Hikers’ Report: Triglav National Park
When undertaking longer hikes at difficulty levels like the Triglav, preparation is key. Information can be found everywhere but as it turns out, it is often incorrect or incomplete. The same applies to this log, which should be considered the journal of a novice mountaineer and little more.
(Click on photos for bigger size)
In Scotland, we cancelled our planned climb of the Ben Nevis. In Norway, we missed out on the entire south side of the Lysefjord. In Sweden, we had to hitch a ride on a helicopter to bypass an out-of-control river. In Morocco, we had to change the entire route and eventually turn back.
I guess we were stupid to think that this time, Slovenia would go as planned.
We, that is us 5 Belgians on a rock. I’m sure you know them by now but let’s introduce:
Tall Man, twice my size, ex-leader of a large local cub scouts group.
Survivor Man, with badassitude as a hobby. Crossed some African desert by himself.
Professor Man, professor in engineering when he’s not climbing walls.
Cuddly Man, preserver of collective sanity, with perseverance that makes Bear Grylls look like a girlyman.
Me, nicknamed Patrick Charming on this trip. Unaffected by cold.
We picked Slovenia mostly because it is relatively close by and can be reached by car, saving us most of our usual budget. We had located a few VF trails there, which we wanted to try. We wouldn’t take tents, but instead take our chances with local cabins. Frankly, that’s all I recall of the original plan, because that’s where it became obsolete.
The other guys are much better at plotting routes anyway, so I let them, while I stick to the walking bit.
The drive took 10 hours, which is an awful long time with two sweaty men in your personal zone on the back seat of a European-sized family car. But we made it, and after a few hiccups (Survivor Man had to get out to throw up) we arrived in a 6-house village by the name of Trenta.
The town had a huge tourist info point with matching trinket shop, so we hopped in there to check on the state of the trails.
Turned out, we had come to Slovenia at a very inopportune moment: They had just had a freakishly long winter and while it was a million degrees in the valleys, anything above 2,000m was snowed shut. That included about 80% of our planned route, the VF trails, and Triglav mountain: The cherry on our stone cake. (Not a perfect analog)
This is the kind of advice I usually ignore completely, but I wasn’t the only one taking decisions so the route was changed. Luckily, Triglav National Park features a dense network of trails, and we picked one the lady behind the desk described as, “Difficult.”
We found a camping nearby and set up tent. Our nightly ride had left us exhausted so for the rest of the day, we did little more than eat and sleep.
Trial by Fire
The guys always insist on insanely early hours to get up (before 9) so I was still half asleep when we packed our gear. After a breakfast of cooked noodles we drove to town and left our car there, locked like a German bunker on Omaha Beach.
Google Earth tells me we ascended northeast, to Kriški Podi from there. If I’m not mistaken, that was about a 1,700m climb and the greatest vertical distance we had ever covered. We had the sun in our backs so pretty much from the first step, we were panting like Looney Tunes figures that had spotted a female variety of themselves across the room.
It was a pretty uneventful climb but kind of exciting in the sense that it is a test of your stamina compared to previous years. And wile it may be a shitty thing to compare with the other guys, I was relieved to find that I didn’t fall behind at all. I hate walking in the back and I already have to play catch-up every time I stop to take a photo.
What is also always a thrill on the first climb, is the view. Every mountain range is different but looking over your shoulder for the first time that year and seeing the valley spread out behind you, is equally satisfying every time.
It was afternoon when we reached the hut -Kriška Dom or some such- and found the winter rooms. Nicknamed the “cold rooms”, each cabin has a set of winter rooms nearby that provide shelter outside tourist season. They’re free, but be careful with them; A few people told us that a hut further up had been used as a public toilet and the place was unlivable. We were in luck: Ours even had beds and blankets.
I woke up that night to take a leak. When I opened the front door though, I was met with something I had never experienced before; It wasn’t really raining very hard, nor was the wind very strong, but both combined in a sort of maelstrom around me while I tried to aim straight. It felt like I was in the eye of a hurricane, with wind and rain blasting me from all sides at once. The toilet is outside, around and behind the hut but there was no way I was scurrying that far in my thermal underwear, instead picking the first spot in front of me. When I stumbled back inside and shut the door, again Looney Tunes-style, one of my friends whom I had awoken, asked how it was outside.
“The world is coming to an end,” I said, because that’s exactly what it felt like.
We survived the weather, although the banging shutters did have me worried we might not. It looked somewhat better in the morning, as we set out at what must have been 4 in the morning. I swear, these guys hate sleep.
As we progressed, we ended up in some thick fog and soon after, we were completely lost. I’ve seen photos of the surface of Mars that looked more hospitable than the milky white we were swimming in. We spread out to find trail markers (aka “nipples”) and almost ended up losing each other. Tall Man (aka the Nipple Master) kept us more or less on track, but Survivor Man grew more and more convinced we were, in fact, headed in the wrong direction; It was quite possible since every track had the same markings.
As we finally ran completely out of nipples (also not a perfect analog), we gathered to rethink our strategy. We figured it was best to backtrack and try to find the point where the trails split, despite the chance we wouldn’t be able to spot it at all. Then, Professor Man looked up.
“Where’s Cuddly Man?”
The fog had cleared some and we laughed as we saw him a hundred meters further, clambering up the mountain side. He kept on going, until he was out of sight and we started to grow worried. Then, we heard shouting: He had single-handedly found the signpost we were looking for. If he hadn’t, we would have turned back from the right trail and kept on searching until we probably would have given up and turned back to Trenta.
We took a short break near the post, put on our gaiters, and started our descent down the northern slope.
As frustrating as snow is to do uphill, it’s an amazing thrill to plow through on the way down. It cushions your step so you can pretty much leap down like a lemur on the ground. It became clear that there was no chance we would be able to turn back. Some of the icy slopes forced us to sit down and slide in a more or less controlled fashion. Once again, we were treated to a breathtaking view of the valley before us, all the way down.
By the time we reached the tree line, it was noon. The Base hut of Triglav mountain, Aljažev Dom, was less than half an hour from that point. The lady running the place confirmed that Triglav would not be reachable from there but an option was to go around and attempt from the other side. That meant a 20+km walk and even though it was still early in the afternoon, that totals to quite a stretch. But again, I didn’t have the final say and it was decided we’d follow the valley nearly until Mojstrana, skip over the start of the mountain ridge and approach Triglav Mountain from the other side.
I was not amused. Long stretches of asphalt kill my knees and Tall Man tends to take them at breakneck speed.
Which is pretty much exactly what happened. In the evening, we were sitting at a table at cabin Kovinarska Koča suffering intense pains, soothed by the brewskis in front of us.
It should be noted that there is plenty to see on the way there though, at least on the Aljažev side of the ridge. Dripping caves, a waterfall you can get behind of, and some of the weirdest trees I have ever seen.
Although Kovinarska Koča has winter rooms nearby, the cabin itself was open so we had to pay to stay there. Though it wasn’t cheap, I would recommend doing so: The elderly couple keeping the hut open treated us like kings, though the fact that I reminded them of their son might be part of the reason. If you can, spend some time with them; They have a vast knowledge of the mountain, park and country which they are happy to share.
“I am going to cry today,” Tall Man said in our video diary, as we stepped through the front door of the cabin. He had no appetite and wasn’t feeling his usual self. Regardless, he joined us as we headed out.
As for me, after our first taste of the mountains and half a day on the asphalt, I was hungry for more. My knees were still worrying me as they still hurt; I had to cover any step downhill with a limping hop. I didn’t care though, descent from Triglav mountain wasn’t planned until the next day so that made it tomorrow’s problem.
The path quickly became more and more difficult and Tall Man was going slower and slower. “I don’t see how I’m ever going to make it up,” he grumbled, but we encouraged him to keep going. One step at a time, I was sure it was possible for him to make it. Either way, I wasn’t keen on blowing off the climb. But when I looked behind me and saw him, taking tiny steps with those long legs of his, feverishly staring down at the trail, it started to dawn on me that a solution would have to be found before it was too late.
“How are you holding up?” Someone else posed the question I didn’t dare to, while we were taking a break.
-”…What would happen if I said, I’m not going to make it?”
Every bit of me wanted up that mountain, but I heard myself say, “We stick together” and surprised myself with how strongly I felt about that. Despite the disappointment, I wouldn’t think twice about turning back and would never regret it.
But then, Tall Man had an understandable problem: He didn’t want to be responsible for the whole group turning back. He mentioned turning back alone, but was in no state to do so.
A heavy silence hung in the group as no one dared to bring up the obvious solution of splitting up. Even I couldn’t bring myself to say it- For many years, we had agreed on the principle of ‘live together, die together’ but we had never been in this kind of situation before.
A careful screening of hopes and expectations was held and a plan-B made itself apparent: Cuddly Man was turning back with Tall Man, and the trip up the mountain would be continued with the remaining 3 of us.
“Yeah okay maybe he wouldn’t have made it,” I admitted as we pulled ourselves up over dangerously loose rocks. The difficulty had gone up several more notches before we even reached any snow. When we finally did, the path vanished and we had to put our faith in the footsteps in the snow.
When we eventually came to the final snowy stretch, the ascent rate seemed close to vertical. As before with those snowy climbs, I fell behind hopelessly and found myself pretty much alone some of the time, facing slope after slope of loose snow, only to have my hopes of reaching the peak crushed as the next part came into sight. We had underestimated the elevation still ahead of us, and continued to do so all the way.
First thing I saw that wasn’t snow or rock, was a windmill. One of those wind generators- except it wasn’t running. No disappointment this time: We had finally reached the weather station, Dom Triglavski.
It wasn’t tourist season yet so both the station, restaurant and hostel were run by 2 rather rude meteorologists (my kind of people!). We stayed the night there, had sausage with sauerkraut soup for dinner, and fantasized out loud about climbing the peak the next day. A meteorologist said it couldn’t be done without specialized equipment (pickaxe, crampons and such) but a group of Polish alpinists were going to try and especially Survivor Man was really itching to give it a shot.
Watching them clamber up the mountainside the next morning though, made us glad we didn’t. From a distance, it seemed insanely difficult, even fully geared up as they were; with snowy patches between vertical rock surfaces, making the slightest mistake potentially fatal. They made it to the final ridge with us watching from a distance, but as we were leaving, we could see them retrace their steps in the distance.
I didn’t mind not making it to the summit- these things are not my goal when setting out. For me, it was enough to get my nerd on with the weather instruments, learning a thing or two as I examined them from up close. The whole station in fact, is a strong feat of technology. We might take the daily weather forecast for granted but seeing how closely monitored every detail was kept, showed just how big an effort is made to advance this branch of science.
If you want my advice: Stay there if you ever get the chance. It’s a marvel.
My knee acted up as we descended, but there weren’t any real shots of pain on the way down. The snowy slopes in reverse were, once again, a joy to do. what had been a 3-hour ascent, now took us mere minutes on our asses as we shot down the mountainside with a small avalanche around us. This adrenalin rush was, as tends to happen on trips with these guys, one of the highlights of 2013 to me. Better than average sex.
The guys down at the base of the mountain, in the mean time, took it upon themselves to fetch the car, which was by now 2 valleys away. Tall Man was feeling better but because of snow, the northern flanks of the mountains were impossible to scale- up and over was not an option. They would have to navigate through a maze of valleys and detour dozens of kilometers to get there, before coming back to meet us at the foot of the slope.
They won it, but only by 20 minutes. By 2pm, both teams met up after a pretty impressive sprint. It was good seeing each other again, it hadn’t been the same without the whole crew there.
And so, we found ourselves at the cabin again, fresh out of options. No other feasible climb was within reach, let alone a VF trail. Luckily, we had a car.
We met the Polish alpinists again around this point, they too had come straight down after their failed attempt for the summit. They explained that it was doable but simply too dangerous, with loose snow sliding down, threatening to drop them down the mountainside.
We settled down in Mojstrana, where the tourist office and youth hostel were closed, and the sports center turned out not to exist, so information was scarce.
Free internet at a café allowed us to do a search, and as it turned out, the nearest interesting area with VF trails was several hundred kilometers away, in Austria. I had my doubts but the others clearly did not: All of us got into the car, and to Austria we went.
It was a 4 hour drive, not really how I pictured my holiday in the mountains. The destination proved me wrong: We ended up in Hall In Tirol, a little gem of a mountain town on the far edge of the alps. We set up tent at the campsite and did some exploring of the local bars.
Again: If you get the chance, see this place. It really is quite stunning, and a welcome surprise for us.
The VF Trail
On our day of arrival, it had been over 30°C (86F). But when I heard the rain on our tents that night, I figured our plans were down the drain, once again. Not the other guys though, far from it: Despite the first rule of climbing being ‘do not climb when it’s wet’, staying down was out of discussion. Part of me was a little worried, but I shrugged it off. I was climbing that trail if it was the last thing I did.
The trail started at the base of a saddle, and long before we reached it, we knew we were in for a strange experience. It was still quite cloudy in the valley, and clouds down there meant thick fog where we were. One moment we could see for miles, the next it was hard to keep track of the person in front of us.
Upon arriving at the start of the trail, we crawled into our climbing gear and did a check-up, reciting little rules and tips to each other as we went. We started with a few hiccups, as it was hard to estimate each other’s capabilities and Professor Man didn’t seem to have much faith in those of the rest of us. On top of that, the “key point,” which is the most difficult section of a trail, was smack in the beginning and we hadn’t figured that out right away, so we were worried that this was just a taste of hard times ahead of us.
But eventually, we did manage to pick up the pace a little. Which was good, because we had been so brave as to pick a trail that was more than 4 hours long. The fog shielded us from the sun most of the time, but a perpetual drizzle wasn’t making it any easier for us. The challenge of the trail itself varied between levels A and C, which are respectively “a walk in the park” and “thank god there’s a cable to cling onto”.
4 hours was a little optimistic for amateurs like us, it turned out. We took our sweet time, which was fine for me- I like to pause and take in the scenery once in a while. And what a scenery it was: When we weren’t suspended in fog, we could see the next wave rolling in over the saddle and rise up the side. Long before we found ourselves at the end of the trail, we had grown a little tired of the pulling and crawling; especially my arms were killing me because I didn’t trust the wet rock enough to push up on my feet.
So 5 hours and only a few near-accidents later, the path went back to normal (if you consider a 45 degree slope normal) and continued on for quite a while, draining us of our last energy before we reached the next cabin by the name of Bettelwurf Hütte, which appears to have been built on the clouds themselves. We caught a much needed break (and in my case, half an hour of sleep), stocking up on sugars before going back down from our third climb over 2000m altitude.
The skies had cleared on the way to town, treating us with a jaw-dropping view of the area as we went. Cuddly Man’s knees seemed to be having the same problem as mine tend to, giving him sharp jolts of pain each time he twisted it wrong. I didn’t have any real trouble this time around but he was limping heavily, again showing some strong mental capability as he bit through and kept up with the rest of us.
Unlike other trips, we had a town nearby so once we made it back to the camping, we still had plenty of opportunity to grab just about the biggest drinks and burgers I have ever seen. We had plenty to talk about but the efforts that day and greasy food knocked us clean out.
We’d be going home the next day, glad to be back with out wives and girlfriends.
I still have mixed feelings about the trip. We did some unique and exciting stuff, but the presence of cabins and a car made it feel more like a stroll than a hike. It’s ironic how I’m complaining that it wasn’t hard enough, but there’s a certain satisfaction there, when you reach your destination after having fought for it as a team and individual.
Perhaps next year, we can go starve in Iceland and I’ll be the happiest person alive.
The full album can be found here. There is a video diary, but it will take some work to get it uploaded, that’s Professor Man’s shtick. Check back for it!