Perched on a bed of sharp limestone scree, I braced myself against the fierce, cold air racing past us on the dramatically angled mountain face. My blood pounded in my ears and the fog of my deep breaths swirled around my face, clouding my sunglasses. The only sounds occasionally interrupting the deafening silence were the crunch of our guide Mitja’s persistent footsteps in the snow, and the gusts of wind howling down towards us from the crags above.
I absorbed the vibrant blues, whites, yellows, and greens around us as we paused for our break before the next steep climb. Up, up, up into the Julian Alps. My fear of heights crept around the edge of my thoughts, trying to take the reins, knowing that a strenuous vertical climb through ice lay ahead. ‘Too dizzy…gonna fall…too high up’, Fear wanted me to think. But instead, I thought, ‘This is the most peaceful and serene environment you’ve ever been in…embrace it’.
How did we end up there, in the Julian Alps?
They say that the theme of your first wedding anniversary gifts to each other is paper. Next comes cotton. And third is leather (…who comes up with this??). But we never much paid attention to this conventional stuff, so we decided to make our third anniversary’s theme alpine climbing.
Alpine climbing was a truly foreign concept to me. It sounded like the next step in the video game of hiking that I could level up to. Really, it’s just hiking with the goal of reaching the top of a mountain face or pinnacle, sometimes assisted by equipment. But in this case, we’d be doing it in the Julian Alps of Slovenia, which made the “alpine” bit feel more legitimate.
We’d first heard of Slovenia and its supposedly magical wilderness while on our wedding anniversary trip to Croatia last year. Romano, our AirBnB host on the tiny island of Vis, told us that if we liked hiking in Croatia, we had to make its neighbor to the north one of our next trips. So we spent the last day of our Croatia trip researching Slovenia. (ProTip: to ease the pain of the last day of a vacation, planning your next trip while travelling back is always a good move.)
Climbing Triglav, Slovenia’s tallest mountain, quickly became a fixation for Mike. The mountain is a national symbol of pride to the Slovenian people – it’s even on their flag. While the summit was first conquered by brave climbers in the 18th century, it’s true significance is attributed to the actions of a priest named Jakob Aljaž in the late 19th century. He loved the mountains, and wanted to claim Triglav for the Slovenian people. In 1895, Aljaž purchased the summit of the mountain from the Austro-Hungarian empire for one gulden (according to Google, approx. $12 USD today), and subsequently planned and constructed a tower at the summit. Once Mike read that all true Slovenians are supposed to climb Triglav at least once in their lifetime, it became a fixture in our itinerary.
I was a little apprehensive about this. While we have spent this past year challenging ourselves more and more in the outdoors, the idea of being roped in and trudging through ice up a vertical mountain-face made my insides turn. I knew that it would be a new challenge for my fear of heights, but it was one I was ready to tackle. And Mike reminded me that if one quarter of Slovenians have climbed Triglav (a pretty impressive stat, I’d say!), then I could do it too.
To hire a guide, or not to hire a guide?
Leading up to the trip, we debated whether we’d need a guide for the climb. I read conflicting opinions on this. SummitPost’s descriptions of the many different routes up to the peak was somewhat vague on the difficulty of the climb. It was the shoulder season, as we were definitely outside the summer climbing windows but not quite sure if it would be winter climbing conditions yet in the last week of October (probably should have remembered that conditions are very different at altitude in the Alps!). It did note, however, that any way you went up you’d have to use the via ferrata (fixed iron cables and hand holds), and winter conditions would require via ferrata kit (ropes and caribiners), crampons, and helmets.
Ultimately, we decided that it was worth the money to be with someone who was familiar with the terrain, who would be aware of the weather conditions, and who could guide us up with the via ferrata kit when necessary. This turned out to be the best decision of the trip, because it’s how we ended up with Mitja.
We found Mitja easily – if you search for “Triglav Guides” he comes up on basically every site about Slovenian climbing. He’s been climbing in Slovenia his whole life, has been professionally guiding hikers in the Julian Alps for over ten years, and has summited the peak of Triglav over 350 times, 36 times just this year. I’ve never met someone who moves so effortlessly over loose rock and snow. Even in cumbersome crampons, he looked like he was gliding. And I’m very sure that he could climb his way up to the summit blind folded. Relinquishing control of the logistics to him made us feel comfortable and allowed us to fully enjoy the experience.
Our confidence in our decision to climb with Mitja only increased when we discovered that we were two of the three climbers to make it to the summit’s weather station without requiring rescue (!). Three other groups (seven other climbers) who had not hired guides got lost, stranded, or injured out in the rough terrain and weather conditions, and had to call mountain rescue for a helicopter to come save them. In fact, after climbing all day with us in the cold, Mitja spotted four of these lost hikers with his eagle eyes and went off to rescue them (he brought two very smart hikers in shorts and t-shirts to a nearby hut, and then assisted with another hiker’s rescue by helicopter basket, and brought the fourth hiker back to the mountain hut). In the dark. I repeat – after climbing the whole mountain with us. I’ll say it – he’s a Slovenian super hero.
So, bottom line: if you’re hiking in unfamiliar territory, especially in winter conditions, a guide is probably worth it.
Initially we planned to complete our two-day climb up and down at the very beginning of the holiday. I was excited about this plan. My stomach was in knots with anticipation, and I was happy we’d get the climb over with. But Mitja emailed us the day before our flight to warn us that a storm with 165mph winds and a predicted 30cm accumulation of snow was hitting the mountains on Sunday, just before we had planned to start hiking on Monday, and suggested we push the climb back a day to allow for better conditions.
While I was disappointed that I’d have to endure my nerves for a few more days, the storm worked in our favor. It cleared all of the clouds and haze from the mountains, and left a blanket of fresh snow in its path, so by the time we were ready to climb, the conditions were spectacular.
We met Mitja early Tuesday morning in a sleepy little alpine village, Mojstrana. (I have a sneaking suspicion that when Mitja told us that only 1,100 people live in this idyllic village, Mike made a mental note to look at available property). From there, we drove up a winding dirt road and into the Krma valley where we parked before setting out.
The first mile or so of the path guided us through what felt like the Forbidden Forest, except that it was welcoming. There were no vampires, giant spiders, or werewolves waiting for us (that we knew of). Instead, baby deer darted by, golden leaves fell softly on the path, and the fir trees swayed in the breeze. It was just us and nature. Not a single human being was in sight. The only evidence that any humans had ever been there at all was a tiny dilapidated shepherd’s hut which stood hidden amongst the mossy boulders not far after we started hiking.
We emerged from the cozy woodland into an entirely new terrain. The limestone bowl we were swimming in came into view, the sharp ridges towering over us. Bright green shrubs and golden trees dotted the landscape. I felt like I’d closed my eyes in the busy, smoggy, noisy London and opened them in a magical world where the three of us were the only remaining people, left to fend for ourselves amongst the ibex and wolves. The geology nerd within me came whooshing out, and I could visualize a glacier pushing its way through this limestone millions of years ago where we now stood. Mitja glanced at me and broke the silence, “It’s beautiful, yes?”. I just nodded back, at a loss for words.
We reached a small shepherd’s hut, this time not dilapidated. As Mitja and Mike went to sit down to hydrate and refuel, I just stood there, circling slowly, in awe of my surroundings. I started plotting ways to figure out who owned this hut so we could buy it and move in. Immediately.
Mitja advised that from here, the climb only became more demanding. While we only had a couple of miles left between us and the weather station at the very base of the summit, they were increasingly vertical and we’d need our energy. Luckily Mike had packed plenty of Snickers bars and gummi bears, which did the trick.
The climb certainly got steeper, and the snow became deeper. But all of my nerves about my capability to do this hike dissolved. My legs felt strong, and the stunning conditions were invigorating. We knew that even better views awaited us up and over the ridge, so we powered through behind Mitja as he carved out a path for us through the snow, at times knee-deep.
Up and over the lip of the ridge, and down we went into a basin that looked like we couldn’t be possibly anywhere else but on the moon. I kept my eyes peeled for Luke Skywalker, R2-D2, and C-3PO, and plodded along after Mitja.
Triglavski Dom na Kredarici – 2515m
Mitja kept saying we were near the weather station where we’d be resting for lunch before our final push for the summit, and then spending the night after climb, but I didn’t believe him until it came into view, with Triglav standing prominently behind it.
I breathed a sigh of relief as we kicked the ice off of our boots and stumbled into the entrance of the mountain hut. There, we were reinvigorated with hot bean stew made by the people manning the weather station that runs year round inside the hut.
The 350-person capacity building was mostly sealed off for the season (Mitja noted that it’s full every single day of the summer season), but had spare un-heated rooms for winter climbers to sleep in between the ascent and descent of Triglav. When we learned that we’d be sleeping in twin beds in an unheated winter hut on our wedding anniversary, Mike and I laughed. Romance at its finest!
The final ascent up Triglav’s rock face to the shelter marking the summit is the toughest part. It’s recommended that if the weather holds, climbers try to complete this final part on the same day as the initial ascent to the hut, to take advantage of the end-of-day conditions and allow for a quicker descent the next day.
Luckily, our weather more than cooperated with us. So we stretched our sore and tired muscles and followed Mitja out of the hut and down to the base of the rock face, crampons donned, rope in-hand.
We began climbing: Mitja in the lead, a rope leading from his climbing harness back to mine, then continuing onward to Mike. We grasped onto the steel cable of the via ferrata, winding up the rock and straight into the sky, to pull ourselves upward. To mentally prepare myself, I had watched GoPro videos of previous brave souls making their way up this part. But it was harder than I had even imagined, and the ice and loose rock weren’t forgiving.
With each dig into the ice that Mitja took, I followed. I kept telling myself, ‘Don’t look down, you can do this’. But my hands wouldn’t stop shaking and cold sweat was soaking my hat beneath my helmet. About 70m up, I shouted to Mitja through the wind that if I went any further, I wasn’t sure I could get back down. He looked at me with complete confidence and a resolute calm, assuring me he knew I could do it. I must have looked terrified, because he thought for a second and then offered, ‘Give me ten more minutes of climbing. We’ll check in with each other every ten minutes. You have another hour of this, that isn’t long. You aren’t going anywhere at all, I know what I’m doing.”
I had complete faith in Mitja, and even in the strength of the cable. But after the ten more promised minutes had gone by of strenuously pulling myself up the rocky ice, I assured Mitja that this counted as summiting for me, and I would go down to the hut to watch him and Mike complete the final climb from there.
How I wrestled with my thoughts between feeling defeated and feeling accomplished is the subject of another post, another day. But ultimately, I felt a level of euphoric exhaustion that I’ve only experienced from long days of hiking. I massaged my muscles and warmed my hands as I stood on the deck of the weather station, watching Mike and Mitja disappear into the distance as they strategically wound their way up that remaining rock face.
Looking through Mike’s photos from the highest ridge and the summit with him was almost as great as reaching the summit myself.
Mike arrived back at the hut just in time to drag me out from under my seven layers of blankets where I was reading and growing sleepy. He insisted it would be worth it to finish watching the sun set together. And it was.
After we watched the sun dip below the horizon, we climbed back into the (modest) warmth of the hut for the evening. We quietly chatted through our exhaustion with the only other climber who didn’t require a rescue – a really friendly, young Austrian guy – and we demolished our bowls of macaroni with hamburger meat and a couple of summit beers. Mediocre food always tastes gourmet at the top of a mountain.
The eerily quiet night was marked by wind rattling the doors of the hallways in the nearly empty hut. But just before dawn, my eyes burst open and I eagerly climbed out of my tiny twin bed in our unheated bunk room. “Miiiike, wake upppp.” It felt like Christmas morning. In just a few minutes, the sun would appear over the eastern horizon and we could watch it together in silence from the top of Mount Triglav. On our actual wedding anniversary.
Mike sleepily crept down the stairs after me and we hurriedly bundled up just enough to endure the icy air that waited for us outside of the hut. With each passing second, the hues of the sky shifted and cast new shades of pink on the snow, ice and rock of the mountain around us. I jumped up and down next to Mike excitedly to keep myself warm.
As the sun peaked, and then burst forth over the mountains I wondered aloud, “Why don’t we get up to watch this every day?”
After the sun rose, the rest of the morning and our descent from the top of Triglav sped by. We inhaled the hot breakfast the weathermen prepared for us, stuffed our extra layers into our packs, and set forth back into the moon-like landscape to trek our way back into the valley.
Climbing, I’m realizing now as I write this, is a volatile passion. For me, anyway. One moment, I feel like I’m gripped with fear and anxiety on the edge of a precipice. My whole body is teetering and ready to fall. With the next step, I’m entranced by the sounds of the wind in the trees, the sight of an animal’s track in the snow, an increased strength in my legs. And always, always, always, if I close my eyes and picture myself on the London tube, or a crowded street in Boston, I open them and choose nature. What better place and way to celebrate a wedding anniversary than reaching the summit of a mountain, then?