All we want to do is climb mountains
08/02/2014 - 08/04/2014 70 °F
Dan and I woke up early the next day in Plav, anxious to get a little more info and then get out on a mountain. The map we had picked up the day before outlined a good number of ambitious, but doable looking hikes, but most of them also said that a guide and climbing equipment was recommended/required. Additionally, because the peaks of these mountains also form the border of Montenegro and Albania, we should also notify the Albanian border guard before summiting. Clueless on how to notify the border guard, and doubtful that a guide and equipment were truly necessary, we headed to the Plav Tourist Office to take care of these things.
We had seen the day before that the tourism office opened at 8am, however when Dan and I got there at 8:20, it was all quiet in the office. We returned after a quick breakfast and found 2 teenage girls working there (read: surfing Facebook and the internet). Very quickly, it became clear that neither of them spoke any English, which was perhaps too much to expect in a Montenegrin tourism office? After communicating that we wanted to hike, they excitedly showed us the map that we were already holding in our hands. For any question beyond “hiking”, the girls broke out Google Translate and we spent a painful 10 minutes typing messages back and forth. The conclusion to this exchange was Dan and I realizing that the girls somehow knew less than we did about these hikes, and also didn’t have any idea how to contact the Albanian border guard. They suggested we go to the police station regarding the border guard, but long-story-short that resulted in another 30 minutes of wasted effort.
We returned to our hotel around 10:30 feeling defeated. “All we want to do is climb mountains”, and somehow we could not sort out how to do that (without dying or being arrested by Albanians). Expressing our woes to one of the friendly hotel employees, he excitedly told us to wait for a couple minutes and ran off. He returned 5 minutes later with a friend of his who occasionally worked as a guide for the very same mountain trails that we were interested in. Counting our lucky stars, we quickly asked him the few questions we had been searching to answer since the day began.
· This map says climbing ropes and harnesses are needed for these routes. Is that totally necessary? No, not necessary for most of these routes.
· It also says that guides are required/recommended. What do you think? Not required. A guide would be helpful to have, but it is not necessary.
· How do we notify the Albanian border guard? You are planning to hike to the summit, but not then continue into Albania? Take your passports, but don’t worry about notifying them
As they were the answers we were hoping for, we quickly accepted them, thanked our helpful friend, and hurried to the car to get onto the trail. We had chosen a fairly ambitious route, and the unexpected delays that we run into meant we were a couple hours behind schedule before we even hit the trail.
We retraced our route thru Gusinje and Vusanje to get to the trailhead. The trailhead was just a little further down a road that we originally took to the waterfall from my last post. The Prokletje Mountains were described as the least hiked (and by extension, least maintained) mountains in Europe, so perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised when we had trouble finding the trailhead. With all of the trouble we had had this morning trying to get onto the trail, you might assume that we were in a foul mood at this point, but we found it easy to stay in high spirits when surrounded by so much beauty.
When we eventually found the trail and began hiking, we struck a fast pace to try and make up some time. The trail was well-marked and beautiful for the first hour or so. It climbed quickly, and Dan and I admired the pristine surroundings and relished in the lack of other human traffic. Those who know Dan and I aren’t surprised that we were attracted by these “Cursed Mountains” largely because they were described as the least explored and traveled mountain range in Europe. Hiking trails come in all flavors and for the two of us, hiking on a road or exquisitely manicured trail can barely be considered hiking, and we were prepared to do some bushwacking to follow this raw, lightly maintained route. That strategy and perspective worked great, until we emerged from the woods onto a rocky slope, where the trail suddenly disappeared.
We both have at least moderate experience hiking trails, and Dan has additionally done a significant amount of winter camping, where he had often had to follow trails in the dark, so we have a lot of confidence in our ability to find and follow a trail. There are certain techniques you can use when you’ve lost a trail to get back on it, including fanning out in various directions looking for our familiar trail markers. In this case, none of these strategies produced much of anything, and we spent the next 40 minutes picking around large boulders, looking for the continuation of the trail. Delayed further by a red herring trail marker, after almost an hour of searching high and low, we decided that the trail evaporated into the brush (or rocks) and that we had to come up with Plan B.
It was still early in the day, and neither of us felt fulfilled with our hike thus far. The sun was elbowing its way thru the clouds that had been threatening rain and storms all day, and we weren’t ready to throw in the towel either. Giving up on following the actual trail, Dan came up with our Plan B: Well, the trail is gone, but there’s a fun looking rock slope over in this direction. When all else fails, just keep climbing skyward. [DISCLAIMER: That philosophy is not typically a good idea and can get you into trouble. As I’ve discussed, it’s always easier to go up than down.] Plus Dan and I are hardened hikers, right?, certainly capable for scrambling up a loose rock slope.
It took all of 3 feet for us to realize that the only way to ascend would be side-by-side, or one at a time, as each step brought a cascade of rocks down below. And it wasn’t just the smaller rocks in this case. Typically when you are hiking up and down loose rock slopes, you’re safe when you stick to the larger rocks. The smaller rocks are just waiting to tumble down the mountain, but the bigger rocks have usually found their resting place. Not the case on this slope. The most extreme case was when we stopped to rest, and Dan leaned his pack against a rock that probably came up to my hip and weighed more than a ton. Just leaning his pack against it soon led to the rock careening down the mountain. Dan luckily snatched his pack up right before it fell and we were left to watch this massive boulder tumble down the mountain, just keeping our fingers crossed that it didn’t hit anything living on the way down. After 15 tense minutes, we had made it to the top of the rock slope, and were rewarded with some great photo opportunities overlooking the valley and the town, Visenje.
On the way up
On the way down
The plan had been to get up to the top of the rock slope and see what we see up there, but we were incredibly surprised to re-find the actual trail close to the top of the loose rock slide. The path that the trail took to get up to that point was never really clear, though we are pretty certain that it was not the path we followed. By this point, the weather, which had been threatening all day, was not looking great, and we were now hours behind our original timeline for hitting the peak. We had talked about turning around after the rock slide, but after re-finding the trail, we spent the next 2.5 hours playing a game back and forth:
- “Let’s just make it to the top of this ridge. We’ll get some cool views and then turn back.”
- “Okay, but we turn around then. We really should be heading back down.”
- "Agreed......... Well hope about we just go to the next ridge? Last one."
The weather continued to hold and actually grew sunny as we continued up. The views kept getting better as we climbed deep into the “Cursed Mountains”. We came across fields of Queen Anne’s Lace, scorpions, a mountaintop cave (lovingly named “The Rooney Cave”), and miles of brush grown over the path. In the end, we made it right up to the Albanian border, but turned around probably an hour or more from the summit. Though it is always way better to reach the peak, by that time we were happy with our day, having done it on our own in typical fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants style. Going back down the loose rock slide was even more nerve-racking than going up (as it always is). Not typically faint of heart, I let out a large sigh of relief when we both made it down that section, and the hike down from there was cake.
Queen Anne's Lace... (right?)
Tough to pick out, but there is a dark spot in the top right section of the mountain that is the cave
On the way back down, we decided to forgo another night in this area, anxious to see beautiful Croatia. Montenegro held almost too much natural beauty to believe, but also seemed backwards in some ways. We came up with a bold plan to leave, involving sleeping in the car, sunrise on a mountaintop, and Croatia by tomorrow afternoon, but first we had to get out of Montenegro. And that proved to be quite the challenge, and were close to potentially spending a whole lot longer there than we planned.
Until next time