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Climb Slovenia!

The thousand faces of Central Europe's karstic gem

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Nina Williams sends Stric Tone (5.12d), Bohinjska Bela, Slovenia.Andrew Burr

“Beethoven played at the Philharmonic,” our scraggle-bearded 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.

Nejc Šerbec on T-bone Overdose (V7), Soca River Boulders.Andrew Burr

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.

Williams flashes Hugolina (5.12c) on the right side of Misja Pec’s perfect amphitheater.Andrew Burr

“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 True Heart: How Slovenia Breeds Comp Climbers below). 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.

Juanita Ah Quin tops out Dezela Salc (5.8), Misja Pec.Andrew Burr

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 wildly 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.

Moritz Welt gets morphic on Active Discharge (5.13b), Osp.

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 Bagaba, 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.

Kevin Corrigan beside two vines on Dezela Salc (5.8), Misja Pec.Andrew Burr

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.

Over the eons, the Soca River has carved the limestone into smooth, techy blocks.Andrew Burr

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 post-Halloween 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 Bled Castle, home to teenage werewolves and other horrors.Kevin Corrigan

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. 

True Heart

How Slovenia Breeds Comp Crushers

Janja Garnbret crushing at the Adidas ticket to Rockstars comp in Koper.James Lucas

Coming out last at the Villars, Switzerland, Lead Climbing World Cup in July 2018, the Slovenian Janja Garnbret moved fluidly up the finals route, locking off a pocket on the side of a volume. With the hold at her chest and her feet dangling, Garnbret, the IFSC number-one ranked climber, easily reached the next volume. She continued, nabbing the women’s highpoint and winning the first stage of the 2018 Lead World Cup just months after taking the Bouldering World Cup in Moscow—and showing what climbers from her little country can do.

Garnbret is far from the sole talent in Slovenian comp climbing. From 1997 until 2002, Martina Cufar dominated the World Cup, podiuming 16 times at lead events. Mina Markovic has won six World Cups, and younger talents like Domen Skofic and Gregor Vezonik have been pushing into the higher ranks as well. The Slovenes have long climbed hard, trained hard, and produced on the world stage.

Part of this is explained by Slovenia’s small size, which fosters a tight-knit climbing scene. Luka Fonda, one of Slovenia’s 20 climbing coaches and the owner of the Plus Climbing gym in Koper, notes, “We can do a lot together.” The Slovenian team, which consists of a half dozen men and a dozen women, meets weekly to boulder at Plus Climbing or at the small gyms in Ljubljana, takes trips to Austria—some six hours distant—to train on routes, or travels to Germany (farther yet) for the World-Cup style problems in its gyms.

“Each one is pushing the next one,” Fonda says of the Slovenian team. The more experienced climbers help the newer generations, passing on knowledge as well as the ethos that climbing isn’t just recreation, but a sport to excel at. “There’s not a lot of people who go into the gym and just have fun,” Fonda says. In Slovenia, any promising youth who climbs for over six months will typically receive coaching. Further, “We work hard with passion,” says Fonda, noting that their motivation comes less from a desire for notoriety or financial support but instead from the heart. While the government sponsors three climbers—Markovic, Skofic, and Katja Kadic—with a small salary, most climbers work side jobs. “A mix of these ingredients makes our country strong in climbing,” Fonda says.

Slovenia’s heart may do it well in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics where strong climbers like Garnbret could win gold. However, at present, the Slovenes face the challenges of having limited options for training. The country’s sole speed wall opened just two months ago, and the best training for route climbing is in Austria. Fonda hopes that Slovenia will build a more adequate facility for training all three disciplines. Until then, the Slovenes have extensive limestone cragging at areas like Osp and Misja Pec, yielding 5.14+ and 5.15- routes and the possibility for more.