All things going according to plan, this should be the last blog post I write on the Via Dinarica.
We’re two days out from the finish line in Valbonë, but there’s still one lumpy obstacle between us and it: Maja e Jezercës, the biggest, baddest mountain on the Via Dinarica. At 2694 m, not only is it taller than anything we’ve climbed so far, but it’s also more difficult, typically requiring crampons and ice picks to summit – or so we’ve been told. We have none of those things, but, just maybe, if we leave early and get some good weather, we might fluke our way to the top. That’s the plan, anyway.
I poke my head out into the pre-morning chill, and then quickly poke it back in again: it’s cold, overcast and drizzling. Not the optimal start. There’s a fine sheet of mist rising off the slate blue waters of Liqjentës e Jezercës, and the snow encrusted mountains around us are completely enshrined by cloud. To our left I can hear our neighbours, a group of four hikers of unspecified Northern European origin. They’re packing up inside their tents, evidently planning to make an early ascent as well. There’s also the German guy to our right (of unknown name), who told us yesterday that he was going to make an attempt at the summit as well. So if we have to get rescued, at least we won’t be the only idiots who tried to climb the perilous mountain in a storm. And surely we can’t all be making the wrong decision, can we?
It’s a logical fallacy – they could well be thinking the same thing as us – but I don’t dwell on that. This is a mountain that I’m determined to climb. Not only is it the highest and most difficult mountain on the Via Dinarica, it’s arguably the grand finale of the whole thing. Sure, we technically finish in Valbonë, but everything after this is more or less just walking back to civilisation – an echo, if you will.
Inspired by the industrious preparations of our neighbours, we spring into action. We’ll just take Kris’s pack, carrying only the food and gear we’ll need for the mountain. The tent, containing everything else, will remain set up down here. The plan is that we’ll climb Maja e Jezercës, come back here and pack up the stuff, before heading a few kilometres back up the path to a turn off to the town of Thethi, where we’ll stay tonight. Doing it this way means there’ll be a little bit of back-tracking, but we’ve decided it’s worth it to not have to carry our clumsy packs up the mountain.
The rain helpfully dies down long enough for us to dress and eat breakfast in record time, and we end up being the first to leave (not that it’s a race or anything). As we begin our ascent around the lake, what starts our as intermittent sprinkling turns into real rain, and by the time we reach the turn off to Thethi, the drops on the limestone rocks have thickened and merged to make the stone uniformly dark and slippery. It’s more rain than we were hoping for. Furthermore, the route onwards to Maja e Jezercës is covered by a massive snow field. Neither of us wants to give up yet, but we have virtually no experience with snow, and, after Kris’s fall a few weeks ago, we’re very wary. We’re seriously considering giving up.
As if to save us from the trap of our own indecision, the German guy chooses this moment to power up the hill behind us. He strides past and straight onto the snow without pause, and, all of a sudden it doesn’t look so bad. We take a few tentative steps, and sure enough, the snow is fine.
Well, that’s that.
We walk on, following the tracks of the German guy as he shrinks into the distance.
From there, it becomes almost like passing through the levels of a video game. Each snow field breaks out into another that’s steeper and more perilous than the last, challenging us to find inventive new routes. Less than a quarter of our time is spent on the actual track (and, considering it’s the middle of summer, I’m not actually sure when that track is a viable option, if not now.) This landscape is beautiful, but feels incredibly unstable. Every hour or so we here a rock slide in the distance – some big, some small – and it’s abundantly clear that, in these grubbly mountains, nothing is stable.
Nevertheless, I’m really enjoying myself, and we seem to be making pretty good time. It’s only two kilometers from the Thethi turn-off to the summit, but in that distance we have to climb around 600 m and, as most of the snow fields are relatively flat, that means that there’s also a number of steep rock climbs. I’m glad not to have my pack.
The German guy has long since disappeared into the fog, but after a couple of hours of hiking we become aware of the group of Europeans on the slopes below us. There was a stray dog hanging around the campsite last night, and he’s now followed them all the way up. I’m quite impressed, but also worried: the dog doesn’t seem to care at all about the sheer cliffs on either side of him, and runs happily along the treacherous ice sheets, tongue lolling in the wind.
Those same cliffs are starting to give us some worries. While the snow fields started out fairly flat, we’re now following a much steeper ridge. That would be fine, but for the fact that if you were to slip, it’s steep all the way into thin air. No chance to stop on that icy surface.
We’re at about 2400 m when we cross a snow field that feels a little dodgier than those that have come before. This is it, we decide. Nothing more dangerous than this.
About twenty minutes later we find something more dangerous. We can follow the track up an exposed section of gravel, but to go any further requires walking across an exposed snow slope. It’s quite steep (60 degrees maybe), and if we slip there’s nothing to stop us for hundreds of metres. We both agree that it’s far too dangerous to go on from here, though the German guy is nowhere to be seen so he must have found a way.
It’s dispiriting to have to turn around, but I’m glad we at least made an solid attempt. We’re at just over 2500 m, less than 200 m from the summit, but there’s just no safe way to continue. When we saw Thomas yesterday he said that he only made it to 2500 m, so I can only assume that this is where he stopped as well. The thought is comforting.
We’re both a bit worried about the German guy, so we decide to stick around until he comes back. It’s not raining anymore, and it’s actually kind of nice to spend a few minutes taking in the scenery. Everything is grey – the snow, the cliffs, the gravel, the clouds – but occasionally we get a peek down to the vibrant green valley far below.
We just start to make out the Europeans below us, when the German guy comes careering around the corner. He’s moving fast along the slope, relying heavily on his hiking poles. With each step he sends a a miniature avalanche streaming downwards. but his eyes are fixed avidly forwards and he seems not to care.
It’s terrifying to watch, and after he half slips, we call out for him to slow down. He takes no notice, however, and carries on at pace, perhaps unable to hold back his own momentum. As he comes into line above us, Kris and I brace ourselves to catch him if he falls, but he makes it down safely.
“Probably shouldn’t have done that,” he says, shaking a little.
But German guy isn’t the kind of person to rest, and soon enough he’s leaping down the mountain again. We follow at a more sedate pace.
When we pass the Europeans the dog is still going strong. “Want a free dog?” one of them says, only half joking.
The way down is much easier, and we make pretty good time, returning to camp around 1:30 pm. Down here, out of the clouds it’s turned into a lovely day, and there’s a big group of day walkers eating lunch by the lake and daring each other to swim in the icy water. We lounge for a bit – it’s been a hard morning – before eating a quick lunch and packing up the gear. The hard bit of today is over (well, we got close anyway) but it’s still a six hour walk to Thethi, and I feel exhausted just at the thought. Thankfully it should be virtually all downhill.
Reluctantly we get going on our way to Thethi, but that reluctance is just a hold over from the idea we have that hiking is difficult; at this point we can hike in our sleep. Terrain doesn’t bother us, nor distance, or even hills – at least when not in extremes. I wouldn’t say that we’re fit exactly, but hike 1500 km and you’ll start to find it gets easy too. So at this point my brain just checks out and enjoys the ride over the plaster white Albanian rocks. This track isn’t on any of our maps, but it’s surprisingly well marked and clearly frequented by the shepherds who take to these mountains in summer. We pass a few other hikers, lots of sheep, and even a few of Albania’s extensive collection of bunkers, but ultimately it’s a fairly uneventful walk. We mostly spend the time thinking about what it’s going to be like when we finish up and return home. Perhaps it’s something to do with the endless, meditative walking of a thru-hike, but we’ve both come up with a long list of resolutions. I won’t go into them here, but if we keep up just half of them it’ll be a pair of saints that step back onto Australian soil. And even if it’s idealistic thinking, it’s still exciting.
But even if I’m all ready to go back to Australia and start my new and improved life, there’s a lot of things I’ll miss about the Via Dinarica. There’s the obvious – the scenery, the culture, the hiking itself – but then there’s all those things that you experience on a longer time scale as well, and which are probably not expressed strongly in these daily blogs: the sense of purpose, the feeling of working hard all day, and the contentedness that fosters. I’ve heard it said that happiness is derived from the completion of achievable goals. Well that’s what the Via Dinarica has been, I guess. One big thing broken up into lots of individual, achievable stages. In contrast to the more abstract and academic life I led before travelling, it’s a much more tangible way of experiencing things. It’s simple and fulfilling, though I couldn’t do it forever.
All that conversation comes to a close when we come to a cliff. We knew Thethi was supposed to be many hundreds of metres down, but we’d suspiciously been staying flat. Now we saw why. It was time to walk down a cliff.
All that stuff I said earlier about hiking not being hard anymore? Complete crap. The sun is setting right into our eyes, and the ground is covered in those rounded stones that are just the right size to bruise the soles of your feet. And it’s steep. Within an hour I feel like I’ve rattled all the cartilage out of my joints, and now it’s just bone on bone.
We toil on like this for two or three hours, not really taking any breaks because we want to get Thethi before nightfall. When we finally reach the base and look back behind us, it’s hard to believe that someone found a path down such a cliff face.
With our weary bodies, we make the final push for Thethi over dried-up riverbeds. It takes about an hour, and it’s after 6 pm by the time we crawl, exhausted, into town. Somehow that downhill – supposedly the easy part of hiking – has taken more out of me than all Maja e Jezercës’ snow fields and rock climbs together.
It’s safe to say that Thethi is not the town I was expecting. If there was once a traditional village here, it’s been long buried under a concrete layer of guest houses, restaurants and bars. The streets crawl with tourists – many Australian – and there’s lights and music blaring from every second building. I don’t mean to sound too bitter, and I’m aware that we’re tourists too, but it’s a shock. Especially as all the ads sell Thethi as an ‘authentic cultural experience’.
Yesterday, Thomas recommended we stay at the Rupa guest house, but we can’t find it and settle instead for one of the many villas that line the main road. It’s fine, but no adorable homestay. Now that Maja e Jezercës is done, I’m excited to finish. There’s a sizable hill to cross tomorrow, but I’m so excited to cross the finish line I don’t think I’ll want to stop until we’re there. Just need to make it through one more dinner, one more dawn…
One more day.
ONE DAY MORE!
Albania, Stage 44 (Part 2 of an alternate route via Maja e Jezercës and Qafa e Pejës)
Start and end points: Liqjentës e Jezercës to Thethi
Approximate distance: 31.5 km
Villages: Thethi (Theth)
Features: Prokletije National Park (Accursed Mountains) – Liqjentës e Jezercës (Jezerce lakes) – Maja e Jezercës (Maja Jezerce) (2694 m) – Qafa e Pejës – Mini mart in Thethi (Mini Market Jezerca) – Guesthouses in Thethi