Through the window of a car, I remember being awestruck as a child by the serrated outline of a rugged mass of rock and snow, usually shrouded in a swirl of clouds, towering over Gozd Martuljek’s green and vibrant landscape. Later I learned that the Martuljek Mountain Group is the remotest and wildest part of the Julian Alps with only two mountains accessible on marked and secured trails. Other peaks, all over 2K, quietly watching the world from their solitary abode, remain a place for experienced mountaineers, comfortable with climbing and manoeuvring through the labyrinth of faint tracks.
Many years later I am still awestruck; so much that entering that mystical world seems like a far-fetched unattainable adventure that only exists in dreams. Particularly so in winter. Coming close to it to catch a glimpse of the elusive beauty and absorb the grandeur is another matter. And there is no peak closer than Vrtaško Sleme, which at its 2,077 meters brings you so close to the Martuljek Group it seems like you can almost touch its first peak Kukova Špica.
It’s been repeated so many times that we’ve all started to believe it. The mantra “you’re not a true Slovene until you’ve conquered Triglav” drives the nation, anyone from small kids to older hikers, to the 2,864m (9,396 ft) mountain, which quite truthfully isn’t by far an easy climb (remember Climbing Triglav: the third try?). The tourists, too, are flooding the mountain, especially during the summer. Truly folks, it’s beautiful, but, quite frankly, there are mountains in Slovenia just as beautiful, if not even more so, without a continuous line of eager climbers winding their way to the top.
At the beginning of July, my usual partner in crime (read: my husband) and I planned a day in the Julian Alps, a 1,700-square-mile (4,400 km²) area full of high mountains, Triglav being the most imposing of them all. While the crowds focus their fascination on the highest peak, we had our hearts set on the mountain range towering just across the Alpine valley Vrata. A goal for the day were Križ and Stenar, two 8,000+ feet panoramic mountains with views considered to be the best over the north face of Triglav. The best part, though, is the booming wildlife which walks the world freely and completely indifferent of their human hiking counterparts. The rumor has it that the local mountain hut keepers feed the chamois and Alpine ibexes, raising them half domesticated and thus particularly friendly to the camera.
As opposed to other 8K+ Slovenian mountains, Stenar is less technical, but still requires a long approach. If you make the route a day hike, you’re looking at a 4.7-mile roundtrip with 5,600 feet of elevation gain (and loss). When combined with Slovenia’s afternoon summer thunders, you’re really better off with less sleep than being chased off by a thunderstorm. Being careful hikers and having had our share of unneeded drama in the mountains, my husband and me set our alarm at 4 am. But from habit, we somehow managed to shut down the annoying buzz and continued to sleep until 6 instead. Aaaaaargh, the panic! After quick morning preparations, we left our house at 6.30 and were at the trailhead at 8. Not perfect to say the least. Still, if the weather stayed nice, there would be enough time to finish the whole route before the dark. The first couple of hours were the hardest. It’s a steep climb and you keep gaining elevation fast. But it’s not the elevation that’s the killer here; the trick is in the heat. That’s also one of the reasons why an early start would have been smarter. You see, the steep terrain has a south position, thus absorbing as much sunshine as possible. If the trailhead started at the cool 55 °F (13 °C) at 8 in the morning, the south face warmed up to about 80 °F, which combined with its steep slope and windless air required numerous minute breaks in every tiny space of shade we could possibly find. That’s also where we met Nina, a soulmate hiker from Bled who I could easily identify with, especially with her explanation of where she was headed “for Bivouac IV or higher if the circumstances allowed”. Let me translate. High mountains in Slovenia are not a place for single hikers and if you’re like me and often can’t find a partner for a hike, you’re bound to smaller goals. We adopted her without hesitation and continued the hike together. As it turned out, she was great company and procured a much needed map which we accidentally forgot at home in the rush morning packing.
Up next: Slovenia in spring: from flowers to snow in six hiking trips When we arrived at Bivouac IV, a small bivouac nestled in the midst of Stenar, Škrlatica, Dolkova Špica and other great mountains, two Czech hikers were already preparing their early lunch in a laid-back atmosphere. We joined them for a chat and snack. While we all communicated in a mix of the Czech-Slovene-English language and vigorous hand waving, it was their hiking boots that told half of their story. Completely worn out, the soles of one of the Czechs’ boots had apparently come off the previous day, but had already been sawn back on with spare laces. Since both had a big thing for Slovenian mountains, they had been to Triglav four times and Bivouac IV and that part of the Alps as many as six times! According to the Slovenian mantra, these two should have earned the premium citizenship to say the least. 🙂 After resting our legs a bit, we headed up for Mt. Križ. Since we’d used a good part of our water in the first sunny section, we welcomed the plentiful water reserves stacked in thick patches of the remaining snow on the way. Anyway, we still had 1,410 ft (430 m) elevation before reaching the top of our first goal. The higher we hiked, the more beautiful it got. Once we reached the top of the ridge, we were excited to see the back of the mountain, the three lakes underneath, still deeply frozen from the harsh winter there in the Alps, and the Pogačnik mountain hut on Kriški Podi. Until this point, everything had been basic hiking spiced with a few more or less deep holes to watch our steps closer. But once near the peak of Mt. Križ, the route changes and gets more technical with a steel cable securing the most exposed parts. The trail climbs over large rocks along an incredibly steep cliff on both sides. It’s truly not that hard, but if you have a soft spot for exposure, you may find the trail to the top of Mt. Križ and then onwards to Mt. Stenar unnerving as one wrong step could potentially lead to a deep fall. The first peak came fast and after a short lunch break we put our helmets back on and headed for the main goal of the day, Mt. Stenar. First, the trail was surprisingly easy, gradually descending down Mt. Križ. We followed the signs along a barely visible trail until … until we got lost. You see, what you might not know about Slovenia is that it usually lacks signs and directions just where you’d need them most. OK, I admit, things have got better over the past decade, but there are still sections with sketchy signs and that trail from Križ to Stenar is definitely one of them. The footsteps we thought were a marked trail soon ended and so we got stuck on an incredibly steep slope made of talus and big rocks with no clear way down. Sure, we could go back, but truly, where’s the thrill in that if the nature offers to test your climbing skills in a big girl’s (and boy’s, of course) playground?! Anyway, we saw the real trail about 300 ft beneath us; we just had to find a safe way across. Picking our way down we climbed in every possible way; first down, then up, afterwards to the right and then again to the left, and so on. Eventually, I found a ledge after which we finally made our way downhill safely on talus. Thankfully, we all crossed in one piece.
After that, everything seemed trivial. We traversed talus slopes, which in spots were still covered with snow, and then finally began climbing back up again to Mt. Stenar. The most fascinating, though, were the chamois, who elegantly hopped from one rock to another, effortlessly passing all the previously seemingly impassable spots.
Another hour or so and at 2.30 pm we were proudly standing on our second peak of the day, Mt. Stenar. Knowing that the descent would take a while, we didn’t hesitate long at the top. I did take the time, though, to record this short time lapse of the play of the clouds over Triglav. Hey, did I mention that the view of Triglav and its north face from Stenar was just astounding? https://youtu.be/EosvXgNfFsM
We picked up our pace, quickly descending towards the Sovatna slope, but then, somewhere in the middle of the way further down, we noticed a big Alpine ibex strolling around one of the very few green patches among the jagged rocks and cliffs speckled with pretty colorful little flowers. We approached him quietly, slowly crawling on our toes while watching him carelessly munch on soft grass. After a while, our furry friend decided it was time to move on, while we treated ourselves to a 20-minute snooze in a meadow of flowers before heading back down to real life.
Thankfully, the weather held nicely the whole day. We reached the Aljaž Hut near the parking lot at 6.30 pm, that was just the right time for a refreshing evening drink. Other hikers exchanged interesting stories, a good part of them included Triglav, and we listened, knowing how incredible our trip had been, probably even more so than overcrowded Triglav.
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