their legs. Nothing sensible could have gone into anyone’s head. For the horses still had a servant to look after them. The avalanche did not come there either.

However, a corporal who had dealt with horses in his life became aware of our problems in Kranjska Gora and offered to rescue the horses. He sneaked into Voss’s hut and took some prisoners and tent skirts with him. At the top, he knocked each horse to the ground, tied all four legs together and wrapped them in a tent skirt. Then he was pushed like a toboggan through the snow towards Močil, where we caught the horse, untied its legs and thus rescued all 7 horses.

All the signs were that the road would indeed be unblocked and put back into traffic. But the avalanche has turned everything upside down again. One night, when we had all gone to bed, at half past twelve, there was a terrible rumbling and drumming above Voss’s hut. The officers started shouting in their rooms and came running half dressed into the dining room asking what was the matter, because the ground was shaking and the hut was shaking. A major avalanche was coming from the Ridge. There was roaring and thundering for a while, and then all was silent. Nothing happened to the cottage.

The next morning we saw the effect of this avalanche. Huge masses of snow piled up almost to the top of the hill where Vosshutte stood. But there was no trace of the flood protection roofs. Everything was carried away by an avalanche into the ravine below Voss’s hut and then further into Suho Pišenco. Those strong wooden pillars, joined together with iron, were broken like matchsticks, torn from the earth. It looked as if everything was made of paper.

We reported the matter to the command in Kranjska Gora. The whole technical team, including the Russians, was completely demoralised, so the team saw it best to move. We stayed in Kranjska Gora for a while. Then we were taken to South Tyrol to the front there.

This is the history of the road over Vršič, which should actually be called the “Russian Road” because it was built by Russians. It demanded much suffering and many human sacrifices from Russian prisoners. The numbers were never known because the commandos kept them top secret, but I reckon, according to my own judgement, that at least 10 000 Russians gave their lives on the road through Vršič.

How the road to Vršič was built

History journal about how the Russian road was built during the war.

How the road to Vršič was built

As the 40th anniversary of this suffering has passed, it is right that its memory should be properly revived.

Because they used a lot of wood for the road and cut it wherever they could, the avalanches were even more rampant the following year. The avalanche took “Schuttbarake” and its villa, and also the Zakotnik settlement.

The following year, the army commando fought the avalanches by making a road across Vršič on the left side of the current road, but that didn’t work either.

As half of the road was given to Italy and half to Yugoslavia after the First World War, the road lost a lot of its importance because it was not passable. Nevertheless, the Italians have repaired and reinforced their part of the road perfectly, while the Yugoslav part has been completely neglected.

The current Yugoslavia has started to take care of this part of the road, which is to be welcomed.

After the First World War, I walked across Vršič for the first time in 1920, to the source of the Soča River. An Italian man left me across the saddle for a handful of cigarettes. Then I came to Trenta several more times, where people knew me well. I usually came via Predil, to Bovec and then to Trento. Now I go to Trento via Vršič every year, even twice, because it is the most beautiful part of Slovenia for me. I still love chatting with Trentarians.

How the road to Vršič was built

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How the road to Vršič was built

How the road to Vršič was built


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