Thursday, September 9, 2010

Defeating the Three-Headed Monster

“Don’t slip here.” The words were merely rhetorical, as I could plainly see – well, actually I couldn’t see at all – that a fall from this spot on Triglav, the three-headed highest-point of Slovenia, would be fatal.
The via ferrata – the cable, and rungs and pegs – attached to the sheer cliff face gave it away, even though the cloud-encased mountainside prevented us from seeing more than 50 feet in any direction. The near-vertical wall that we were about to climb disappeared straight down some unknown distance, but when you’ve climbed enough in the mountains, you can literally “feel” the dizzying exposure hidden by the clouds all around you.
“I won’t,” I promised Tomo Sarf (pronounced Sharf), who was my hiking companion on Monday as we climbed Triglav, at 9,396 feet the highest point in the country of rugged Alpine beauty. But there was more than a little trepidation in my voice.
The week before, I had summitted the highest points of Poland and Slovakia, the latter a similarly treacherous climb up a near-vertical face of Gerlach stit, where I also had to negotiate metal rungs and chains attached to the mountainside.
In between, I had also “climbed” the highest point in Hungary, which meant a winding drive up a dreary mountain road to the parking lot of a ski area, and a quick three-minute stroll up a ski slope to the “summit,” which had a large hotel perched beside it. The only trouble encountered on that trip was the unexpected fee at the entrance – a hunch-backed old man of at least 70 appeared from a little toll booth that suddenly appeared out of the thick, eerie fog that had suddenly turned day into night.
He spoke no English, but wrote the number “200” on a slip of paper and shoved it in my face. I thought he was looking for two Euros (about $2.60), so Nancy, my girlfriend, handed him a 20 Euro bill. He handed us back two coins and I was about to drive off when Nancy exclaimed, “What are these?” Seems he had handed us back 300 of whatever the currency of Hungary was, and since we had no clue as to the exchange rate, could not question the old man.
Not until we stopped for dinner later that day did we find out that 20 Euro was the equivalent of 2500 in Hungarian currency, and he had given us an exchange rate of only 500 … we got taken by the old geezer by a factor of 5 to 1. I felt like Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber when he entrusted his groceries to the old woman in the scooter.
We spent that night in Maribor, the second-largest city in Slovenia, before continuing on to Kamnik outside the capital of Ljubjana, where the World Mountain Running Championships were being held that weekend. As the U.S. delegate to the World Mountain Running Association, Nancy needed to be there for the race. I was there to help out as I could – I think I made four trips to the airport to shuttle athletes – but I was also there to climb.
On Saturday, the day before the race, I climbed nearby Grintavec, which at 7,700 feet is the eighth-highest mountain in Slovenia, but is the tallest outside Triglav National Park, where I would be climbing with Tomo on Monday. Tomo is also on the WMRA council and was largely responsible for bringing the world championships to his homeland, which did a remarkable job hosting the event. It was a great weekend for the Americans, as the U.S. men surprised even themselves by claiming the silver medal behind Eritrea, the best finish ever by the Yanks.
Grintavec is nothing like Triglav, which is a massive mountain comprised entirely of one solid block of limestone, and is bleached white by the sun, making it look like snow is on it yearround. Grintovec is simply a steep grind, climbing steadily to a hut at about 5,000 feet before easing a bit over the second half to a summit that I also found socked in by the clouds. No views were to be found in Slovenia on this trip!
Tomo was obviously reluctant to simply take a stranger to Triglav, where he has literally watched people fall to their death. So he had to test me out first. The day after we arrived, Tomo had me meet him at Smarna Gora, a smaller, well-hiked mountain outside Ljubjana that has a large restaurant on the summit. Hundreds of Slovenians make daily treks up the road to the summit, but Tomo took me up the technical route – littered with more rungs and posts and bone-crushing drops – to test out my resolve. I scampered right up the route right behind him and he was satisfied that I had the ability and fitness to handle Triglav.
The morning of the climb was cold, at least on the summit. Tomo had checked the forecast in the morning and learned it was 0 degrees on the summit (fortunately that was Celsius!) and that while the mountain was going to be socked in all day, rain wasn’t going to be a problem. We met at a gas station and he drove the 45 minutes to the national park and paid the 8 Euro entry fee.
His intent was to take us up the Luknya Route rather than the standard trail, which would mean we would do a complete loop over all three summits rather than the safer up-and-back Prag Route outlined in my guidebook. This we could do, he said, if the weather held, and it looked fine, so we headed up the northern flank of the mountain, and eventually reached a small saddle called “The Window” because the wind rushed through there like an open window as it forced its way over the Julian Alps toward the Adriatic Sea about 60 kilometers off in the distance.
This is where the real fun began. This is where he told me not to fall. This is where I probably would not have continued had I been alone! The “trail” immediately climbed up a steep ridgeline with exposure on both sides, and only pegs protruding from the rocks to hold on to. Most of these steel pegs had been painstakingly hammered into the solid rock more than 100 years ago.
Soon, we were traversing a narrow one-foot-wide ledge and holding onto cable that was bolted to the rock face. Now, usually climbers are supposed to use via ferrata equipment here, meaning they wear a harness with a short rope and a clip system to attach themselves to the cable. But we simply free-climbed it. Nothing to worry about. You just didn’t look down, and even if you did, all you were going to see was gray nothingness.
We climbed this way for about an hour, overtaking another solo climber on the cliff face who looked like he shouldn’t have been there … certainly not alone anyway. The climbing was exuberant, clawing and scratching our way up the mountainside. Eventually, we reached the “plateau,” as Tomo called it, between Triglav’s northernmost peak and the main massif, which loomed directly in front of us in the clouds. Here, Tomo said it was easy to lose the trail if the clouds were any thicker, and, in fact, he said a party of three men had done just that not more than a week before. This isn’t a place to go wandering around looking for cairns, as one of the sheerest cliff faces in Europe looms just to the hiker’s left. So they called for help on their cell phone.
Tomo said the Triglavski Dom (or hut) on the other side of the summit was called and the caretaker there asked the hikers gathered there if any dared venture out in the bad weather to rescue their fellow climbers. Everyone just shrugged their shoulders and went back to eating their hot soup. But a 14-year-old girl answered the call, scaled the peak and found the missing hikers and led them back to safety. Each week, a local Slovenian radio station has its callers vote for the “national person of the week,” and last week this girl was the winner because of her heroism.
There was still one more hard section of via ferrata to negotiate as we climbed the main summit of Triglav, and then suddenly we were on top, where the weather showed a little promise of clearing. There is a conical building, called the Aljavez Stolp, about five feet in diameter on the summit with a metal flag on top that acts as a weather vane. The year of its construction – in 1895, by Jakob Aljazu, the father of Slovenian climbing – adorns the flag and the building, which looks like a phone booth or port-a-potty, has withstood the elements ever since. Tomo showed me a picture on his cell phone of a winter hike he did a year or two ago to the summit and just the flag was sticking out of the snow, which was about four meters thick!
Inside the building, someone has meticulously painted a 360-degree panorama of the surrounding mountains, but that was my only view of them as the weather quickly changed its mind and I had to put my sunglasses away after only a minute or so. The register book at the summit had been replaced just that day and I was the third person to sign into the new one. Pretty cool!
Then we headed down via the standard route, which meant we continued over the ridgeline toward the Triglavski Dom (at 8,251 feet) over Mala Triglav, or Little Triglav, which was a sharp spine that narrowed to just a few meters wide in some spots, with steep drop-offs on both sides. A cable ran down the middle of this spine, but of course, we had no gear to clip us safely in. In fact, on several occasions we had to maneuver around other groups of hikers that we were overtaking – some on their way down or some still headed up. As Tomo said often during the trip, “Our speed is our safety.” If the weather turned, we had the physical ability to hightail it off the mountain in time.
Soon thereafter, Tomo stopped at a particularly narrow place to tell me about an incident that happened a few years ago in that exact spot. He had met an Italian climber on the trail and they had been standing there talking when Tomo said goodbye and turned to head to the summit. He took no more than a single step when he heard a shout of “Mama mia!” and turned in time to watch the Italian plummet 400 meters to his death.
Tomo has a long history with Triglav and has been climbing it for more than 30 years. About 25 years ago, when he was about 25 years old, he was drinking with some cycling friends at a bar when it was proposed that no one could climb Triglav in less than two days. Tomo scoffed at the idea and insisted he could climb it in a single day. In addition, he said he would bicycle the roughly 75 kilometers from Ljubjana to Triglav, climb the mountain, and ride home. A few friends joined him, and soon their challenge became a national sensation. A local TV station got wind of it and filmed the entire adventure and they all made national news. Tomo had completed the entire expedition in just 11 hours!
Not long after, he and five others decided another grander adventure was needed, and they bicycled from Slovenia to Chamonix, France, and climbed Mount Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe. That expedition took 16 days.
As we continued our descent, we ran into members of the Canadian mountain running team heading for the summit, who were surprised to find an American on the mountain. When I explained that my girlfriend was the liaison to U.S. team, they responded, “Nancy?” Seems I can’t even go to the top of a remote mountain in a far-off land without running into someone who knows Nancy!
Later, we reached another area where via ferrata cable ran along a narrow ledge above a steep fall. Tomo said that he had fallen here in the winter a few years ago, slipping on the ice and rocketing toward a cliff not 60 meters away. Fortunately, he had his ice axe and was able to self-arrest. Unfortunately, another climber who slipped at the exact same spot the very next day was not, and plummeted to his death.
Many climbers have lost their lives on Triglav. This mountain is for real. There are plaques attached to the rock all over the mountain erected as tributes to fallen climbers. Some were just teenagers.
After making our way past several more climbing parties – including a large group from Bulgaria – we were finally off the mountain and headed back to the car. It had been another epic climb, my 10th international high point. And, more importantly, it had cemented a bond between Tomo and I that will endure. He said that if Nancy and I are able to come back next year for the International Mountain Challenge, which Slovenia is hosting, he will show me some more of his country’s high peaks. And just maybe this time we’ll get some views!