A Slovenian Epic: Solo in the Julian Alps

Emily Woodhouse Adventure Stories, Comment and Opinion, Living Adventurously

I realise that after writing this slightly anxious and completely honest post pre going solo mountaineering in Slovenia, I should probably check back in with you guys. Nope these are not scheduled posts going out. I did in fact come back from Slovenia alive.

It was a huge learning curve in many respects. I’m definitely going to do a really useful factual post about it all before the end of the year… Or maybe in January if I’m being realistic. A guide to how things work in the mountains of this amazing country. It’s similar to the Alps, but not quite the same.

But, for now, I think I’d rather tell you a story. It’s a story of my first day alone in the Julian Alps and how I almost created the situation that I was most scared of. If you found my Glen Coe piece thought provoking, you’ll like this one.

All you need to know for context is I was doing a walk with work colleagues in the Julian Alps with two guides. I was staying on for a couple of extra days in the mountains and had agreed to split off from the group before they descended back to civilisation.

13:30 – Going Solo

I split off from the rest of the group at 1:30pm. Everyone else, including our two guides, descended off into the valley and I turned right to carry along the ridge. About half the team gave me high fives. Megan tried to get me to promise to contact them all to let them know I was safe.

“I don’t want to commit to anything in case I end up in a place with no signal and then you worry.”

She conceded it was a fair point. “Can you at least commit to not dying?”

“I promise not to die,” I said, levelly. “See you all on Monday.”

13:35 – Ah.

Realise I have no idea where I am on the map. Safely out of sight of the guides and anyone else who might judge my incompetence, I stop, sit down and get my map out. I spend some time staring at it. I know where we started the day and which ridgeline we were on – at least for the first part… A crow sits with me while I work it out. After a few minutes, I’m pretty sure I know roughly where I am and start walking.

14:00 – This is AWESOME

I’ve got myself located and merrily walk along a contouring path around the mountains infront, heading deeper into the Julian Alps. The path is what I come to know as classic Slovenian, with via ferrata rails just for fun and giggles. Sure it’s just a tiny rocky ledge with a long drop to my left. I get it. No need to get kitted up for a short horizontal section. Feeling like I’m the only person for miles now my group has gone, I’m more than surprised to meet two chaps going in the opposite direction on the ledge route.

This is what paths look like in Slovenia…

As I round the corner, a brilliant view of snowy Triglav comes into full. This is awesome. This is absolutely awesome. We’d meant to be going up Triglav as a group, but because of the unseasonable snow we’d been taken on a lower snow-free route. I didn’t say it to anyone, but I intended to go up Triglav in the next 2 days if I could. After the guides had bigged up how dangerous it would be in the snow, I didn’t want anyone to worry – or try to stop me.

I faff around for a bit, taking pictures and short video clips with the view… and the next view and the next view. I just can’t get over how epic the mountains are in Slovenia. And how steep they are – and the cliffs!

14:30 – Time to focus

After taking too many photos, I decide I need to ban myself from camera and focus if I’m going to get anywhere this afternoon. I put my camera somewhere unreachable in my bag and swap it for a compass. I’m disappointed to see that my compass has a bubble in it. It’s really not cold enough for that. Odd that the crossroads I was expecting isn’t clearly marked on the ground, but I carry on following the red bullseye symbols that mark the paths in Slovenia.

At the next col, there is a signpost – alpine style with times and directions. Reading the signs, I realise I am nowhere near as far along as I thought I was. Ooops. That was a massive 1:50k underestimation. It’s time to do some serious walking.

15:45 – This is epic!

I’ve come to the end of the winding contour path around the mountains in front of me. There have been stony paths through funny bouncy vegetation, ledges cut into the rock and signs about overhead rockfall. The mountain peaks are beyond my descriptive powers. I feel like I’m on a real adventure, exploring mountains with no idea what’s coming around the corner. It’s epic.

The sun is shining enough for me to throw some suncream on. I round the end of the ridge I’ve been traversing and get a sweeping view down into an alpine meadow. As I descend, there’s a sign for a hut, perched halfway up the mountain side. Shame I can’t sleep there tonight: it’s shut. Turns out that most of the mountain huts in Slovenia shut on 30th September. The date: 3rd October. A handful of huts stay open and some have winter rooms that you can sleep in bothy-style. I’d had my route and hut stops carefully planned – until the whole thing had been scuppered by not going up Triglav with the group. We’d started walking way further south than intended. I’d tried to look up open huts and had a chat with one of the guides about what was open. He’d recommended a winter room that they use for ski touring trips. That’s where I was heading tonight.

16:00 – I’ll be back for you

I cross the alpine meadow down in the valley. The sunlight has taken on a golden tinge and I am mesmerised by a dome shaped mountain straight in front of me on the skyline. I promise it I’ll come back for it. Ten minutes after passing a shepherd’s hut, I kick myself for not investigating to see if I could sleep in them. They’re marked as “alp” on the map (that’s the helpful English translation) and I try to look up what that mean, but don’t have signal. Instead I eat a wrap and gaze at the funny shaped mountain ahead.

In fact, I get carried away and take a short video to record the mountain and the moment.

“Yes mountain, I will come back for you… one day.” I pan down to the map on my lap, “And here we are, we’re down… here, just past those houses. I’m heading up here,” I run my finger along the red line, “to this hut for the winter room. Which is still quite a long way so I should probably get a wiggle on.”

It’s something like 6km to go and all uphill, along and above a river valley.

16:30 – I’m Starving

I’m so hungry that I stop to sharpen the saw. Aka stuff my face with the food I have. Or make that the food I can spare. I don’t expect there to be cooking facilities at the winter room and I sure as hell couldn’t take my stove with me in handluggage! So I have a pack of wraps, a bag of cashew and cranberry mix, a couple of cereal bars and a block of wafer biscuits. Due to a mix up about intentions to buy carrots individually vs for the group, I have none. All I’ve eaten today is scrambled egg on bread for breakfast, a wrap and a cereal bar for lunch. My stomach is starting to feel like it’s eating itself, but I need to make my rations last until the day after tomorrow. Plus I’m in a hurry, the sun’s starting to set and I’ve got a long way to go.

Even so, I can feel myself lagging. So, unceremoniously, I plonk myself down on a step in the path too high to contemplate hauling myself up. I eat some cranberries and cashew nuts and feel better. What a genius who put those two together in a bag! Then a hoick myself up and carry on plodding uphill.

17:00 – A Brief Meeting

My path – and seemingly all the mountains around me – had been empty since about 3 o’clock. As I trudged up the rocky river valley, I saw someone heading down in my direction. We met on the narrow path and exchanged a few words. The usual, “Hi, where are you from?” Where have you been today, where are you going? Apparently I was the first person he’d seen since early this morning. He warned me about the snow, which I knew already, and I told him about the path I’d just walked. Turns out he was going to that hut I’d walked past. Turns out it was open.

We carried on our separate ways.

It’s getting a bit late, judging by the sunset-esque light on the mountains. It is absolutely beautiful and I am completely in awe. I hit the edge of the snow line. There’s barely a couple of centimetres in the drifts.

15 Minutes Later…

About 15 minutes after passing the boy, I realise that the “right” solution to this scenario was to have gone back with him to the hut. “Ah well,” I think, “missed that opportunity,” and carry on.

17:30 – Still Plodding Uphill

I cut a corner between two paths to get onto the path around a mountain that leads to my winter room for the night. The paths are not big highways like in some areas of the UK and you have to keep your wits about you to spot the painted red markers on the rock. But the contour path looks more obvious, particularly with its little drift of snow marking the line. The moon’s come out. There’s snow now and some ice as I get higher. I’m still plodding uphill and there’s a way to go yet. I reckon it’ll be about an hour.

18:00 – Nearly there

I reach another signpost at the top of the col I’ve been climbing since about 4 o’clock. The rock is icy near the top. I dropped my sunglasses earlier (forgetting that they were still on my head) and they slid down the snow. Careful not to do something stupid in the pursuit of sunglasses, I was relieved when they stoppedĀ  and quickly made my way back down to them.

The signpost says 1hr 15min to the hut I want. I lose the 15 minutes somewhere and halve it because that’s about the speed I was doing earlier. The sun is setting and the clouds are going pink. In front of me is a wild expanse of rocky lumps and holes. It looks like a micro-nav assessor’s dream. I head out towards the hut. I am so close and nearly safe.

18:30 – Flip flip flip flip

I’m flailing about wildly. The path is impossible to follow. I couldn’t find the red markers and it seems that the path is marked by tiny cairns. There is no nice groove of a path in the landscape. It is all rock: a plain of rock. It is a night nav assessor’s dream and completely hopeless on a 1:50k map. The sun is setting and I’m still making my way forwards, in the general direction of the hut.

“Flip, flip, flip, flip…” I chant under my breath, because I can feel it’s starting to get dangerous. I am not 100% sure where I am and I can’t follow this path in the dark. Sure, I have a head torch and compass, but this is complex without a detailed map.

I consider the worst thing that could happen if I keep walking towards the winter room: death. Even though I’m only a kilometre away from the hut, if I can’t find it I’m screwed. I don’t have a tent or sleeping bag or anything to bivvy down for the night in the worst case scenario, except my clothes. I’ve also come so far off piste that I can’t find my way back to the signpost in the dark.

At the 11th hour, I turn around and make a mad dash back to the signpost before the sun sets and darkness falls. It’s hard to work out exactly where I’ve been. I’m clambering over big lumps of rock, around deep holes, across scree and ice. My footprints appear in the patches of snow now and again. It’s a good job I have a good sense of direction. My compass bubble from earlier is still wiggling around my needle and I doubt its accuracy.

The signpost

19:00 – Phew

I get back to the signpost. I hug and kiss the signpost for good luck, like we used to do with a certain cross on Dartmoor when I was small. Then I turn and head back the way I came, at least I know that route is safe and what it looks like. I make it across the corner I cut before it gets properly dark. In the half light, I find the long-uphill-slog of a path that I’ve spent my afternoon on. My torch goes on at 7:30pm when it’s too dark to see the red paint.

Finally, I come around a corner and see the lights of the hut, where I’d pointed it out to the boy several hours earlier. He’d asked me if it was far to the hut. “Look,” I’d pointed, “you can see it.” Now the lights were bringing me home.

22:00 – Safe

At quarter to ten, I arrive at the front door of the hut. It’s been a long day and, once I’d got down off the high mountain, a lovely walk. It’s a privilege to be able to walk in the dark between spikes of rock below a canopy of stars. Just me and the mountains. I paused in the alpine meadow to just stand and stare at the stars. Absolutely wonderful. But I was knackered and now had to hope I could find someone to let me in.

Luckily the outside door was open and, after some knocking, I managed to find the lady who owned the place. She was pretty surprised to see me, but very welcoming. I apologised profusely for my lateness. It’s common to arrive in alpine huts from 4pm. This was safely in the realms of an epic. She asked where I’d been and I showed her on the map.

“You aren’t afraid?” asked the hut lady.

“No,” I said, “I’m in Mountain Rescue in the UK so I know how stupid I’ve been.”

With hindsight, I wouldn’t say I’d been stupid – just ignored the warning signs and left turning round too late. But I was in a self-abasing mood by then. I dragged myself upstairs into a tiny room and slept.

We don’t live and learn…

This experience taught me a lot. People may argue that my actions proved that I wasn’t ready to do a solo hut to hut tour. Personally, I’d say I proved I was ready by making the right decision – even if it was at the 11th hour. I didn’t die. No Mountain Rescue personnel were called to my assistance. I got myself into a terrifying situationĀ and got myself out too.

Other than the obvious lessons about when to turn back, it’s made me realise something about risk and gaining experience in the outdoors. Because at some point we have to make that solo step into the stretch zone and hope we get it right. But if it doesn’t go right, it can go very wrong.

I’m in Mountain Rescue, I know that lots of these tiny bad decisions is exactly how many incidents happen. I know this and yet you have just witnessed the cascade of tiny choices I made that put me in a dangerous place. The reason I’m writing this is because you can know it all and yet it can still happen to you. It doesn’t matter how skilled or experienced you are. In fact, it’s the second you get cocky that you want to most watch your step. It can and it will happen to you if you spend enough time in the mountains. Recognise it and catch it before it becomes a disaster. Because in the mountains, we don’t live and learn. We learn and try not to die.