Zreče crest

Climbing Triglav

The ascent of Triglav, Slovenia’s highest mountain. By David Burbidge, organiser of numerous exchange singing events.

The summit of Triglav in the distance. The name Triglav is from a three-headed mythological beast who was said to inhabit the triple-headed summit.

It is said that every Slovene has a national duty to climb Triglav, the nation’s highest mountain, at some point in their lives in order to become a true Slovene.

Although I am only a humble Brit – and no amount of mountain climbing will ever help me to attain the lofty goal of Slovene national – it was still a challenge and an invitation I couldn’t refuse. Or as the beer advert says: “Skusnjava ki se ji ne morete upreti” – the temptation which I cannot refuse.

So it was that I hopped on to my trusty steed – my Ljubljana Senior bicycle bought in the capital for the princely sum of £7 – and rode out of Zreče into the sunset whistling Vecernica (Glejte ze sonce zahaja – see the sun setting) . . . and to the station at Celje to catch a train into Ljubljana. I stayed at the Celica hostel where I led an English folksong workshop in return for one night’s accommodation – and then the following morning caught the 7am bus to Bohinj – the beautiful glacial lake surrounded by awe-inspiring mountains and waterfalls in the western Alps.

Mountain path

Mountain path showing some of the extraordinary wild flowers that grow in the limestone in the valley of the seven lakes. The paths are easy to find because they are all sign-marked by what look like red and white targets.

At 9am I was at Hotel Zlatorog, and after borrowing a walking staff and drinking a cup of coffee I was off through the woods. Mountains in Slovenia aren’t like English mountains – you walk through forest for most of the way up until you are too high for trees to grow. Which can be very pleasant on a hot day when all you crave is shade.

At last the beech trees gave way to an upland valley – the Dolina Triglavskih Jezer – and the seven lakes shining like jewels. I stopped at the koca pri Triglavskih Jezerih – a mountain refuge and café – where the chef was a vegetarian and delighted to welcome one of her kind for lunch.

Then up past a naked Slovene diving into the icy waters watched by his countrymen. ‘Typical crazy Slovene’, they said, before telling me that on the summit I would find several of the country’s ministers and politicians. ‘There’s not many honest men on Triglav today,’ they said. I told them about our very own Guy Fawkes, said by many to be the only honest man ever to enter parliament.

By the time I was reaching the Hribarice pass there was very little vegetation – just barren rock like the surface of the moon. The sun was brilliant on the limestone but as I was not wearing a hat it took its toll – blinding headaches and nausea, and I knew I was getting heatstroke. I changed my plan to sleep at Kredarica and instead just made it to Dolic (the Trzaska koca) in time before the mountains were lost to the darkness.

There was no bed for me – but I was told to wait, as sometimes people booked and couldn’t make it – like I had at Kredarica. So I sat shivering and drinking several litres of water getting my health back. By the time I was given a bed I was better and ready for the evening meal they served – along with very welcome beer.

These mountain refuges are an unusual experience. They don’t turn people away – so once all the beds have filled up, the remainder seek other places to lie down. In the early morning I rose at 5am to start my ascent of the summit and found every space filled with bodies – the floors of the corridors, the benches of the dining room, even on the tables and underneath – people still snoring away as we ate our omelettes and the old men at the bar drank their Schnapps to kick-start the day.

On the summit of Triglav

David Burbidge on the summit of Triglav

I could see why Schnapps might come in handy once I started my ascent – the rock-face is vertical and though the footholds are solidly embedded into the rock-face, the drop below is hundreds of feet into certain death. And above were people unused to climbing mountains, kicking stones down with a cheery cry of warning.

I tentatively made my way up to the top – being humiliated by a band of school children clipped to the metal rope and wearing crash helmets, moving like lizards across the rock and past me.

And then I was there – along with what seemed like half of Slovenia. Scouts getting their stamps in their books to show they had made the summit. A queue to get a photo taken on the top. Even an enterprising man who had dragged up a rucksack full of beer and had set up a summit bar on a plank of wood.

The views are fantastic – all the way into Austria and Italy – another good reason to go there early in the morning before cloud can obscure the summit. Even better for having climbed there – or as Goethe says: ‘The outward form of the mountain can be seen by anyone – but its innermost beauty can only be appreciated by those who have contributed part of themselves.’

Mass at the Kredarica hostel

Mass at the Kredarica hostel with bishops and Government ministers who had been flown in by helicopter. The mountain behind is a different kind of summit meeting – Triglav, over 9,000 feet high.

Coming down I could hear church choirs &ndasgh; and by combining Masa (mass) with Ubit (dead) was able to get some wry smiles. And perhaps it was not so ironic – every few yards there was a shrine to some departed friend or family who had perished on the mountain – some of them displaying the extraordinary Slovene flair for creating art wherever they are.

The singing turned out to be a church service at the Kredarica chapel – attended by bishops and ministers who had been helicoptered in for the occasion.

And then down – in one day – to a long valley road past stunning waterfalls through the forest – the Dolina Mosticna – and then the longer road back to Kranj and Ljubljana.

I had missed the bus home so instead put my thumb out and within minutes had a lift most of the way. And then just a few minutes later the skies opened and an ocean fell from above – the celebration drumbeats on the car roof like applause – maybe not a true Slovene, but worthy of congratulations for my climb to the roof of Slovenia.

As Tom Longstaff, President of the Alpine Club in London, says: ‘Triglav reigns over a dreamworld sundered from time, full of unbelievable hidden nooks, of unsuspected passages, of sudden visions of cliffs which cannot be real. Surely there is no other mountain land like this.’

David Burbidge