My mobile’s ringing, distracting me from choosing an ice axe in the mountain shop. Just a while ago I became a proud owner of a pair of crampons. Bad news from the garage, my car’s unfit for a long drive, at least it’s not gonna be ready for tomorrow.
* * * * *
I heard about this trip some time ago from my Belgrade friend Vlado (vvujisic) but only a few days ago I knew I could make it. I was closely following the news about the unrest in Kosovo and Belgrade. To add to the already interesting picture, a week ago there were some brief reports about a mysterious accident of an unidentified helicopter that crashed in the fog on the slopes of Maja Jezerce. The SOS signal was received in Italy and Albania shortly before the object disappeared from radars, and the local villagers heard the explosion. Neither KFOR in Kosovo nor the Albanian army reported any missing machines. It was weird that nobody knew anything when it was on the radars. The area was searched on the ground and from the air, although the search was severely hampered by bad weather. The action was called off after 2 days. The reports in international media were scarce and the information about the end of the rescue action was difficult to find outside the Albanian web portals. Since then the media kept stumm. Something smelt fishy here.
Two days before the planned departure from Utrecht I got an email from Dragan, the guide from the mountaineering club in Belgrade who organised the trip. The planned ascent was brought one day forward due to the weather forecast. So I would have just one day in Łódź to rest and sort things out, straight after an overnight drive from Holland. I already knew that neither Vlado nor any of my Polish friends would not go.
* * * * *
So here I am in Łódź, ready to go but with no means of transport. Luckily my parents agree to lend me their car. They’re gonna need a car for the next couple days too. But apparently mine is alright for short drives. Tomorrow morning, instead of hitting the road, I’m supposed to drop my parents’ car at the garage for the check up.
After an hours’ visit to the garage I get a green light to go. I do the last shopping, pack my stuff and after lunch I finally hit the road.
This night I cross the two now non-existent borders, Polish-Slovak and Slovak-Hungarian... yeah we’re all in Schengen now... and at 3am I pull in at some petrol station before Szeged to get some kip in the car.
At 8am, while I’m preparing to set off, I get a text message from a friend in Poland - the forecast for the summit day is excellent.
Crossing Szeged, I head towards the nearby Serbian border. After a quick passport control I buy some local currency and drive to Novi Sad, taking some hitchers on the way. I stop there for a coffee and a walk in the old city centre.
Rain, sun, rain again... Fruška gora, Šabac, Valjevo... I’ve been following some fast local driver for a while. He knows the area, knows where to expect the police speed traps, so I keep following him. The winding road is getting steeper, it’s getting dark, the guy accelerates. Now we’re both driving the Balkan way. Does he think I’m trying to challenge him or what? Although it seems impossible, he accelerates even more. I’m not chasing him, after all I wanted to drive this bit quickly but safely. When I pass the highest point of the road, my mouth feels dry.
I cross the Montenegrin border on a winding road in a canyon and make a quick call to Dragan, they are about to set off from Belgrade. Berane, Andrijevica, now it’s the section I can recognise from my last time here. Some local radio station plays a song by a Croatian band Parni valjak.
Ne pitaj me noćas ništa
pusti me da šutim
ja noćas trebam mir...
Don’t ask me anything tonight
let me stay silent
I need to be alone...
The DJ doesn’t remember the title, some listener calls to tell him. I could have called before him if I knew the phone number.
I park in front of the mosque at Gusinje. I’m meeting the crew right here tomorrow morning. It’s almost midnight, I enter the only bar that is still open. Some locals are playing cards at the table, I grab a beer. They ask where I come from, one of them speaks some Polish, it turns out he has a Polish girlfriend who he met in Germany.
I drive a couple hundred metres outside the town to find a good place to sleep by the road. I haven’t seen so many stars for a long time. Seems like the weatherman was right.
Ne daj se Ines!March 14
The alarm rings at 5. I switch it off to lie in a while longer, only to wake up at 6.30 and have to hurry up to drive to the mosque. The white van is already there, some people hanging around it. Kamil? - one of them comes up and asks, smiling. He introduces himself - Dragan.
He goes to register us at the nearby police station while I prepare my gear and get to know the rest of the party from the Radnički mountaineering club. There is 17 of them including 2 women, from twentysomethings to about 60. Most come from Belgrade, some from Novi Sad.
It all starts rather innocently. We follow the red-marked trail, the snow is only ankle-deep and we quickly gain elevation despite carrying heavy backpacks.
But nothing good lasts very long. Soon we found ourselves up to our waists in the snow. Željko, a bloke from Novi Sad, seems to have the stamina of a horse. He keeps pressing forward, digging his way through the dense, heavy snow. One of the older team members calms him down a bit and after the next stop we begin taking shifts in postholing.
Sometimes we all have to stop, waiting for the leader to dig through some exceptionally nasty and deep section. Ne daj se Ines! - Don't give up, Ines! - someone shouts the words of an old song for encouragement.
|I take my shifts too several times. Towards the end of the climb the snow up to the waist becomes quite normal. More and more often the leader sinks down to his chest. And the steepness of the slope does not make things easier.|
I can’t complain on my physical shape. All thanks to my finger that I sprained while playing football (soccer for Americans). Because of that I could not play as a goalkeeper recently and was running around like a dog the whole games! We all agree that what we’re doing is pure masochism. Who said mountaineering should be fun?
We reach the top of the hill with a view to the Seven Lakes Valley. We can’t see Maja Jezerce yet. From here we have to go down steeply and then negotiate the valley threshold to reach the place of our camp. Taking an active part in postholing cost me some energy and I get there completely knackered.
We flatten out the snow and pitch our tents. After cooking some hot grub we go to sleep early. Tomorrow we get up at 3am for an early start.
Prayer at sunriseMarch 15
I quickly fall asleep but then wake up after midnight and can't get any decent sleep anymore. An hour before the ordered wake up time I can already hear voices from the camp and people hanging around outside.
Kol'ko zvezda, jebote! - Fuck it, how many stars! - someone’s loud exclamation of amazement wakes me up for good and makes me drag my arse outside. It’s 2.55am. I look up into the sky - the guy was absolutely right. Immediately I begin to melt some snow. It takes a longer time to make two litres of water. Knowing my needs, not quite enough for today’s ascent, but there is no time for more.
At 4am, when we’re getting ready to start, we notice some headlamps approaching us from the direction we came from yesterday. Two, three, six... soon I stop counting them, there are a lot. Complete surprise, at this time and place...
Several minutes later the first strangers arrive at the camp. To make the whole situation look even more surreal, the man in front greets Dragan like an old friend.
More and more people begin to cram together in our little camp, and new ones are still coming in. It turns out they are Montenegrins from Plav, Gusinje, Podgorica and several other places. There are also some Kosovar Albanians. They all arrived at Vusanje late last night and immediately went up, intending to go up and down Maja Jezerce in a day. One thing came to my mind - they owe us a round for breaking the trail for them - otherwise they would never make it so quickly! Dragan must have known they were about to come here some time after us. But did he suppose we would already meet here and now? And that there would be so many of them?
|Enko (Enes Dresković), the Montenegrin expedition leader and the chairman of the Hrid Mountaineering Club from Plav, stands in the middle of a camp, together with Dragan and one older guy. The latter is Rifat Mulić from Plav, a living legend of those mountains, leader of the first known ascent of Maja Shnikut and the first winter ascent of Maja Popluks. Enko starts a speech. He talks about the Balkans Peace Park project for which he works. It involves a collaboration with the UK and the Netherlands and its purpose is to create a nature park in Prokletije and open the borders for mountaineers. So that crossing the border would not be illegal anymore, or semi-legal like in our case, and the mountains would be accessible for the people of Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania, Croatia... Poland... he mentions all the countries where the members of our joint expeditions come from. The grapevine must be spreading fast.|
At the end he turns to Dragan, reminding the first winter ascent of Maja Jezerce was made by Serbs a few years ago. At the end of his speech, Enko nominates Dragan for the leader of our joint expedition. Dragan and Rifat also say a few words. Some people record them on cameras, many of us take pictures.
|At 4.30 the joint international forces form a column and begin their march towards the summit. All together there is more than 60 of us. A long string of people goes up another threshold of the valley. The snow is not too deep here so we are moving quite quickly. Soon we can switch off our headlamps, we stop for a short rest. We can see a few people in front spreading rugs on the snow and beginning a Muslim prayer. The sky is still grey but the mountains are already well visible. There is something special in this picture, perhaps many of us pray at this moment, each in their own way.|
We go round the largest snow-covered lake, talking, singing aloud and having lots of fun. It is quite uplifting to see Montenegrins, Serbs, Croats and Kosovar Albanians climbing a mountain together against all the political divides, despite all the difficult neighbourhood they have been sharing in this troubled corner of the world.
|It was quite easy so far but above the frozen lake the deep snow begins. A group of a dozen or so volunteers spontaneously forms at the head of the column to break the trail. How nice we are not carrying such heavy loads as yesterday. When my turn comes, I give it a long push and afterwards fall on the snow, completely knackered. Perhaps there was not enough time for me to take a reasonable rest after yesterday’s effort.|
Now we can finally see our mountain - Maja Jezerce. With the two Montenegrins walking next to me we try to name all the peaks we can see. It turns out they were in the group that climbed Maja Shnikut for the first time in 2005. Probably they were the ones we saw with Ivoš and David the day before our climb of Maja Jezerce. We saw that peak from very close the day before when we were in the Death Valley, not knowing it is Maja Shnikut. And the Death Valley’s real name is Stani Koprishtit, but we did not know that either...
In front of me I see a bloke with a huge, heavy pack on his back. He says it is a paraglide. If there is a good wind he wants to jump off the summit.
After that short crisis I again feel strong enough to help break the trail. Soon we are right below the summit dome. It looks quite different than in summer but I can still recognise the route. It’s time to put on the crampons and change the trekking poles for the ice axe. There is no need to put on the harnesses and rope up. Some people decide to stay here instead of climbing to the top.
| The route in winter seems safer than in summer. It looks like there is no avalanche danger, the snow of 60-65 degrees holds well, the crampons provide good traction. The climb is a complete opposition of the choss fest that this place becomes in summer.|
Dragan and Enko are below the summit dome, taking care of the rest of the group. Up here there are Tomica and me who know the further way to the summit. Tomica is another legend, he wrote a book ‘Planinom’ (‘Across the mountains’) about the mountain ranges of Serbia and Montenegro, and also has a mountain website. Inexhaustible Željko goes forward again. What does he eat? With Tomica we give him some directions, but he doesn’t really need them, he’s just flying up there. We follow him, improving the steps he kicked in the shallow snow between the rocks.
Željko negotiates the last steeper section and romps up the wide summit ridge. I follow him a couple metres behind, gasping for breath, with a few others. Željko raises his hands in triumph, we all give one another high fives, in a while more people join us at the summit. We don’t step on the cornice, stopping a few metres away. It is 10.40am.
More and more people keep climbing to the top. Dragan and the rest of our crew soon join us, they take out the Serbian flag, we take pictures, the wind is so strong that the flag almost flies away. The Montenegrins also fly their flag but because of this wind they fold it back almost immediately so I don’t have time to photograph it. We spend more than an hour at the summit enjoying the party atmosphere despite the freezing wind, congratulating the next approaching climbers and taking even more pics. Later I will learn that all together between 40 and 50 people reached the summit of Maja Jezerce today.
At some moment the thought of the crashed chopper comes to my mind. I look down to the side of the Valbona valley and Maja Popluks for a long time. There are no visible traces. The Accursed Mountains will keep one more mystery.
Most of us already started the descent, finally I make a move too. Below the summit we meet one more man going up. He talks to someone in our descending group and continues his march up the mountain.
|That bloke who talked to him tells me that his friend is the last one climbing up. He’s not gonna be alone, there are still some people up there. Igor tells me he is from Zagreb, so I mention to him about my Croatian friend Gord (Dinaric-ZG) and our explorations of this area less than two years ago with him and Azra.|
I quickly make my way down the couloir. The snow is now well run down by climbers. I catch up with our paraglider. He makes his progress slowly, bent down to the ground with the burden of his wings that he could not spread. Unfortunately the wind was too strong for a safe flight.
I stop below the summit dome to take off my crampons. I’m shagged out, I sit on the snow for a long while, eating chocolate and drinking almost all my remaining water with fizzy tablets. Ljubiša, one of our Serbs, offers me some grapefruit. I chow it down gratefully, the sour taste nicely quenching my thirst.
|Dragan remains here to wait for the rest of our crew. I go down, soon catching up with Enko, Lela, Biljana and some more Montenegrins. We go together for a longer time. But most of my crew have already gone down and, unlike Enko’s group, we still have to pack our tents, so I leave them and start descending faster. But boy how knackered I am. The ‘vampire’s teeth’ grin at me from the col below Maja Kolacit.|
The sun already softened the snow and the path is a lot harder to walk now. Stepping into the existing postholes I keep sinking even deeper, up to my waist. Getting my arse out of there costs me quite a lot when I’m already well battered. Fuckin’ hell, how thirsty I am. The water’s over, I can only eat snow. It helps for a while.
|When I make it to the camp, Bole and Dole are already here and start dismantling my tent. No time to rest, I join them to help. They are ready and soon start their further descent. I melt a litre of water, throw in some fizzy tablets and drink it all at once. No time for more.|
In the meantime the rest of the descending Montenegrins pass us, saying goodbye. We also finish our packing, with Dragan and Goca we go down as the last ones. Although we are loaded like donkeys, it goes pretty quickly. Before Zastan we catch up with one more of our people.
The way down the Ropojana valley seems to last ages under the load. Towards the end it gets dark. I decide to walk faster and take rests more often. I’m completely knackered and it seems to me it’s gonna be easier for me like that. Devan je jači od magarca (The camel’s stronger than a donkey) - overtaking my mates I laugh through gritted teeth, recalling my Balkan nickname. But it turns out that our average speed is about the same.
Finally we can see the lights of Vusanje. We are happy to see the van. Rajko drove up the valley to meet us and take our packs. The rest of the Serbian crew is already here. Free of the burden we quickly go down. The village lights are quite confusing, there is still quite a distance remaining.
We reach the police station. The van with the group leaves for Gusinje for some shopping. Tomica will go with me straight to Andrijevica where we are meeting for dinner at a restaurant. We pack our stuff into my car, talking to one of the cops. I thank him for keeping an eye on my car and we leave.
Shortly before Andrijevica we catch up with the van and together we cross the bridge and pull in at the roadside restaurant, which is for a change called Most (The Bridge). We take a few tables and order some drinks. Tomica came here on his own and joined us together with the Montenegrin group, and now he has to catch the night bus to Belgrade from Berane. He has no time to wait for food. I give him a lift to Berane, it’s just a short drive. Before leaving he gives me his book ‘Planinom’.
I come back to the restaurant, we have a hefty two-course dinner with beer and share some good old banter with Goca, Zvezdan, Dragan and the rest of the bunch. Rajko suggests I could stay the night here in one of the guest rooms. 15 euros is a very decent price, especially that I feel knackered and don’t fancy another night at the reclining seat of my car. We exchange our addresses and it’s time to bid farewell...
My face already felt quite burnt before. Now in the mirror I can see it is indeed red. I have a shower and go to bed without setting my alarm clock.
Stoat testMarch 16
A text message from a friend wakes me up before 8am. I reply, thinking it is time to hit the road. I don’t even notice when I fall asleep again and wake up more than an hour later. I feel tired and sun-battered. I go to the bathroom and look in the mirror. My face is so red and swollen that it could be used to scare children.
I set off before 11am, give a local lad a lift to Berane, then stop in some village to buy a bottle of homemade plum rakija from a local farmer. He asks if I’m Slovenian, which I take as a compliment for my command of his language.
I drive through the picturesque Lim canyon. At the other bank of the river there is the spectacular railway with many tunnels built inside the sheer rock face. The queue of cars before the border is quite long but it moves quickly and soon I approach the barrier. A Serbian customs officer asks what I have in the car. Just my personal belongings and climbing gear - I reply. He looks behind my seat, where a bottle of rakija sits wrapped in my sleeping mat. Da, planinarska oprema... (Yes, climbing gear...) - smiles the Serb, I can see his friendly attitude. He asks me to open the boot. Šta vam je ovo? (What’s this?) - he asks with his eyes wide open, pointing at the ice axe. It’s not a weapon, it’s only for winter climbing - I explain patiently. He takes it in his hands curiously.
It’s Sunday, the road across the rolling landscape is almost empty, I give a lift to some more hitchers, at one of the stops I try to call Azra in Sarajevo but she is not answering her phone. I manage to talk for a few minutes to Gord in Zagreb.
The winding road leads me to Rogačica in the Drina valley. Just when my stomach reminds me of its needs, I see a roadside restaurant. I stop and have some pasulj (Serbian bean soup with meat) and ćevapčići (fried minced sausages) with some salad, enjoying a chat with the owners. Before leaving I buy another bottle of rakija, this time distilled from pears.
The road quickly climbs to a high pass. The sun is setting behind the mountains at the other, Bosnian side of Drina, still covered with the last patches of snow. The Bosnian band Zabranjeno pušenje plays in my stereo...
Kanjon Drine je iza nas,
ispred nas je ravna Romanija
snijeg se topi, ništa neće
zaustaviti dolazak novog proljeća
The Drina canyon is behind us
ahead there is the flat Romanija
the snow is melting, nothing’s gonna
stop the coming of spring
Dark road, more rolling hills, the lights of Novi Sad reflecting in the Danube river when I cross the bridge, a nice chat with another hitch-hiking girl who missed her last bus... The straight road leads me across the never-ending flatlands of Vojvodina. Suddenly I see a stoat or some similar animal coming into the road from the left, just in front of me. I make a light left turn, estimating that I can pass it easily. The furry guy is already to my right. But then it stops, I see the flash of its eyes and... decides to turn back. Reflexively I make one more left turn, this time very sharp, losing traction for a split second and almost flying off the road, and immediately countering to the right, catching a glimpse of the furry bastard jumping away from under my front right wheel. Deep breath... The speedometer still shows 90 kph. How fast was I driving before this maneuvre - 120 or more? I heard that most cars, even those with electronic stabilisation systems, pass the elk test only up to 70-80 kph. But that bugger who jumped in front of me was no elk for sure.
Late night, almost empty border crossing. At the Serbian customs an exceptionally fit blonde girl just gives my passport a glimpse of her beautiful eyes. I cross the no man’s land and stop before the Hungarian barrier.
The Hungarian officer asks me to open the boot. He asks if I have any cigarettes or coffee, gropes between the climbing gear and dirty clothes, looks at the wine and beer bottles secured between them, gropes the backpack from all sides, to finally find the two bottles of rakija stashed at the very bottom. In broken Serbian he orders me to pull in by the benches to the right. Welcome to Schengen.
What can they do to me for one extra rakija after all? On the other hand it would be a painful loss, not financially of course but because of the difficulties in obtaining the stuff outside the Balkans. I think whether I should sacrifice the plum or the pear and come to conclusion that both are equally valuable.
After several minutes two officers come by. Sprechen Sie Deutsch? English? English, Serbian - I reply. Alright, a point for me. I see their faces brightening slightly, maybe they don’t feel too strong with their English. Slowly, prolonging every move, I take every item out of the boot. My ‘weapon’ does not attract any attention this time. Tent, backpack, climbing gear, wet boots, minging dirty clothes, smelly socks... They only look carefully at the wine and beer bottles, checking if they really contain wine and beer. They look inside the car, making sure there are no other questionable items except the rakija. Samo jedna (only one) - says one of them, pointing at the two bottles sitting at the bench. What would be the duty for one extra litre? - I ask. No duty, there can be 100 euros fine - I hear the reply. You see I ain’t got nothing else, what’s the problem with one rakija? The officer takes one bottle, unscrews the cap and smells it. Not very delighted with the aroma, he puts the bottle back on the bench, waves his hand and together with his colleague they leave. Drugi put samo jedna! (Next time only one!) - he deadpans, walking away.
Hungary welcomes me with torrential rain. The windscreen wipers can’t cope with this amount of water, sometimes I feel like a driver of a submarine. The rain fades away, I still feel alright so I keep on driving till 3am. I pull in at the petrol station before Gyöngyös. I stop here for a reason.
Timespace warpMarch 17
|I look out at the road to see my today’s goal. I glance at the date at my watch. Carrantuohill or Slieve Donard would be better for today. But I have already been there and today I’m here so I have to be happy with Kékestető, shortly called Kékes (1014 m) - the highest point of Hungary.|
The road mildly climbs across the forest, only becoming steeper towards the end. I must return here someday with my bike to conquer this mountain in an honourable way. I park just below the top and walk the last couple hundred metres to the summit stone.
When I cross the Slovak border it still seems weird to me that there are no barriers and customs officers. I have dinner in Spišska Nova Ves and then stop to buy some mountain gear and booze in Poprad. The snowy peaks of Tatras are hidden in clouds.
It is already dark and it starts to snow when I drive around the Tatras and approach the border. The road is completely empty. The radio picks up some station from... Kielce in central Poland. I turn right from the main road towards where the old border crossing should be, not being quite sure if it is the right way. I can see some signs in Polish at the side of the road. When have I crossed the border? The warped timespace, instead on the shortest way to Nowy Targ, spits me out on the road to Zakopane. I glance at my watch. It’s still March 17, 7pm...
* * * * *
It’s not far from home now. I put in an old casette that I bought in Belfast many years ago and turn up the volume. I haven’t climbed Carrantuohill today so at least The Pogues will play for me.
Many thanks to Dragan and the whole international crew for the two great days in the Accursed Mountains!
Velika hvala svima!