From Triglav

Like ma says, words fail.

Standing at the top of Pec — at the tri-border of Slovenia, Italy and Austria — I could see Triglav, Slovenia’s tallest mountain, to the south-east. My first steps into the country were spent gazing in the direction of the range, wanting very much to climb it.

Days 84—86

For all sorts of reasons, climbing Triglav might not have been a sensible idea. I didn’t really have ‘enough’ food with me for a detour of any kind, let alone for the caloric combustion involved in climbing Slovenia’s tallest mountain; I didn’t know if it was even possible to climb it without harness and ropes — I could have looked that up, but where’s the fun in that; and I was still labouring under the tick tock of the visa clock, two weeks to cross Slovenia and Croatia, hop the border into Bosnia and be free at last of the Schengen zone.

The mountains en-route to Triglav were all magnificent in themselves, breathtaking geologic monuments. For several days the evenings had brought great banks of spectral cloud that swept over the peaks and, to stand and watch, it seemed as if the mountains would grow a little, reaching into those clouds and wrenching enough water from them to support all those ecosystems that play out below. That collected moisture visibly feeding the forests at their feet that team with flowers and fungi, butterflies and bugs, swallows and salamanders, and above the treeline the sparser playing/feeding/nesting grounds of Falcons, Ibex, and Chamois. Eagles too, but I didn’t see any of those.

At the saddle there is a hut, from there I could decide whether I would climb Triglav, or do the time-sensible thing and go around it. Getting that far was a gift already — a march up a winding path cut into the steep face of the mountain, like something out of a fairy tale.

Most at the hut had come just to ‘sight’ Triglav, but a few had summited so I asked how the going was. An American couple and a Slovenian guide made fervent attempts to persuade me of the necessity of renting the prescribed gear: helmet, climbing harness, and shackled ropes — the via-ferrata tackle. But a Slovenian climber and half of a British troupe (the other half had turned back part way) were more optimistic, although the latter suggested I stay the night at the hut and start early the next morning instead. Not keen for ropes or rest, I set off from the saddle a little before 2pm. If the climb really did take as long as some made out I could always bivvy at the summit.

After all of the warnings I had high expectations and my excitement put me in mind of the first day of the year when Manu, Chelsea, Miles, Mizuki, and I woke early on the fourth day of a six day trek through New Zealand’s Kahurangi national park.

My first sighting of the Dragon’s Teeth had been during a winter solo trip into Kahurangi’s eastern flank a couple of years before. That trip was cut short by an awful toothache but, sat in Anatoki Forks hut reading an account of crossing the teeth in an old tramping mag, I knew I wanted to give that jagged spine of the Douglas Range a go one day.

Manu and I had talked again about doing the teeth during our last trip through Kahurangi back in October 2022 — a five day trek that shared it’s first two days (Boulder Lake, Adelaide Tarn) with this trip two and half months later, before heading over Yuletide Peak, down into the Anatoki valley and out toward Waingaro Forks. Descending Yuletide we were taunted by the peaks above, standing stark against a cloudy but bright sky where we’d been promised rain and high winds.

Two months later we were back, looking at that jagged ridge a third time, four days into the park, now in a party of five, and no poor forecast threatened our six day trek. Not that the trip had been a sure thing. For all that we’d been plotting it for a while, it only came together as a certainty at 7pm the night before we were to set off, as some last doubts in the group were put to rest.

The teeth seem to have an almost mythical reputation. Locals have built up a considerable lore around the perilous crossing, but like a lot of these infamous traverses, it mostly comes down to exposure. There are more than a few places where complacency might provide you a quick exit from this mortal coil.

I enjoyed the teeth, but I wouldn’t recommend the crossing to everyone.

The teeth and Triglav are half a world apart, and climbing in a group versus solo is another world apart, so I won’t compare them except to say that where ‘teeth day’ is an up and down and ‘round all day mooch through the lush wrinkles of the Douglas Range that often lets you forget you’re one careless hold away from the last fall you’re likely to take, climbing Triglav is a comparatively short and sharp full-tilt scramble that doesn’t ever let you forget that peril. But for all that it’s much more exposed, somehow I’d rather do Triglav in bad weather than the teeth, the dark slabs of Kahurangi promise more treachery than the orange streaked limestone of Trig.

On the way up I passed a band of four who’d come from Slovakia for the climb. Dennis, Andrew & co were slowed down by their ropes and had gotten lost earlier in the climb, costing them two hours. Unshackled and over excited, I felt as though I was flying up the mountain. We met again at the summit, where I stopped to soak up the view, swimming in the ecstatic bliss of the climb now behind me. Alas, just as the four arrived cloud was swallowing the scene and — not equipped for a night at the summit — they weren’t able to wait around for it clear again.

I sat for a while longer, tossing up whether or not to stay the night at the summit but chose to go a little further. Descending along the eastern ridge as it fell into cloud and evenings long shadow, the via ferrata became an almost unbroken scar leading from the summit down to the plateau. I can only assume it is the more popular route. Passing Dennis and the gang again, I offered to send them some photos of their climb, so Dennis and I exchanged details while the other three inched down another crevice.

The plateau came all to soon. Looking back up at the peak — greedily, I realise — I wanted still more from Triglav. I’d wanted it to last longer, to reach higher. There’s a euphoria to exposure that I adore — looking down at my feet, toes hanging over the edge of a foot wide ledge and a 300 foot drop stretching out below you.

By that measure, Triglav was the euphoric pinnacle of the walk so far. There have surely been days that were more social, days that were more nutritionally sound, days of similar physical bliss too, but stacked up against that first day in the Swiss Alps, or Hoturli Pass, or even the Dragon’s Teeth, Triglav stands above for sheer muscular/ocular/spiritual nirvana.

After descending much of the way through the valley, I rolled out my sleeping bag in the forest. The last five kilometres, after the sun had long disappeared, had been rough — the forest dark and rocky, I’d tripped more than a few times, and eventually called it enough.

That impatient little voice reared in my head again: If I’d not spent so long today just admiring the magnificent views I would have made it to the road — a bit under 4k from where I now lay — and could have gone another 5k along that smooth ribbon, but as it was the endless trip hazard of the forest was too much in the dark. And besides, if I’d not spent so long admiring the view, what would have been the point?

As I drifted off the big bright moon was shining through the canopy above, and in the morning the sun was doing the same.

Goodbye Triglav, and thanks for calling.