Every trip has to start some time. This one was supposed to begin last night, or maybe in the wee hours of this morning after a few hours of sleep. The outcome is somewhere in the middle, i.e. this morning with no sleep at all. Just a few things popped out and didn’t let me grab a kip...
Only after midnight can I start packing my gear. While checking the car documents I notice that my MOT is valid only till the 14th. I subconsciously remembered I’ve got it till the end of July, like in previous years, forgetting that last summer I went to Łódź to have the car checked some two weeks earlier than before. I quickly calculate that I’ll be back after that date, and not immediately in Poland but in Holland first. If I enter Schengen before the 14th, I have a good chance that no one’s gonna check me. I can do sod all about it now so there’s no point getting worried anyway. I leave Utrecht at 3 am, soon crossing the border. The slowly brightening north-easterly sky serves me its colours for an early breakfast. Only somewhere in the middle of Germany I pull in at a petrol station to catch my forty winks.
It is already dark when I finally reach the Croatian border crossing, having driven along Slovenian secondary roads in order to avoid having to buy the ridiculously expensive vignette for a short stretch of motorway. Soon I drive into one massive thunderstorm. It starts pissing down so hard that most cars pull in to the hard shoulder. For the next twenty minutes or so I feel as if I was driving through a waterfall, but then the deluge stops as suddenly as it started.
I drive along the southern ringroad and enter the city from the west, easily finding the empty car park in front of a shopping centre. From afar I can see Gord and his mate standing by their cars. They notice me only when i drive closer. Bok purgeri! - I shout a greeting to the broadly smiling Zagreb boyos.
With all three cars we drive to a nearby pizza place that they know. Waiting for the grub we spread our mountain maps on the table. What a shame Gord has no time to go with us. We agree that I will leave my car by Tomica’s place and crash out at Gord’s. Tomorrow morning he will drop me off on his way to work and then together with Tomica we set off for Sarajevo.
In the morning my companion shows up loaded like a mule. He chucks his stuff in the boot of my car and together we leave the city, heading for the eastern motorway. Tomica is a former neighbour of Gord and a mutual friend of his and Azra. He works at a road-building company which is also involved in some enterprises in Albania. He says he’s not gonna tell his boss about our Albanian adventure, as otherwise he may be designated a volunteer to work there for half a year with hardly any visits back home and no extra money.
Soon after crossing the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina we expect a traditional speed trap welcome. An oncoming driver flashes his headlights, confirming our expectations. A welcoming party waits round the bend and flags us down. Why the hell, I was driving so slowly. One of the cops looks at my documents and says he stopped us for driving with our lights off, and in his country they should be on 24 hours a day. Tomica talks us out of trouble, telling him that we have just come from Croatia where this rule has been lifted a few months ago and we forgot that Bosnia and Herzegovina has just introduced it. He goes on like that for a couple minutes, finally persuading the cops to let us go without paying a fine.
Several hours later we arrive in Sarajevo, a city of so many good memories for both of us. Driving along a street by the river Miljacka I look at the pavement... Azra! - I shout through the open window. The petite figure runs across the street, jumps on the back seat and hugs us both. Tomica texted her before but we were only supposed to meet later at another place.
We spend the evening pub crawling with Azra’s mountaineering friends, rounding the night off at the beerhouse of the Sarajevo brewery. There we meet Alma, Azra’s half-Bosnian half-Catalan friend with a group of Spanish journalists. They came here to report the exhumation of the Srebrenica mass graves and Alma is their interpreter.
The road out of Sarajevo to the east is jammed. Probably because of the transporting of the exhumed bodies from Srebrenica that takes place this morning, as we heard from Alma and TV news. Half an hour later the traffic jam moves a bit so that we can see the nearest crossing. A policeman stops the traffic again and from the left comes a large lorry decorated with flowers, followed by two more, escorted by police cars. After several more minutes we are let go.
From Azra, who lived here during the siege of Sarajevo, I have heard some war stories many a times before, but now somehow none of us feels like commenting what we just saw. The recent painful history is just an integral part of this place. Further on I recognise the places along our return way from two years ago, after the adventures with towing the crashed car. The memories again mix with the remnants of war, not only those visible but also that what remains in peoples’ minds. For the time being there is just no escape from it all.
We cross the river Drina in Goražde and soon cross the border to enter Montenegro. Luckily at the border crossing no one even mentions the ban on bringing food to this country, which was apparently introduced not long ago. Luckily, as in Sarajevo Azra and Tomica, despite my protests, bought enough grub for a Himalayan expedition.
We miss one turn and before we realise it we approach the next border. This unwilling detour is not too long but leads us across two extra border crossings - to Serbia and back to Montenegro. Especially at the last border we waste some time waiting in a long queue of cars. I am already a bit tired from driving the last two days and a half so Tomica takes over behind the wheel.
At Andrijevica we stop for the last shopping. As thanks to my friends we already have enough food for ten expeditions like ours, we buy only some fruit and veg and, last but not least, quite a few beers.
It’s already getting dark when we reach the end of the road in the Grbaja valley and the Branko Kotlajić mountain hut. Just as we expected, a numerous Serbian crew is sitting by the campfire. Looks like there is no one from the Maja Jezerce winter climb last March. Lazar, the guide, immediately welcomes us with rakija, wine and beer. In the meantime we are joined by a Croatian couple of mountaineers from Rijeka. The campfire party goes on till late night. Songs are sung, rakija is flowing, all the dialects of the language that unites those nations can be heard together. Our beloved Accursed Mountains rise above us in the darkness. At least here there are no more borders.
A sunny day rises and we get up alongside. We already decided yesterday that today we go to the Northern and Great Karanfil, and maybe also to Očnjak if we feel like it. Yeah, only if we really feel like it. The Serbs have already been there, some of them at least. At breakfast Lazar tells us exactly where to turn left off the trail to Karanfili to climb Očnjak. They take it easy today, some of them go for short hikes maybe, they have stayed here for a few days after all and had enough time to climb the main peaks in the neighbourhood.
We feel lazy in the morning sun too. That’s why we only set off after 9 am. At the arrow sign we turn left across the meadow, we cross the forest and begin the steep ascent along the marked trail, talking about existential bullshit and sweet FA. For some reason Azra and Tomica start cracking jokes in Macedonian, which is similar to their ‘common’ Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian so I can understand it too. I join the banter, throwing in some words in Bulgarian, Czech and my native Polish, which are also closely related.
|They both feel lazy today. Big time lazy. Just above the treeline we sit to rest for a while, and soon afterwards they feel like sitting down again for a much longer while. Malkata počivkata - a little rest - I deadpan in broken Bulgarian-Macedonian. Those words will become a motto of our whole trip. Anyway, the views encourage us to stop and smell the proverbial flowers.|
At such a lazy pace we reach a large snowfield from which one should turn left when going to climb Očnjak. But we already know we are not going to. We cross some nasty talus and scramble on chossy rocks to the pass Krošnjina vrata in the main ridge of Karanfili. The view opens to the other side of the ridge so that Azra and me have the pleasure to introduce our good friend Maja Jezerce to Tomica, who is in Prokletije for the first time.
Above the pass we have some routefinding issues but finally we find the trail again. Only Tomica is like not going any further. He doesn’t look physically exhausted at all, so me and Azra coax him into carrying on. Successfully. Soon we resume the scramble to the nearby summit of Northern Karanfil.
Just a short bit of climbing on all four and finally at 3.30 pm we are at the summit. It’s late, but that’s hardly any surprise at this relaxed pace of ours. We take some summit photos and a customary malkata počivkata. Azra and me go to the nearby slightly higher double summit of Great Karanfil. Tomica can’t be arsed and waits for us at the northern peak.
Veliki Karanfil is an even better viewpoint. If you believe Azra’s GPS, the generally accepted heights of those peaks (2460 and 2490 m) are exaggerated by several dozen metres. We take some more pics. I take a good look across the border towards my future climbing goals.
|My today’s goal is more ambitious. I’ve managed to persuade the crew to go for a trip with a possibility of some climbing. Although the stress is on ‘possibility’, we have taken our gear for a reason. This ambitious goal is to hike up to Grbajski Zastan, cross the border with Albania and look around for some climbing possibilities there. Azra climbs a wee bit but Tomica is a newbie, so we’re not gonna force ourselves to do anything. There’s no pressure at all.|
There are possibilities galore over there. We already recognised some of them with David and Ivoš three years ago but our goals were different then and we had no gear with us. Now we spread all we have in front of our tents and pack our backpacks. We even have our crampons and ice axes, but they are obviously staying in the car. I had decided that we take them just in case, not knowing what to expect after encountering full winter conditions on Grossglockner a month ago.
|At Treća livada (the Third Meadow) I try to find the beginning of the path we used then. The first encountered trace of a path soon disappears. We try to bushwhack a bit further in search of some faded red marks on trees but there is nothing. Back at the meadow I find a painted red and white circle on a stone to the right of our first try. Into the forest goes what looks like a well-trodden path. I shout to Azra and Tomica to come over and follow me. Their faces say everything. They can’t be arsed to go anywhere. That’s the end of my climbing for today...|
I decide to go for a light reconnaissance on my own. Tomica says they can go to Plav to buy some supplies, so I give them the car keys and documents. I leave all the climbing gear with them. Azra gives me her Garmin, Tomica hands me the snake bite kit and we go our separate ways.
Without the heavy pack I speed up, only to be slowed down again. A hundred metres further the path ends. I turn around to find that the trail branches to the left just after the beginning of the path. This turn is marked by a faded line of red paint on a flat stone, showing the way into the underbrush. The path is practically nonexistent.
|A couple dozen metres further ‘practically’ turns into ‘completely’. Following roughly the same direction I manage to find two more hardly visible, crumbled red lines painted on stones. Everything is covered with young, lush undergrowth. Maybe I should have taken my ice axe anyway? At least I could have used it as a machete. Three years ago it was much easier, once we found the old trail we could somehow follow it until above the treeline.|
But now I haven’t seen any trace of that trail for a long while. I keep bushwhacking through the prickly jungle, paying less and less attention to scratches and nettle stings. This is like a primeval forest. Further on the vegetation becomes less dense but the slope gets steep. And then very steep.
I climb it, scrambling rocks and boulders, grabbing some crumbly branches and trunks of trees, chewing curses mixed with pieces of bark that fall into my mouth and becoming one with nature. This is certainly grade B4 bushwhacking, maybe bordering on B5. Although I try to plan my way well ahead, several times I have to retrace my steps to find a better passage. We certainly took a different way then with the Czechs. The dense wood blocks my view but my compass and uncle Garmin confirm that my direction is more or less right. I wonder if I can downclimb here on my way back. So far everything seems to be under control. Seems to...
In one less steep place I sit down to eat some chocolate and drink half a bottle of water with fizzy tablets. Despite the apparent shadow cast by the trees I have already dehydrated myself. When I reach the patroll