Way up high – above the lively Alpine town of Kranjska Gora, a glacial valley with a mountain stream, the evergreen fir forests and an escarpment that ends with some of the highest mountains in Slovenia – is a comfortable 1,562-meter peak. The trail to get there narrows from a broad valley to a forest which ends quite unexpectedly on an open flat top. We gasped at the sight. Perhaps even more than the tall peaks, this rather low peak opens to sublime views and lets you soak up the intense history of the place and magic of the Alps without risking too much on the way.
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“This view is insane!” I heard my friend shouting from the only bench at the top. He came up a minute before me and I followed in awe trying to capture the beauty on my camera. It was a sunny weekday in December and we were strangely alone. When I signed up for this hike, I never expected a 1,562-meter peak to be even remotely as scenic! Why would it be – it’s not even as high as the neighboring Vršič Pass, 1,611 m. And yet, Visoki Mavrinc steals the show effortlessly, thanks to its position comfortably nestled at just the right distance from the much higher peaks of the Julian Alps range, where it stands isolated and appears tall despite its humble height.
Yet in many ways, the gorgeous views from Visoki Mavrinc are irrelevant, because what is important is the history of the place. About a hundred years ago during the WWI the politics saw the Vršič Pass as the best option to connect the Upper Sava Valley with the Trenta Valley across the pass as a way to send artillery, food and medical supplies to the soldiers on the Soča (Isonzo) Front. If they had started to build the road for merely trading reasons a few years earlier in 1909, the road became urgent practically overnight in 1915, when Italy joined the opposition, the Isonzo Front was formed and other mountain passes got blocked by the Italians.
Between 10,000 and 12,000 Russian prisoners of war were used to construct and maintain the road. Many of them died due to extreme living conditions, but the most tragic was the death of about 300 Russians buried by two massive snow avalanches in the winter 2016. Namely, despite multiple warnings by the locals about the destructive powers of winter in the mountains, they continued with the works. Even though large roof-like constructions had been built to protect the workers against snow avalanches, which had indeed proved effective with smaller avalanches, those couldn’t hold the massive avalanche on 8th March 1916. Thundering down the southern slopes of Mala Mojstrovka and Robičje it destroyed everything on the way; the avalanche protection constructions, the temporary settlement for the workers, the so-thought indestructible 20-meter tall Evgen monument, while it also managed to tilt the Tičar Hut at the top of the pass by 15º and reach the Erjavčeva Hut on its 20-meter hillock. It buried everything on the way, and together with another avalanche that followed a few days later killed about 300 men in total. The events are considered the biggest natural disasters recorded in the Slovenian mountains.
At the sight, where the last dead Russian prisoner of war was found later that spring, their colleagues built the memorial Russian Chapel, where the remains of all the dead Russians were eventually buried. Nowadays, the chapel of a big symbolic meaning hosts annual commemoration masses which even Vladimir Putin attended in 2016.
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Wading through knee-deep snow, the history resonated between tall vertical walls of the surrounding mountains. What is elusive beauty these days showed its terrifying side in the past and there’s no guarantee it won’t again someday if men pretend once more to be bigger than nature. Not on our humble hike though.
We parked our car down at Lake Jasna above Kranjska Gora at around 1 pm and followed the classic Via Alpina trail along the Pišnica stream in the Krnica Valley. Pristine snow sparkled in the low winter sun and crisp air forced us to push the pace up a bit. We hurried through the valley and turned up towards the pass. Once past the Russian Chapel we found a barely visible unmarked trail going up a steep slope and we took it. The few old footsteps in the snow were showing us the way.
At some point we stepped out of the shade onto the sun-kissed slope, soaking up the warmth of the afternoon sun. However, the relief turned out to be very brief as we immediately realized how much the warmth had softened the snow and soon we found ourselves sinking in the deep snow up to our very butts. I cursed myself for being too lazy to bring the snowshoes along but continued.
Near the top the trail passed a somewhat exposed slope and we had to be a bit more careful climbing the last few meters to the top, but that was it. Overall it was an easy and relaxed hike. The kind one could bring their family on too.
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We dug snacks out of our packs and reclined on the bench, basking in the warmth and enjoying one another’s company. The impressive high mountains smiled at us looking stunning as ever. There would be days when I regretted looking at them only from a distance but not that day. Serene and gratified after the occasionally painful efforts in that soft snow, I relished the moment at merely 1,562 meters. I watched the sun slowly sink behind the Vršič Pass with the stories from the past rolling vividly in front of my eyes. Yes, we need slower days like this and easy hikes packed with history.
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