I first saw the north face of Triglav in a book, ‘The Big Walls’ by Reinhold Messner, when I was about 19 years old. The mountain and the face has fascinated me ever since. In the book, it gave an account of the first ascent with a large colour photo of the mighty north face of Triglav. It quoted “Few climbs have left such a lasting impression on me as this one. Of the three biggest faces in the Eastern Alps, the Triglav Wall seems to me to be the most difficult.” – Ludwig Sinek. The grade given for this route however, is only IV+ (UK grade of around Hard Severe). So, with a rock wall as tall as El Cap in Yosemite but with a far more reasonable grade, it seemed like a very good idea to book some flights to go and check it out.
The plane touched down into Slovenia’s capital – Ljubljana. We hired a super cheap car and made the short drive to the picturesque town of Bled – where we were staying for a few days in order to attempt to climb Triglav via the north face.
Bled is a tourist town, and rightly so – it’s beautiful. The town is situated on a huge, crystal-clear lake, with steep limestone cliffs at its edges and castles rising from the rolling forests. It really is a fairy tale of a place. It’s also cheaper than other European destinations. We were paying just 17 euros a night for our B and B; so it’s a perfect base to start your adventure.
On our first day, I drove with Robyn my climbing partner to the town of Mojstrana. From here, a 13km magnificent dirt track takes you cutting through the forests, following a wild river all the way to the car park used to climb Triglav from the north. You only have to walk 400 metres from the car park before you are bowled over by your first glimpse of the north face of Triglav. Towering up from the trees, 1400 meters high and over 4 km wide, the north face knocks your socks clean off.
There’s a well positioned dainty hut in full view of the face that serves food and drinks on a sunny terrace looking at the mountain. A large sign shows all the major climbing routes of the face and it’s well worth a look. For us, this was a reconnaissance day as we were tired from the previous day’s travel. So we decided to memorise the walk in, for when it would be dark the following day. The path from the hut is well marked and is known as the Prag Route (not the nicest sounding path name, but it follows a stream through the trees and out into the open). There’s an enormous piton that has been hammered into a large boulder (clearly by a giant judging by the size of it). The view of the piton, and that of the north face of Triglav, is the one I had seen in ‘The Big Walls’ book and we stopped for a photo.
According to the guide book “Popular climbing routes in Slovenia” there are no Via Ferratas in Slovenia. This is rubbish. All of the walking paths that lead to the summit of Triglav have large sections of cable ways, ladders, metal rungs, drops and exposure everywhere and most people going up or down them are clipped in. Walking here is not for the faint hearted. It was good therefore to see the approach path in daylight before the early start on the following day. We scrambled our way to the start of the first pitch and made a mental note of the line.
The following day, we walked fast and excited for the 4 km to the base of the face in the dark. As the sun came up, the face looked even more impressive in the eerie stillness of dawn.
On a route of this size, it’s not about ‘how much chalk to carry?’or ‘do I need my tight shoes Gary?’. It’s about moving fast, memorising the description, looking for the line ahead and making good decisions. I set off up the first pitch. Robyn and I had decided to do the easiest classic route on the face, the ‘Slovene Route’. We had no idea how long it would take us, how hard the route finding would be or what the quality of the rock and fixed gear would be like – there were a lot of unknowns.
The climbing turned out to be very easy but loose in places; which is to be expected on rock faces of this size. We moved together, placing gear where we needed to make the climbing safe. The topo for the route didn’t show pitches, instead it showed large sections with marked features and grades next to them. What quickly became apparent was the distance to the summit above us wasn’t getting any smaller. I am not a slow climber, I am also not captain speedy – Mr Alex Huber. We were moving together on ground graded VD and were galloping up rock. I would check the topo, chuffed with our speed only to find we had climbed the first small section. Somewhat alarming, I thought. We carried on. Rope length after rope length ran out. Through corners, walls, slabs, overhangs and chimneys we went. Then a quick look up to check the route, and off again. We arrived onto the Zlatorog Ledges, about half way up the face before midday and we sat took stock of our situation and had some food.
The Zlatorog Ledges, thanks to the stratified structure of the Triglav north face, provides a magnificent route that crosses the entire face. It gives 4 km of climbing / scrambling and according to the guide book “The main problem is route finding”. The scale of the face is huge, we had been watching another climbing team on the German Route to our right and they had arrived on the ledge system at about the same time as us and they were having some food and enjoying the sunshine – in their pants by the look of things – ‘Germans’, I thought. Rather than carrying up though, they starting traversing the ledge system towards us, now fully clothed.
The guide book describes the Zlatorog Ledge system as a way of escaping the face should time be short, or the weather be closing in and this escape option had been in the back of my mind should we need it. Looking right and left along this ledge system, it didn’t look that inviting. Tiny, omnimous, sloping ledges, with scree sat on top, above a 600 metre drop and difficult to protect – I am not selling it, am I?
The team of three we had seen on the German Route came across to us, smoking tabs and looking rather casual. They started jabbering away to us in Slovenian and were looking rather pleased with their day so far. I knew a lot of German and the Slovenian language is very similar but like a good British tourist I still had to wave the white flag and admit I didn’t really know what they were talking about. “You’re English” one of them said, “No one from England climbs here”. ‘Oh good’, I thought. “You should follow us along the Zlatorog Ledges, you’ve done all the climbing and it’s better as a descent” they said. Sometimes, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. These guys were local climbing guides, they knew the cliff well (I hoped) and they had offered to show us the Zlatorog Ledges – bloody good deal.
I had wanted to learn this traverse since seeing it in the guide book, and at 4km long, it’s one hell of a traverse. For one thing – I quite like traverses and for another – all the routes cross it and knowing this safe passage would give options for future routes when climbing here. Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted. “We will follow you” I said, probably best that way around.
The next hour was some what terrifying. I think in hindsight, it wasn’t that bad, but we all say that after we have survived something. Give any wanna-be-hero a few weeks after an epic and the brain cuts out the bad stuff and filters the good stuff to memories.
The overall aim when reversing the Zlatorog ledges is to head for a square boulder that is perched on the ridge on the horizon. In order to get there you have to connect a series of scree covered ledges in a jumbled maze of down climbs, steps and corners. Lucky for us, the Slovenian team knew it well. Once at the square block you down climb into a series of three gullies that with a couple of abseils leads you back to a high point on the Prag Path. We sat here for a while enjoying some food and stories with Slovenians, who were very friendly indeed, and who also recommended the German Route that they had done that day for next visit.
After this experience, Robyn and I ran away to the Dolomites and climbed on some solid rock…..
Only two weeks later, I was packing my bags for a return trip to Triglav. This trip was going to be somewhat different. Andy, one of my climbing partners and a BBC presenter had been asked by Suzuki to make an adventure film using the V-Strom motorbikes. I had known about this project for a while and had suggested Triglav as a destination due to it being under the radar of the British adventure scene. I was even more keen to go there now that I had been two weeks before and had scoped out a few things.
It turns out that packing climbing equipment, ropes, camping stuff, filming equipment including tripods and all the other gizmos onto a motorbike is slightly tricky. Surprisingly though, with a few compression sacks and some Paul Daniels magic packing, the bikes swallowed the equipment without too much bother. The hardest task would be the self filming element to this project – there would be no help from any film crews – it was just us two guys, two bikes, a north face to climb and 11 days in which to do it.