I don’t do heights really. Tall buildings are okay but in general, walking along ridges, or vertical drops isn’t normally my cup of tea so I’m not entirely sure how it was that I found myself waiting in a museum car park waiting to be met by our guide with a rucksack of poorly prepared snacks, assorted warm clothing and a camera that took up most of my pack (and I only took it out twice).
In truth, the fact that all Slovenians believe that they should climb Triglav at least once in their life time was a big reason for wanting to do it. Partly in truth is the fact that we totally mis-read the route guide and thought that it was just a tough trek up then about 30 mins along a ledge clipped onto a via ferrata to the top.
Rok (our guide and yes that is his real name) showed up in a very loved camper van/mini bus-with-storage-space and I was instantly concerned due to the number of ropes, helmets and other serious climbing equipment that were neatly stacked in the back of the van and appeared to be for us. Equally concerning were the via ferrata harnesses that were next to that pile. We threw in our rucksacks and jumped inside the van to sit next to some quiet and equally nervous looking fellow to-be-climbers.
We set off through the small villages and started heading deep into the forests that surround the base of the mountain, along bumpy, rocky tracks past small farms and hamlets before following the valley up to the base with towering mountains on both sides.
After leaving the van in the crude car park where the track ended, Rok tossed us our helmets and via ferrata harnesses leaving me struggling to find places to squeeze them into in my already over flowing totally inappropriate rucksack. We set off following the dry path that zig zagged amongst the tall trees and soon started hiking upwards along an increasingly steep and rocky path as we broke out of the trees into mountain meadows. Cutting along a small stream bed, we started climbing another steep path where trees had been thrown aside by avalanches earlier that year. Rok casually pointed out the battered trees which showed the full force of nature and its destructive power.
The path got steeper and the rocks bigger as we clambered further up before finally leaving all green behind with a bleak looking rock filled landscape in front of us. At this point Rok, who had been talking on his radio, told us that we were going to go for the top today! Rather than the over night stop at base camp as was planned before ascending the following morning. He explained that the weather today was better and that we were making good time. The sky was already covered in dark looking clouds and the peak of the mountain was totally hidden.
The path got steeper with loose rocks making the hike even harder with the wind and clouds making the air much cooler. We started walking in the clouds as we got higher as the wind got even stronger when finally our base camp hut broke into view next to the weather station that is manned by scientists all year.
Pushing open the door, we were greeted by the sight of other climbers (looking far more prepared and equipped than us) lounging around the tables with a small serving hatch and bar with ad hoc selection of beers and drinks. We dumped our bags and stripped off our outer layers of clothing before trying to figure out the slightly odd menu system – a huge list was presented with numbers next to them. We soon worked out that the (much) smaller list of numbers behind the bar referred to the actual items that were available to eat!
After eating as much as we could, our second guide (who set off 2 hours after us) strolled in the door looking as if he had just done a short walk in the park rather than running up the mountain in half the time it took us. We split into two groups and started fitting our harnesses and helmets. It was decided that, as apparently I looked as if I had done this before, that I would be on the end of the line to clip in and out of the via ferrata thus effectively being the last thing to stop us all plunging off the mountain.
The climb was completely covered in thick cloud thus we had absolutely no idea what we were about to do.
We very quickly started climbing up the near vertical mountain, roped together in a line with the first and last person clipping in and out of the wire cable that the army had fitted years ago. Where we had got the idea of a small ledge from is beyond me – this was proper climbing, using small cracks to hold onto and positioning our feet where ever we could. We climbed steadily, passing other climbers resting on the side near the wire including one climber whose nose had been broken by a falling rock. We patched him up as best we could and left him with a friend to climb down, his face covered in blood.
The climb got steeper and steeper as the clouds swirled around us as I got more and more petrified and started struggling with the idea of every being able to get back down again. On occasions the clouds broke, showing the massive drop to both sides (around 1.5km on one side and 800m the other side). I grimly kept my focus on the rock in front of me and concentrated on finding the best place to put my hands and feet.
Finally we stopped climbing and walked along a knife ridge barely a meter wide holding onto the wire cable as tightly as I could – so tight that the gloves I had bought for the occasion, wore through in several places. As we approached the end of the ridge, the peak of the mountain jumped into view with its funny little metal box at the top – a monk bought the land years ago and put this refuge on the top for any climbers stranded in bad weather – the thought of spending a night with the wind howling around in a metal box tied down with metal cables sent a shiver down my spine.
With a weak smile, we hugged at the top and took a few photos whilst trying not to look down the side of the mountain. At this point, Rok announced that it was time for our celebration of reaching the top for the first time – apparently in Slovenia, it is a tradition that people get spanked with climbing ropes when they first summit the mountain! Yes this is true – I checked afterwards. I had the dubious honour of having my “celebration” video-ed live on Facebook, steaming to his many thousand friends and followers!
After a few mouthfuls of water and a quick bite of a cardboard tasting fruit bar, we prepared to head back down. Luckily I was taken off clip duty and could concentrate more on just getting down the mountain. The wind was picking up so they quick marched us over the knife ridge without clipping in before getting to the top of the vertical section. As we started going down (sitting on our bums and reaching down with shaking feet), the clouds broke, exposing the massive mountain range that surrounded us. Both guides cheered as the sun broke through and swept over the bare rock faces below us. For a moment I could sit, looking at the absolute beauty that was around us and the fear was forgotten for a brief second.
After 2 hours, we finally made it to the base camp hut as darkness was beginning to fall. I gratefully shook our guide’s hand and watched as he messed about tight rope walking a metal link chain with nothing either side of it other than certain death. Far in the distance, we could make out the shape of several Alpine ibex.
After another slightly confusing meal (with a few beers), we headed up to our dorms where we had elected to pay slightly more to have a private room. Given that lots of people were planning on getting up for dawn, I think that was definitely an extra expensive worth doing. The only slight problem was that our dorm was on the 3rd floor and the freezing cold dark toilet was on the lower ground floor. And my legs were refusing to work.
After a decent nights sleep we awoke to the brief sight of a sun before it disappeared into the even thicker clouds that covered the mountain – Rok had been right in taking us up the night before.
We eat a basic but hearty breakfast with decent strong coffee before gearing up and starting the long slog back down the mountain, across the sketchy scree slopes, back into the alpine meadow (were we saw marmots up close), back into the forest and finally back to the van. I was exhausted but proud that I had completed the climb; the experience will stay with me for a very long time (good and bad).
(If you are wondering what to do next at this point, my advice would be to head back to Bled and go to the spa in one of the big hotels on the lake shore. It has numerous steam rooms, several swimming pools, saunas of a wide variety and a water slide! If you are wondering what to do with the bed sheet they give you, try to figure it out for yourselves ;))