Long day. Big mountain. Am pain.
12 hours earlier:
I wake to find myself nestled in the crisp white sheets of Ars Viva Hostel. Our rest day yesterday seems to have done the trick, and the aches have fallen away from my neck and shoulders. Stretching over to the bedside table, I clumsily pick up the phone from where it’s charging, knocking something over and probably waking Kristen in the process.
We’ve got a long way to walk today, and I’m keen to check out the weather.
Something I’ve come to realise over the years is that covering ground on a hike is much more about being in a good state of mind than a good state of health. That’s why the last 5 km is always so hard, irrespective of how far you’ve come before. Since realising this, Kris and I have adopted a strategy of planning to go 5 km further than where we actually plan to end up. Don’t think about it too hard – it works for us.
For this reason our plans for the day are pretty ambitious – to reach Sviščaki Lodge some 32 km away and on the far side of a mountain. The fall-back plan is just to camp at the peak, hopefully finding some kind of shelter in the closed hut.
Packing quickly, I head downstairs to heat up some leftovers for breakfast. Nothing has moved in the fridge: still no other guests then.
I’ll be sad to leave this bizarre little hostel, where Benjamin’s paintings cover every wall and all the crockery is hand-made. Speaking of Benjamin, we looked him up, and apparently he’s famous enough to have his own Wikipedia page. That’s how you know you’ve made it.
We eat breakfast, drop off our keys, and head out into the early morning drizzle. I’m carrying a lot of water, and my pack feels a bit heavy, but not too bad, and the quiet farm roads around Podcerkev seem to fall away beneath our feet. Feels good to be back on the road.
Soon we arrive at Snežnik grad, yet another of Slovenia’s fairy tale castles. It’s lovely, but to be honest we’re more excited for our mountain, Snežnik peak, and move on quickly. Besides, we’re a bit worried someone might think we want to join their guided tour.
Following an overgrown track behind the castle, we begin our ascent. It’s slow going, with dozens of huge fallen trees covering an already hard to follow trail. Must have been a big storm, or maybe the heavy snowfall this year. In any case, it’s like the trees have been aimed at the path we want to take, and I get a bit anxious as I realise how long it’s taking to climb over these things. A section we thought would take half an hour takes two.
Eventually we break out into clear road – I never thought I would be so excited about hiking on vehicle tracks – and the going gets easier. Hopefully we can stick to a steady plod from here on out.
Now that we’re on open road we gain altitude rapidly, and it’s amazing how quickly the ecology changes: scrub gives way to forestry land, which thins out to mountain pines and finally bare limestone cliffs. There’s other stages in between, but I’m no botanist. I guess the general trend is that it gets pointer.
Keeping us company on our forest journey are the friendly calls of cuckoos, the barking of deer, and the industrial hammering of what I think are woodpeckers. Not to mention the giant snails, who curl up into their shells when we get close. Kris lets me know that when I’m walking in front she can tell how far away I am by watching the snails (which really are everywhere): if they’re still curled up, I’ve walked by recently; if not, then I’m either way ahead or lost.
Towards the top the views are beautiful, with snow drifts accenting the valleys and ridges between the tall limestone cliffs. I stop now and then just to take in the crumpled carpet of peaks below us. Okay, fine, the steep slope might have something to do with the stopping as well.
At the summit, all the pains of the day suddenly seem background. We made it. We’re in the clouds.
Snežnik isn’t the tallest mountain in the world – at 1800 m it’s still a good few hundred metres below Kosciuszko – but the 1200 metre continuous ascent is about the largest I’ve ever done. I’m pretty stoked.
Heading on, we make good time, propelled by the setting sun and the thought that 5 km down the hill is a mountain hut, open and serving food.
We hurry inside, so eager for food that we walk straight into a stand-up gig being recorded on film. It turns out that sharing the mountain hut this evening is a charity fundraiser: 33 peaks in 33 days, with stand-up comedy each night thrown in for good measure. I can’t say I understand a whole lot of the Slovenian comedy, but we somehow get given two free shirts and a bottle opener. The people are friendly here.
It’s a nice moment: with our traditional Slovenian food, wine, and incomprehensible comedy we can finally relax. The GPS says we walked 37.5 km, which I think is a bit inflated (probably more like 33) but in any case it’s been a long day. Finally time for some sleep.
Slovenia, Stage 1
Approximate distance: 37.5 km
Villages: Podcerkev – Nadlesk – Šmarata – Leskova dolina – Sviščaki