Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Salewa Miage II Pack Review - A 'Slim Silhouette'

Really, reviews are all about comparisons. Back in February, I reviewed my Arc'teryx Axios 35 with a view to it being one of the best packs for carrying camera gear up a mountain. On my recent trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and on a couple of wild camps in Sussex recently, I took a pack Salewa sent me - the Miage II. In Bosnia, I also used the Axios and, over four days of hiking, I compared the two. Directly and without favour.

For years now, I've loved my Gossamer Gear Gorilla pack. Not the new version, the old one. At just short of 700g, it's about the lightest pack I've ever used and, up to around 7kg, carries extremely well. The problem with it has always been durability. 210 denier fabric is great but the webbing is not sufficient to carry technical equipment and it doesn't carry well enough at the 8-10kg mark which is roughly what you need during winter and or for alpinism when you take into account tools, crampons and rope.

Salewa have an alpine heritage and have been making some phenomenal climbing kit for years. Started in 1935 in Munich, Germany, they supported an Andes expedition in the Cordillera Blanca in 1955 and established themselves in mountain sport as a result. Ice equipment, ice picks and crampons were added to the product line of the SALEWA mountain sports division and in 1962 they developed a fully-adjustable lightweight crampon. And from then on, the Germans staked a claim to excellence in mountain kit. They have a wonderful store in Zermatt and it was there I first became acquainted with the Miage II back in 2011 after the Haute Route when my OMM Villain MSC had been uncomfortable at the 9-10kg mark. I liked the look of the Miage II then but did nothing about it. When I became involved with Salewa and they asked me to test a pack, I chose the Miage II. And right out of the box, I was stunned.

The reason I love Arc'teryx is their intuition and attention to detail. I also love simple packs which do exactly what I need them to do. The Gorilla doesn't need much because walking and trekking doesn't require a complex pack. So GG have kept it simple and that's why it's so light and why it is so good. A world-beater in its class. But alpinism and climbing requires a different type of pack entirely. It needs to hug the figure and stay tight because the last thing you need on a climb or scramble is a pack which shifts and pitches on your back. Not only are you carrying tools but you need ready access to them, often without taking your pack off or, certainly, without unpacking anything else. You need places to clips things; places to access small items quickly and so on. Salewa stand aside Arc'teryx when it comes to making kit which thinks of everything. Take a look at my Alp Train.Mid GTX-Pell review if you don't believe me.

Let's take a look at the pack. At 1.2kg, it sits with the Axios as a lightweight, but not ultralight, alpine pack. The fabric is very durable ripstop designed to withstand fights with violent rock. Volume is 35 litres which is perfect - although it feels like slightly more to me. Salewa describe it as an alpine and ski mountaineering pack which is also good for via ferrata. There is, therefore, a diagonal ski attachment as well as a compartment for a shovel and avalanche probe (both marked as such). There is a space to sling rope across the top, under the lid and a fastening loop. There is a bespoke Ice-axe or walking pole fastening pouch and loop and a loop on the hipbelt for tools, crabs, cams etc and an SOS Label. 

What about storage? There is an inner pocket for valuables as well as a very clever webbed pocket inside the top lid pocked which closes via velcro so you can leave wet stuff in there but leave the lip pocket open to vent without losing your stuff. Think hat and gloves or even base layer. It's clever. The side pockets are durable webbing with an elasticated rim and durable base so something sharp won't rip the base of the pocket. There are load control, or compression, straps which are well placed. There is space for a hydration system which works very well. On one side is a clipped strap, which operates like a hook, for tools which doubles, for me, as an extra clip to secure my tripod.

The shoulder straps and hipbelt and straps are extremely comfortable and very light. But they also have another neat trick. Roll the excess up and there is a velcro tie at the end which secures them effectively, easily and with no slippage. Again, nice. Adjustment of each is made for a hand wearing gloves. Same thing with the lid pulls. And thank you, we do actually LIKE hipbelt pockets! They ARE useful. Long ties on the zips, again for gloved hands.

How is the carry? The backsystem is a simple one but effective. It's padded and shaped and the pack carries well. It dries quickly too. It's a comfortable pack - I would say I preferred the Axios 35 to carry but it doesn't have the functionality as a ski-touring and mountaineering pack the Miage II does - the ability to carry tools durably and have access to them, for example. My trekking partner carried the Axios for two days and the Miage II for two days. He doesn't want to give the Miage II back and preferred it to the Axios. Both of us agreed, over a beer in the lovely city of Sarajevo, that in fact there was very little choose between the two. In conclusion, for alpinism and ski mountaineering and touring, there is little which beats the Miage II all round. It's clever, well-thought out and comfortable. It's durable and functional. And it has that rather lovely 'slim silhouette' - a jaunty turn of phrase that proves alpinism can be poetry too.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Guest Post: In the Hebrides with Wolfgang, by Nick Cooper

When a friend of mine realised I did a spot of outdoor writing and photography he happened upon this little journal of mine and enjoyed reading it. When he told me he was heading to the Hebrides for a bit of walking and photography, I offered him my Canon 17-40 f/4L for his 60D. He responded by asking if he could show some of his photos on the Journeyman Traveller. I suggested he go one better and here is his story.

Thanks, Nick.

A quick dash to the Hebrides for four days walking with Wolfgang who had flown in from Bavaria. From London to Oban took 11 hours. In fact, just in time to watch the 14.00hrs boat sail. Chip shop and provisions, into the reserve queue for the 16.00 and on Mull in our cottage by 17.40.

The plan had been for climbing a couple of the highest points and some gentler walking, maybe camping on Ulva and an extended walk there. On Mull Beinn Fhada (707 m) there is a wondrous ridge walk into the heart of the hills of the Southern shore of Loch na Keal. Not as high as Ben More (966 m), the only Munro on the island and the only other Munro on any of the Western Isles saving Skye, but Beinn Fhada has more variety. Ben More has the triumph though.

In the event, the rainbow we spotted our first day was not the sign of a respite from the rain we had hoped for. A low pressure system off the North East of Scotland brought in an occluded front that drew rain across the West Coast and into every gap between layers of clothes, eyelets of boots, down the back of our necks until it mattered no longer. The cloud was low too. Too low to reasonably enjoy the prospect of either those peaks as there were no views to be had.
We kept it simple. 

To Ulva, for some peace and quiet. As we were set down the boat man pointed out the Golden Eagles soaring on what light thermals they had discovered and we turned towards the path for the South side. I always visit. It used to be populated with several settlements, the home of the “Father” of Australia, Lachlan Macquarie and a destination for Boswell and Johnson. Its tranquillity is startling. Beach and Pine woods full of light and drawing us over the moss and up towards the peak.

The wind blew from our minds all thoughts of working life, almost all thoughts at all and I found myself clinging to the trig point on Bein Chreagach, only 313 m. On other days I have stood rooted, looking at the panorama of the hills, Treshnish Islands, Ulva ferry and back towards Mull. Wolfgang leaned into the wind and stayed floating in its force at an abrupt and jaunty angle.

Then heading back down towards Ulva ferry once more. The boat house sells excellent beer, which is where I found my Bavarian friend before I got there, naturally. The next day we walked Treshnish point. Once famous for the rocks and arches being used as counterpoint to the action for the film Eye of the Needle, starring Donald Sutherland (1981). 8 miles, so really just a gentle look around as the rain stayed off for an afternoon.

From the carefully ordered and well kempt buildings at Treshnish, that has every appearance of self sustaining bliss we followed the path to the headland. In the sun a school of Dolphins plunged into the waves, feeding. We followed this sight along the coast as our path took us along the raised beach and back into Loch Tuath. The Treshnish basked in gun metal and silver light. Over time the Treshnish Isles have served many purposes, no doubt. One we enjoyed was spotting where the top of Dutchman’s Cap is in line with the cliffs of the Southern most tip of Lunga, for it marks the site of the hidden cave that housed the illicit Whiskey still, in the cliffs below our path. Then, the next small bay is where the path turns up the cliffs to deserted villages of Crackhaig and Glac Gugairidh. If you know where to look and have let the Islands perform this other rite. That left three more days.

We filled them with reading and talking. Wandering the cliffs and shore. We gathered fine golden Chantrelle. In Bavaria they grow in May. Pfifferling or Eierschwammerl to Wolfgang. He telephoned his mother who lives near Pegnitz in Bayern that evening for her recipe; with boiled potatoes, scrambled eggs and caraway.

Thank you Frau Höcht, thank you, again, Mull.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Salewa Alp Train.Mid GTX-Pell Review

A little while ago, I had the stark choice of re-soling my Scarpa boots or trying something new and lighter. In the summer months, and even when it's raining, I like using trail runners and just keeping my feet clean and dry when in camp. But there are places, and conditions, where I prefer a boot. After the Classic Haute Route in 2011, I was chilling out in Zermatt and wandered into the Salewa store to take a look. I'm a gear geek, I suppose, so it seemed like a pleasant way to waste an hour. I saw a great pack which I nearly bought as my OMM Villain had not performed the way I'd wanted it to with 10kg of mountaineering kit in it. I also saw some great footwear.

Fast forward to 2013 and the trips I had planned meant I wanted a new pair of boots. Chris Townsend reviewed the Alp Train.Mid GTX-Pell in TGO and so I contacted Salewa to see if I get could get a pair on test. They agreed and sent me the very pack I'd been looking at back in 2011. The Miage II. More on that later.

So what to say about the Alp Train.Mid GTX-Pell. Fit is important to me as I range from an 11 in some boots/trail running shoes, to a 12.5 in others. Salewa sit perfectly in the middle and, if you are used to Scarpa boots, Salewa fit just the same. Although, buying boots online is a lottery so I'd always suggest getting them fitted in a shop (and paying for them there, if they've taken the time to advise you on fit and help you choose the best boot for you).

The Alp Train.Mid GTX-Pell is a pretty light boot for the features. I've spent so much time waxing lyrical about how clever Arc'teryx can be, it's nice to point to another company employing their grey matter with the kit they produce. Weight has been saved wherever possible and in some very clever, unique ways. In crude summary, the webbing at the back rather than full, padded liner; fabric lace-loops rather than metal; the upper fabric itself. The vibram soles have this curious climbing zone annotation where the lugs are different and sculpted for scrambling rather than walking. The 3F system around the heel to bring the lacing across the top of the foot in more snugly. It's really quite clever. And I love the little loop to pull the heel on. Nice.

They feel light on the foot as well. They fit so well, and shave around 200g (per foot) off some of their nearest competitors (590g for a size 9). It's a difference you really feel. The fabric looks a little like  cleaning will be nightmarish but after five days in some really awful mud, even the yellow came up looking like new. The gore-tex performed well. My feet breathed well in Smartwool medium hiking crew socks and remained dry and comfortable.

The grip from the vibram soles is exceptional in the dry - about as sure as placing cams and hauling yourself up a rope. In the wet, it's as good as any boot I've ever used. In bad mud, which we had on the decent down from Maglić, they were just like any other three season boot. Mud got snarled up in the lugs and the grip simply disappeared. Compromises are everywhere.

Freedom of movement is good, whilst the boot remains supportive and snug. The 3F system is designed purely for this purpose and Salewa's thinking is that changing the way nature does things is counterproductive. It makes for a more intuitive boot. The lacing at the front near the toe is specifically designed with climbers in mind and there is a multi-fit footbed to help give each size of boot the broadest range of fit and application.

Salewa have also used the same principals X-Bionics have been using to destroy the bacteria which cause odour - silver. 100% Fresh silver reduces bacteria, they explain. "Clinical studies show that silver is effective against the bacteria that cause odours. Bacteria metabolise sweat and body moisture, emitting waste products that produce strong odours in a shoe. The resultant odor is unpleasant. Treating the shoes with silver ions destroys enzymes within the bacteria that are necessary for them to live. The bacteria die off without these enzymes." Ok, then. That sounds good. And they didn't smell too bad after five days but I think more prolonged use is necessary for any analysis of that.

All in all, I was really pleased. Comfortable, light and effective in 90% of conditions. Waterproof and breathable. Easy fit. Flexible useage range. Clever features. They are very good boots indeed and, if you get stuck on a mountain in them, that yellow will be seen for miles...

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Arc'teryx Winter 2013 and the new Covent Garden Store in London, UK

Last week, Arc'teryx invited me to the unveiling of their new Winter 2013 range at the inaugural event at their first European Stand Alone Store in Covent Garden, London. This exciting new store, in partnership with Snow+Rock, is located in St Martin’s Lane, Covent Garden – a lovely pedestrian shopping area linking Long Acre and Seven Dials, and also adjacent to Snow+Rock’s existing Mercer Street store. Snow+Rock introduced the UK to Arc'teryx and I look forward to working with them after chatting to the guy who heads up their ecommerce department.  More to come on that.

The great and the good were there, including Phoebe Smith, one-time writer for Trail magazine and now editor of Wanderlust. Arc’teryx has built a reputation as an innovator in the outdoor industry. Arc’teryx create products that enhance performance in the outdoors. The new store will showcase the essence of the entire Arc’teryx collection, which covers hiking, mountaineering, alpine climbing, wintersports, packs and lifestyle wear. The store will also be the first place to preview many new products, as well as being a home to events with team athletes including renowned British climber James McHaffie and bouldering sensation Mina Leslie-Wujastyk.

The showstopper for the evening was twofold, introduced by: its award-winning down technology and the new Gore-Tex Pro which they say is 22% more breathable, more windproof, waterproof and rugged than the previous product generation.

Arc'teryx's commitment to making durable, beautiful, innovative and timeless products makes them, in my view, well worth the price tag. Rock these for as long as you're outside, they say. And their kit does that.

Here is a video you may enjoy:


The talk from Carl Moriarty, Arc'teryx's Head of Design, was extremely interesting. Sure, you might think that chatting all evening about membrane fabrics, down, coreloft and breathability is something only the geeky and lifeless might engage in and, maybe you'd be right, but there's something uniquely sustaining about knowing what you're wearing, why it works and where the technology has come from - so I guess that makes me one of them! Listening to the guys at Arc'teryx wax lyrical about their methods of testing fabrics, how they innovate and create and where it all comes from was supremely engaging stuff.

I won't try and translate it all myself because Arc'teryx put it succinctly enough but here's what they say about their new down range:

"For centuries people have been using goose down in the pursuit of lightweight thermal comfort. Yet in the current world of high performance outdoor garments, the challenge has been integrating the luxury of down insulation into technical waterproof apparel without compromising the integrity of either component.

To alleviate this problem, Arc’teryx utilizes its new Down Composite Mapping. Placing synthetic insulation in the areas most subject to moisture: in the hood and collar, under the arms and at the hemlines, Down Composite Mapping (DCM) protects the down and targets its warmth toward the body’s core and shoulders, where comfort is most needed.

Down Contour Construction preserves the seam sealed integrity of a waterproof shell by using an inner fibre fill jacket (Coreloft) overlaid with a layer of down. Attached inside the shell, the fiber fill liner adds extra thermal value and protects the down from any condensation that may form inside the shell. The option of a down insulated waterproof/breathable garment broadens the reach of Arc’teryx insulation into new environments."

Down Composite Mapping strategically places 80g Coreloft synthetic insulation in areas where moisture may accumulate, and 850 fill European Goose down in the core to provide maximum warmth. To achieve weight targets Arc’teryx has simplified jacket construction, for example, reducing volume in the sleeves. They say savings gained through these processes allow for the selection of more durable materials, resulting in jackets that are more durable but almost 10% lighter than any others. And I have got one of these new down jackets - the 240g, ISPO Award Winning Cerium LT - to test this winter.

Additionally, Gore-Tex Pro is causing quite a storm. Here's what Arc'teryx had to say about that:

"The new generation of GORE-TEX® Pro. Significantly more breathable, yet still lightweight and durable, the new Pro technology is refined to match the interval pace of guides, mountaineers, backcountry skiers and high performance outdoor athletes.

Delivering up to 22% improvement in breathability, with a membrane that is more durable and extends the range of user comfort, Arc’teryx worked closely with W.L. Gore to test the technology and provide feedback during the development process.

Classic Arc’teryx design values: Driving design from the point of view of solving problems and creating functional products for unforgiving environments is at the heart of every design conception. Fits that enhance fabric performance; articulated patterns to anticipate the posture of an athlete in motion and allow freedom of layers inside the shell; micro seam technology to aid breathability and reduce the overall garment weights; exclusive face fabrics developed in partnership with W.L. Gore to meet Arc’teryx standards."

So it looks like being an exciting Winter for two new Arc'teryx ranges. Worth investigating and I'll let you know how the Cerium LT turns out, and there may be a new waterproof required too...

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Lightning Crashes Too Close for Comfort - Sutjeska, Maglić and the Via Dinarica

Translated, Maglić means "foggy mountain". Throughout the trek, we'd enjoyed reasonably settled, sunny weather. On a few days the pristine cobalt sky had been punctuated by cloud, but largely the weather had been benevolent. Sitting in our hotel in Sutjeska National Park, however, scanning smartphones for weather forecasts and taking advantage of the hotel's wi-fi, dismay sets in. The weather looks set to take away our knees. Lorenc decides to wait until tomorrow morning to see exactly what we're facing. The oppotunity to summit Bosnia and Herzegovina's highest peak, Maglić, is not one to be dismissed easily. And I want to see more of the Via Dinarica. Would I have changed my decision, had I known? I imagine not. Fear is a strange commodity. It protects and teaches. It clarifies and cleanses. When I am afraid, I see things more clearly than I ever do otherwise. And I learn from it.

But bloody hell, at the time, it's like being brutally attacked by a demented badger.

The day before Maglić had begun easily enough for us. A long drive to Sutjeska National Park from Mostar followed by rough trails which were a challenge for our diminutive estate car. This is four-by-four country. As we ascend the switchback forest road, shafts of white from the searing sun punch through a sylvan canopy of green and black above. The windows are down and sunglasses are on. Eventually, after an hour of bumping and grinding (and not of the good sort) we reach the start of the trail. It's going to be short, this one. A hop, skip and a jump to Uglješin Vrh (the latter means 'peak'), afternoon tea and a dash back to the car. 

The area is steeped in history, so frequently a measure of Bosnia's allure. Battles were fought here during the Second World War. Partisans skirmished with the Axis in these hills. Monuments to the battles, and to the fallen, dot the landscape. Heart-breakingly, they are not maintained as much as they need. This is Republika Srpska country and these monuments are partisan. Some feel the current government is too far-right, and have no interest in maintaining these pockmarked, scarred and crumbling testaments to the strength of the human spirit and the desire for freedom. Yet it is serbs who do what maintaining there is. Whether they are right is open to question. Politics plays a huge part in the beauty of our wilderness, wherever we are in the world. We all have different priorities. Yet the real issue is allowing the past the remain the past and concentrate on the future and working together. Drinking in the landscape and revelling in the adventure.

The walk through the forest is magical. The sun veils gnarled trees in white silk. As we ascend on an easy path, the coolness of the shade is lovely. When we exit into blistering white heat, the world changes. We strip a layer and I am now only wearing 150gsm merino. This time it's IcebreakerWafer thin and no protection from the mosquitos which feast on my shoulders and chest and arms but it's comfortable as anything I've worn. Yesterday it was Brynje. On my back is the Arc'teryx Axios and on my feet are the assured excellence of Salewa's Alp Trainer Mid boots. We push on through the tall grass into a pastoral scene of genuine beauty. Amid the green are flashes of colour - red, purple, yellow and pink. The mountains rise in the distance and Uglješin Vrh stands proud like a humpback whale. 

The path through the grass is an obvious, meandering line up towards it. When we reach the start of the ascent, it is clear how steep it is. We pause and consume water by the litre as the sweat pours off us. We munch on trail mix and glacé cherries before taking the steep, winding path upwards. As the landscape stretches out in behind us, we stop frequently and turn to enjoy it. Uglješin Vrh ahead and Maglić in the distance. This is dreamland.

By the time we reach the false summit beneath the main peak, we are ready for food. We stop and lay out a picnic blanket and Lorenc, unhindered by our protestations the past few days, pulls out food sufficient for most of the country to eat for a month. We pull on long-sleeves to keep out the invading blood-suckers and then, leaving our packs and picnic, we take in the 1,859m summit of Uglješin Vrh. We can see back the way we have driven today, and then over to Maglić. Sutjeska laid out before like a rich tapestry of green laced with bright flashes of colour. The clouds billow in the sky like cotton candy. It is an easy but wonderful, mountain day.

Would that it were to be that way for Maglić. The morning approaches and I shower and trot down for breakfast. Portentous cloud the colour of slate gathers above the mountains surrounding us. Blue sky and white sun struggle to break through. It is cooler than yesterday. I pack with some trepidation but Lorenc is happy to go. One weather site suggests a storm might come near us, but the others do not mention it. We will be cautious.

We drive for a while to ascend some of the mountain and get to the beginning of the trail. It will be a reasonable mountain day - perhaps 17km allied to over 1,500m of ascent and descent taking around 7hrs. Some of that will be a little via ferrata - steel cable bolted into the mountainside on steep sections of rock. Again, we are treated to a sylvan wonderland to begin with. In and out of spruce and pine as the sun ducks in and out of charcoal cloud. The walk to the base of Maglić takes about two hours but the ascent is meandering and comfortable. Maglić will not be anywhere near as benevolent.

We move through fields dotted again with splashes of colour like a Monet work of art. There is a bench and we sit, drinking in the majesty of Bosnia and Herzegovina's premier summit. Dark clouds gather overhead but there is no prospect of thunder at that time. That's to come, unknown to us, and a lesson in survival. As we climb, the via ferrata begins. We clutch onto steel cables, but the reality is that the climb is just as easy without them in places. They are confidence only. As with most trails, this one is marked by a red circle and a white dot inside. The Austro-Hungarians took great pain to ensure the trails were adequately marked and whilst theirs was a pecuniary motive, trekkers and hikers reap the reward for their assiduous attention to detail.

As the rock suddenly ends, a steep grassy slope begins. In the damp of the mist we have climbed into, the grass is slick underfoot. This terrain is more difficult than the rock and footholds hide from us. The drop beneath us is a sheer one and circumspection is essential. We eventually, reach the saddle and most of the area around us is sheathed in fog. Through it, we can sporadically see the massif beyond and Maglić itself is a short climb away, the flag  at the summit only just visible through the pale. This path is a major part of the Via Dinaricaa theoretical long-distance trail in the making which passes through the most impressive and spectacular mountain regions of the Central Belt of the Dinaric Alps. It runs from the Slovenian/Italian town of Nova Gorica/Gorizia to the Albanian Shkodër (Scutari) and winds through five Balkan countries namely Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Albania. The trail itself follows pre-existing paths. I'll be doing a post on the Via Dinarica shortly with an additional post when I do some work with Green Visions this winter.

The climb to the summit is a scramble but once there, the view is as must have been ordained, non-existent. The flag is Bosnia and Herzegovina, the rock painted the Republiks Srpska colours. A light but cold wind whips us and we make to descend. It is then that the day heads south. In the distance, thunder growls like an advancing lion. We quicken our pace but it is upon us in minutes. It feels like it was laying in wait for us, surreptitiously waiting for the moment we hit the summit before pouncing. We move fast but there is no way we can get off the ridge in time. We find a hollow as the crack of thunder grows louder and is only seconds behind the sudden and stunning flash of lightning. We sit on our packs, hands on knees, head bowed. And wait.

In front of me, I can see two small, yellow flowers. They make me think of my two boys and I stare at them throughout as the thunder bellows and the lightning flashes and crashes. I can almost picture them playing together. A fallacy as they usually argue, but I think the moment is tinted by roses. Hailstones begin to fall but we cannot move. We can't present the storm with a target. Keep low and lean forward. Keep the electricity away from the heart. Lorenc tells us a story of a group of Croatian walkers one of whom is struck by lightning. His friends, taking him for dead leave. He is not. His heart begins to beat again and he wakes. Wanders the mountainside disorientated and alone. He stumbles, loses his footing and it is a fall which kills him. Apocryphal or some foundation in truth, it doesn't matter. Lightning might not kill and the story is branded on my consciousness.

I am shivering. I don't feel afraid, though the time between lightning and thunder decreases to less than three seconds meaning it is close. Instead, I feel strangely calm. There comes a point, after perhaps twenty minutes - I cannot tell as time seems to be ephemeral - where the storm appears to dwindle and the time between growl and flash extends. It is respite but not conclusion. We can see the front of the storm across the valley approaching. This assault will not end for some time. As the second wave surges over us, we all begin to shiver uncontrollably. In the break, we delve quickly into packs and pull on insulating layers and waterproofs. The hail comes in great swathes now, stinging and biting. The second wave of the storm is the worst. As I look downwards at my two sons in yellow, each blade of grass and the knots of rock around me are illuminated by a flash of lightning which is simultaneous to the loudest boom I have ever heard. The lightning has hit less than 30m away from us. My hiking partner sees it. I can feel a bubble of fear rather than something burning inside me. It's almost as if the randomness of it, the fact I can do nothing to affect the situation, has suppressed the fear.

Eventually, the storm subsides a little, with more to come we can see. But we grab our chance and head down off the ridge. A bunch of Czechs are above us, caught by their own tardiness. We hope they escape unharmed but there's nothing we can do but get down and into the forest. The terrain is slippery from the rain and hail and boots find little grip. When we hit the forest canopy we are relieved and tired. The rain comes in lashing torrents now but the trees protect us.

We exit the forest into the open ground by the heart-shaped Trnovacko Lake. Above it, the ground is white but not with snow. The hail has been heavy here too. As the rain saturates everything around it, we hit forest again and descend. The rest of the hike is easy. A shallow path along the mountainside to our waiting car. It has been a learning experience. How to deal with seriously inclement weather, how to cope in high stress situations and how to think clearly. And how much my family means to me, as if I didn't already know. You can't separate the outdoors and adventure from your own life at home and working them in together is essential. I cannot wait to introduce my boys to this life...

Again, thanks to the Usaid Firma Project, through whom my trip was funded and to the Adventure Tourism Association of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ATA BiH). My particular thanks to ATA BiH Members - the Highlander team (more on them later), and Green Visions.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Into the Olympic Mountains - the Bjelašnica Massif in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Our flight touches down late and we're exhausted. A long day travelling. Oh, the glamour of being an adventure travel writer and editor. As we stumble through the automatic doors and into the public of Sarajevo airport, our guide, Lorenc, greets us with a warm smile that belies the hour. Soon the rain lashes the windscreen of our small estate car and we pull into Sarajevo long after darkness has descended. Our hostel is central, cosy and comfortable and, again, the welcome is effusive. We flop onto our beds, out kit bags left unattended in a corner. Lorenc waits for us outside, eager to bestow upon us the kinship of his city. The rain has eased, coating everything in a sparkling sheen of silk. It is a vibrant night, the youth of Sarajevo out in force and dressed to kill. It would be impossible to tell Croat from Serb from Bosniak. Even if I wanted to. Sarajevo is a heady and eclectic mix, as it has always been. In the old town, East meets West. Behind us, the Ottoman influence is clear and ahead, Austro-Hungarian. Both possessed of their own beauty. As we get to know Lorenc, we warm to him. I am grateful that Green Visions, the tour operator I am working with on this trip, have provided someone so balanced, keen, knowledgable and affable. We quaff beer for a while until our eyes are heavy and we can hardly stand. Would that it were the alcohol but it is just basic tiredness. Sleep comes soon after we lay down our heads.

The morning brings searing sunshine which dries the city. We head into the Olympic Mountains early. Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984. A decade later and the city would have already been under siege for two years. In the blink of an eye, joy turned to horror. As we traverse a winding road into the mountains, we see red signs with stylised skull and crossbones. Red tape marking pathways. Minefields yet to be cleared. It is a stark and almost unbelievable reminder of what happened in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990's. That such a beautiful landscape should be pockmarked and scarred by shelling and that hikers should be concerned about foot placement because of mines rather than scree is a dark, miserable truth. A guide is not essential but advisable. At one point that day, on the peak of Obalj, sitting in the Bjelašnica massif at 1896ma Czech guide approaches us cautiously clutching a map. He seems embarrassed. Lorenc welcomes him and leans over the map and they chat in Serbo-Croat. The map is a print from the internet, one of the best places to get detailed maps for hiking in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). The Austro-Hungarians created the basic trail maps in the area as they sought out precious metals and minerals to mine. Beginning in 1892, they marked trails the villagers were already using. The Yugoslav National Army (JNA) then created two sets of maps from these - 1:50,000 available to all and 1:25,000 maps which they kept classified. During the war, maps simply and inexplicably disappeared. Fortunately, some of the 1:25,000 had leaked into the public domain and were placed on websites run by enthusiasts. It was one of these the Czech was holding.

Seeing me express an interest, they switch to English. “This area you must avoid,” Lorenc says, pointing to the valley way below Lukomir where we are headed. “The bridge was destoyed so you cannot cross the river. And there are landmines around the trail.” The Czech guide nods but seems curiously nonchalant. Lorenc and I speak about it later and we both agree, we hope he took Lornec’s warnings seriously. It would be wrong to think of BiH as a place infested with landmines at every turn. But they are present. Mountains, and the trails leading through the undulating countryside, were military targets, tactically important to each of the myriad sides in the conflict in 1992-1995. The JNA usually marked the placement of mines as a would be expected of a professional army. Other factions did not. So many areas of countryside are still being cleared. Most are marked out with signs and fencelines. Some are not. All trekking benefits from local knowledge but, in BiH, it is essential. And the guides and support from Green Visions has been first rate, friendly and knowledgeable.

The hike up to Obalj was pleasant and only mildly demanding but the area surrounding us is magical. It is a heady mix of alpine pasture and sylvan forest and rugged, wild rock which reminds me of Scotland. We hike through fields from our base at Umoljani and into the pastures leading up into the massif. We are fortunate that Green Visions maintains a pleasant log cabin at Umoljani and it's here that we stay. We leave our kit bags behind, pull on rucksacks and head into the mountains. It's a wonderful day - the sun beats down but a warm, brisk wind caresses our faces. We talk throughout. I am keen to learn from Lorenc - about the area, its history and the countryside. He warns us that vipers sometimes stray onto the trails. Admonishes us to stand still and let them pass. I look carefully as I walk, but never see one.

Umoljani was almost completely destroyed during the conflict but sympathetic rebuilding has created a village which is pleasant and atmospheric deep in the heart of the mountains. It is an out of the way place, but there is an inn here, with beds, and the beer is cold. Burek, a local phyllo (or yufka) pastry tart with beat or spinach, is a staple and a Bosniak speciality adapted from the Ottoman recipe. In the Rakitnica canyon above, a dragon is said to have swept through and terrorised the village. Its tail can still be seen in the rock as we climb.

The views are breathtaking and the feeling of solitude is welcoming. We pass another small farming community. Tiny shacks with rusting tin roofs. The path is an easy one but, ahead, the Bjelašnica looks intimidating and high. Another group of hikers from Umoljani trek behind us, but even they cannot sway the feeling that this is a place few hikers know about. A jealously guarded secret. The ascent is clean but steep. A switchback path through forest and pasture. I catch the smell of thyme and mint as it drifts past but then it is gone. Like a leaf in the wind, I grasp for it but it comes and goes at it pleases, fickle yet delightful. We leave the forest and climb again. The grass is long and the walk, fine. We crest a small summit before we see Obalj ahead. In a depression, we sit and drink gazing across the Rakitnica valley. The Czechs are behind us. At the top of Obalj, basking in the warmth of the sun and drinking in the vista, we eat a huge lunch. Lorenc is not given to frugality when it comes to food. It is then the Czech guide comes to us.

When we trek down to Lukomir, the highest semi-nomadic Bosniak village in Bosnia at 1496m, we are greeted with smiles and a heart-warming welcome. Amid the cherry wood and tin roofs characteristic of Bosniak huts, we sit. We eat Uštipci, a kind of fried donut dough which is delicious and warm enough to have just come out of the oven. We talk to the villagers about what life is like and they tell us things have changed a great deal recently. They need more support from the government, they say. Life is hard, even now. The winters are harder than they have been for some time. Some villagers want to abandon the village in winter. Many agree with them. After a while, we take our leave and head out to the edge of the village where the view over the valley is spectacular. A forest fire has ripped through the mountainside across from us, leaving it bald and scarred. When the rain came and ended it, the line is still visible. A curious quirk of nature's capriciousness.

We traverse the skirt of the Bjelašnica massif and back to Umoljani, our base for the night. The sun paints the landscape orange and crimson pastel shades as we pass a mosque whose minaret has been gilded in tin. Initially to protect against damage from marauding militia, now to protect against weather. It glints in the setting sun as we pass. 

My trip was funded by the Usaid Firma Project, implemented through the Adventure Tourism Association of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ATA BiH). My particular thanks to ATA BiH Members - the Highlander team (more on them later), and Green VisionsDay one has given me much to think about. Many of the mountains around me still bear the scars of conflict and many still contain landmines. Even up here, the conflict raged. Yet the people welcome everyone. It's an inspiring ethos, when buttressed by commercial interest or a long, Slavic history of welcoming strangers. Bosnia and Herzegovina has been ruled or influenced variously by Eastern orthodox missionaries from Russia and beyond, Franciscan monks, the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Tito pulled it into the former Yugoslavia until its devastating collapse. Now BiH governs itself. And it's about time the government learned to tell people what there is on offer here. Some of the most wonderful hiking and virtually no one to have to share it with. Green Visions and the Usaid Firma Project, along with the ATA BiH are trying to do something about it in a way which unites cultures and regions and which is sustainable and responsible and I'll be back working with them later in the year.

Next post: the Via Dinarica!