There is nothing like a multi-day commute across multiple countries to leave you feeling fried. This was no day to be tired however. Fresh (though that’s not exactly the way it felt) back from my travels in the Balkans, the destination today was one which I had anticipated throughout my entire time in Slovenia: Triglav. The consensus among locals seemed to be that you aren’t truly Slovenian until you’ve stood atop this summit. In these ultimate three days I had left in-country, I would take the last literal steps to claiming that title.
I had somehow managed before collapsing into bed the night before to assemble my pack, so the morning began by grabbing my hiking poles, lacing up hiking boots long shredded in their soft soles from climbing jagged limestone peaks, and tossing the pack over both shoulders before gently closing the great double doors that lead out of the apartment.
Priority number one was food. During the thirty-plus hours it took on four different transport buses and through three border crossings to return from Macedonia and Slovenia the day before, I had snacked on little more than a snack pack of pistachios and a bag of crisps. The only thing which was truly a match for my hunger this morning was a dӧner – yes, that infamous blend of shaved meat piled with lettuce, tomato, onions, smothered in a spicy yogurt sauce and stuffed into a fresh baked pocket of bread goodness.
The dӧner, alas, was not long for living, though not by my choice. Having reached my bus to the mountains only a couple minutes before it departed (you would think at some point I would learn) the bus driver informed me that there would under no circumstances be any messy foods on his bus. Alright, I concede, that was a disaster waiting to happen. Luckily this trip wasn’t about to be a solo endeavour – joining me was my Czech friend and mountain partner in crime, Johny, who had come all the way from Czechia to accompany me. Perhaps a better word is lead, as I didn’t actually know exactly where we were going. Johny had scaled Triglav at least three times already and knew nearly every route to the top. With him as mountain guide, we would certainly find our way to the summit.
We spent the majority of the two and a half hour bus ride to Bohinj in a half-sleep, catching the last few moments of rest possible before spending a strenuous day in the mountains. The bus stop in Bohinj stood conveniently in front of a grocery store where we stocked up food for the next two days. Our shopping basket soon filled up with the delicacies of backpacking food: ajvar, breads, cheeses, sausage, fruits, dates, beer. With our packs fully loaded we could finally cross the bridge at the mouth of the Jezernica Creek and continue onto Stara Fužina from where a trail led northwest into the Julian Alps.
The trail began at the end of a long village road which meandered past quiet summer houses overlooking Bohinj Lake. Most of these houses were newly constructed, built to support the growing tourism industry in Slovenia. On our left sat a tall pile of logs ready for the final haul from the forest to the lumber mill. The air was fresh and sweet, brought by a faint breeze streaming down from the mountains which carried the dense smell of forest soil and hints of meadow grass. Clinking cow bells that had long become synonymous with these mountains announced the presence of a herd nearby. These sounds soon became lost to the silence of the thick beech forest. We made our way along the right side of a gorge which cut through the trees, making way for swirls and cascades of pristine clear alpine water to rush from high in the mountains down towards the lake. Johny tested what he remembered of Slovene language to convince the lone park officer to allow us to pass by the gorge without paying, negotiating that since our purpose was not to visit this part of the park but rather venture up the marked national hiking trail we should be granted free passage. Perhaps it was the sight of the packs or perhaps it was the surprise of the officer to hear a foreigner attempting to speak Slovene, but one of them did it and we were sent with his good graces through the gate and onward towards the ensuing trail.
As we walked along the gorge I began to realize that I had been on this very trail not one year before, during my first adventure outside of Ljubljana. That trip had been with a group of girls I had met barely a week prior to witness the returning of the cows and enjoy a wine and cheese festival. The wine was fabulous, the cheese too strong, and we never did see the cows come down the mountain since the event was rained out. Thankfully the forecast was much better on this last August day. Plenty of sun broke through the clouds to scatter its rays about the surface of ever-churning water running down the gorge and roaring down great waterfalls. At one point we passed a hut selling blueberry strudel and I spent the next half hour dreaming about how delectable it would be.
Only an hour or so into hour trip we decided it was time to lighten the load. By our very scientific estimates the beer was the heaviest part of the pack, so it was only logical that we chose to pull out our cans of pivo and share a toast at 8:30 in the morning. What a day to be in the woods, reunited with friends and embarking on yet another mountain adventure! A toast to good company, to the luck of finding ourselves in such a beautiful and even mystical place, to having the chance to spend a bit more time together before resuming our lives an ocean apart. It was a bittersweet moment to reflect on what an incredible year it had been, paired with the unfortunate acceptance that this was truly the closing of that chapter.
Well rested and strengthened by the power of our Slovenian brew, the time had come to resume our journey. The trail had finally departed from the bank of the gorge to begin its steep climb over misty boulders, mossy fallen branches and flattened leaves. Zigzagging for a couple hours through the dense woods, we finally felt ourselves approaching the tree line and had the first chance to really enjoy the warmth of the sun. Few others had chosen to walk this trail today, though we did cross paths with some Czechs, Slovenians, and even a guy from Colorado descending by himself from Triglav. What a funny coincidence – here I was living in Slovenia for an entire year and never had a conversation with someone from the States besides those who came to visit me, and suddenly I find myself on my third to last day in Slovenia running into a guy from Colorado! The setting did seem proper since I often met more people in the mountains than anywhere else.
The hiker and I chatted for a bit about where were from, what we were doing there. Apparently we got on so well that Johny thought he was my acquaintance from Ljubljana. I assume this was more of a reflection of people from the States being incredibly conversational with each other even as complete strangers. We each had places to be however, and soon enough I was saying goodbye to my only U.S. acquaintance and continuing on my way to Triglav.
Slovenia’s most famous mountain is popular not just in Slovenian culture, as evidenced in its depiction on the Slovenian national flag, but it is also one of the most trafficked peaks in the Julian Alps. As such there are not one, not two, but three huts to serve and accommodate hikers as they pass to and from the summit. During our ascent we first came across Vodnikov Dom, a lovely large hut whose atmosphere was filled with the sights and sounds of many children accompanying their parents on a long trek. Johny and I took a seat on a small wooden bench and took a moment to enjoy the expansive view of both the mountain above us and the sweeping green valley below. Cows wandered by, their bells softly clinking whenever they decided to turn and abandon the post of model for hikers to capture the majesty of the valley. Even if we had to stop here I would have been content, as the breathtaking beauty of this region high within Triglav National Park was by far one of the most stunning sights I had taken in since starting to hike in Slovenia. Voknikov Dom was not our final destination, however, and from this dom we were less than two hours from reaching the hut closest to the summit.
The path towards the next hut spun quickly above and away from Vodnikov Dom along a line of beaten down grass until we reached a more technical rocky region. My steps became much more calculated than the relaxed spring Johny’s step always carried in these kinds of environments. Luckily plenty of sunlight remained in the day, so we chose to take the path nice and slow up to the next dom. Not everyone seemed content to take a leisurely pace; we were soon eclipsed by a burly man in a neon yellow t-shirt, shorts, and a small pack who seemed determined to reach the summit as quick as humanly possible. Funnily enough, we later came neck and neck with him once we all reached the more precarious scree.
Switchbacks through steep loose rock took us higher and higher up the mountain. With only twenty minutes to the top the sun finally dipped over the north side of Triglav, leaving us to pull down our hoods and dream of the hot tea brewing in the hut. Tonight we would stay at the Lodge at Kredarica only three hundred meters below the tallest point in Slovenia.
By the time we reached the lodge I was more than happy to drop my pack and toss on my slippers (yes, Slovenians also carry those too! Many of my Central and Eastern European friends did actually…though it’s also just proper manners in a mountain hut). We set our packs on an outdoor bench and began peeling off sweaty layers. When hiking, there are few moments as rewarding as tossing on a wonderfully soft and dry sweater after enduring a long, strenuous, sweaty day on the trail. I pulled on a fresh fleece pullover and saved my second pair of wool socks for sleeping.
Waning sunlight provided for a nice view to pair with our dinner of thick slabs of dark bread smothered in ajvar. As I munched on an apple Johny wandered down to the edge of the plateau upon which sat the lodge. He turned this way and that to stretch out and release the tension of a hike that traversed thousands of meters of elevation gain in a day. Long pauses during stretching turned him into a dark statue silhouetted against the pastel pink sky.
The only thing missing from our good meal and view was an afternoon drink. Searching for a bit of free space within the chaos of the interior of the lodge, we finally found an open bench and immediately claimed it. People often poke fun of the Slavic countries drinking more than their fair share, but up in the mountains, there is nothing that warms you up better than a good shot of brandy. This hut was well prepared and kept its stock full of borovnica (blueberry), slivovica (plum), hruškovica (pear), češnja liker (cherry) and more to keep its patrons happy. With a shot of slivovica in hand we cheered “nasdravje” and drank away the cold which had crept in so suddenly after sunset. I set my head back against the tall wooden bench frame and relaxed to the sounds of the lodge: an accordion accompanied by Slovenian song; the chatter of guests warming themselves with a bowl of rižet; Austrian hikers tossing playing cards across a table to pass the afternoon in the comfort of the cozy heated dining room. This hum of happy hikers contrasted to the silence which slowly enveloped the lodge outside, permeated only by the low whoosh of a breeze trapped by the mountain in its attempt to escape the lower valley.
Within a couple of hours the exhaustion of having traveled so far after so little sleep finally began to consume what little energy I had left. I took one last sip of a beer and shuffled up the stairs to wrap myself in a heavy wool blanket for the rest of the night. As soon as my head hit the pillow, the din of the rooms below quickly drifted away.
The first of the hikers rose much before the sunrise. They attempted to shimmy silently out of bed and grab their packs, but the faint scuffling of feet on the cold floorboards and hushed whispers among hikers traveling together convinced me that that last six or so hours of sleep were the only ones I was going to get. I wrapped myself more tightly in the blanket to enjoy the last of its warmth before crawling off of the top bunk myself and pulling my pack outside. The air was crisp and cold, barely reaching above freezing. The sky looked perfectly clear save for a few clouds – a good sign for our morning ascent. The sun had just begun to rise over the eastern range of the Julian Alps. Its rays scattered among the drops between peaks to illuminate the lodge in a soft glow. I pulled out the rest of my dark walnut bread, one of Slovenia’s greatest gifts to the culinary world. The triangle loaf split easily into soft chunks perfect for a light morning breakfast before the start of a hike.
Ready at last, Johny and I began our trek up the last of the trail to Triglav. A group of at least thirty hikers had set off not long before, so we waited ten minutes or so to put some distance between us. This last bit of hiking would be the most difficult and presented many of the challenges I had come to know from hiking in these mountains over the past year. A flattened trail soon turned to scrambling over exposed limestone rock faces, sometimes only possible with the help of iron pegs to leverage and pull oneself over the rock face onto the base of the next rock. I remembered doing this for the first time, on mountain Skuta in the Kamniško-Savinjske Alpe. I had been so nervous then, so hesitant to move from one rock to the next or to trust my own sense of balance. A year of alpine hiking had apparently cured me of that lack of confidence and sure-footedness. I left behind the need to slowly slither up the rock-face with hands and knees and even stomach flush against the mountainside, trading it instead for a lively combination of climbing and hopping from one point to the next. Even when we came to the narrow land bridges which left little to the imagination as to what would happen should you take an extra step to the right or two the left, I glided across with ease. This sense of confidence was a refreshing freedom from fear: it is not that I did not respect the dangers of the mountain, but I had replaced thoughts of personal doubt and uncertainty with confidence and encouragement to take on a new alpine challenge.
This realization in itself was a reward, but the grand finale was at the top of the mountain. After coordinating the ascent of narrow natural steps, serious inclines, and rope-assisted traverses, the small metal Aljaž Tower sitting atop Triglav finally came into view. I couldn’t believe it – I’d finally made it! I had spent months saying I would not leave Slovenia without reaching the top of its most famous mountain, and the words had finally become reality. I sat down on the peak to soak in the moment, looking, surveying the expansive spread of limestone peaks which populate the Julian Alps. My second to last day in Europe had led me all the way up 2,864 meters to this magnificent tallest point in Slovenia, and in that moment, I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.