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!