AMI member Dave Talbot has written about his ascent of the North Face of Triglav...
I first saw the north face of Triglav in a book, 'The Big Walls' by Reinhold Messner, when I was about 19 years old. The mountain and the face has fascinated me ever since. In the book, it gave an account of the first ascent with a large colour photo of the mighty north face of Triglav. It quoted “Few climbs have left such a lasting impression on me as this one. Of the three biggest faces in the Eastern Alps, the Triglav Wall seems to me to be the most difficult.” - Ludwig Sinek. The grade given for this route however, is only IV+ (UK grade of around Hard Severe). So, with a rock wall as tall as El Cap in Yosemite but with a far more reasonable grade, it seemed like a very good idea to book some flights to go and check it out.
The plane touched down into Slovenia's capital – Ljubljana. We hired a super cheap car and made the short drive to the picturesque town of Bled – where we were staying for a few days in order to attempt to climb Triglav via the north face.
Bled is a tourist town, and rightly so – it's beautiful. The town is situated on a huge, crystal-clear lake, with steep limestone cliffs at its edges and castles rising from the rolling forests. It really is a fairy tale of a place. It's also cheaper than other European destinations. We were paying just 17 euros a night for our B and B; so it's a perfect base to start your adventure.
On our first day, I drove with Robyn my climbing partner to the town of Mojstrana. From here, a 13km magnificent dirt track takes you cutting through the forests, following a wild river all the way to the car park used to climb Triglav from the north. You only have to walk 400 metres from the car park before you are bowled over by your first glimpse of the north face of Triglav. Towering up from the trees, 1400 meters high and over 4 km wide, the north face knocks your socks clean off.
There's a well positioned dainty hut in full view of the face that serves food and drinks on a sunny terrace looking at the mountain. A large sign shows all the major climbing routes of the face and it's well worth a look. For us, this was a reconnaissance day as we were tired from the previous day's travel. So we decided to memorise the walk in, for when it would be dark the following day. The path from the hut is well marked and is known as the Prag Route (not the nicest sounding path name, but it follows a stream through the trees and out into the open). There's an enormous piton that has been hammered into a large boulder (clearly by a giant judging by the size of it). The view of the piton, and that of the north face of Triglav, is the one I had seen in 'The Big Walls' book and we stopped for a photo.
According to the guide book “Popular climbing routes in Slovenia” there are no Via Ferratas in Slovenia. This is rubbish. All of the walking paths that lead to the summit of Triglav have large sections of cable ways, ladders, metal rungs, drops and exposure everywhere and most people going up or down them are clipped in. Walking here is not for the faint hearted. It was good therefore to see the approach path in daylight before the early start on the following day. We scrambled our way to the start of the first pitch and made a mental note of the line.
The following day, we walked fast and excited for the 4 km to the base of the face in the dark. As the sun came up, the face looked even more impressive in the eerie stillness of dawn.
On a route of this size, it's not about 'how much chalk to carry?'or 'do I need my tight shoes Gary?'. It's about moving fast, memorising the description, looking for the line ahead and making good decisions. I set off up the first pitch. Robyn and I had decided to do the easiest classic route on the face, the 'Slovene Route'. We had no idea how long it would take us, how hard the route finding would be or what the quality of the rock and fixed gear would be like - there were a lot of unknowns.
The climbing turned out to be very easy but loose in places; which is to be expected on rock faces of this size. We moved together, placing gear where we needed to make the climbing safe. The topo for the route didn't show pitches, instead it showed large sections with marked features and grades next to them. What quickly became apparent was the distance to the summit above us wasn't getting any smaller. I am not a slow climber, I am also not captain speedy - Mr Alex Huber. We were moving together on ground graded VD and were galloping up rock. I would check the topo, chuffed with our speed only to find we had climbed the first small section. Somewhat alarming, I thought. We carried on. Rope length after rope length ran out. Through corners, walls, slabs, overhangs and chimneys we went. Then a quick look up to check the route, and off again. We arrived onto the Zlatorog Ledges, about half way up the face before midday and we sat took stock of our situation and had some food.
The Zlatorog Ledges, thanks to the stratified structure of the Triglav north face, provides a magnificent route that crosses the entire face. It gives 4 km of climbing / scrambling and according to the guide book “The main problem is route finding”. The scale of the face is huge, we had been watching another climbing team on the German Route to our right and they had arrived on the ledge system at about the same time as us and they were having some food and enjoying the sunshine – in their pants by the look of things – 'Germans', I thought. Rather than carrying up though, they starting traversing the ledge system towards us, now fully clothed.
The guide book describes the Zlatorog Ledge system as a way of escaping the face should time be short, or the weather be closing in and this escape option had been in the back of my mind should we need it. Looking right and left along this ledge system, it didn't look that inviting. Tiny, omnimous, sloping ledges, with scree sat on top, above a 600 metre drop and difficult to protect – I am not selling it, am I?
The team of three we had seen on the German Route came across to us, smoking tabs and looking rather casual. They started jabbering away to us in Slovenian and were looking rather pleased with their day so far. I knew a lot of German and the Slovenian language is very similar but like a good British tourist I still had to wave the white flag and admit I didn't really know what they were talking about. “You're English” one of them said, “No one from England climbs here”. 'Oh good', I thought. “You should follow us along the Zlatorog Ledges, you've done all the climbing and it's better as a descent” they said. Sometimes, don't look a gift horse in the mouth. These guys were local climbing guides, they knew the cliff well (I hoped) and they had offered to show us the Zlatorog Ledges – bloody good deal.
I had wanted to learn this traverse since seeing it in the guide book, and at 4km long, it's one hell of a traverse. For one thing - I quite like traverses and for another - all the routes cross it and knowing this safe passage would give options for future routes when climbing here. Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted. “We will follow you” I said, probably best that way around.
The next hour was some what terrifying. I think in hindsight, it wasn't that bad, but we all say that after we have survived something. Give any wanna-be-hero a few weeks after an epic and the brain cuts out the bad stuff and filters the good stuff to memories.
The overall aim when reversing the Zlatorog ledges is to head for a square boulder that is perched on the ridge on the horizon. In order to get there you have to connect a series of scree covered ledges in a jumbled maze of down climbs, steps and corners. Lucky for us, the Slovenian team knew it well. Once at the square block you down climb into a series of three gullies that with a couple of abseils leads you back to a high point on the Prag Path. We sat here for a while enjoying some food and stories with Slovenians, who were very friendly indeed, and who also recommended the German Route that they had done that day for next visit.
After this experience, Robyn and I ran away to the Dolomites and climbed on some solid rock…..
Only two weeks later, I was packing my bags for a return trip to Triglav. This trip was going to be somewhat different. Andy, one of my climbing partners and a BBC presenter had been asked by Suzuki to make an adventure film using the V-Strom motorbikes. I had known about this project for a while and had suggested Triglav as a destination due to it being under the radar of the British adventure scene. I was even more keen to go there now that I had been two weeks before and had scoped out a few things.
It turns out that packing climbing equipment, ropes, camping stuff, filming equipment including tripods and all the other gizmos onto a motorbike is slightly tricky. Surprisingly though, with a few compression sacks and some Paul Daniels magic packing, the bikes swallowed the equipment without too much bother. The hardest task would be the self filming element to this project – there would be no help from any film crews – it was just us two guys, two bikes, a north face to climb and 11 days in which to do it.
I am going to give you a quick overview of the task in hand because I can't believe we got it all done in the time we had. Leave Bristol, take the motorbikes all the way to the Dolomites to do a warm up climb and film a piece on the centenary of World War 1. After that, ride to Slovenia, do a load of filming around Bled, film the approach drive into the Triglav (the 13km off-road track is a lot of fun on motorbikes!), climb the north face of Triglav and bivi on the face. The next day, summit Triglav, and get back down. Get back on the motorbikes, drive to the Nuremberg ring, do a victory lap and go home. A total of 2400 miles… on a motorbike – include the climbing and the filming – there wasn't any margin for error or bad weather.
I don't want to go into the epic ride down too much, but it turns out that over 600 miles in a day, on a motorbike, is not recommended to anyone. Enough said.
Arriving back in Slovenia, armed with a shiny motorbike, felt great. I loved the wind whistling though my helmet on the open roads. Everything felt familiar, and I was excited to get back on the face again. This time, the plan was to climb the German Route that goes the entire way up the face and reaches the summit of Triglav 2864m. We were going to be much heavier this time as we were carrying all of the filming equipment and the stuff to bivi out on our backs. As we knew we were sleeping on the face, we could take our time with the climbing and filming. I also knew the way to the second pitch where the Slovene Route branches left and the German Route, right.
Andy was keen to lead early. No sooner that he had started up the second pitch did he stand on a loose foothold that he didn't test. It broke under his weight. He slipped and dislodged more rock. I had nowhere to go. I was stuck in a gully that funnelled the rock towards me. I crouched and pressed my helmet against the rock wall hoping for the best. A large stone skimmed my helmet. I was not best pleased by this – 'Andy you f*****g d**k, you nearly killed me!' Andy was new to big routes and that was the reason we were here. It was also the purpose of the film. I took over the leading and set off trying to demonstrate the technique needed to climb walls this size in a day. The technique is a simple one - move quickly up the correct line. It sounds simple, but actually it's not on a face of this size – with corners and lines everywhere trying to lure you off course to a dead end.
However, the first 16 pitches of the German Route are superb, the rock is good with easy to follow lines… ish. The guide book describes the first 16 pitches as “climb the rib”… okay, I will. The climbing doesn't get harder than Hard Severe, but with a heavy ruck sack and climbing in your 5.10 trainers, it can still feel tricky. At one point I had to sling my ruck sack below me to squeeze through a chimney in order that I could fit through it. This is a useful tip when executed before starting a squeeze chimney (unlike myself, who got fully wedged, scared and then had to work out how to get unstuck, take my ruck sack off, not drop it and not fall to my doom). Type two fun.
We knew we were going to bivi on the face. One reason for this – it would be a good laugh. The other – it would look good for the film. Part of the problem with this, would be finding water on a blank rock wall. We had enough to carry without trying to take 5 litres of water each for the two days to the summit and down. According to our topo there was a pool of water somewhere around the mid point of the route we were on. I found the water worn groove that in heavy rain would gush with water. I am sure it would, but in this 30 degree heat there wasn't a drop to be seen. 'Fiddlesticks', I thought. Peering down the water course, there appeared to be a puddle some 10 metres down but it wasn't obvious it was water. I had the bright idea of throwing a stone into it and looking and listening for the 'splash' before attempting to get to it. Turns out it was in fact water – phew. It was quite hard work to get any form of strong anchor to enable us to abseil down to this pool but sure enough, in true instructor style, I made one out of some boulders. Andy went down to the puddle only to realise it was about 1 cm deep and we couldn't fill our bottles from it. This meant using the mug of the Jetboil and scooping a thousand thimbles of water in order to get enough to drink. This took a while.
The Slovenians on the previous trip had done the first 16 pitches of the German Route and then bailed along the Zlatorog Ledge system as the best rock and quality climbing on this route is at the bottom. This is true.
At the top of pitch 16 you arrive on the German Tower with the visitors book stashed away for you to sign and write something silly. The ledge there is spacious, it gives amazing views across the face and a vantage point to look up and down at what you have climbed so far. I had been warned by the Slovenian team that the route finding on the upper section of the German Route is tricky. This is definitely the case. I've done many big routes in the past and I had to call on all my experience to find the correct passage through the maze above. Vast slabs, interconnected with walls and corners all trying to send you off course but at least the climbing was easy. Another 300 metres of climbing went by, until we arrived on the Lass exit terrace. From here the German Route goes left and the Long German Route goes right. At this point, you can see a hole in the rock where the sunlight beams through known as the 'Window', mentioned in the guide book. We discussed our options at this point and decided that left was better than the terrifyingly loose looking right option. An easy call, that for some reason took a while of looking around confused, with some chats to camera about our situation.
At the Lass exit, it's around 6 more pitches and some scrambling, before the north face spits you out on top of the Slovene Tower. At that moment in time, it was the most breath taking place to be in the world. This was our bivi spot. Relatively flat, with a good hard stone base, perfect for a comfy night's sleep. It was time to make our home for the night and set up a time lapse of the sun going down. We didn't sleep much, as you do when the only thing between you and bedrock it a coiled rope and a ruck sack. The sky above was crystal clear that night and the shooting stars that flashed across were spectacular. We both admitted in the morning that we had heard each other snoring so we must have got some sleep.
The north face finishes at the Slovene Tower and above this rises the mighty Triglav summit. There are four main ridges to the summit. The north ridge is unprotected and loose, but follows on from the Long German Route. The others have fixed cables and staples drilled into the rock to make access to the summit easier to walkers and climbers. Consider any of the fixed routes to the summit Via Ferratas rather than walking paths if you are an inexperienced climber.
The guys we had meet in Bled had said “You're not Slovenian until you have climbed Triglav” and on that morning you could see why. There were hoards of Slovenians going to summit Triglav on that clear and beautiful morning, and rightly so. The previous day we had not seen a soul. We had been alone on the face, enjoying the exposure, solitude and climbing. Today was busy – join the crowds, grab your ticket and stand on the summit. What a view and experience it was! A pleasure to be up there. The highest mountain in Slovenia via the north face.
We descended via the Tominsek path as it was different to the Prag path that I had done before and this didn't disappoint either. Twists, turns, ladders, drops, down climbing and exposed traverses. Just that path alone in the UK would be a three star grade 3 scramble.
Once back down at the bikes, it was now just a case of the 1200 mile journey home.
Slovenia is a beautiful country, it's cheaper than a lot of other alpine areas. The peaks don't go above 3000 meters and Triglav is the highest in Slovenia. If you're looking for stunning walking trails and adventure climbing then this is a great place to go. However, don't be fooled by the grades You need to be very experienced at route finding and have a few grades in hand to keep the pace up. There are huts at the top of the north face so you don't have to bivi, but go prepared. The weather can change quickly (like in any mountain environment). This is a fantastic face and, at the same size and scale as El Cap but with easy routes and scrambling, it appeals to lower grade climbers. Just make sure that you have the experience necessary for the challenge chosen.
Thanks to Rab and Suzuki for their support on this project.Quick Facts:
When to go: May – September. If climbing the north face the snow lingers in the gullies and it can be wise to carry an ice axe in early season.
How to get there: Fly to Ljubljana from most UK airports. Drive or ride a motorbike.
Where to Stay: Bled is a great town to be based but it is a tourist town if you like that sort of thing
How Hard: The walking trails to the summit of Triglav are all superb scrambles / via ferratas. The north face routes start at UK grade Severe.
Guide Book: Popular Climbing Routes in Slovenia by Tine Mihelic and Rudi Zaman (ISBN 978-961-261-340-2)
Map: 1:25,000 Scale Triglav National Park
Guided Trips: I run guided trips to Triglav, see my website www.davetalbot.net or if you're in country visit a local mountain guide office.
More information / websites: http://www.summitpost.org/triglav/150787https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triglavhttp://www.tnp.si/national_park/
Films: Our film – Go Far, Go High, Go Home, that we filmed on the trip can be found at the following links.
15 minute Film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_x_DpJhdhfM
There will be a 30 minute film out soon. Watch this space.