By Matt Westby
Through the thick mist I can see the giant Polish soldier who last night drank six cans of lager in the hut. He’s not just in ahead of us on the mountain; he’s on his way back down. Hangover? Nothing of the sort.
We had set out at the same time but after opening up a gap on me and my two friends, he clearly made mincemeat of the summit ridge. He’s the Army man, bedecked in camouflage clothing and a standard-issue helmet, yet it’s us who are taking each step with military precision. Sure and steady is our mantra.
“Zdravo”, I call out as he passes, ignorant to the fact that he probably doesn’t understand the Slovenian for “hello”. He doesn’t reply, but nods at us with a stern face and furrowed brow that seems to ask “What’s taking you so long?”
Feeling humbled, and clinging tight to the fixed cables that line the upper slopes, we continue up towards the 2,864m summit of Triglav, the highest peak in Slovenia’s Julian Alps.
The mist masks fatal drop-offs on either side and a plaque in memory of a teenager who fell to his death on that very spot serves a reminder that, despite being at relatively low altitude in this part of the European Alps, we are far from on the proverbial walk in the park.
The ridge rears up to what I presume is the summit but when the incline levels out, the cables continue on into the cloud. My heart sinks. If it was a clear day, I could keep climbing like this for hours, energised by the views, but the fog brings an uncertainty that makes me want to get this over and done with as soon as possible.
The bare rock then rises once again. Clasping the cable with one hand and anything stable with the other, we gain more height; calves and quads burning, lungs thumping.
And then it appears, the strange rocket-shaped one-man shelter that marks the top of Triglav. It’s a silly landmark really, and not something you would want to have your picture taken with, like the famous Kilimanjaro summit sign, but it represents the completion of an Alpine ascent that is revered by many in this part of the world, so much so that Triglav appears on the Slovenian flag. The mountain is the locals’ Mecca.
As if having waited for us to arrive, the clouds finally begin to break over to the west and the sky turns a brilliant blue. Below, the Julian Alps unveil themselves, with the green of the tree line and grey of bare rock coming to life as they receive the first of the day’s sun.
It’s a hands-on-the-back-of-your-head view and more than ample repayment for having tiptoed nervously for a couple of hours along an uneven ridge only as wide as a single bed.
Like on any summit, I’m filled with a cocktail of emotions: first elation, then relief, followed by quiet contemplation and, finally, anxiety at the descent still to come.
I could stay all day but there is plenty of ground still to be covered and we have to move on. A few photos, some hard chocolate and a swig of water later and we’re on our way back down the opposite side and into the valley.
We stopped at Dolic hut for a late lunch of goulash soup – the staple of Slovenia’s mountains – then continued along a dry river bed before wearily stumbling late in the afternoon into the Vodnikov hut, our finishing line for a long day and home for the night.
By then the clouds had cleared completely and we spent the rest of the day looking back up to the top of Triglav, tired but proud in a way that only mountains climbed and summits reached can leave you feeling.
Our ascent up to Triglav had begun two days before, when we travelled from Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital, two hours west to Lake Bohinj on the edge of the Julian Alps.
The first part of the hike followed the tranquil blue water that fed the lake back up its course and along a dramatic gorge. We cooled off with a swim in an icy pool before calling it a day early with a beer and goulash at the first in a series of mountain huts, Voje.
These charming places are among the highlights of life throughout the European Alps and Slovenia’s are no different, almost always boasting exquisite views and an atmosphere inside that warms up even the most weather-beaten soul.
Mountaineering memorabilia lines the walls and climbers drinking room-temperature cans of the local brew play cards and share stories until retiring for an early night on to dimly lit bunks 30 beds wide. It doesn’t sound romantic, but invariably is.
We woke early the next morning to heavy downpours and were soaked through as we continued to ascend, bisecting a wide forested valley and then following the trail as it kicked violently uphill.
The rain poured down as we toiled against the incline and didn’t relent until the three of us emerged from the treeline more than two Achilles-snapping hours later.
The leaf-covered path turned to rock and the rain clouds parted to reveal soaring jagged peaks on all sides, a sight that made the morning’s slog more than worthwhile.
We were already worn out by the time we reached Vodnikov hut (our first of two visits) and scoffed down more goulash (our second of countless portions) but still had the hardest part of the day to come.
The aim was to reach Planika hut, which sits precariously on a small plateau directly beneath Triglav’s summit ridge and is accessed by zig-zagging your way up the mountain’s eastern flank.
The trail is badly broken and progress was slow but when we arrived late in the afternoon, not even a buffeting wind could dampen the satisfaction of looking back down on the sprawling valley up which we had just come, and beyond it to the trees and Lake Bohinj.
By that point, we had ascended 1,800m in a day-and-a-half and had just 400m metres – albeit the most difficult – left to negotiate to the summit of Triglav the following morning.
Having successfully made it to the top and then all the way back down to Bohinj the following day, we left the mountains and continued on to the impossibly idyllic Lake Bled.
The town that sits on the waterside doesn’t in itself have you clawing to remove the camera cap, but set against the backdrop of the lake it becomes a dazzlingly beautiful place.
A medieval castle on the edge of the town peers over the brilliant blue water, while in the middle is an island on which sits the quaintest of little churches, its spire rising up in competition to the soaring peaks in the distance.
We spent our time there swimming in the lake, walking all the way around it and then out of town towards yet another dramatic gorge.
But with legs half-dead from the climb, we mainly just sat on the shore and drank in a wonderful part of the world, content in the knowledge that we had taken on and overcome the best it had to offer.
Triglav - http://www.summitpost.org/triglav/150787
Triglav National Park - http://www.tnp.si/national_park/