Bled to Stara Fužina by bus; Up into the mountains; Mushrooms and loose rocks; Cows and their gifts on the trail; In which we decide that we aren't real hikers since we don't have walking poles; The Seven Lakes; A herd of ibex; The Planika hut; Frightening ascent to the summit of Triglav; In which we don't become real Slovenians; Windy return to below the tree line; Mostnice Falls; An unexpected meeting in Stara Fužina; The rain comes with (almost) perfect timing

The nice lady at the park information office had convinced us that an early start was best, so we dutifully woke up at 5:30am and dragged ourselves and all our extra stuff down there. I was carrying my pack on the hike, but nearly empty - just snack food, water and clothes, plus incidentals. I’d rather have carried a day-pack, but all I’ve got is a zipper bag that’s falling apart. Sheryl was carrying a day-pack again on this hike, and this meant that we had to stuff her big pack full of all her things and all my things as well. Somehow we managed, but the thing was beastly heavy to carry across town, I can tell you.

The bus to Ribčev Laz was about an hour. The weather had been fine when we left Bled, but as we approached Lake Bohinj we descended into thick chilly fog. It took a bit of time in Ribčev Laz to get food for lunch, fill the water bottles, and such, and then walk to the village of Stara Fužina and find the trailhead, but we were under way on the trails by 9. The fog burned away quickly and the weather was beautiful - and stayed that way for our entire trek, which I’m very grateful for.

The first section of the trail was a switchback climb up a rocky forest trail from 550m to about 800m altitude. We realized fairly quickly that we were going to have a couple of issues with the Slovenian hiking trails. First, they’re covered in loose, crushed rock. Why, I can’t begin to imagine. It makes hiking much harder on the ankles and the feet, makes going uphill and downhill much harder, and makes a ridiculous amount of noise. Second - although there are hundreds of trails in Triglav National Park, every single one of them uses the same marker. It’s a white dot inside a red circle - nice and visible, but tells you precisely nothing about which trail you’re on or what direction you’re heading in, aside from the fact that you’re on a trail, somewhere. Slovenians, it seems, like to be confused and noisy in the wilderness. In fairness, though, besides these two lapses in common sense, the trails were amazingly clean and well-maintained - my grateful thanks to the Slovenian Alpine association and the Slovenian people in general for this gift.

After the upward grid, the next section was through a lovely beech forest, all hushed and striped with bars of sunlight. Beech forests are one of my favourite kinds, because the trees are widely-spaced and don’t have many low branches on their trunks, so the woods are very airy and open. We found some very good late mushrooms including some of the infamous Amanita muscaria. They were all well-nibbled this late in the year, but the forest floor must be something to see in the spring. By mid-morning we’d reached Vogar, the first of our three hut landmarks of the day. We paused there for a snack and continued up, through thinning trees. The dominant feature of the trail at this point, unfortunately, was cow-shit. Farmers let their cows roam the mountains in the summer and round them up in the late autumn, but not before they make a huge mess. The footing was tricky enough already without their contributions, so I was happy when we caught up with the last of them and passed them in a little stretch of meadow at 1500m altitude.

Another notable feature of the trail in this section was the presence of other hikers. It’s one of the easy sections and attracts hordes of day-trippers, all carrying those silly hiking poles that no one seems to feel complete without these days. I don’t see the usefulness of them, to be honest - they’re noisy, awkward, get in the way and make a mess of the trail. And what do you do with them when you need your hands for a difficult section of trail? There’s something absurd about a line of half a dozen people all coming down the trail with their poles, looking like a rowing team or a centipede. Walking-stick jokes became a running theme of our conversation during the trek.

We reached the second hut landmark in the early afternoon, and decided to push on without stopping. We dipped in and out of the tree line for a couple of hours and finally emerged on the west side of an immense ridge with a deep valley down to our left. This took us all the way to our final destination of the day, the Seven Lakes hut by Lake Dvojno (first of the eponymous Seven). The setting was stunning. The lake was glowing green with algae and the massive ridge with its giant scree slides marched away to the north. We were very happy to reach the hut, since it had been a solid nine hours of climbing and our feet were aching. My ankle, twisted a few days before, had held up well with the help of a brace. The hut itself was noisy and crowded. Conditions are primitive in the mountain huts - dormitory-style beds and no hot water. They’re expensive to run, though, and therefor expensive to stay at - €18 for each of us - but it’s the only option since camping is prohibited. The meals you can buy there, too, are very expensive. We waited too long to eat and most of the food had run out, so we had to settle for barley soup with ham and bread. That and two cans of beer cost us €19, making it one of the most expensive meals of our entire trip so far. The hostel was full of a screaming school group that was bouncing off the walls, so we took a short walk around the lake and retired early. Sleep that night was very rough, thanks to a couple of amazingly loud and inconsiderate old men in our dorm, bellowing and turning on the lights all night. In the morning we were very happy to have our €12 breakfast, pack up our €8 sandwiches for lunch, and hit the trails by 8 o’clock.

The hiking on the second day was much more demanding. The first section was a rocky, mostly level hike just above the tree-line along the bottom of the great ridge, passing each of the Seven Lakes in turn. After the seventh, though, things got tougher. A long grind up a very steep slope gained us 200m of altitude to the Hribarice region and wasn’t any fun at all, though the views were good at the end. Hribarice itself is like a Martian landscape - barren and full of razor-edged broken boulders. It seemed lifeless, but halfway through it we encountered a small herd of ibex - wild mountain goats about a meter tall with huge, curved, ridged horns. They were quite calm and seemed used to hikers, though we didn’t try to get closer than 20 meters or so. There were 6 or 7 adults in the herd, and two kids. We watched as they climbed up and over a peak to our left and out of sight, not making any noise or disturbing a single rock as they went.

The ibex were the highlight of the afternoon, no question. After them there was another grind up to the Dolič saddle at 2164m and then a heartbreaking long descent back to 2000m on the far side. Angle-breaking, too - the slope was steep and the trail was all loose rock and gravel, and Sheryl and I both slipped and fell more than once. During the walk down we got to see the helicopter which performs rescue and supply runs flying back and forth through the valley, which was cool. Our reward at the end of the walk down was to turn a corner and look down to the bottom of the hill to a big rockslide on a bit of green alpine meadow, where lots of previous hikers had carried piles of rocks to spell out messages. When we got down, I carried a bunch of rocks so Sheryl could spell out “Tee hee!”. Future hikers will no doubt be mystified.

After that it was all steep uphill to our destination, the Planika hut at 2400m altitude, around 3 o’clock. The last little bit was insanely steep and we were wiped by the time we got there. We were already well higher than we’d ever been before, and had completed seven hours of alpine hiking, but there was still the ascent to the summit of Triglav to accomplish. We rested and kicked the idea around until 4:00 and finally decided that we had daylight and energy enough to do it, and that we should take the opportunity while the weather was good.

If I’d known what was to come, though, I would have thought twice. There are two routes to the summit from Planika - the east route and the west. The east route had a longer section of dotted line on the map than the west route - the dotted line denotes a “difficult to very difficult” route. We decided, in our naivete, that the west route must be easier since the dotted line was shorter. Our map was skimpy on the elevation lines in that spot, otherwise I might have realized that it was shorter because it was straight up. White-knuckle two-handed climbing, clinging like flies to a wall, straight up for probably 200 meters. Normally I can’t stand heights - they turn my guts to water. I hadn’t been bothered at all that day, even though there had been some hairy steep sections of trail. I discovered something about myself halfway up that nightmare climb. I’m not afraid of heights. I’m afraid of falling. Or really, not even that - I think I could probably skydive if I wanted to. What I’m terrified of is that moment when you slip out into nothing and scrabble frantically for something, anything, to hold onto, and come up with nothing. It’s that moment of awful realization that you are about to fall to your death and you can’t stop yourself - that’s what unmans me.

I was just fine until halfway up, though. I hadn’t even thought about it, really. I was just playing with the puzzle of grips and finding a route up, putting one hand or foot in front of the other, and absorbed in the rock in front of me. Then, out of nowhere, Sheryl had a panic attack. It can happen to anyone. She was perfect and came through it like a hero, but after she recovered it suddenly hit me just where we were, what we were doing, and just how goddamned easy it would be for one of us to slip out into space and out of the world. But even then I was okay, more or less. I kept my breathing steady and slow and deep, kept my tongue off the roof of my mouth, and concentrated on the rock. I knew there was no going back - I still can’t imagine trying to go down that route feet-first. I used the support cables and spikes whenever they were there, and did without them when they weren’t. I focused on Sheryl’s feet above me - she was once again calm and confident and climbing like a monkey. The real problems came when we reached the end of the vertical section. There was a five-meter chimney where we had to brace our backs against one side of the rock and walk up the spikes on the other side. So far so good, but when we emerged from the cleft there was a long 30° slope of loose rock dead ahead. It struck me then, suddenly, that if we slipped there, there was nothing to stop us sliding right off the cliff and all the way down. My knees started to shake and my legs felt weak. My breathing came faster. I knew that hyperventilating would be the death of me, though. Breathing exercises helped calm the physical symptoms, but there was no help for the psychological ones. It was go on or stay on the side of the mountain forever, and it was getting cold up there. We made it up that bad slope, and then the worst of it was over. There were still 250m to climb, and it was very hard, nerve-wracking, and very windy. The scariest part was a knife-edge ridge less than a meter wide, with drops on either side a hundred meters deep. It was short, but I crawled over it and I feel no shame admitting that. Finally, finally, though, we made it to the summit - chilled to the bone, worn out with fear, and with hands torn to hamburger by the sharp rocks.

Triglav is 2,864 meters high - nearly half a kilometer higher than we’d reached in Romania. At the top was a little metal silo with a screeching wind-vane on top and a door in the side. We went in and the sudden respite from the wind stunned us with its silence. There was a painted panoramic mural inside with viewing holes at various points around. We each left one of our cards inside and went out to admire the view. It was… beyond words. Utterly magnificent. Exalting and awful in equal measure. I think I could see for a hundred kilometers in every direction. To the south and east stretched the valleys of Slovenia, to the north the Austrian Alps, and to the west the Italian.

We didn’t have much time to admire the view, though - we came to our senses and realized that the sun was sinking fast. I quickly built a little inukshuk and we set out for the eastern route back down to Planika, the size of a sugar cube far below. The east route, thank god, was vastly easier than the west. It ran along the ridge to Triglav’s second peak and then down, and there was very nearly continuous support cable all the way. We were both hugely grateful for that cable - it had been a very, very long day and we were completely worn out. We reached Planika just after 7:30 and with not a minute to spare - it was pitch-black fifteen minutes after we arrived. We ate, and sat in the warm and noisy hut, dazed and stunned at what we’d done. There’s a tradition in Slovenia that you aren’t a real Slovenian until you’ve climbed Triglav, and they mark the occasion by spanking each other at the summit with a stick. Nobody did that to us, so I guess we aren’t real Slovenians, but we were proud of ourselves anyway.

I slept like a dead man that night. We were lucky with our dormitory-mates - everyone was quiet and respectful. Sheryl still wasn’t able to sleep, unfortunately - she wasn’t sure why. It was the third and last day of the trek, though, and so it was all downhill - all 1900 meters of altitude we’d gained to be be lost in one day (not even counting the 467m zero-sum game of our summit ascent the evening before). We weren’t taking the same route down - it was a loop. We ate and were out on the trail by 7:30 to begin the long slog. The weather had taken a turn for the worse and the wind was fierce and biting. I thought I might spread my arms and glide all the way down.

The first section was all exposed windswept barren rock all the way to Vodnikov hut. We lost 600m of altitude in just over an hour and a quarter. Not much of interest aside from lots of rock and someone’s false teeth we discovered by the side of the trail. Maybe it was all that remained of some poor doomed hiker? By mid-morning we were below the tree line again, and by early afternoon we’d reached the Mostnice waterfall, a beautiful little gorge and fall of bone-crackingly cold water. A quick dip of the feet was all either of us could stand, but even that was refreshing. Once our feet regained colour and feeling we followed the Mostnice river through the Voje valley all the way back to Stara Fužina, which we reached at around 4 in the afternoon.

After Stara Fužina, we knew, there was a boring three-kilometer walk around to the south side of Lake Bohinj, where there was a hostel we were hoping to stay at. We were just grumbling about the anticlimax when who should pull up in her car but the nice lady from the Triglav National Park tourist office in Bled! Her boyfriend lives in Stara Fužina and she was visiting for the weekend. A very surprising and welcome coincidence. She wanted the whole story and offered us a lift to the hostel. We were ready to fall over from hunger but the thought of not having to walk those 3km won out - we were only too happy to accept.

We did have to walk it, and more, as it turned out. After we’d checked into the hostel and tried to find some clean skin under our layers of filth we were desperate for food. We rushed out the door, heedless of our tired feet and ready for the 2km walk from the hostel to Ribčev Laz and the supermarket. We’d gotten halfway there when a furious thunderstorm struck with no warning, tearing the leaves off the trees and sending them swirling down the road, and whipping the lake into a frenzy. Such was our hunger that we almost decided to go on, but we were wearing our only clean clothes and couldn’t have them wet, so we ran back to the hostel for our rain gear (unneeded on the trek until this moment). Into the village for food and then back one last time for a total added distance of six kilometers of anticlimactic road walking in the rain. The storm had settled in for good so we sat on a balcony and watched until we couldn’t keep our eyes open any longer.

Flourish

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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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