I don’t get tearful in the mountains, I have been scared and frustrated on many occasions but rarely tearful. Over the past few months I have written blog posts that share my learning and development in the mountains, but all of them present happy, successful experiences, dabbling on the edges of my comfort zone with mostly type 1 fun. Last week I wobbled tearfully through my first mountaineering epic, where I learnt through failure on a much grander scale.
My original plan for this trip was to base myself in Chamonix and explore some mixed routes in the area to build on the skills I learnt attending a Conville Trust Alpine Course back in June. But it was extremely hot, and I arrived at the busiest time of the year. With most of the mixed routes appearing too dangerous for my level of skill and not wanting to queue on routes, or create my own traffic jam, my partner Zlatko and I decided to use the opportunity to drive to Slovenia to visit family, climb and attempt a route on the North Face of Triglav, Slovenia's highest mountain (2863M).
Zlatko and I have climbed and walked together on many occasions but never in a mountaineering context, so to build our confidence and develop our own systems as a team we started with some easy multi-pitch sport in Ajdovscina, Zlatko’s home town. I led the entire route, with only minor problems arising due to misjudged kit - we did not bring enough slings - this meant the route took a little longer than it should have, as it required more creativity than necessary. Aside from this it was enjoyable and we successfully abseiled back down in 4 pitches and felt ready for a bigger challenge.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing and at this stage we should have built up a more formidable backlog of multi-pitch climbs together (some of them in boots) but Zlatko is experienced in the mountains and after all of my learning this year I felt ready for Triglav. We chose the Slovenian route, which is made up of easy scrambling and a good number of harder pitches (Slovenian Grade III). My first error was thinking that Slovenian grades equate with British and that climbing these grades in boots would be a breeze. I lead 6A+ on UK sport and I have recently progressed onto VS trad, giving me misplaced confidence as we approached. My second error was to complete the two and a half hour approach on the day, which meant a 2am alarm. Bivvying below the route would have conserved energy and given more time for rest.
Finding the base of the route after some easy scrambling on the approach was not a problem and we racked up feeling happy. We looked at the first section and decided to solo it. About halfway up we had to traverse a thin ledge above a nasty drop and I realised in a gut-wrenching moment that we should have pitched it but with a deep breath and careful footwork we made it safely accross. As my UK climbing buddies will know, I love corners and chimneys and this route is full of them, so even after the first wobble I was feeling chirpy as we looked up at a long limestone chimney. We estimated the chimney was about 80M long at grade III. After reading the lines I was confident it would be well within my ability and so I started to climb.
Slovenian limestone is not like British limestone. I was carrying a set of wires 1-10, 2 x 120 slings, 2 x 240 slings and three cams. A few moves in and I had my first panic, the chimney was getting tight and my gear and my rucksack kept snagging. I was looking for gear as I climbed and there was nothing. There may be room for micro-nuts, but I wasn’t carrying any. And I couldn't find any threads or spikes either. I continued, expecting some good gear to materialise as I went up and with relief I found one placement for a wire having climbed well above my usual comfort zone for protection. I reached a ledge and found a piton left by a previous party and felt a rush of joy as I clipped in. Imagining that I had passed the crux, still thinking that a grade III route should be easy, I looked up at the next section. This consisted of a narrow chimney and a small overhanging face, but the ground that led to it was full of scree and loose rock. I trod carefully and managed to find a couple of threads and with a bit of bold commitment went direct over the small overhang onto another platform. The route continued like this for what seemed like forever, loose platforms followed by gruesome gullies that without a rucksack and boots I would usually revel in. My love of chimneys was fading fast!
I felt like I was climbing into trickier terrain as we continued and at one point spent 10 minutes approaching a particularly narrow section, attempting to wedge myself up it and then backing off as lumps of chossy rock wobbled around me. Eventually I set up a belay for Zlatko to come up and join me and with his encouragement I forced my way through it, eventually reaching the top of the chimney.
My initial relief wore off as I explored my new surroundings. We didn’t have topos or photographs, only a diagram that, to me, bore no resemblance to the rock, made up of symbols that I had been learning for only a couple of days. I could not see where the route was meant to go. There was another chimney to my left, a blocky face ahead and a pleasant looking ridge to my right, separated from me by a large, cruel looking scree slope. The notes we did have said that route-finding was difficult and that it would be easy to stray onto harder ground. My last gear was way below me and I couldn't find anywhere to set up a belay. I traversed back and forth but there was absolutely nothing. I had realised by this point that the route required pitons and we only had 2 and one hammer, which was attached to Zlatko. It was no use to me there and anyway, it wasn’t enough. I started to panic as I felt I couldn’t move up or down and was battling with some serious drag from the rope. I cautiously managed to make it back to my last gear, placed using 2 pitons that again had been left in the rock by a previous group and made myself safe.
I brought Zlatko up and he endeavoured to have a go and started heading up but again backed off when he saw how little gear there was. He came back down and we started talking. What were our options. Our diagram indicated that the route should get much easier after this section, as long as we stayed on the correct line, but we couldn’t be sure we would do that - we might have already strayed - and the previous section had been much harder than expected. We had already taken considerably longer than expected and so the summit was definitely out, but we had planned in an escape route higher up, as we should reach a large plateau that connected with an easy descent. I was feeling emotionally exhausted and the day was getting hotter and hotter, going up felt like too much of a risk, especially given I would be leading most of it without a clear vision of the route. I looked down at where we had come from and saw a grim, chossy descent that would be tricky to navigate safely down.
I did not want to call mountain rescue but I felt stuck and I started to let fear take over and the tears build as the realisation dawned that we were in the kind of trouble that could easily escalate and that it was all of our own making; not enough research, the wrong gear, slow climbing, lack of experience. I had a cereal bar and pulled myself together and we decided that in reality our best option was to abseil back down, very very carefully, initially using the two pitons we were attached to and then leaving our own two pitons in place if we needed to.
We rigged up and I decided to go first, tentatively starting my descent. I made it back to one of the ledges and started to feel better. I could see how we could rig a new abseil from here and my confidence was returning. I pressed myself into a protected position and Zlatko abseiled down to join me. We managed to retrieve the rope with only minimal rockfall and we repeated the process, with each descent making me feel better. In fact I was actually starting to enjoy our escape.
After an hour or so we arrived at the bottom of the climb, leaving only easy scrambling and Ferrata in between us and the valley floor. We both felt the right decision had been made at the right time, while it was still possible to self rescue. As we shoved some croissants into our mouths a helicopter approached another face nearby and I felt relief that we had managed to rescue ourselves. We later heard that the helicopter was to help a climber on Tominskova Via Ferrata who had frozen, not able to go up or down and I felt echoes with my own feelings back at our last anchor point.
We made our way down in the midday heat, stripped off and lay down in the stream leading away from Triglav. If we judge success by whether we summited or not then we definitely failed but on reflection, our success can be found in making the decision to turn back while we still could. I also learnt a hell of a lot about mountaineering. Here are my key learning points:
If only symbol-based diagrams are available, make sure you know how to use them by accompanying a confident climber on a familiar route and translating the symbols to the ground, as you climb within your comfort zone. Zlatko did get me to draw out the route to memorise it, which helped, but I needed to build my confidence on the rock.
Climbing in boots and with a backpack is hard; practice, practice, practice.
Research the route thoroughly. This is obvious and something I always do, but in this case I didn’t read any logbooks and reports as I don’t speak Slovenian and there were no English reports that I could find. I relied on Zlatko’s research that meant only one of us had knowledge of the route. Had we done more research together perhaps we would have made better choices on the ground.
Slovenian limestone in the Julian Alps often requires pegs so make sure you have plenty.
Assess the approach, if it looks too long or potentially tiring then consider bivvying rather than attempting a 2am start (although this is completely normal in Slovenia).
As a relative beginner to mountaineering, guidebook time should be vastly increased to account for troubleshooting and route-finding.
But above all the most important thing I learnt was this: