Friday, October 4, 2019

Triumph on Triglav

With Grossglockner in our rear view mirror we headed south and in less than two hours we crossed the border from Austria into Slovenia.  Our next adventure - Triglav the highest mountain in Slovenia and also the highest in former Yugoslavia before Slovenia became an independent nation in 1991.  
At the base of the Tominšek route, a giant carabiner memorial for fallen climbers.
The impressive prominence of the peak and near vertical limestone walls are a sight to behold and a source of pride for Slovenians.  The fact that Triglav is featured on the nation’s flag is testament to its importance to the country.  The former Slovene president Milan Kučan once proclaimed that it is a duty of every Slovenian person to climb Triglav at least once in their lifetime.  And this is a tall order considering the physical and mental strength required to scale the steep and exposed faces necessary to reach the top.  
The near vertical North Face with snow dusted summit of Triglav above.
Similar to Grossglockner, Triglav has many more cables or “via ferratas” bolted into the rock to which carabiners can be clipped in for safety.  Without them one would need nerves of steel like Alex Honnold in Free Solo to climb this without protection. Of course he would scramble up this like a mountain goat playing tag and laughing with his mountain goat friends.
Denise in foreground with Helga and Sean (from Dublin) making their way up the via ferrata.
Also just like our last climb, we threaded the weather needle and woke up in our quaint mountain hut to clear skies and a fresh blanket of snow covering the upper mountain.  We slept at the Aljažev dom in the Vrata Valley in order to have early access to our chosen route called Tominšek.  It’s considered the the most beautiful and classic Triglav route, but by no means the easiest.  We were climbing adjacent to the massive and imposing North Face and due to the sheer steepness, we were ascending at a rate of ~1,000 feet per hour for several hours straight.  With the aid of the via ferrata cables we were able to climb much faster without the need to set up ropes and belay each other up the numerous exposed sections.  We did not take a guide with us as we heard the route was well marked (it was) and the cables provided a good visual as well.
Aljažev dom hut near the base of the Tominšek route, where we spent the night before starting the climb.

As we approached the next hut where we would spend the night, the Triglavski dom na Kredarici at 8,252 feet, we encountered others on the way down. One after another they reported they couldn’t reach the summit because of too much snow and no crampons.  Helga, Denise and I all looked at each other with regret of our decision to leave our crampons behind in order to save the weight in our packs.  Our only hope now was that the warming temperatures of the day would melt the snow enough to allow some traction for our boots.  ...either that or we would have to send Helga back down with her long legs to retrieve our crampons! :-)
We also came to the realization that the partially melted and packed snow would freeze overnight and become an ice skating rink by morning.  So, we decided to change our plan of only hiking to the hut for the day, and instead go all the way and attempt the summit in one long push. We then encountered a French climber descending from the top and he said he was able to do it without crampons.  Encouraged, we marched onward and reached the first of several icy cable sections where we clipped in and treaded cautiously. It was slow going at times but after 8 1/2 hours and almost 6,000 vertical feet, we reached the summit of Triglav, at 9,396 feet the highest point in Slovenia!

After our celebratory photos raising the Challenged Athletes Foundation flag, we headed carefully back down the ridge for ~2 hours to the Triglavski dom high hut. Here we enjoyed a hot meal and a well-deserved rest before heading all the way back down the next morning.  Slovenia and the Triglav National Park have truly been a remarkable place to visit and we hope to return again to this wonderful country.

On the Summit of Triglav, at 9,396 feet the highest point in Slovenia!

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Guts Required on Grossglockner

Standing prominently above other peaks in the Alps, at 12,461 feet Grossglockner is the highest mountain in Austria. And of all the mountains we have climbed around the world it is also one of the most technically challenging, on par with Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia and the Matterhorn. The extreme exposure on the high ridge required intense concentration to focus on each hand and foothold. I tried not to allow my mind to wander, contemplating the unpleasant scenarios that would be the result of a fall thousands of feet down bouncing off sharp rocks to the glacier below. Fortunately this wouldn’t likely occur since we were roped together and also had with us a skilled bergfüehrer with many years experience climbing Grossglockner. His name is Toni Sauper and we would highly recommend hiring him for anyone interested in a guide for this impressive peak: (nice photos of the mtn. on this site too) 
Salmhütte at 8,725 feet
Our plan to go to Grossglockner was hatched back in May while climbing Zla Kolata - The Evil Mouhntain in Montenegro with our friend Helga Hengge. Since she lives only a few hours away in Munich, Helga had familiarity with climbing in the Alps and knew about some of the Austrian mountain huts. We decided to take a longer and more scenic route called the Bishop Salm Route, which also happened to be pioneered by the first expedition to climb the mountain in 1799. This is a less frequented route and combined with the late season and the incoming storm, we had the mountain mostly to ourselves. Not wanting a repeat of the weather we endured on Zla Kolatta we stayed at a mountain hut called the Glocknerhaus at the base of the trail at ~7,000’.  

This gave us a chance to start earlier in the morning and get ahead of the forecasted rain and snow. Dark clouds rolled in after a few hours of hiking and a bit of rain fell on us, but we made it up to the second hut, the Salmhütte at 8,725 feet where we took shelter for the night. The snow began to fall as we ate dinner and continued to accumulate as we slept. Luck was on our side as we awoke for breakfast at 5 AM with a break in the storm and we began hiking by 6 heading for our objective, the summit of Grossglockner. It was a spectacular day and the fresh snow gave the mountain a picture perfect powder sugar covered look. The downside of this however made for slippery footing at times with a thin coat of snow over rock, making the exposed sections high up on the summit ridge require even more serious concentration. Luckily there are cables bolted into the rock in many of the precarious spots on the mountain where we were able to clip in for extra protection. All went smoothly and we made it to the top and back down to the Salmhütte by the end of the day without incident. We spent a second night at the hut and hiked out in the morning with great memories of a fantastic Austrian adventure!  
Our bergfüehrer Toni Sauper
Summit of Grossglockner 12,461 feet

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Soaking in the Splendor of Sněžka

Our journey to the highest peak in the Czech Republic was preceded by a full week of meetings in Prague, and concluded with one of the most unique and outrageous experiences that most people in North America have likely never heard of. An experience which some would only imagine in their dreams.

Before I get to the outrageous experience, business first. The entire reason for our trip to Eastern Europe (including our tour of Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Montenegro) was to visit the Czech Republic, the homeland of both of my parents. My grandparents had some real estate interests in Prague which were passed on to my dad and his siblings. As a result of my dad‘s passing last summer I joined my aunt and uncle to sort out and help manage some of these matters. Along the way I got to meet some second cousins, longtime family friends and even the Portuguese Ambassador to the Czech Republic! Czechs are of course passionate about their Pilsner, so as not to offend any of our guests at dinner meetings all week I was obliged to drink my share!
Once the meetings were all complete on Friday, my uncle Ian, Denise and I headed 2 1/2 hours north to the Krkonoše Mountains, the “Giant Mountains” which aren’t very giant at all. Sněžka, meaning the Snowy One is the highest in the country at a whopping 5,260 feet. Pec pod Sněžkou is a quaint resort village at the base of the mountain which could easily be mistaken for a scenic alpine retreat in the Swiss or Austrian Alps. We tested the limits of our Czech-made Škoda rental car by driving all the way up a steep single lane road in first gear, and then checked in to the Hotel Emerich. Not only did it have stunning views and excellent service, in the winter the hotel is only accessible by snowcat and sits in the middle of the ski runs. Our kind of place! 
View from the deck at Hotel Emerich with Pec pod Sněžkou below and Sněžka peak on the horizon (right).
The next morning Ian, Denise and I met our Prague accountant, Pavel Kuře who joined for the hike along with his family and two-year-old son on his back. We also met our friends Eva and Antoine who we got to know last year in Vietnam climbing Fan Si Pan (Good Morning Vietnam blog post).
Together we all had a pleasant walk socializing as we hiked up an easy path to the summit. Along the way we crossed the border into Poland for a short while and before we knew it, in less than three hours we were at the top. 
With Eva Beranova and Antoine Kermarec
Pavel Kuře with one of the Sněžka Sherpa Cup competitors carrying 132 lbs on his back.
It was great fun to cheer along the strong and determined Czechs who were reaching the summit finish line of the annual Sněžka Sherpa Cup. Some of the participants hauled 60 kg loads (132 lbs) all the way from the base almost 3,000 vertical feet below. Their reward: a shot of Slivovice (Czech plum brandy, or as I refer to it “devil water”). Next year maybe we’ll have to sponsor a team of our Sherpa friends from Nepal and see what happens! At least we know the big Czech guys will be sure to win any drinking competitions afterwards.
June 8th at the summit of Sněžka, the highest peak in the Czech Republic.
Speaking of which, we are finally now at the point where we had our most unique and outrageous experience which was definitely one for the memory books. Upon completing an 11-mile loop over the course of seven hours, we returned to the trailhead area and the Pecky Pivovar brewery. About a year and a half ago the brewery decided some of its patrons might enjoy (perhaps ecstatically) the idea of soaking their entire body in a beer jacuzzi! So they built a beer spa, adjacent to the big brew tanks where weary skiers and Sněžka hikers like us can rejuvenate their bodies in a jetted tub of warm beer. It even has a self-serve tap to supply copious amounts of cold beer to the inside of the body for a full restorative effect! 
After a day of hiking, toasting our Sněžka summit in a tub full of Czech beer!
Forget Prague Castle and the Charles Bridge, the beer spa at Pecky Pivovar in Pec pod Sněžkou is reason alone for a trip to the Czech Republic! I am proud of my people for bringing into existence this great contribution to human happiness. ...and I suspect it would also bring a smile to my dad’s face if he could see us enjoying the fun!

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Montenegro’s Zla Kolata: The Evil Mountain

Also known as the “Accursed Mountains” in Prokletije National Park (the highest part of the Dinaric Alps stretching across Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo) Zla “Evil” Kolata lived entirely up to its foreboding names. It wasn’t because I took a wrong step onto a slick wet rock, slipped, fell and drew some blood from my shin and scraped my hands. It wasn’t because of an arduously long day climbing 4,833’ in elevation covering 12 miles over the course of 11 hours. And it wasn’t because of the rocky terrain with very few clear trail markings or the steep snow covered slopes with many exposed sections where falling would be ...”bad.” Normally we would have enjoyed all of this (except for the falling part) in the course of a challenging adventure. But in our case the “accursed” and “evil” mountain was fitting due to the simple fact that it rained on us ALL DAY!
We started hiking early at 6:15 hoping to get at least a bit of dry weather ahead of the forecasted showers, but we only had 15 minutes before the first raindrops arrived and they became increasingly more intense until we were thoroughly soaked. Even our boots couldn’t repel the continuous onslaught of water. 

It was a stark contrast to the Beautiful Bosnia weather we enjoyed a few days earlier climbing Maglić. Another difference here in Montenegro was having a “true” mountain guide with us, which eliminated the need to constantly be checking our GPS track in the wet and cloudy weather and wondering if we were going the right way. Instead we simply followed Binak, an incredibly kind man who lived in the tiny village of Vusanje a few houses away from the quaint lodge where we were staying.
With Helga on the back porch of our lodge, the Moonlight House the day before our climb (while the weather was still nice).
Another nice treat was to be accompanied by our good friend Helga Hengge who flew in from Munich to join us for this part of our Balkan journey. Helga is the first German woman to summit Mt. Everest and we had the pleasure to first meet her in 2009 in Antarctica while climbing the Vinson Massif. Helga also joined us last year in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco for our Jbel Toubkal adventure for those who may recall reading some of those blog posts. Helga frequently speaks to large corporate clients like BMW, Airbus, Siemens, etc. and as luck would have it she was able to squeeze in a few days to join us right in the middle of two of her previously scheduled talks.

As the wind picked up chilling our rain drenched bodies, and as the cold wet snow we were hiking through made our wet feet feel numb, I asked Helga if this might be the point when she was regretting her decision to fly to Montenegro for three days for this type of punishment!
She laughed and reminded me that this wasn’t nearly as cold as Antarctica! After nearly six hours we reached a saddle and briefly crossed into Albania in order to reach the summit ridge. Within 30 minutes or so we were standing on the 8,317 foot summit of the “Evil Mountain” Zla Kolata (aka Kolatta e Keqe in Albanian). The views from the top in the midst of the rain storm were ...less than stunning. But we made it to the summit and it was particularly meaningful (and completely unplanned) that on this same day May 27th in 1999 Helga stood on the top of Mt. Everest! We wished her a happy 20-year “summit anniversary” and promptly began our 4,800 foot descent towards a warm, dry lodge and a hot meal waiting for us back down in Vusanje at the Moonlight House! 

Despite the ominous sounding names Prokletije National Park is an incredible place to visit and still relatively undiscovered (it only became a national park in 2009). We didn't see any other people at all on the trail all day, and even in the height of the summer season, we understand that not many people come here.
Summit of Zla Kolata: Highest Peak in Montenegro
In front of the Moonlight House with Binak, Helga and on the right Lilly, who manages the lodge with her family.

Sveti Stefan and the Aman Hotel
Kotor, Montenegro hiking the city wall to the fortress above the bay

Monday, May 27, 2019

Beautiful Bosnia

Every mountain we climb has a story, this one began with Sergei the Bosnian-speaking National Park guide saying “the mountain is not safe to climb right now.” 
The translations continued with  “...the cables (meaning via ferrata-type hand rails for safety) are buried under the snow and I will go with you to the cables but I won’t risk my life so I won’t go any higher.” 
Maglić is the highest mountain in Bosnia & Herzegovina at 7,828 feet and she sits on the border with Montenegro to the east within the scenic Sutjeska National Park.  We knew climbing it in May would involve steep snow slopes and we came prepared with crampons and gear to give us the best chance to reach the summit, which was after all one of our main reasons for visiting this country in the first place.  Arranging for a guide many weeks in advance was another measure we took so we could have somebody to help with route-finding and to generally increase our safety and chances for success. 
So when we heard Sergei say the mountain isn’t safe and he didn’t want to go, we had a decision to make.  It was a fairly quick and easy one for us actually, especially after learning that this man (despite his strong, rugged and hardened-looking appearance) was actually a “tourist park ranger” and not a true mountain guide. Through our translator friend at the hotel, we thanked Sergei for his time and told him we had climbing experience and that we would head up Maglić on our own. 

Fortunately back at home before the trip I had downloaded detailed topo and satellite maps of the mountain and the climbing routes. With my new Gaia GPS app on my phone, we successfully navigated 12 miles of dirt roads, found the correct trailhead and from there the two of us headed on foot towards the snowy flanks of Maglić! 

The weather was perfect, clear blue skies, sunshine, pleasant 40 - 50 degree temps and no wind. We were quite fortunate to have clear skies in order to find the route visually from afar rather than rely solely on maps and GPS.  This was particularly  true when trying to navigate our way up the imposing rock fortress like wall of more than 1,000 feet. We needed to get up this somehow in order reach the ridge, and I knew there was a way, but without a guide it would be much more challenging.  Luckily we ran into a group of climbers from Macedonia and Serbia who had a guide familiar with the way up to the ridge.  We chatted for a bit, he pointed out the way and then we went ahead since they were a large group so we were able to move faster with just the two of us. 

As we climbed higher we reached the point where our would-be guide Sergei was talking about with the cables being buried under the snow. We clearly understood the reason for bolting the cables in thatparticular spot.  ...there was a seriously steep slope where a slip would result in plunge over a cliff of several hundred feet down to the rocks below.  
After studying our options we decided that the safest way across was climbing on the rocks above the slope to get as far as we could and then wedging ourselves into the bergshrund to traverse the rest of the distance.  We repeated this process again for several other similar crossings and did some straightforward climbing up over rock and snow until we reached the top of the ridge.  After four hours and over 
2,500 vertical feet we reached the summit and were standing on the highest point in the country of Bosnia & Herzegovina!

Stark Most: Old Bridge in Mostar destroyed in 1990’s civil war and later rebuilt. 
Blagaj Tekija: 15th Century Dervish Monastery