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 patrolling path at the treeline I should be able to locate the spring which we found three years ago, if only there is water in it now.
After an hour of intimate contact with nature I finally leave the forest and enter an open grassy ledge. I know where I am, I have seen this place from below. The previous time we went more to the right, across a characteristic triangle of scree grown over with vegetation. I can see its upper part from here.
But that was then and this is now. First I think whether I could traverse to that triangle but there’s no chance, the only way is up. Above the shelf there is a band of white rocks with only one deep chute. The only possible way would be there.
The bottom of the chute is filled with loose ground grown with nettles and higher up it changes into a steeper chimney. I climb it for about fifteen metres, already knowing that the return will be problematic. I can probably keep climbing up but I might not be able to get down if necessary. The walls of the chimney are flaring, featureless, and slippery and its bottom consists of loose rock and ground. I can’t see what’s above. Maybe just a few metres to the patrolling path, or maybe a long stretch of unpassable ground.
I stand and think for a while, considering my options. Finally I make the only reasonable decision. I only have one life - time to go back.
Now I have to be even more careful. Precariously downclimbing the chimney I reach the ledge. Having drunk some water I enter the forest again. I remember my way but just in case I can always rely on the Garmin showing my electronic trace. As I expected, the way down is even harder. Sometimes I am slower than on the way up, expecially when I have to lower myself using my hands, holding the crumbly geology and the dry botanics that grows on it.
Finally I am at the Third Meadow again. I lie down on the grass and rest for a very long while, looking at the covered ground and the highest place I climbed to. Just a few more metres and I would probably reach easier ground, not far below the patrolling path. But how could I know it there? And trying heroically to climb there, quite likely I would heroically tumble down the chimney.
The day is still young, I have time for one more attempt. There’s no point going all the way to Zastan but I can always suss out the way. I enter the forest again, looking for more paint marks. Eventually I manage to find a few more painted on stones deeper in the woods, but the path is nonexistent. There must have been two trails, ours from three years ago certainly went more to my right. I end up bushwhacking through dense jungle and then up a steep, partly rocky slope again, finally reaching a dead end. In the distance I can see a rock slide that might give me a chance to climb above the treeline, but it would take me another hour or two of nasty bushwhacking to reach its bottom. Time to give up, it doesn’t make sense anymore. I retrace my steps to the meadow.
I give it one more try and make my way straight to the aforementioned triangle, but my progress is even slower. It would take me the whole day to break through the impenetrable wall of fallen branches. I climb a boulder in the middle of the forest to get some view and realise I only covered a very short distance. Why the hell are you doing it, you eejit? - I ask myself an existential question. I sit on top of the boulder, completely knackered. My little survival training is over for today.
|After all some trail must exist, I just don’t know it. Our Serbs have told us about the Polish caving expedition exploring some caves at Zastan. They must have somehow transported those tons of gear they needed.|
On my way back to our camp I meet the Serbs with climbing gear, going to climb a nearby rock. Last spring a group of Germans was here and bolted a few routes there as a part of a larger bolting project in the area of Gusinje. We must visit this rock too before we leave.
After 5 pm I am back at the camp. Azra and Tomica are already there. They went to Plav and had a swim in the lake - much better choice than mine. They brought a few beers. Tomica, seeing me, immediately opens one and hands it to me. I tell them about my adventures. Together we laugh at my zigzagging, chaotic GPS tracks. I go to wash myself and my mates start cooking a dinner. I offer my help but Tomica says that when a friend has come back from the front, he should rest and be taken good care of.
|In the meantime a group of Czech hikers pitch their tents next to ours. We talk a bit about Maja Jezerce where they are planning to go soon. Then one of the Serbs explains to us roughly where the path to Zastan can be. Apparently it is much further to the left, where I didn’t even think of trying.|
A party starts at the bonfire as every evening. We join it for a while but don’t stay too long, as we are planning an earlier start tomorrow. It looks like we’re gonna be more motivated than today...
We are just about to hit the sack when we see a car approaching from the valley towards our camp. One of the newcomers comes to us and greets us in Polish. He explains he saw the plates of my car. They are the cavers we talked about before, and came to pick their gear from the hut as they are moving to explore caves above Ropojana valley, in the neighbourhood of Maja Rosit. Such a meeting doesn’t happen every day so we open some more beers.They confirm they used the path to the left of the meadow and even left a fixed rope at the steepest place as a handrail to help them carry their heavy gear. They finally leave and we retire to our tents.
The sounds of the party can be heard late into the night. For some of the Belgrade crew this is the farewell night. I wish I could join them, but you can’t have a cake and eat it. It is still grey when I get up, waking up my friends who don’t have that much sports ambitions.
The first person I meet outside is one of the Serbs returning from his after-party walk. He hasn’t gone to sleep at all and winks jokingly, asking me not to tell his wife.
When we are leaving, some members of the Serbian group get up and begin packing their stuff for the way back home. We bid farewell and set off. Higher up the valley we catch up with two local shepherds and together we reach the Third Meadow. Luckily for us they know exactly where the path to Zastan begins.
There is a pole fixed on a large boulder, with some arrow signs on it. One of them shows Zastan. Azra, Tomica, Kamil - don’t go that way! One of you followed it yesterday and only miraculously saved his arse!
|We are supposed to follow the sign showing Snježnik and Veliki Kotao, along the path that begins at the far left side of the meadow. After more than a hundred metres there will be a fork, with our path turning right. The latter info is not shown by any sign down here. However, soon after entering the path we indeed find a fork, marked red on a stone.|
The path is very steep at times but usually easy to find. Red marks can be seen quite often too. At one steep, slippery section there is indeed a rope, fixed to a tree by the Polish cavers. One could easily do without it but of course it helps when you carry a heavy pack.
|An hour and a half after leaving the meadow we reach the treeline. The red marks end here. We are at the bottom edge of Grbajski Zastan. What exactly is Grbajski Zastan? Perhaps it would be best to say this is the whole open area above the forest surrounding Grbaja valley from the south, rising steeply and then turning into a corrie squeezed between several high peaks at the Albanian side of the border.|
Two out of three members of our party begin to feel increasingly lazy. Taking it easy, we cross the border and almost three hours since hitting the treeline we reach the place where I camped with Ivoš and David. For some time my mates have been letting me know they don’t feel like climbing. We have already lost too much time anyway. Even if we found a possibility of a nice climbing route, there wouldn’t be enough time to finish it and descend to Grbaja before dark, and we haven’t taken any camping gear.
Maybe I could try climbing something with self-belaying, but I also feel it’s too late today. I leave my pack with climbing gear with Azra and Tomica. They’re gonna descend a bit and try to scramble to the Ropojanska Vrata pass. We agree to meet somewhere below it at 4.30 pm the latest. I decide to hike light to the opposite end of Zastan for a recon trip. Gotta take a closer look at a mountain which, to the best of my knowledge, is still unclimbed and which I’ve had at the back of my mind for some time. Its name is Maja Lagojvet.
Walking fast, I cross the corrie the same way as three years ago. Then we had no idea about the local topography. Now when I look at the surrounding peaks, everything falls into place. I take out my notebook and sketch a ridge map, trying to mark as many details as possible. Then I reach the base of Maja Lagojvet north face. At a closer look it looks climbable. Deceptively climbable...
I hear a thunder from the north and looking there I can see heavy clouds gathering. A lightning crosses the sky. It’s all far away and seems to be passing by, but it’s always a warning. I begin my return at a fast pace, reaching our meeting point well before time. Descending further, I once yell my mates’ names and hear them reply. We meet five minutes later, split the gear between our packs and continue the descent. Now I begin lagging behind, perhaps still being tired from my yesterdays’ antics. Tomica takes some gear from me to his pack and my speed increases, but I still remain the weakest link. Luckily we are almost sure now that the thunderstorm will not hit us.
We manage to descend to the meadow before dark and lie down on the grass for a while. Tomica produces a wee flask of Dalmatian travarica from his backpack and we drink a round. Although we haven’t climbed anything today, I tell my friends it’s absolutely alright for me and I’m happy with the results of my reconnaissance. In good humours and high spirits we return to the camp, prepare a dinner and join the traditional campfire party with the remnants of the Belgrade crew. The only thing I keep stumm about is the name of the mountain that must not be named...
My bottle of Żubrówka on the table is empty. When we were leaving the company late at night, there was still some left. It got dried just like Tomica’s travarica a couple hours before.
We bid farewell to the remaining Serbs, but before leaving Grbaja we go to the rock with bolted climbing routes. At last it’s time to make use of our gear. The rock, although close to the road, is hidden in the forest. We climb a few routes of about V-VI UIAA, with Tomica making his first steps in technical rock climbing, and then we leave for Vusanje to take a walk in the Ropojana valley.
We pass the Vusanje police watchtower, leave the car by the road and go to see the ponor. The stream falls into a great hole in the ground with loud noise. How is it possible that I haven’t seen this place yet although I’ve been so close so many times?
By the karst spring Oko Skakavice, we meet the same bunch of Czechs who camped next to us in Grbaja. They are resting before tomorrow’s attempt at Maja Jezerce and have just had a swim in the ice-cold water. I've swum in some mountain lakes before, in Prokletije too, but this is colder than anything I’ve ever seen. They're a crazy nation.
Further up the valley we meet some Polish cavers preparing for exploration of the Maja Rosit area, including those we talked to in Grbaja before. We walk for another hour to see the view towards the further part of Ropojana and return to the car.
We stop for an ice cream at Gusinje. While I have seen the town from the summit of Maja Jezerce, now for the first time I manage to see the highest peak of Prokletije from here.
Despite the late hour we decide to go see the local festivity that we heard about before. It takes place by the karst springs Alipašini izvori, just outside the town. The road leading there is crowded. Many cars have foreign plates, it seems like all the Gusinje emigrants have come back for the day.
At Alipašini izvori water seems to be pouring out of the ground everywhere. Among streams of all sizes there are stages with music and dance, food and drink vendors’ stands and various competitions. Cans and bottles of cold beer and soft drinks are sold, chilled in the ice-cold spring water. We hang around for an hour and then have to go. The whole long night drive to Sarajevo awaits us.
We stop for a coffee by the famous great bridge at Đurđevica Tara. Tomica takes over behind the wheel, we cross the border of Bosnia & Herzegovina at Metaljka and finally at 4 am we arrive in Sarajevo.
We sleep till late and after a good meal in the city centre Azra takes us climbing to Dariva, a limestone sector just outside the city. The rocks are up to 30 metres high with quite a lot of sport routes. I lead a few of them, Azra and Tomica then climb them on toprope. VI+ UIAA on sight is nothing to brag about compared to my climbing ten years ago, but for now I am happy with myself. That’s great that Azra took us here.
We come back to Azra’s place to wash ourselves, say goodbye and together with Tomica we quickly hit the road to Zagreb. Two hours later we cross the border with Croatia and late in the evening arrive in its capital. I drop Tomica at a car park where he picks his company car. He pilots me out of the city and onto the motorway, flashes his headlights to bid farewell and drives back home. I go to a village south of Zagreb where I stay for the night with my Polish friend Renata and her family, who I also visited on my way from Prokletije two years ago.
After lunch I hit the road again. Delayed by some detours due to roadworks, a few hours later I come to the border crossing with Slovenia. A nervous moment, as my MOT expired yesterday. I hope my car documents won’t be checked too meticulously.
Luckily the Slovenian officer is only interested in my passport and the contents of my luggage. Opening the boot, I tell him in bad Slovenian mixed with Croatian that I only have my camping and climbing gear. What’s this? - he asks, pointing at the small carton box sitting on top. I don’t know the Slovenian word for crampons. Mačky - I say in Czech, this word first coming to my mind. Mački? - he asks with his eyes wide open, totally gobsmacked, as if expecting a meowing sound to come from the inside of the box. Dereze - I say in Croatian, opening the box. We both can't help bursting out laughing.
Of course I knew that mački in Slovenian, just like in Croatian, means ‘cats’. In Czech it means ‘crampons’, by analogy with cat’s claws. Funny ways of our closely related languages. Only later will I check out that crampons in Slovenian and Croatian are called exactly the same. Man learns all his life and dies stupid.
Azrice i Tomice, hvala vam na svemu, pozdrav do sljedećeg izleta!