Triglav – 9,396ft
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
Date: August 30, 2012 (Eric), August 16, 2014 (Eric and Matthew)
“I’m sorry but the tomorrow the winds are predicted to be 100kmh and it is forecast to snow,” the ranger warned. “Very dangerous above 15,000ft. In fact very dangerous for several days. Why don’t you come back Tuesday when the weather should improve?”
“We fly home Monday,” I replied in disdain. “Looks like Mt Blanc will have to wait for another trip.”
Kris, Janette, and I walked dejectedly out of the mountaineering ranger office back onto the streets of Chamonix, considering our options. It was Wednesday and we had just come off successful summits of Mt Titano in San Marino and Grossglockner in Austria. A quick stop at an internet café Tuesday had given us hope that we might have good weather for a summit attempt on Mt Blanc, and we had driven eight hours directly from the Grossglockner trailhead to Chamonix, at the base of Mt Blanc. But apparently the ranger had a more reliable weather forecast than the websites we had used, and we trusted his judgment.
The problem now was all the countries in Western Europe had bad weather, or I had already climbed their highpoints. There were plenty of countries left in Eastern Europe which none of us had visited and probably had good weather, but we had just driven most of a day from that part of the continent and were reluctant to just turn right back around.
“Why don’t we just take the cable car up as high as it goes on Mt Blanc now, to at least get a view that could justify driving all the way over here,” Kris suggested. “And then we could contemplate our next move over a cheese fondue lunch.”
It was hard to argue with such a plan, so we walked over to the Aiguille du Midi and started riding up. The ride felt awfully close to cheating for me, but since we weren’t actually going to the summit of Mt Blanc I’d say we were just tourists instead of cheating mountaineers. It was like a different world at the top of the cable car stop: snow and glaciers covered an enormous plateau, with rocky peaks poking out in all directions and the big giant, Mt Blanc, hiding ominously behind the clouds in the distance. It was like a big mountaineer’s playground up there. Someday we’d come back to climb it when the weather was safer.
We soon returned back to Chamonix and found a authentic French restaurant serving cheese fondue. Over lunch we reached consensus that we would drive back over to Eastern Europe to wait out the weather while tagging Triglav, the highpoint of Slovenia. After that we would check the weather and hopefully return to climb Mt Blanc if the weather forecast had improved, but more realistically probably stay over in Eastern Europe climbing smaller mountains.
I took the wheel of our rental van at 3pm, pointed east, and started driving to Slovenia. We traversed northern Italy for the third time in the past five days, driving through Milan, Bologna, and Venice before reaching the Slovenian border around 9pm. Luckily Slovenia is part of the EU and crossing the Italy-Slovenia border was as easy as crossing the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border. We turned off the main highway onto some billy-bob roads (as I like to call them), and finally turned off at our trailhead town of Mojstrana.
But there was a slight problem: the bridge into town had a huge construction vehicle parked in the middle blocking the way, with a sign that we guessed said something like “Closed Do not enter” in Slovenian. We turned around back onto the main road and kept looking for another way in. They couldn’t close down a whole town because one bridge was out, could they? Luckily a mile down the road we found the only other bridge into town, which was fully functional. We cruised through the small village, following signs for Triglav.
We soon made it into the woods behind town, and came upon an official-looking national park sign with a bunch of rules and regulations written in Slovenian. We didn’t really gain any information from this sign, except for a couple symbols which seemed to warn against butterfly collecting, can opening, and dog walking. Those seemed like easy rules to follow. We continued up the gravel road until the trees opened up revealing a huge parking lot. Even on a Wednesday night it was nearly half full of cars.
Our guidebook showed that there was a hut – Aljazev Dom – at the trailhead and we walked over to take a look. Unfortunately (or fortunately for some in the group) the hut caretakers had already gone to sleep and we would be forced to stealth camp in the woods that night. I say “stealth camp” because it was possible the sign at the park entrance had forbidden camping, though we couldn’t be certain. Just to be safe, though, we drove to the most remote corner of the parking lot and walked out of sight into the woods to lay out our sleeping bags. We didn’t bother with the tent because it would have just drawn attention to ourselves.
The sun woke us up at 6:30am the next morning, and we quickly rolled up the sleeping bags and started up the trail. The trailhead was marked by an enormous 15-ft tall caribbeaner clipped to an equally oversized piton sticking out of the ground. It was apparently some sort of memorial to all the climbers who’ve put up routes on Triglav. Our trail was the Prag trail, the quickest way up giving the highest probability of success. We weren’t exactly sure what Prag meant though, or even how it was supposed to be pronounced (prawg, prayg, praag?), but Kris soon came to the conclusion that it must be the name of the little metal posts sticking out of the rock on the steep parts of the trail that we would later encounter.
The trail started out flat and easy for a few miles, then abruptly crossed a stream and headed straight up the mountain. From our vantage point Triglav looked like a fortress surrounded by cliffs on all sides, and we were skeptical that there could be any easy hiking route up. We had read there were some steep sections of via ferrata, so brought our harnesses just in case.
We started scrambling up the rocks, following the red and white bulls-eye trail markers, and occasionally using the prags sticking out of the rock as hand and footholds. After making what seemed like significant progress up the mountain we came to a nearly-vertical rock section with metal rungs and steel cables attached to the rock. On the bottom was painted “1700m,” which seemed to suggest 1700 vertical meters left to the top. That was ridiculous, though, based on my GPS reading of our altitude and on closer inspection we re-interpreted the painting as an upward-pointing arrow next to 700m. That sounded more realistic.
We donned our harnesses, waited for a family of five to come down, and then started climbing. I bet on a weekend this section would be quite a major bottleneck, but luckily this day didn’t seem too crowded. At the top of this section the trail leveled out again for a while, before making a steep traverse of a cliff protected only by a bunch of prags sticking out. Again we waited for another family of five to come down. There were three little kids in the group, and when passing me each one said “don,” then stared at me waiting for a reply. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. “Don” could mean thank you, and it would be weird for me to say thank you back. It could also mean hello in Slovenian. I ended up saying hello in English back to them. Kris surmised that “don” must actually be an insult in Slovenian and the kids were mad at me for something. We later debunked this theory when other Slovenians said “don” to us in passing when we had obviously don nothing to offend them.
After an hour more hiking with a few more via ferrata sections we reached the highest hut on the mountain and the start of the really steep section. The trail followed a ridge on the skyline to the summit, and we could see long lines of people slowly inching their way up. They must have started at the hut, and it looked like a pretty technical section based on their slow progress.
We threw our harnesses back on and started climbing. The route started out with easy scrambling, then steeper scrambling with prags to hold on to, then very steep traverses and climbs with full via ferrate cables. On our way we passed all sorts of characters – several old ladies with full chest harnesses being short-roped by guides, older men with potbellies holding onto the cables but with no via-ferrata gear, younger kids descending with full via-ferrata gear, and even a super in-shape dude wearing a Boston Marathon hat. He must have been one of the fastest runners in the country.
We also passed a group of filmmakers shooting scenes for a new mountaineering movie, and a team of workers inserting new prags into the cliff. The mountain was certainly bustling with activity this Thursday morning.
The steep via ferrata soon leveled out into a narrow knife-edge ridge, where I was especially nervous passing people who had no via ferrata gear. There were of course still cables for them to hold on to, but it seemed like they were taking an unnecessary risk and I was extra careful as they passed.
After climbing one last stretch of steep via ferrata we reached the summit of Triglav. Thirty people were clustered around a small metal structure marking the top. Men were signing and drinking vodka, people were posing with a big Slovenian flag, and others were walking around snapping pictures. Someone pointed out to us that Triglav was actually the mountain featured on the national flag of Slovenia, so we made sure to get pictures posing with the big flag on the summit.
One guy on the top spoke some English, and was surprised to hear we had come all the way from America.
“Why would you come all the way here to Slovenia?” he asked.
“To climb the cool mountains like Triglav,” we responded.
He pointed out that we could actually see the Mediterranean Sea from the top, and even most of the small country of Slovenia. To the north we could make out what was probably Grossglockner, which was only a couple hours drive away. To think we could have driven directly here in a couple hours after climbing Grossglockner Monday, instead of driving 16 hours round-trip to Chamonix. Of course we didn’t regret the cheese fondue and the trip up the cable car in Chamonix, though.
After an hour we started heading back down to beat the crowds, and reached the hut by 3:30pm. The descent was equally thrilling climbing down such steep cliffs. This would be a fun mountain to climb sometime using just ropes and rock gear on one of the north faces, though it would of course take much longer.
The rest of the descent was smooth hiking until we came to the prag traverse where the little kids had been saying “don” to me. I looked below the cliff and, 30 feet down on a small ledge were two shiny new green hiking poles. We were the only ones around and I suspected someone had accidentally dropped them on the traverse as they were using their hands to hold on to the prags. It was a bit sketchy to go get them, so I suspect the person just gave up. I did not plan on giving up, though.
I carefully tied my own poles to my backpack and started downclimbing the cliff, until I reached the ledge.
“How do you like them apples?” I yelled up to Kris and Janette as I triumphantly held up the poles. I quickly climbed back up to the trail. Kris had decided to go ultra-light on this climb and not bring his poles, though Janette and I had each brought our sets. I detected Kris was regretting that decision now on the downhill, so I offered to let him test out my brand new poles on the way down.
We soon made it back to the flat part of the trail, and hustled back to the trailhead, reaching the car just barely in time not to need our headlamps. We celebrated our success by eating at a Slovenian restaurant that night and resting in a nice hotel. We also eagerly awaited the next weather forecast to see if Mt Blanc might be back in the cards.