Sunshine, windburn, summat to do with summits

Beans is here! Just in time for winter :D

Mizuki had planned to join me several weeks earlier while I was still in Bosnia, but she also has a five year old nephew who is apparently more charming and handsome than me, so she arrived a little later. Perhaps just as well though, the border shenanigans involved in preserving my precious line of steps between Bosnia and Montenegro would have neither interested nor impressed ol’ Bean, though I suppose her having now climbed Maglić once, and me twice, is significant of her having not escaped them entirely…

We were to meet in Herceg Novi. David, absurdly generous David — having already given me a grand tour of the country, a rich induction into this language I’m growing very fond of, and having summited Zla Kolata together — was heading back to Croatia before returning state side and dropped me near enough at the door of the apartment Mizuki and I had booked for a few days. The week with David was one to remember — another adventure I ought to write about — and perhaps he and I will bag a couple more peaks together some day, but I had the room (and most pressingly, the shower) to myself for a couple hours before Mizuki’s bus was due, so I set about making myself as moderately presentable as possible before she arrived.

The weather on the coast was sublime. I’m more of a fresh water swimmer but I’ve no complaints about our three days in and out of the Adriatic; nor the apartment, only two minutes walk from the beach (more like ten minutes once all of the cities cats have been tended to), and the first time I’ve had use of a kitchen in four months, though I’m forced to admit I haven’t yet interfered with Mizuki’s desire to do all the cooking all the time forever and always and without my help. After four months of mostly cold soaked meals, Mizuki’s fabulous cooking was a treat like no other.

Tearing ourselves away from the beach proved almost impossible and we added a third night at the coast, but the mountains call too. On Sunday we spent one last morning at the beach, a last swim in the Adriatic before hitching inland as far as Nikšić, home of Nikšićko, the best beer in the Balkan’s — or my favourite so far anyway.

The following day we were three hitches getting to Maglić so that it was early afternoon by the time we began climbing, but by sundown we were just about back on the thin red line of my footsteps. Camping at 2100 metres, the shortened days now meant the previous nights ice still clung to the tussock grass.

The long night brought low temperatures and high winds but no rain. The forecast read -8°C at the summit, and we weren’t far below it. In the morning we dashed our packs into a cave, no sense carrying them to the summit when we would be returning the same way before long. The climb from the Montenegrin side proved simpler than from Bosnia. Neither were challenging but the Veliki approach had virtually no exposure and no via ferrata, where the Bosnian climb had offered at least a little of each. As we headed for the summit a light snow began, and by the top it was just barely beginning to settle.

The last time Mizuki and I were camped together above 2000 metres was on our farewell trip over Ball Pass/Glacier, five days in the shadow of Aoraki/Mount Cook, linking the Hooker and Tasman valleys.

Some of the better photos I have yet managed to snag of New Zealand’s beautiful Kea came out of that trip. There are fewer than 7000 of these cheeky alpine parrots left in New Zealand, but around the higher peaks of the south island they’re never far out of sight or sound, and with no natural predators they’re not shy.

At sunrise on the second day I could hear several playing out in the valley and I crept out of the tent to meet them. While the juveniles raced each other up and down the Hooker valley, two mature birds stayed with me on the cliff edge, alternating between grooming and bickering.

To my naive eye it seemed that the more ragged of the two was old and ill. It’s call was a strangled sort of rasp compared to the iconic and piercing kee-aaa of its companion.

A week later we were staying with friends Paddy and Valerie in Arthur’s Pass for a few nights and Paddy who, among other noble talents, works to protect Kea, was able to look up the ‘old’ bird I’d seen in the national database using a photo I had of its tag. It turned out the scruffy fella was only about four years old, so his poor condition was likely the unfortunate result of lead poisoning from chewing old rooftops.

The climb up to Ball Pass is steep but there are only a couple of stretches of serious exposure. The riskiest portion is the last, on the Glacier itself, where steps have to be cut carefully and losing your footing is not something you’d have the opportunity to regret for very long. But this section is short, taking only half an hour or so on the southern approach, and at the top of the pass in February you’ll find a rocky but clear shelf with an unbeatable view of almost the entirety of The Tasman, New Zealand’s largest glacier.

I don’t have the lenses for astro-photography, but still I try every now and then. Not being a stargazer, I had no idea it was set to be a particularly good night for both the stars and the southern aurora — sort of.

There were still a few clouds about when my alarm shook me awake at 11pm, but they were clearing. Without a tripod my only option was to kneel on the glacier and cut little divots to prop the camera in, all the while a light but icy wind was blowing over the pack. I figured I had all the time in the world, but as it turned out I had less the 15 minutes to get my photograph. Just as I was starting to get my exposure dialled in the whole sky lit up like sunrise. I looked at my watch, checked the time on my phone, and on the camera for good measure — no, six hours hadn’t passed, it wasn’t morning, it was still before midnight.

Such a moon rise I had not seen before, nor have I since.

It’s been eight months since the pass, and to say that I’m very glad to be back in the mountains with Bean again would be a gross understatement.

Back in the Balkans, Beans and I have been wandering amongst the plains, forests, lakes, and peaks of the Durmitors. The Karst depressions make for stunning panoramas, and the Beach forests are welcome shelter from the wind which has been blowing hard ever since Maglić, and which means much more care has to be given to finding suitably sheltered camps come nightfall.

Planinica, though shorter, offered a more eventful/challenging climb than Maglić. From Sušičko jezero it is a steep but not exposed scramble all the way up, so we might have been on all fours even if not for the wind that was making every effort to pluck us from the rock. After scarfing a lunch of oats in the shelter of a boulder not far from the summit we dashed over the top and down the other side as fast as we could, finding half-shelter in patches of wind gnarled Contorta on the eastern face and stopping for a snack in the refuge of a karst sinkhole.

Down in the valley I went off in search of some famous cave or other before we, accompanied by three bounding but gentle feral dogs, headed for Žabljak, where we caught glimpses of our wind burnt faces in the windows of the supermarket.

From here we’ll be playing it by ear. Autumn in the Balkans is beautiful, but we’re headed for the limits of even the shoulders of the walking season. The hope is to eek out a couple more weeks in the mountains together and then look for an interesting place to spend the winter.

Talk soon x