Wednesday, 26 September 2012


Triglav is the highest mountain in Slovenia (2864m) and its most magnificent national symbol. The mountain is so bound up with national identity, that the Slovene partisans during WWII wore a hat called the Triglav cap as part of their uniform.  To be considered a true Slovenian, every citizen who is able must climb the mountain at some point in their lives, and they can even stamp their passports on the summit. The mountain takes centre stage on the national flag and regularly features in Slovenian folk tales.

The Partisan Monument, a giant karabiner and piton, in the Vrata valley, under Triglav's great North Wall.

There are a number of routes to the mountain, and most people take two days on the ascent, staying in one of the many comfortable huts close to the summit. From the south, it is a strenuous walk, requiring stamina and a good forecast, but is not particularly technical for most of the ascent, with the only via ferrata being the busy section on the final summit cone.  From the North however, the only way up is to find a route past the steep and forboding North Wall that looms above the deep defile of the Vrata Valley.  All of the routes from this side are serious, although there are several that are well equipped in places with cables and steel pegs. There are also rock climbing routes, that scale the 1200m tall north face, crossing steep, overhanging and often loose terrain, for the most experienced mountaineers. 

We decided to access Triglav via the Plemenice Pot (also called the Bamberg Route), on the north side. This line follows a fixed via ferrata up and over a stunning ridge rising towards the summit from the Luknja Pass at the head of the Vrata Valley. Its a challenging route, with a reputation of being one of the hardest waymarked routes in the Julian Alps.  A rope is not necessary due to the security of cables and pegs on the steepest sections, but it might be an idea to carry one for less confident party members.

 As far as the Luknja pass, the route is a walk.  I wasn't wearing my helmet at this point, but I wished I was not long after I took this photo- climbers on the wall above sent a volley of missiles thrumming just over my head.

 Stunning views from the ridge above the pass.  The route takes some steep chimneys and short walls, before arriving on the crest of the ridge, where the exposure continues but the cables run out. 

 Higher again, and the route leads to a labyrinthine landscape of limestone tors and sinkholes. This is true "karst" country; bare, unforgiving and incredibly beautiful. 

 The summit looms above the North Wall.

The scree strewn plateau before the final summit climb-up a well protected via ferrata following the gully into the notch, and then leading over slabs and ledges to the summit.

 On the summit- a busy place!  All of Slovenia is here. You can see the Aljaž Tower behind us, an emergency shelter and triangulation point. 

 From the summit we descended a fine and exposed ridge down to the Kredarica Hut (also called the Triglavski Dom).  The ridge itself was well protected with a luxurious bannister of cables.

The view from our bedroom window at the hut.  

After reaching the summit, we descended to experience some world famous Slovenian hospitality. The hut was cosy, well appointed, and not expensive.  We upgraded to a private room for the 4 of us, which was quite affordable, and a good call as the hut was also stuffed to the gunnels with garrulous schnapps drinking slovenes. Robin got a discount with his BMC card, but we MCofS members were had to pay the full amount. There was a great atmosphere in the bar, and impromtu live music until long after I'd turned in. Water is expensive in the hut, so carry as much as you can on the mountain. Everything else is provided and good value.

The Kredarica Hut.  The equipped route to the hut follows a knife edge ridge, before descending the steep wall behind the hut on the right. 

The following morning we descended back to the Vrata via the Prag route, the easiest waymarked route on the North side. To add a bit of interest to the day, on a recommendation from our Slovenian campsite owner back in Dovje, we continued along the ridge from the hut and over the small summit of Rž towards the
Dom Valentina Staniča. From here we were able to cut back to the Prag route and avoid some of the screes at the top of the route.  The Prag route shouldn't be underestimated, it is steep, with a lot of scree covered ledges above precipitous drops in to the void of the Vrata below. Cables protect the most technical parts, but its a good idea to maintain concentration and careful footwork until you are are safely down to the valley floor.

Looking towards the line of weakness sthat the Prag follows through the North Wall and down to the Vrata.

On a stony promontory between the Prag route, and the harder Tominskova Pot, which joins the Prag at this point.

By early afternoon we were cooling our feet in the icy waters that flow from beneath Triglav's north wall and feeling very pleased with ourselves indeed.  We were definitely assisted by a couple of days of settled conditions, but even so, I found this circuit to be satisfyingly difficult. The exposure on route had been mind boggling, and to do it you need to be comfortable soloing at UK climbing grade moderate, 1000m above the valley floor.  If you'd asked me how I would have felt about that a few days earlier, I'd have said- no way! 

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Slovenia: Vršič Verticality

I'm a few days back from two weeks in Slovenia, a rematch, after our first visit in 2010, where we enjoyed wonderful walking, but couldn't get in to the higher areas due to lingering winter snows. This time we went back with reinforcements in the form of friends Toby Davies and Robin Barnden, who we'd enticed with photographs of sun kissed vertical limestone.

The trip didn't start so well-  Wally discovered at the quayside in Newcastle that his passport was out of date.  No matter, Robin and I abandoned him and pressed onwards, via a ferry to Amsterdam and endless hours on the German autobahn, to a rendevous with Toby in Austria 36 hours later. A good nights sleep, and the following morning, the three of us were ready to hit the Julian Alps of Slovenia, just an hour down the road.  

 Mala Mojstrovka, on the west side of the Vršič Pass.  The normal route takes the a steep scree path through the notch on the skyline before turning towards the summit.

Many of the most accessible walking and via ferrata routes in the Julian Alps start and finish in the Vršič Pass. This awesome piece of engineering was built by Russian P.O.Ws under terrible conditions during World War One.  It links the villages of Kranjska Gora and Trenta via 50 improbable hair pin bends.  It also provides easy access to a number of peaks.  We headed up to the  top of the pass to begin our Slovenian adventure with a quick ascent of Mala Mojstrovka via the normal route. Looking up at the steep path from the top of the pass, even this route looked scarily vertical, Slovenia specialises in big walls, long drops and scree.

 Looking back down through the notch that leads to the ridge. 

Once we were on the trail it was more straightforward than it looked and we were soon on the ridge above the pass and heading to the summit.  At 2332m Mala Mojstrovka has stunning views of the Julian range. This walk was a great way to begin our acclimatisation and get our heads around the geography of the area. The easiest descent is via the same route. 

On to the stony ridge of Mala Mojstrovka.

The following day, we returned to the Vršič Pass, to explore the massive bulk of Prisojnik on the east side of the pass. At 2547m this mountain dominates the view on the Kranjska Gora side of the pass. Despite being so vast, it is pierced in two places by massive windows, that look out over the precipitous northern walls, and largest of which is easily accessible from the top of the pass.

 Prisojnik from the Pass- there is an overwhelming sense of bulk when trying to comprehend this mountain! 

 An easy(ish) path leads up to the window on the south side of the ridge. The window can be made out as the dark orifice in the centre of the picture to the right of the lowest point on the skyline.

 The window itself is absolutely cavernous.  Later in the week the boys explored a via ferrata route that took them right through this giant hole in the mountain. 

On the way we stopped to admire clumps of Campanula zoysii, a a local speciality of the harebell family that I respectfully renamed Triglav trumpets.

Above the window, the route became more technical and we donned helmets and harnesses. 

Beyond the window, a steep ramp led up to a narrow ridge. There were sections of cable where we were happy to clip in our via ferrata lanyards above yawning drops. In other places, the drops continued, but the cable ran out.... The ridge rambled on and the cloud lowered, until our view was obscured.  Eventually we stumbled upon the summit, which in the poor visibility felt more British than Alpine. 

The descent also required care- steep scree covered ledges and short sections of cable. 

Our descent path took us down and across a series of scree filled gullies, via small rocky steps and short sections of cable.  We emerged blinking from the cloud in to brilliant white sunlight and dropped out of the final gully on to a beautiful meadow. Here we spied a solitary and huge ibex and I'm sorry,  my photo below doesn't really do him justice...

 Spot the ibex...

That evening Wally finally joined us, and the following day we threw him in at the deep end with an ascent of Mala Mojstrovka, this time not via the easy route.  The Hanzova Pot is very accessible, so Wally at least got a lie in on his first day in Slovenia, but this secured route is fairly steep, taking the north wall of Mala Mojstrovka via a series of ramps and chimneys well adorned with cables and pegs. From the summit, the usual descent is via the route that we climbed on the first day, making a nice circular round trip, all do-able in an afternoon!

 The north side of Mala Mojstrovka.  The route follows a slab and chimney system that splits the wall under the middle peak. Compare this photo with a similar one we took when in the area in 2010.

 Wally relaxing in a cosy chimney with nice chunky cables. 

 The cables were fantastic, where they existed, but they weren't always there when you wanted them.  At times a precipitous scree covered ledge masquerading as a path wound its way across the face.

 Robin enjoying the stupendous views of the peaks above Trenta. 

The following day, the boys took Wally on a wonderful adventure through the Prisojnik window along vertical cables on the north side of the mountain and out on to the sunny meadows of the south.  I rested my legs at camp, with my mind on a bigger target, and spent the day dozing in the sun watching three different kinds of buzzards drifting overhead. By the time the guys had returned, I'd sorted my buzzards from my honey buzzards from my rough legged buzzards.  A day well spent. Next up on the blog: Triglav. Yippee!

Monday, 24 September 2012

Learning to read the Cybertracker way

As I've got a bit of a backlog on the blog I wasn't sure whether to write up my Cybertracker course and evaluation here at all,  but then I wondered if there are a few nature freaks who read the blog who might appreciate some of my photos so decided to put them out there. For those not in the know, Cybertracker is an evaluation system developed in South Africa, and popular in the US, designed to train and assess the nature awareness and tracking skills of conservationists and wildlife surveyors. When it was first introduced elsewhere, a lot of people discovered that they weren't very good after all, and so it was with some trepidation that I enrolled on the first course and Evaluation to be offered in the UK, based at the bushcraft school, Woodsmoke, in the Lake District. 

 Relaxing around the woodsmoke hearth after a heavy day of tracking- this usually involved walking no more that 1 km, but looking, at everything, really really hard.

Of course, as with all things Woodsmoke do,  it turned out to be a wonderful experience,  both painfully concentrated and joyfully enlightening.  Yes, it opened my eyes to how much  have to learn, but it also revealed a new way of looking at the natural world, with stories written in every puddle and on every leaf. Ghosts of animals not seen still walk around the forest long after their material beings have tucked themselves up to sleep in burrows. I felt as if I was learning to read all over again.

The Cybertracker huddle. We could spend an hour or more looking at 2sqm of mud.

 At the final evaluation, I scored a Track and Sign level two- which I was completely over the moon about, until I realised that with an 89% score I was 1% off a level 3. I'll be back! Massive congratulations are due to Woodsmoke's Steven Hanton, who scored a beautiful and completely deserved 100% and is now the first British Level 4 Specialist. Huge thanks are also due to Steven for bringing the Cybertracker system to the UK, and to Casey Mcfarlane, Dan Hansche and Mark Elbroch who came from the States to teach, inspire, and of course evaluate us. Their knowledge of animal behaviour and skill at interpreting tracks and sign are extraordinary, and their fun approach to coaching and discussion really helped with the intense learning process.

Unripe yew berries, cracked open and eaten by a mouse. Surprising to me considering how poisonous yew is to humans, but there was evidence that many animals and birds had enjoyed snacking on this particular tree.

The trunk of this conifer has been rubbed and chewed by red deer, as part of their territorial scent marking behaviour.  The fur has stuck to the sticky sap oozing from the bar.

A woodpecker has carefully worked a seam of rot running through this dead birch tree in a search for grubs and insects. 

Corvid tracks in soft mud, probably carrion crow.  Note the way that the inner toe and the leading toe are close together- this is typical of corvids. 

Sweeeet stoat tracks in soft mud.  Stoats are little mustelids with 5 toes that show well in good tracks.

Possibly the find of the week, newt tracks in really fine soft silt. Note the tail dragging between them.

Snail eggs- species unknown, but possibly a kind of water snail? Any views from those with experience of identifying these welcome!

These are great fox tracks- clearly showing the furry dead space between the toe callouses. If I learned one thing on the Cybertracker course it was sorting my foxes from my domestic dogs.  Easy peasy when you know how! (In my defence, we have no foxes here on Arran, so I wasn't getting much practice in).

The now infamous mole latrine.  If you are not sure what you are looking at, this is a tiny pile of sticky brown scat, in an open tunnel emerging from a massive rotten tree stump. Before my colleagues poked it, there was even had what looked like a dainty little mole print in it.

The prize for most morbid find of the week goes to these- yellow dung flies that have been zombified by a parasitic fungus and forced to head plant in some horse droppings.

Squirrel (probably grey) prints, front (4 toes) and hind (5 toes).

And, finally, a roe deer rutting ring.  You'll know it when you see it! 

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Camp Tanzania: In the shadow of Kilimanjaro

 After the sheer bliss of Tanga it was exciting to get back to the highlands and to spend our remaining days in Tanzania based in Moshi, a bustling town at the foot of Kilimanjaro.  The mountain looms over everything, and when the clouds reveal it, you have to crane your neck to look up at the snowy summit, it is so astonishingly high. I'd not expected to find the peak quite so entrancing, associating it with a kind of  challenge based tourism ("doing Kili") that as a climber it is easy to dismiss as being too commercial and accessible (noting that this is an aspect of a tourism industry that I am myself part of!).  However, stood in the shadow of the mountain, watching the rosy tint of the sun's rays setting on her snows, I longed to be up there, in the heavens, high above the dusty, noisy town.  Kili looked so tranquil and beguiling.

Meanwhile, our final project was working in a school in the town, building and renovating desks and benches. Carpentry is not my strong point, and it was hard using cheap tools bought locally to work the dense tropical hardwoods that are the most readily available timber here.  We did a fair job however, and in a couple of days built a stack of benches and some wonderful heavy tables in warm pink wood that would look at home in an antique filled farm kitchen.

Rosie and Robbo, teachers from my school team, hard at work building a table for the school. 

This is the kitchen for the school.  Meals are prepared here not only for the several hundred children at this school, but also two other nearby schools, on a wood burning range visible through the door. 

The school playground. 

It was an interesting way to finish what had been a fantastic experience.  Even though the wildlife, the mountains and the project work had been what I had expected when I agreed to take part in this expedition, Tanzania herself completely surprised me.  I had not expected to encounter so much poverty, and so little infrastructure. It is a peaceful country, with no sense of the violent problems of her neighbours. Everyone we met was kind, generous and welcoming. The only friction we encountered, was in the town of Moshi, where hawkers aggressively ply their trade, harassing unwary tourists.  Here we had some awkward moments, were wary of our valuables, and did not feel welcome in the town as we shopped for souvenirs.  This left me wondering whether it is in areas where there is a great disparity between rich and poor, and in places where tourist dollars are flashed around, but without any visible investment in the community, that conflict and crime are able to flourish.  My hope for Tanzania's future is that the many climbers and trekkers who visit the country, also put something back in to supporting the communities they are staying amongst, choose their trekking companies responsibly, and also travel away from the tourist areas to experience a bit more of wonderful Tanzania.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Camp Tanzania: The warmth of Tanga

After the trials of the mountain, Camp Tanga, situated on the coast 7 hours from Moshi, seemed to us a tropical paradise with a warm welcome and a gentle pace of life. The camp itself is within a small fishing community called Mwambani, outside the main town of Tanga.  At high tide the surf of the Indian Ocean roared up the beach just metres from our tents. All of camp life took place beneath the shelter of an ancient baobab tree.

We stayed at Tanga for a week, and the bulk of our work there was in a primary school a couple of kilometres from the village. We were involved with renovating a dilapidated classroom, laying a new concrete floor, repairing brickwork and whitewashing the walls, as well as having fun with the school children, teaching them English and learning Kiswahili in return.

Learning to carry buckets of sand to mix the cement the traditional way!

 Making the concrete mix for the classroom floor.

Whitewashing the walls of the classroom. 

 On either side of our room, noisy lessons were taking place in packed classes of 40 or more children. Education to primary age is a right that all children have in Tanzania, but parents must still pay for books and uniforms and with family incomes desperately low,  the children do not take their education for granted.

Every day, on the walk to and from the school, we were accompanied by inquisitive and friendly children who grabbed our hands and walked with us.  The enthusiastic response we received from the community in Tanga was unlike anything I've ever experienced before.

In Mwambani village we learned how to make chapatis and local sweets called visheti with the Mamas (village mothers). We also laboured on a local building project funded by Camps International, helping to build a traditional house for a family from the village. The house was constructed from timber and a mud mixture that set hard in the sun, before being thatched with woven palm leaves. We found that although village life appeared to be a tranquil paradise, with low incomes and very little in the way of a welfare safety net, life is a daily struggle for the people of Mwambani. 

 Mwambani Village. 

 Learning to roll out the visheti before deep frying them and tossing them in caramelised sugar!

A villager's fishing boat.  These beautifully hand made wooden vessels sail in high winds and skip along at speeds that racing catamarans would be proud to attain. The crew must lean out,  unsecured, on the outriggers to prevent the entire set up from cartwheeling.

The tide is in- boats moored along the shore waiting for their crew. 

At low tide the Mamas headed out to tend lines of farmed seaweed.  

Seaweed farming was developed by the village to help dwindling incomes as fishing revenues decline. Most of the seaweed farmers are women, but some of the men from the village have started to get involved too. We helped out with tying fragments of seaweed on to lines and staking them out in the soft mud. It was enjoyable work for us to sit in the warm sea and chat- but a daily chore for the mamas that earns them just a few pence per sack of dried seaweed.  Due to the way that the market is managed, it has not been possible to cut out the middle men who manage the export and reap the profits. Seaweed is an important ingredient used in many shampoos and cosmetics, oriental food and vegetarian gelatin.

The seaweed is dried and bagged, to be sold on the international market. 

The generous welcome and lush tropical setting at Tanga was in sharp contrast to the harsh realities of daily life for the people that we met. Infant mortality is high, when faced with healthcare costs many people would rather feed their family and risk their own health, and household budgets are entirely given over to paying for essential food. However, everyone we met had a gentle and happy philosophical take on life, from which we stressed-out "mzungus" can learn a great deal (literally "aimless wanderers" - white people).  I will take away a happy glow from Tanga that will always be with me, a glow that can be summed up perfectly by just one of the heavenly sunrises that took place every morning over the Indian Ocean.