JOHNNY ROBINSON: Jokers on Mount Triglav


Johnny and Allen atop Mt. Triglav in the Jullian Alps.
Johnny and Allen atop Mt. Triglav in the Jullian Alps.

Our headlamps have been piercing the coal black, moonless night for five hours, but the welcome perfusion of the dawn light is finally beginning. It’s seeping into the high alpine meadows. We’re practically out in the open as we enter the treeless high country and leave the deep woods below.

Soon we’re creeping around the noble exterior of the silent Vodnikov Dom mountain hut, looking for water. We find the aproned hut mistress perched on a bench out back, smoking the day’s first cigarette. She smiles and, without our asking, points to the trickling water source. I drink long from the tin bowl provided, and Allen asks in mock Slovene, “Eeeze good, no?” This silly accent becomes the hallmark of our banter for the rest of the long day.

Allen and I are taking part in a goodwill trip to northwest Slovenia, and an ascent of Mt. Triglav in the Jullian Alps was envisioned from the start. At 2864 meters, Triglav is Slovenia’s highest peak and its jagged silhouette is even featured on the national flag. It is said that all Slovenians should climb it at least once. “Maybe if our ascent is successful we weell be invited to become Slovenian citizens!” Allen announces hopefully.

“I’ve reconsidered,” I announced during final preparations the evening before. “I think we should depart the guesthouse at 1:00am instead of 3:00am. “Ah yes, we can then start our suffering sooner!” offers my compatriot. An ascent of Mount Triglav by the normal route in fair weather is not technical; climbing gear is not required even though sections of the upper pitches are a bit sketchy.

The elegance and beauty -and ridiculousness- of our intended trek is that it will be a one-day affair. Instead of spending several days on the mountain, as sane parties do, we will go ‘fast and light,’ and door-to-door in, oh, nineteen or so hours. So Allen and I left our guest house in the village of Ribcev Laz at the appointed hour and silently cruised through the village and up the Mostnice Gorge to where the climbing really started. Up, up the unrelenting mountainside we trudged, breathing heavily, shrouded in deep woods and mist.

What should by all rights have been a grim march in those midnight hours was actually one steeped in hilarity and off-the-wall commentary by both participants.i was especially happy to see my partner’s rising to the absurdity of the occasion.  Both of us possess climbing experience, but not only was Allen just recently emerging from knee surgery -”my doc’s gonna keeel me!”- but he’s not, like me, accustomed to running long distances, a skill most handy in outings such as this. Nevertheless, Allen’s strong as an ox, and with deep humor and generosity of spirit he presses on hour-after-hour, offering up all kinds of buffoonery which not only keeps me smiling but keeps me moving.

We’re whooping it up in the crisp light of the morning, surrounded by the stark and spectacular beauty of the terrain, as we make good time on the upper reaches of the peak. With the dispatch of a section of trail that switchbacks a steep flank of the mountain, we arrive at the highest hut on Triglav, Planika Dom. Tempted to pause at this refuge from which most climbers make their summit push, we keep truckin’, part of our self-imposed ‘keep-moving’ timetable. Besides, “the summit goddess she awaits!”

The sun is shining brightly up here on this final pitch beneath the summit. Thankfully the rock is dry; footing is solid. Nevertheless…”Here a slip means certain death from an 800-meeeter fall,” my partner cackles maniacally. “Ok, beeg feesh. It’s almost 9:00 and we do not yet hug zee summit.” But before we know it –not really; it’s been 8 hours of ‘game-on’ movement– we’re on the apex of Triglav, joining a dozen Slovene ‘revelers’ taking in the stunning summit view.

Clouds move dramatically among neighboring peaks, wisps  converge to engulf us at intervals. We clown around the summit ‘rocket ship,’ a tiny sheet metal shelter, and with the friendly Slovenes we celebrate not only our ascent but our status of simply being alive. They laugh at the Americans’ one day, village-to-village quest, and enthusiastically help us plan our descent route, poring over our topo maps and making suggestions. We’re going with our initial scheme of descending a different, longer route from our ascent one, creating what to us is a most aesthetic overall line. When we announce finally that we’ve got to be headed down our new mountain friends embrace us not only with bear hugs but with good cheer and encouragement.

As we drop in elevation, the green returns; tufts of alpine nettles and wild flowers poke from among the lunar-like landscape. We pass tarns with the bluest, greenest water imaginable. And in spite of increasing fatigue -or because of it- we continue to hurl irreverent banter at each other. “Gotta keep moving, meester!”

“In times of stress zee first thing to go is zee sense of humor!” Allen gleefully points out as spirits sag on the last, endless section of steep descent to the valley floor and the lake. Physically, we’ve HAD IT. “I’m glazing over now,” is my assessment. Now delirious with fatigue, we make it to the lake, strip off our ripened garments and collapse into waist-deep water. Ahhh… One of us checks the time and calculates, “A leetle over 17 hours for our magneeeficent little day hike!”

Not only is this Triglav experience yet more affirmation of how much living can happen in a day, but it impresses me with the reminder that, given a light heart, confidence, and an unrelenting sense of humor, lots of tough ground can be negotiated, not only in the mountains but on the broader stage of life as well.

Johnny Robinson