The Angry Corrie 13: Jun-Jul 1993

Slovenian Rhapsody

Gordon Smith

There had been sepulchral silence on the mountain for almost five minutes now, but still my lacerated nerves could find no ease, raw and alert as they were to the faintest crepitus which would herald a renewed onslaught.

And then it came, a whipcrack of inhalation.

I winced under the lash and curled into the foetal position, vainly hoping to protect myself against the sonic avalanche about to be unleashed around me. Snnnnuuuurrrrrrrk aarkle urkle.

A silent scream exploded in the depths of my soul as the shock waves washed over me and then faded into another gravid silence.

You win, bastard. I gave up the struggle to get back to sleep, and sat up in the top bunk bed, accidentally dislodging a pillow onto the face of my stertorous tormentor below.

Frkle urkle.

Fffnaaaaark. Elsewhere in the cramped six-bed dormitory of the Planika hut, one of the other eight occupants broke wind. I hoped the two ladies trying to sleep opposite would not think it had been me. I grunted in English to make a show of registering disapproval, and also to prove that I was not responsible for the snoring either.

Hrrrrronka. A third horn entered the fugue. I sighed and studied the luminous dots and lines on my wrist. Only five to ten, and I had already been in bed for an hour and a half.

I tried to divert myself by counting to a million, but got fed up at thirty-three. Four minutes to ten. Perhaps if I told myself a story, like how I came to be where I was, under sonic attack in a hut 9000 feet up the highest mountain in former Yugoslavia? Well...

Slovenia, said Julie, slapping down a brochure in front of me. It's got mountains and it's warm. It bloody well should be with all those burning tanks, I retorted. Don't be so stupid, she said, that's Croatia. I pointed out that the two countries shared a border, and that as far as Yugoslav Air Force bombers were concerned, one breakaway state would be much the same as another. I phoned the Foreign Office, she said, and they say its perfectly safe. They said that about the sodding Falklands too, I roared. No, no, no, and that is absolutely final. We are not, repeat not, going on holiday to a bloody war zone. I do not often put my foot down but I am doing so now.

And so I did put my foot down, four months later, on the tarmac of Ljubljana's Brnik Aerodrom. After a flight from Glasgow on an almost empty (quelle surprise, I hissed at Julie) Adria Airways DC9, we lined up at passport control, surrounded by reconstruction work and adverts for West cigarettes: Get a Taste of the West. The popularity of this brand name was significant in itself , and it was an irony that part of the airport was having to be rebuilt as a result of Slovenia's self-image as part of Western rather than Eastern Europe. A year previously, Brnik Airport had been the scene of the first televised violence of the present Yugoslav conflicts, when the runway and hangars had come under rocket attack from a federal jet; this was the opening shot in a brief war which ended when the Yugoslav army, having been given something of a gubbing by the Slovenian militia, decided to leave the newly-declared republic and go and fight the Croats instead.

REPUBLIKA SLOVENIJA said the sign at immigration; next to the words was the national emblem, a shield on which was depicted a stylised mountain with three peaks beneath three stars. The mountain was Triglav, named after a three-headed god, and its likeness was to be found everywhere: on stamps, money, flags, and even car licence plates, to which stickers of the mountain were attached in order to obliterate the red star which formerly decorated them. Triglav has a huge significance to the Slovenes as a symbol of national identity and independence. There is no equivalent Scottish icon by which Triglav's importance can be measured: but imagine if Ben Nevis had been the birthplace of Burns, the site of Bannockburn and the scene of the humiliation of the so-called World Champions in 67 and you'll have a rough idea.

Triglav it was I had come to climb; and so I'd found myself at five o'clock one morning nervously awaiting my lift, unable to force my breakfast bread and cheese down a dry gullet. This apprehension stemmed from a fear of the scale of the hill compared to what I was used to in Scotland, and the fact that it entailed a two day trip in the company of two ladies whose command of English was apparently the equal of my mastery of Slovene. Nothing ventured, however; a bubble of rust appeared before me, and I climbed into the passenger seat of the smallest Yugo ever built, hooking my legs over the rucksack in front of me in a bat-like grip. So it was that my first close-up view of Triglav was framed by a pair of knees, which immediately began to quake at the size of the bloody thing, a huge erubescence in the rosy morning light. Having passed the now deserted army barracks which marks the start of the Triglav path from Rudno Polje, I wriggled free of the car and stretched myself, before being condensed again by the weight of the rucksack. Fear of the unknown had driven me to fill it up with a cupboardful of gear "just in case". As we set off into the Pokljuka forest, I looked with envy at the compact packs of Ana and Mira, who had obviously done this sort of thing before.

I had been introduced to my companions only the previous day: hearing that I intended to climb Triglav, the holiday representative told us that her mother was a mountaineer, and would be coming north with a friend to climb in the Julian Alps; they very kindly offered to take me along with them, despite the language barrier, and not to mention the fact that I was a complete stranger. Our first communication difficulty arose when, after a three hour walk-in through woods above picturebook alpine meadows, we stopped for a drink at the Vodnikov hut (which, like the other mountain huts in the area, is not really a hut at all, being more like the type of inn you see in Hammer films where the baleful innkeeper advises the hero You don't want to be a-visitin the Caar-sel Draacular, saar ). After being served a cup of hot fruit juice, I did want to be a-visitin the toilet, directions for which I asked in a variety of languages including a hopeful stab at Latin. Eventually tualyet with an arched eyebrow functioning as a question mark did the trick.

And so we set off on the next three-hour leg, which took us above the treeline and into a limestone furnace. The sun reflecting off the white rock threatened to carbonise any flesh not protected by clothing or sunblock; we sweltered and dripped as we climbed into a stony desert populated only by chamois, the odd alpine flower and fellow climbers. The custom when meeting other groups seemed to be that each individual greets each other individual with a dober dan (good day), so that when a party of three ran into a party of four, the dober dans buzzed around your head like midges on a wet day in Glen Nevis; out of breath from greeting people as much as from the steep haul, we eventually reached the Kredarica hut, the highest on the mountain at 2515 metres. Ana and Mira indicated that we would remain there for a couple of hours, as early afternoon was usually misty and sometimes prone to thunder storms. I was astonished to find that this hut had a bar, and watched in awe as a mule train laden with crates of beer arrived at the door. Such dedication to ale-drinking affected me deeply, and inspired in me a profound moment of Sloveno-Scottish understanding. (A word about Slovenian beer, or pivo: the two main brands are Zlatorog and Union; both are excellent lagers and in 1992 cost about 70 pence a half litre in bars, and about 40 pence in supermarkets. It's therefore cheaper to drink on a Slovenian mountain top than in a Glasgow bar, and the beer's better too).

Fear of impaired balance on the final climb to the summit, however, discouraged me from indulging myself in high altitude bevvy; instead I drank two litres of bottled water and wrote a postcard. By three in the afternoon, the mists had cleared, and tiny figures were just visible on the ridge above; we crossed the short stretch of glacier and began the climb up to Mali (Little) Triglav, the subsidiary peak at the near end of the ridge. This was a good scramble and reminded me of Curved Ridge a bit, although the exposed bits are protected by steel ropes and posts, rendering it quite safe; there is a signficant danger, however, of injuring or killing yourself by tripping over one of the various plaques commemorating those who have injured or killed themselves on the mountain.

The summit ridge was next, and this too reminded me of the Coe, being for much of its length reminiscent of the narrow bit of what the TAC editor is inexplicably pleased to call the Aggy Ridge. The exposure, however, is approximately double what we are used to; although this part too is protected, the ropes had a tendency to be set at ankle-height, and trying to hold on to them only served to push crappers like myself further off balance. At the end of the ridge was a further wall, which was all right to ascend but which in descent, cowardly premonition warned me, would force me to look straight down through 6000 feet of pure alpine air: I did not envisage the air remaining fresh for long following such a confrontation.

At last, however, we reached the top and sat below the Aljaz Tower, a strange metal cylinder about eight feet high, topped until recently by a red star, now a red white and blue flag. The Tower is named after the philanthropist who bought Triglav for Slovenia in the 19th century. The view was astonishing: to the west, Italian mountains breaking through cloud; the plains of Croatia to the south; northwards, the Austrian Alps; and above it all a deep blue sky. Although not a huge mountain by Alpine standards, Triglav is the biggest for miles around, and there is a real feeling of being on top of the world.

There were surreal aspects too: first-timers on Triglav, I was informed, are customarily thrashed about the buttocks with a climbing rope; I doubted the antiquity of this tradition, but suffered in silence. There was also a young bloke in trainers who had brought up a crate of Zlatorog and was selling it at a vast profit from a cardboard box marked 'Triglav summit bar' in red felt tip. There was a multilingual conversation with another group of climbers (cue 48 dober dans) concerning such diverse topics as Glasgow Rangers, Scottish hills and the function of the sporran. After an hour in the summit sunshine it was time to go, and trembling back along the ridge I felt rather ashamed that I was afraid of a beer delivery route.

An hour and a half of descent took us to the Planika hut, our stop for the night. There, I was just enjoying my second bottle of Union when Ana and Mira, suddenly animated, signalled that I should drink up and go upstairs with them. I was puzzled and concerned that some other strange Slovenian climbing custom was to be wreaked on my young flesh; however, once in the room they pointed to a bunk, said you go, themselves disappeared beneath the sheets of their own beds, and pretended to be fast asleep. When in Rome, I thought, and lay still under the sheet like an autopsy waiting to happen. I sensed a tension in the room, and realised that almost every bed in the place was also occupied by the apparently dead. The reason became clear within a few minutes, when a three huge climbers came in looking for a place to sleep, doubtless expecting to find themselves a bed. But only the bunk below me was empty, and there were rough growls and mutterings as they decided who was to get it and who were to sleep on the floor. Only when they had fallen asleep did anyone dare to exhale.

Snnnnuuuurrrrrrk aarkle urkle. Ffffnnnnaaark. Hrrrronka. Well, the buggers were getting their revenge now: they were the only sods getting any sleep tonight. I checked my watch. Three minutes past ten. I started to count to a million, but got fed up at thirty-three. I know, I thought, I'll tell myself a really boring story: there had been sepulchral silence on the mountain for almost five minutes now, but still my lacerated nerves could find no ease...


TAC 13 Index