The Croatian Connection: Life, Love, and Vertigo in Paklenica—a Traveler’s Journal - Climbing Magazine

The Croatian Connection

Life, love, and vertigo in Paklenica—a traveler’s journal
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Local climber Ena Vrbek cruising up L ira di Onofrio (5.10b) in the Crljenica sector, Paklenica National Park, Croatia.

Local climber Ena Vrbek cruising up L ira di Onofrio (5.10b) in the Crljenica sector, Paklenica National Park, Croatia.

October 12, 2017

Seven hundred feet of exposure nip at my heels, high on the flanks of Veliki Kuk in Paklenica, Croatia. I’m pumped stupid on the wildly steep crux pitch of Watersong (5.10c), 10 feet up and several feet right of my last bolt, over-gripping a slippery limestone hueco. My pulsing blood thrums heavily in my throat and temples. Twenty feet down, framed against the blue-green of the river below, is my partner for the day, Marin Marosovic. I’d met him the previous evening in the nearby town of Starigrad, at the Dinko restaurant where he works in the family business his grandfather started in 1966.

Marin had confidently told me, just 20 minutes after meeting me, “Tomorrow we will do Watersong. Just a few pitches. It’s very good, classic. You will have no problem.”

Watersong, as it turned out, is more like six pitches, but we did only rope up for a few as we ended up free-soloing and simul-climbing the moderate first half before I really knew what was happening. I followed Marin up rock that was a mix of lacerator razor blades and slicked-out, over-traveled marble, acclimating to this narrow canyon and its polished stone. I had heard rumors of the region’s unique “radiator” features (sharp water grooves), which could slice a rope in seconds, and was secretly dreading the possibility of our route crossing them.

I’d met Marin upon arriving solo in Starigrad, the gateway to the 40-square-mile Paklenica National Park, a somewhat shadowy destination for Westerners despite walls up to 1,300 feet and some 600 total climbs graded from 3 to 9a, all in one tight, 1.5-mile-long canyon a mile from the Mediterranean.

In the 1980s, Paklenica was well-hidden within Yugoslavia. Then, in the 1990s, it was clouded over by regional wars, and remained off-limits to climbing until 2001. During my last-second decision to visit, I’d sent probing emails, hunting for partners. The one clue I got back was a Stateside friend offering that he’d never been but that “A climber named Marin works at the Dinko restaurant.” I’d arrived in Starigrad to a dry, blustery wind, the Bura (boo-ra). The Bura rages from the north, flowing over the Velebit Mountains that are home to the park.

Staying a block from the beach, I watched hundred-foot-high sea spouts cruising in the shimmering Mediterranean. I drove to the park entrance and strolled along its cobbled path, hemmed tightly by the walls, spotting teams strung out on single-pitch routes up the steel-colored stone, tackling cracks, corners, and roofs. In Southern Europe, climbing is a family affair, with climbers of all ages, from toddler to grandparent, part of the action. To my right, the path gave way to a swirling creek—Velika Paklenica—and more climbers dancing up the stone.

Marin Marosovic (left) with his father, Dinko. Their local family business, Restaurant Dinko, has been going strong since it was opened by Dinko’s father in the 1960s.

Marin Marosovic (left) with his father, Dinko. Their local family business, Restaurant Dinko, has been going strong since it was opened by Dinko’s father in the 1960s.

The steep, broken faces and sheer volume of rock contained in a relatively small space were overwhelming. The canyon is so narrow in spots—75 feet across at the entrance—that the sun only makes it in for a few hours a day. I carried on past the tourist zone, with its curio shop and bathrooms carved into the limestone—and climbers doing routes right next door—to spot steep sport lines with tufas, pockets, corners, and roofs on dozens of crags and walls, some soaring hundreds of feet.

On my way back to my room, I stopped in at Restaurant Dinko. This was the supposed climber hangout, but save a few Austrians touring on motorbikes, it was dead. I ordered a draft pivo (beer) from the lone, very speedy and professional waiter—who introduced himself as Marin. Aha!

Marin’s eyes were lit with an infectious energy. Beneath the formal demeanor and striped cable sweater, however, you could tell he was a specimen and probably a local stomper. As I’d learn, since the late 1960s, the best climbers in the world had come here to eat and drink and, in recent years, to find Marin as they looked for climbing partners or beta, to borrow his guidebook or even rope. Marin and I made plans to climb the next day after breakfast, during the two-hour break he had before lunch.

And so it was that I found myself on the crux of Watersong, its handful of bolts making an S curve up the 50-foot headwall. Fired by adrenaline, I yanked through the final crux on a smattering of pockets and edges, and belly-flopped onto the slab above. As I belayed Marin, I could look left and just see Anica Kuk, the 1,300-foot centerpiece of Paklenica. It was cut with massive corners, overhangs, and cracks. Over to my right and down-valley was the sea, blue-green and stretching to the horizon.

Vrbek sending the crux first pitch of Albatros (5.12a; 340 meters), Anica Kuk. Now based in Chamonix, France, Vrbek muses, “Routes I climb here awaken strong determination and focus. It’s nostalgic for me—I remember my home country and its climbing scene with every move.”

Vrbek sending the crux first pitch of Albatros (5.12a; 340 meters), Anica Kuk. Now based in Chamonix, France, Vrbek muses, “Routes I climb here awaken strong determination and focus. It’s nostalgic for me—I remember my home country and its climbing scene with every move.”

October 31, 2017: Vipers and Moonlight

With just one day to climb before flying home, I made the detour to Paklenica again. In the late-October coolness as the leaves turned amber, Marin and I hiked toward the hulking shadow of Anica Kuk. He pointed out the seldomly done Marathon Man on the Klanci formation, a steep little monster of a sport route on an angled pillar. The story he shared was about as surreal as the place itself: In 1988, the Italian rock star Maurizio “Manolo” Zanolla had run to Paklenica on foot from Trieste, Italy—covering 330 miles for training—and then bolted the climb. A year later he sent it, claiming the then-lofty grade of 8b+. A repeat proved as mythical as the climb’s emergence: It took 14 years for a second ascent.

After a half hour of walking, we reached Anica Kuk, its lithic yawn arcing overhead. I’d been recruited to belay Marin on the steep 5.13- crux second pitch of Mjesecina (Moonlight), one of the harder lines on the wall. From the belay, the route linked shallow dihedrals and large, sloped elephant-ear flakes that Marin danced up on his redpoint effort. That day, I followed as Marin edged ever closer to the send. It was a battle well beyond my ability, but with Marin’s encouragement and Superman arms yarding on the rope, I reached the anchor. I had a fleeting vision that I might return someday and climb an easier route up Anica Kuk.

As we walked the return trail, using branches to stay steady, Marin warned of vipers. Then we ventured into a “moonscape,” several hundred yards across and littered with shattered trees. Marin pointed up to a fresh rock scar where a bus-sized block had dislodged in the spring, 1,000 feet up the wall. Maybe I wouldn’t return after all .…

Rita Maes and Bennett Barthelemy midway up Anica Kuk before the crux pitch and the Bura kicked in

Rita Maes and Bennett Barthelemy midway up Anica Kuk before the crux pitch and the Bura kicked in

July 4, 2018: Blind Hubris of the Halcyon

Less than one year later, I returned with Rita, my girlfriend, to climb Anica Kuk. Marin suggested the 10-pitch 5.10c Mosoraski, saying in his usual understated way that “You will just need quickdraws.” With a smile, he added that we couldn’t miss the start because of its obvious first clip. Some 15 feet up were a giant flimsy aluminum piton and carabiner. The biner was big enough to crawl through, and the piton was the size of a katana. The relics felt like strange rejects from Peewee’s Playhouse, with his giant dog bowls and forks. Was this Croatian humor?

Mosoraski ended up being old-school, thrutchy 5.10c. On pitch six, the route opens into a maw that’s been polished to a gloss after being slithered over by gripped climbers for the past 62 years. Mosoraski was originally a project of the Croatian climbing club, its 10 wandery pitches following weaknesses up central Anica Kuk. The climb was billed as the first major Croatian achievement on the formation, and took months to establish. I would call it 5.10c with 40-foot runouts between bolts. Fortunately, ignoring Marin’s advice, I’d brought a rack. I used all of it, slotting cams into bulges and incipient seams. The rock quality was solid, presenting mostly a low-fifth-class cruise with pockets, edges, cracks, and ledges.

Not far to the right was the buttress of D. Brahm, named in honor of the Croatian Dragutin Brahm, who tried it with two partners in 1938—and perished on the climb. After Brahm fell close to the summit, sustaining a skull fracture, his partners rapped off, returning with 1,000 feet of fishing rope. However, by the time they rapped in, Brahm had died. Worse yet, while hooking Brahm into belays to bring him down, they lost control, and his corpse fell down most of the wall. Though only given 5c (5.9), the climb is said to be demanding for the grade. In 1940, the route was finally finished, making it Paklenica’s first major climb.

Slovenian climber Uros Grilj on an old-school 5.10- at Vaganac, climbing on the region’s classic “radiators”—razor-sharp, water-eroded flutings you can pinch and span but that can also sever a rope and fingertips quicker than you can say, “Take!” The climbing on these features, while often easy, is no-fall terrain.

Slovenian climber Uros Grilj on an old-school 5.10- at Vaganac, climbing on the region’s classic “radiators”—razor-sharp, water-eroded flutings you can pinch and span but that can also sever a rope and fingertips quicker than you can say, “Take!” The climbing on these features, while often easy, is no-fall terrain.

Rita and I topped out an hour before sunset, stumbling up slabs and around boulders to the summit. We gazed west to the sea and shoreline towns across the bay. It had been a solid effort by Rita, who’d held it together despite our having to simul-climb the first third of the route and the raging Bura up higher. The massif’s gray limestone glowed gold as the sun dropped below the Med. After a headlamp descent down the climbers’ trail, we were back to the Dinko for squid and their house red wine, served chilled. It was certainly one of the bigger days either of us had had.

April 22, 2019: Fear and Loathing in Paklenica

I arrived when Paklenica was still wet, windy, and cold. I’d come to climb and drink my pain away after a crash landing of Rita’s and my relationship.

While I was talking to the Starigrad locals, it became clear that everyone over age 30 remembers the Homeland War in Croatia, which went from 1991 to 1995. The frontlines were 10 miles away, and it was rumored that a landmine had been found in Paklenica’s main climbing area. Hundreds of mines remain in the mountain passes nearby and might never be cleared. The mines had slowed climbing development on the nearby limestone peaks, but not completely. Given my nihilistic state, this FA potential had a strong pull. At the cliff of Tulove Grede, an Austrian guide had recently put up a 10-pitch 5.10, Winnetou. I imagined the scene with his naive client, whom the guide perhaps had hike in front (just in case) and then belay him while he placed bolts and pins on lead. Maybe I’d start there….

Croatian climber Marko Marosovic leads a 5.13d/14a in the pouring rain. The big wall of Anica Kuk looms left of center, while Watersong climbs the overhanging square headwall to a finishing slab a body length behind and below his head.

Croatian climber Marko Marosovic leads a 5.13d/14a in the pouring rain. The big wall of Anica Kuk looms left of center, while Watersong climbs the overhanging square headwall to a finishing slab a body length behind and below his head.

Still, the shadow of Croatia’s war may have had a silver lining—the climbing community is tight-knit in the aftermath, and Croatia has hundreds of volunteers for mountain rescue. They want to take care of climbers, cavers, and visitors—and share the precious resource that is Paklenica. Almost because of how much was lost during the war—including access (imagine if El Cap were closed during an American civil war)—there is a palpable sense of sharing this sacred geography.

Marin, despite often being too busy to climb, with two young kids and his restaurant work, put me in the orbits of other local and visiting climbers. After two continuous weeks of tying in with various partners, I sat in the Dinko with a near-constantly tipped Ozusko beer in my mitt. Soon, my friend Wolfgang arrived from Germany. Grasping my tragic state, he appeared one blustery afternoon wearing a Bozo the Clown nose. However, after a few days of counseling me—including admonitions about not taking the big whip, lest my tormented ghost forever haunt him—Wolfgang found it better to lament his own lost loves, too. My mood, apparently, was infectious. Together, we drank ourselves into numbness, castaways crashed on the shores of heartbreak.

As the days wore on, I pushed through my heartache, averaging three hours of rough sleep a night, then going climbing anyway. For street cred when recruiting partners, I said I’d been up Mosoraski, butchering the pronunciation. When I mentioned my ascent to Iva Bozic, a Croatian climber, she said, casually, “I have climbed it many times.” Then she added, “One day after mountain-rescue work, and then drinking beers at Dinko, we decided to climb it when it was already dark. Near the top, the Bura was so strong it blew the helmet off my partner’s head.”

Marin Marosovic fires the crux of Watersong (5.10c) on his lunch break from Restaurant Dinko.

Marin Marosovic fires the crux of Watersong (5.10c) on his lunch break from Restaurant Dinko.

“How long did the route take?” I asked.

“Forty minutes? We must have simul-climbed it, I think,” Iva said.

Iva has a tortured-artist’s vibe but was genuinely patient with me as I continuously sought to bow out of the climbing day and begin drinking. “One more route,” she would say and then onsight yet another 5.12. Iva, 32, comes from a strong climbing pedigree. She’s considered one of Croatia’s top trad climbers, making a splash with her free ascent in 2016 with Slovene partner Nastja Davidova of Perestroika Crack (VI 5.12b) on the Russian Tower in Kyrgyzstan. Meanwhile, her older sister, Maja, 34, is considered the strongest Croatian sport climber, having sent 5.14c.

Iva is following in the footsteps of her documentary filmmaker father, Stipe—also a top climber and mountain-rescue member—who has 120 films to his name (many of them mountain films) as well as ascents of Anica Kuk, Everest, and El Capitan. Iva has supported her father on his films, like to Everest Basecamp in 2019 for the fortieth anniversary of his climb on the West Ridge of Mount Everest, which included an open bivy at 8,400 meters on the descent. Stipe also helped organize climber meet-ups in the late 1960s and ‘70s, helping popularize Paklenica.

The family is from Split, an hour south. Iva strings together a living by guiding tourists up easy routes in the park and by being on-call for search-and-rescue (SAR). I had heard that a guide might make only about $20 a day. Apparently, Germans and Austrians come in droves to follow the trail of Winnetou, a “Native American” hero of 1960s film. In high season, Iva drives the Teutonic tourists around in a Range Rover, bringing them to the filming sites that dot the region. (When I’d visited Paklenica with Rita, who has Native American blood, she’d rolled her eyes every time we came across anything Winnetou-related, like postcards, mugs, painted boulders, etc., showing his Old World features and cheesy dyed hair.)

Iva and I teamed up for a “leisurely” ascent of Karamara Sweet Temptations, a three-pitch 5.10b on Velika Kuk, so she could dial in the sequences. She’d be speed-climbing the route with local new-router and SAR maestro Igor Corko a few days later during the 18th annual Big Wall Speed Climbing Comp, where they set a record of 13:28. (For more, visit climbing.com/paklenicaspeed). This despite the fact that Corko was still recovering from an open leg fracture incurred a year or so before. That day, I got a front-row seat, jugging a fixed line, snapping images as Iva hucked Dan Osman–style all-points-off dynos on the 5.10 first pitch.

The Levatic brothers, Perica and Jurica, training in 2014 for Paklenica’s big-wall speed event. As engineers, they developed techniques to bring their time on the comp’s five-pitch 5.11c down to 15:16, a record set in 2014. Says Perica, “When the lead climber reaches the anchor, the belayer will see the tape on the rope (measured to the exact centimeter) and remove the rope from the belay device and start climbing.” At this point, it’s “not advisable for the lead climber to fall, as there is a great chance he is not in belay. This is all done without conversation or visual contact. You lose zero time on leader exchange.”

The Levatic brothers, Perica and Jurica, training in 2014 for Paklenica’s big-wall speed event. As engineers, they developed techniques to bring their time on the comp’s five-pitch 5.11c down to 15:16, a record set in 2014. Says Perica, “When the lead climber reaches the anchor, the belayer will see the tape on the rope (measured to the exact centimeter) and remove the rope from the belay device and start climbing.” At this point, it’s “not advisable for the lead climber to fall, as there is a great chance he is not in belay. This is all done without conversation or visual contact. You lose zero time on leader exchange.”

May 25, 2019: A Cease-Fire

Today, my photojournalist friend Mike Calabro arrived with his girlfriend, Mo. Mike and I hadn’t seen each other since a wild six-week romp through Australia and New Zealand several years earlier, chasing down stories on vineyards. Mike had hired me as his writer but also as his de facto ropegun. He was going through a bad breakup then, and some mornings I would find him not making breakfast at camp but instead standing at a cliff edge, staring into the abyss and inching ever closer.

When Mike and Mo arrived, I didn’t feel like climbing. I belayed them with beer in hand on sport routes and felt like a shitty friend. In a quiet moment, Mike took me aside and shared that, when he was getting on the plane, his doctor had called. Mike had leukemia and didn’t yet know what that meant—but it didn’t sound good. Riddled with our own private pain and anxieties, we decided—as climbers do—that climbing was in order. We picked out the three-pitch Ca Je Od Draga Je Od Draga on Kuk od Skradelin, a 5.7 with a step left to avoid a 5.10+ finish. The climb went smoothly, despite shenanigans on the first pitch with an Austrian “guide” who soloed up to offer unsolicited advice on my belay technique, rapped one of our ropes without asking, then promptly got lost trying to pioneer a choss-and-bushes variant next to us with his partner, likely to try to pass.

Local guide Iva Bozic onsighting Compadre (5.12a) in the Rupe sector. Like her father, Stipe, an accomplished mountaineer, Iva is also a filmmaker. 

Local guide Iva Bozic onsighting Compadre (5.12a) in the Rupe sector. Like her father, Stipe, an accomplished mountaineer, Iva is also a filmmaker. 

As we coiled ropes at the last belay, a shirtless, white-bearded man in his seventies came soloing past, wearing an old pair of smooth-soled Edouard Bourdonneau shoes (EBs). It was a humbling moment. The Mediterranean sparkled below; the limestone walls around us thrummed with energy. Smiling, Mike and Mo posed for a photo at the summit. At that moment, I knew it was time to leave Croatia.

Tonight, I sent a text to Rita. Something had shifted during the day whilst weaving through razor-sharp radiators and watching the soloist. Maybe it was finally glimpsing the thin line attaching the mortal coil to this world. Rita responded. There was a softly glowing spark still alive that seemed impossible these past few months. I promptly booked my flight home, knowing that there would be a return to the soaring cliffs of Paklenica—next time, I’m hoping, together.

Paklenica Logistics 

Rock and route types

Limestone—everywhere.

Paklenica: Bring finger- to fist-sized cams (singles are plenty) to supplement the fixed protection. Paklenica has quite a bit in the 5.5-to-5.9 range, but the popular routes are polished. Long slings and double ropes are handy on the multipitch lines—and especially around the “radiators,” super-sharp grooves that might be shallow and narrow or require chimney technique, as well as superb rope management. Heading to the caves? Expect limestone sport from hard 5.10 to 5.14+.

Vaganac: A half-hour’s drive from Starigrad into the Velebit Mountains you’ll find some 60 routes on a few satellite crags, with classic radiator features. A via ferrata connects some of the larger features.

Vranjaca: Home to about 20 routes from 5.10 to 5.15, but with room for more, including potential for five-pitch 5.15 sport lines extending from the depths of Vranjaca. It’s about 40 minutes from Starigrad by car and then a 40-minute hike.

Guidebook 

The two main guidebooks are Boris Cujik’s Paklenica (also includes Vranjaca and Vaganac) and Croatia Climbing Guide. The books are well done, with English translations and solid topos; visit paklenica-croatia.com.

Getting there

From the U.S., a flight is around $800 round-trip—your best bet is to fly into Zagreb, three hours away, or Split, 1.5 hours away. Rent a car—if you book in advance, it’s possible to get cars for under $10/day with full insurance. Buy a vignetta pass if heading into Slovenia or get nailed with a fat ticket.

Season

It’s possible to climb year-round, but late November through early April can have spates of cold, wet weather. The Easter holidays seem to be the official kickoff, with loads of Slovenes and folks from other nearby Catholic countries representing en masse. Summer is hot, but Anica Kuk catches shade and a breeze.

Where to stay

The Dinko has great accommodations but only a handful of rooms. Expect to spend around $30 a night for decent Airbnb in Starigrad, and add a bit more for a second person. There are also many camping options for about $6 a night in Starigrad, with a place to park, a grassy spot for a tent, and a communal kitchen—very social.

A Catholic church on the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia, just north of Paklenica.

A Catholic church on the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia, just north of Paklenica.

Extracurricular

Island hopping—about 1,000 of them along the Croatian coast. Most have great climbing, and only a few have developed crags. Hike in Mala Paklenica, the next canyon over, and dream about the epic lines that will go in one day when they open it to climbing. Overall, the park offers 150 miles of trails. You can hike 4 miles deep and overnight at the Paklenica Mountain Hut. Bird nerds and plant geeks will be keen, with a slew of rare or endangered bird species, including two types of eagles and 79 native plant species.

Hazards

The endangered Orsini’s vipers are reportedly shy, but have bitten climbers. They often hang out in trees and are seen along forested approaches. Beware also of Ruta angustifolia or Ruta montana, a thin, green-stemmed plant several feet tall with small yellow flowers that causes a bad rash—even months later, sun exposure can provoke a breakout of phototoxic dermatosis.

Food

Croatian seafood is epic, with great restaurants in Starigrad; the pizza is good, too. The region is known for excellent wines—stick to the ones from vineyards closer to the coast and spend an extra buck for solid quality. The outdoor produce markets in the old towns, like Zadar or Split, are worth the visit for nuts, dried fruit, local grapes, etc.

Useful phrases

In the tourist areas and among the younger generations, many Croatians speak some, if not good, English. The older generations might speak German but not English. Here are a few key terms to know:

  • Hello: Doberdon
  • Beer: Pivo
  • Yes: Da
  • No: Ne
  • Thank you: Hvala

Bennett Barthelemy has replaced angst-drinking while climbing for domesticity back in his native California where he and Rita are planning their return to Croatia.