The thou­sand faces of Cen­tral Europe’s karstic gem


The thou­sand faces of Cen­tral Europe’s karstic lime­stone gem.

“Beethoven played at the Phil­har­monic,” our scrag­gle­bearded Ljubl­jana tour guide said on our last day in Slove­nia, as he led us about the cap­i­tal. It was Oc­to­ber 2017, and we’d come here thanks to the hospi­tal­ity of the Slove­nia Tourism de­part­ment, who’d ar­ranged lav­ish ho­tels, din­ners, and this quirky guide for our lit­tle crew: me, the mag­a­zine’s as­so­ci­ate ed­i­tor; Dig­i­tal Ed­i­tor Kevin Corrigan; Se­nior Con­tribut­ing Photographer An­drew Burr; my sig­nif­i­cant other, the pro climber Nina Wil­liams; and Burr’s life and busi­ness part­ner, Juanita Ah Quin.

Slove­nia, in south­ern Cen­tral Europe east of Italy and south of Aus­tria, below the Kam­nik-Sav­inja Alps, is one of the most rock- and wa­ter-rich coun­tries in Europe. It has 59 ma­jor rivers, many of which flow from the Ju­lian Alps—the moun­tain sys­tem that dom­i­nates the coun­try’s north­west—ex­ten­sive aquifers, and huge un­der­ground karstic wa­ter sys­tems. The coun­try’s iconic high point, Mount Triglav (9,396 feet), sits in one of Europe’s largest na­ture re­serves, Triglav Na­tional Park. The ma­jor­ity of the over 4,500 routes sit in the coun­try’s western edge in ei­ther the Ju­lian Alps or along the Adri­atic Coast. With so many moun­tains and the high­est per-capita GDP of the Slavic coun­tries, Slove­ni­ans have long had the op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore their ver­ti­cal ter­rain. Dur­ing our 11-day visit, we’d get a sam­pling of its many of­fer­ings, from comp climb­ing, to lime­stone crag­ging, to boul­der­ing on a glacier-fed river, to learn­ing about the his­tory and cul­ture.

“The Phil­har­monic was es­tab­lished in 1701. That’s older than your coun­try,” our guide con­tin­ued, point­ing out the neo-Re­nais­sance build­ing below the Ljubl­jana Cas­tle, with large let­ters above three el­e­gant win­dows read­ing “Academia Phil­har­mon­i­co­rum.” The river Ljubl­jan­ica ran nearby, and we could hear the clamor of com­merce in the nearby city cen­ter. Our guide gig­gled, again. I won­dered if he spent his nights work­ing his tour-guide jokes in front of his cats. Nina ran off to climb the façade of an old build­ing. We’d some­how lost Burr in the city cen­ter, where he’d been tak­ing pho­tos of an ac­cor­dion player who pounded wine and then played clas­si­cal mu­sic. Kevin stared at the baroque ar­chi­tec­ture. Juanita looked at her phone to see if Burr had checked in.

Af­ter guess­ing that our guide prob­a­bly owned three tab­bies, two Maine coons, and a Per­sian, I asked him, “Where’s Klub K4? I hear they play trap on Satur­day nights.”

The Plas­tic

“Well, there’s noth­ing I can do/Only wanna be with you,” sang Hootie and the Blow­fish out­side my ho­tel room in Koper, a port city on Slove­nia’s tiny sliver of Adri­atic Coast, at 2 a.m. my first night in Slove­nia. Be­tween the jet­lag, the top 40 hit from the mid-1990s blar­ing from a nearby bar, and the up­com­ing climb­ing com­pe­ti­tion, I could barely sleep. Nina and I had ar­rived on Oc­to­ber 19, a few days be­fore the rest of the team, to climb at the lime­stone dream crag Misja Pec and to par­tic­i­pate in the Adi­das Ticket to Rock­stars comp at the Plus Climb­ing gym in Koper. I wanted to fo­cus on rest and per­form­ing well the next day, but in­stead found my mind churn­ing over such Hootie-sung wis­dom as “I’m such a baby yeah, the dolphins make me cry.”

The next evening, I joined 305 clim­bers at Plus Climb­ing, which the Slove­nian photographer Luka Fonda had opened that April. Kle­men Be­can, a Slove­nian who’d es­tab­lished Wa­ter World, a 5.14d in the nearby Osp cave, had set many of the prob­lems, us­ing large holds and vol­umes in the park­ouresque World Cup style. While World Cup clim­bers Janja Garn­bret, Mina Markovic, Katja Kadic, and Nina ses­sioned the out­ward-fac­ing starts, man­tels, and dy­namic toe hooks, I looked for prob­lems left over from the kids’ comp. Maybe I could take the gold … if I lied about my age.

“Hav­ing fun?” Luka asked me an hour into the comp. The day be­fore, Nina and I had climbed in Misja Pec, swap­ping burns on Rock and Roll, a 70-foot 5.12d. The horse­shoe-shaped lime­stone crag, a few thou­sand feet from the vil­lage of Osp, fea­tures 200-plus stellar routes. Slove­ni­ans es­tab­lished the first few sport routes here in the mid-1980s, and by the late 1980s the crag had its first 8b/8b+ climbs (5.14s). In 1992, Tadej Slabe es­tab­lished Za staro kolo in ma­jh­nega psa, an 8c+ (5.14c) power-en­durance route and then one of the world’s hard­est. In 2001, Jure Golob climbed Martin

Kr­pan (5.14d), and in 2016 Adam On­dra added Vi­cious Cir­cle (5.15a/b). When Nina sent Rock and Roll, my com­pet­i­tive in­stincts kicked in and I tried my hard­est, clip­ping the an­chors. While I could push my­self on Misja Pec’s lime­stone, grab­bing the

Cheeta vol­umes, us­ing body ten­sion, and man­tel­ing into the dual-tex gas­tons at the comp felt for­eign. But I tried. Af­ter a few prob­lems, I started to have fun. The climb­ing re­quired a vast reper­toire of moves, a far cry from the more straight­for­ward, climb­ing-as-fit­ness ap­proach at US gyms. I be­gan to ap­pre­ci­ate why Slove­nian clim­bers were so good.

The coun­try, with a pop­u­la­tion of just over 2 mil­lion and roughly the size of New Jer­sey, hosts an in­cred­i­ble num­ber of clim­bers, with some of the best comp clim­bers in the world now and in years past ( see side­bar, p.65). The 2018 World Cup se­ries is fill­ing with Slove­ni­ans, and a lead World Cup is be­ing held in Kranj. The Slove­ni­ans’ abil­ity cer­tainly stems from the coun­try’s rich his­tory of moun­taineer­ing and rock climb­ing. Slove­nian women like Pavla Je­sih and Dana Ku­ral­tova climbed the north face of Triglav in 1925. The late To­maz Hu­mar, who won a Pi­o­let d’Or in 1996 for a new route on the north­west face of Ama Dablam, and Silvo Karo, who made the first as­cent of

Psy­cho Ver­ti­cal (ED+ VII+ A3 90 de­grees; 950m) on Torre Eg­ger, started their ca­reers in the Slove­nian moun­tains. In fact, the list of top Slove­nian alpin­ists would fill an ar­ti­cle; they are a hard­core, hard-driv­ing lot, and a slang term—“Slove­nian style”—has emerged in the alpin­ist com­mu­nity, re­fer­ring to go­ing for it no mat­ter what, of­ten in the face of lethal haz­ards like storms, avalanches, etc.

At the base of the Ju­lian Alps, just out­side Triglav Na­tional Park in Mois­trana, sits the Slove­nian Alpine Mu­seum. In this coun­try, even the pres­i­dent has rec­og­nized moun­taineer­ing: In 2010, the then pres­i­dent Dr. Danilo Türk awarded Francek Knez and Silvo Karo the Or­der of Merit for “their achieve­ments in Slove­nian moun­tain climb­ing and for their con­tri­bu­tions to the rep­u­ta­tion of Slove­nian moun­taineer­ing and greater recog­ni­tion of Slove­nia in the world.” The cul­ture and sup­port­ive at­mos­phere have helped shape Slove­nian clim­bers into some of the world’s best, push­ing an older gen­er­a­tion in the moun­tains and younger clim­bers at the crags.

The Crags

I flicked on my head­lamp below Tro­jan­ski konj (5.13a), a tufa line on the right side of the Osp cave. The mud floor, dark, drip­ping tu­fas, and soggy pot­holes below the base be­spoke the pres­ence of wa­ter—lots of wa­ter. The Osp cave fea­tures over 50 routes, the ma­jor­ity be­ing 5.13 on up. Some are six pitches, and climb 600 feet up the wild- ly over­hang­ing grotto. The cave is part of Slove­nia’s ex­ten­sive Karst re­gion, a lime­stone plateau dot­ted with 8,000 caves stretch­ing from the Gulf of Tri­este to the Vi­pava Val­ley. This zone con­tains a sig­nif­i­cant de­posit of por­ous lime­stone into which rivers, ponds, and lakes dis­ap­pear and then resur­face else­where.

Though it was only late af­ter­noon, the cave had al­ready lost most of its light. I fought through 3D climb­ing, spot­light­ing holds with my head­lamp, grab­bing tu­fas and bul­bous drips un­til my fore­arms had swollen to the size of the fea­tures I was wrestling. Au­tumn was a good time to visit, as there was less wa­ter. In 2014, Kle­men Be­can es­tab­lished Wa­ter World, a 160-foot 5.14d, so named for the fact that the cave, as part of the Karst sys­tem, fills with 20 feet of wa­ter in other parts of the year, mak­ing many of the routes ac­ces­si­ble only by boat.

Be­can has bolted nine lines in the cen­tral roof, in­clud­ing an­other 5.14d, Halupca 1979, and the 600-foot

Bala Bala (5.14a), which climbs through a fig tree. The po­ten­tial for harder climb­ing here seems enor­mous, with small fea­tures con­nect­ing large tu­fas out the grand ceil­ing. On the right flank, Kevin climbed Satida Baga

ba, mov­ing through a 10-foot 5.10 boul­der prob­lem and into a se­ries of giant ice-cream-cone tufa stairs. “I love Slove­nia!” he said, hug­ging a tufa. Kevin wasn’t alone in his love. Af­ter all, as our Ljubl­jana tour guide would later in­form us, “You can’t spell Slove­nia without ‘ love’!”

One day later, we all headed to Misja Pec where we wit­nessed se­ri­ous sports ac­tion at the Freezer sec­tor, on the right side of the amphitheater.

“AAAAGGGHHH!” a teenage climber screamed as his heels skid­ded along the ground, kick­ing dust into the air. We’d met him and his be­layer the day be­fore at the Osp cave, a mile down the road in the same bu­colic val­ley. To­day, as yes­ter­day, their par­ents had dropped them off, and now they tried Strelovod, an 85-foot, travers­ing 5.14b.

They were skip­ping clips and nearly deck­ing. The falls seemed pedes­trian to them. Later, we climbed at a city park out­side Ljubl­jana. With 25 bolted routes from 5.10 to 5.14, pic­nic ta­bles, and walk­ing trails, climb­ing had been nor­mal­ized here. It’s wo­ven into the na­tion’s fab­ric.

The Boul­ders

“You know it’s not a good wedding un­til you hear at least three ex­plo­sions,” the boul­derer Nejc Šerbec told us at din­ner, at a restau­rant in Bovec in the alpine Soca Val­ley. We’d spent the day on the river-pol­ished lime­stone blocks lin­ing the Soca River, with dozens of boul­ders of­fer­ing prob­lems from V0 to V13. Dur­ing WWI, the area saw mil­lions of shells fired, but the or­di­nances had a 10 per­cent fail­ure rate, which means there are still un­ex­ploded mis­siles in the woods. Though it’s il­le­gal to take them, that doesn’t stop peo­ple, and Šerbec told us that for a bach­e­lor party a group of men found a mis­sile, drove a few miles with it in their car, and then threw it onto a fire. Un­for­tu­nately, the mis­sile turned out to be a dud. “It was a bad omen for the mar­riage,” Šerbec said.

We had met Šerbec out­side the Cul­tural Venue in Bovec. Af­ter he of­fered us home­made liquor—a tart gin (foul tast­ing)—and ap­ple turnovers (quite good), we headed to Italy. Driv­ing into Slove­nia’s neigh­bor was a faster way to ac­cess our next des­ti­na­tion, Ko­barid, a town just out­side the Soca Val­ley, than head­ing through the Ju­lian Alps. This is a dense re­gion, with com­plex bor­ders and myr­iad lan­guages and di­alects—Slove­nia is en­cir­cled by Italy, Hun­gary, Aus­tria, and Croa­tia. Af­ter our rental van’s mir­rors grazed the build­ings on the nar­row streets in Ko­barid, we stopped in a lo­cal’s back­yard, mov­ing a wooden log fence to park and head to­ward the boul­ders.

Since 2009, Gasper Bratina, a for­mer civil en­gi­neer who now works on ex­ca­vat­ing Ro­man fortresses, and friends have es­tab­lished around 150 prob­lems in the Soca Val­ley. At a forested sec­tor there, we grabbed wa­ter-pol­ished river rock next to the emer­ald-col­ored Soca River As we wres­tled up the com­pres­sion lines, find­ing the del­i­cate bal­ance be­tween squeez­ing just enough to stay on but not so much we flamed out, I re­called Bratina’s ad­vice: “If it’s too hot you can’t hold any­thing, and if it’s too cold the rock be­comes glassy,” he’d said. “V3 can feel su­per hard on a bad day, and the next day with the right temps, you can float up it.”

Cas­tles and the City

In the Bled Cas­tle, a blood-soaked teenager with an ar­row through his head wan­dered into the courtyard. Un­der the stairs, a were­wolf lurched at our an­kles as we walked up­stairs to see zom­bies and a sword­fight. The Bled lo­cals had or­ga­nized a postHal­loween fright­fest to show­case the eeri­ness of the cas­tle, perched on a gray lime­stone promon­tory above Bled Lake, and to give the teenagers a rea­son to stum­ble about other than look­ing for their lost iPhones.

The mix of medieval ar­chi­tec­ture and mod­ern ameni­ties fol­lowed us through to the coun­try’s cap­i­tal, a city of 280,000 peo­ple. We crossed the Dragon Bridge over the river Ljubl­jan­ica. On the four cor­ners sat large dragon stat­ues. We lit can­dles un­der a dragon’s belly, in mem­ory of our friend Hay­den Kennedy, who had climbed ex­ten­sively in Slove­nia and with Slove­nian alpin­ists.

Later, we walked into the car-free sec­tion of the cap­i­tal, where we found flash-mob per­for­mances of “Thriller,” men in goat masks play­ing gui­tar, and ven­dors sell­ing food, in­clud­ing Bled cream cake. In the evening, we ate a five course-meal in the Ljubl­jana Cas­tle where they paired a dif­fer­ent wine with each small plate. In Slove­nia, they say when you have a hang­over it’s Imam ma ka, which rans­lates to “hav­ing a cat.” I sud­denly fig­ured out why our tour guide had seemed so strange, and won­dered if I was go­ing to hack up a hair­ball my­self af­ter din­ner.

Below the Ljubl­jana Cas­tle sits the Phil­har­monic, and then a few thou­sand feet north, the disco. In Klub K4, where we headed af­ter our feast, a half dozen TV screens dis­played videos of mov­ing eye­balls, which fol­lowed us as we walked in. Kevin, Nina, and I bobbed to the trap mu­sic, en­joy­ing the nightlife. The univer­sity stu­dents, in their thin scarves and Euro­pean hip­ster clothes, struck a stark con­trast with the stodgy, dressed-up Phil­har­monic pa­trons. With the di­ver­sity in this tiny coun­try, from the comp and sport climb­ing to the boul­der­ing and cul­ture, Slove­nia truly is a place of a thou­sand faces.




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