“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.” - Jack Kerouac
Slovenia is unexpected and wildly beautiful.
Tucked away in central Europe, grazing shoulders with Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, the majority of the country is covered in lush forest and it is a territory that is dominated by mountains. The Triglav national park takes its name from the highest mountain in the region, translating as ‘three-headed’ and is a national symbol for the country, appearing on the national flag. After a productive week spent working at a creative hub in the capital city of Ljubljana, (our home for the month of July), the call of the Julian Alps summoned eight of us on a weekend trip to conquer the mountain.
Here is my account of the weekend
“It’s a challenging hike, but no prior experience is required” he said with a boyish shrug. Without thinking too much about it I agreed, not knowing that this ‘hike’ would take me along the menacing ridge of a mountain to the summit of Slovenia’s highest peak, a cool 2,864 meters above sea level.
Barely 25 minutes in, my breathing felt labored and the unforgiving humidity that the summer’s heatwave had brought left me drenched in sweat. At various rest stops we sat on fallen tree trunks exchanging jokes and snacks. Despite the struggle with each step I could feel the challenge seeping into my veins, and I liked it.
Our native Slovenian guide was named Bugy (pronounced Boogie). His muscular build, tanned skin and ice-blue eyes, coupled with his playful demeanor, made his age hard to distinguish as he lead us expertly through lush meadows encouraging us to take our time. Perched atop a rock, we stopped at a rusty drinking trough, a small tube embedded in the mountain wall dispensed a trickle of ice cold water. The water had made it’s way all the way from the top of the alps, Bugy explained while instructing us to fill up our bottles.
Suddenly the lush greenery of the national park became rockier, harsher, the air feeling colder in my lungs. Beginning the ascent to base camp our tired feet trod on loose rock and increasingly sparse patches of grass. A quick glance at the Julien Alps jutting up around us and my stomach turned, as if in anticipation of the coming altitude. "Am I scared of heights?", I thought to myself.
The warm cabin greeted us with the smell of potato gratin and sweet apple crepes, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. Home for the night. Gathered around a long wooden table, we removed our shoes and rummaged in our backpacks for a portable speaker and some playing cards. A thick fog enveloped the cabin as my tired fingers began to build a house of cards, in the background the playlist “Dad’s Backyard BBQ” played Billy Joel and The Doobie Brothers.
While some napped under large wool blankets, others played around outside in the surrounding patches of ice and snow, as if nature had rendered them children at recess. Before sunset, we gathered outside the cabin sitting cross-legged in silent meditation, my gaze settled on tiny wild flowers sporadically sprouting from the rocks around me.
July 4th, The morning of the summit I woke up at 4.30am without an alarm, feeling nervous and disorientated. As the burnt orange sun rose majestically above the thick layer of clouds below us, we gathered outside the cabin slipped into our harnesses, secured our orange helmets and began trudging in the direction of a wooden sign reading ‘Triglav’ in red painted letters. My mind fluttered to my friends back in New York and California preparing to have an afternoon of drinking and barbecue in celebration of their independence day, while I was preparing to conquer a fear, (previously unbeknownst to me) of heights.
“Is this as steep as it gets?” I asked nobody in particular, my voice failing to conceal my fear as we clipped ourselves into a thick wire attached to the ridge of the mountain. On both sides of the narrow ridge a two thousand meter vertical drops gaped at me and at that moment I knew it was going to get worse before it got better. Bugy noticed my fear but dodged my panicked questions, instead reassuring me with silent gestures such as calmly handing me the last sips of his electrolyte-infused water.
Pure adrenaline and fear helped me concentrate on reaching the summit, as I crawled my way up the final meters I was filled with elation. As my friends goofed around, reveling in their accomplishment, I lay flat on my back in quiet celebration, a tear escaping from behind my sunglasses. I wasn’t sure if I was crying out of happiness or in fear of the imminent descent.
The sense of accomplishment didn't fully settle in until later that evening when, after a five hour downward hike, we joined our friends back in Ljubljana for a Slovenian-style 4th of July celebration under the starlit sky. As I sipped on cold beer, enjoying the warm buzz spread over my exhausted muscles, I couldn't help but think "which mountain will be next?".