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.


  1. I've been waiting for that report since hearing about the thunder experience. You conveyed the fear in a most satisfyingly gripping way. Rather you than me, but glad you came out of it un-singed. :)

    Great photos, as ever. Those via ferrata... I must try a route with one some day.

  2. I look on these experiences as positive once they're over but nerve-shredding during their currency. At the time, I was oddly calm. I genuinely think it was the randomness of it all - nothing I could do but sit and think. Bit of cliché I guess, that I should think about the boys and Mrs M, but there you go. Photos came out well - the Trnovacko Lake shot was a little edgy. I should have been hot-tailing down the mountain at the time, not dragging my 5D Mk II out and shooting. Lorenc gave me a steely glare at that point...

  3. Great read, and a genuine adventure well conveyed. Sometimes it's hard to imagine just how quickly the weather can change, and just how violent it can be when it does. A salutary reminder that care should always be taken when attempting a mountain trip, even at these relatively low altitudes.

    There's some superb photos in there, as well, in particular (for me) the one looking along the long, jagged ridge. Lovely scenery. And the one of the Uglješin summit with the altitude painted on the rock is exactly like the summit stone we have recently visited on Hajla Peak on the Montenegro/Kosovo border.

    Thanks, again for the fascinating write-up. I'm really looking forward to the post about the Via Dinarica, so good luck with the writing.



  4. Thank you for your comment. Preparation and knowledge is everything and learning is crucial. The scenery is BiH is amazing and so untouched by visitors at the moment - it is ripe for people who want something reasonably remote but easy to get to. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  5. wow, some (okay, most!) of the shots are amazing, such stunning scenery! My husband was in Bosnia with the Army and so if I'm honest I've never really looked at it like an *adventure* country but your pictures prove me wrong. How can I get funding?! ;)

  6. Thank you for your compliments! It is an amazing place with a long history and adventure is in its blood. You would love it. As for funding, you'd have to get yourself a career as a pro adventure travel writer and photographer and get some magazine commissions or maybe edit a magazine like this: www.sidetracked.co.uk

  7. Am on it! Like the good little keen trooper that I am I have promptly subscribed to find out more about the magazine :) funding should only be a matter of, eerrrrr, years???!!
    However, you've found a new fan along the way, that's gotta be a good thing! :)

  8. It certainly is and thanks for reading and commenting! Email me if you need advice on travel writing!

  9. Wow - what an experience! I'm glad it turned out okay for you and your companion. Your photos are wonderful. I'm your newest follower.

  10. Wonderful post and stunning photos - the mountain scenery makes me extremely jealous! One of those "wish i was there" reads - even with the lightning and thunder.

  11. Great post and stunning photos! One of those "wish I was there" reads - even with the lightning and thunder. The mountain scenery makes me particularly envious! Thanks for sharing.

  12. Glad you enjoyed it! It was some experience.