“A fire burned inside me and I knew only two ways out: either to keep stoking it or allow myself to be burned by it.” Nejc Zaplotink, Pot
There are many moments of horror when reading Bernadette McDonald’s Alpine Warriors (2015). The horror of snow, ice and wind to contend with, along with vertical walls, overhangs, collapsing seracs, avalanches, frostbite, lost shoes, exploding stoves, and death. And there is, as in every climbing book, death aplenty, the narrative always taking an ominous turn when recollections slip away and it becomes clear the climber in question never got to tell his side of the story from this point on, that they disappeared into the snow.
Alpine Warriors, a follow-up to McDonald’s 2008 book on Tomaž Humar, tells the story of two or three generations of Slovenian climbers who came to prominence in the 1960s to 1990s. This small group made many first ascents and established new routes up the most difficult faces. They were also key players in the dramatic changes overtaking the sport of alpinism as it evolved from a nationalist, state-sponsored activity to a more individual and commercialised one, with documentaries, energy bars and branded jackets, not to mention the opening of Everest to weekend climbers and those in mid-life crises. The same years saw a move from huge, months-long siege-style expedition climbs with dozens of high altitude porters and tons of equipment, to the light and fast style that at its most extreme ends up in solo ascents with only what you can carry in a backpack, up and down mountain in a few days.
The latter, exemplified in the book by the likes of Tomo Česen (b. 1959, Kranj) and Tomaž Humar (b. 1969 Ljubljana, d. 2009 Nepal), may seem more dangerous to non-climbing readers, but there’s a logic to it. The faster you move, the less danger you’re exposed to in terms of the elements. Think of camping out on the face of a mountain as like playing Russian roulette, and each day, as the sun warms the face, there are avalanches, sometimes lasting for hours, meaning in some places there’s only four hours of safe climbing, during which you need to make some ground and then dig a snow cave before the weather turns. The book is thus full of extreme events, amazing escapes and tales of endurance that appear superhuman. And despite all the skills of the climbers, and all their good judgement and experience, sometimes people just vanish, overwhelmed by the forces of nature, and other times they make it down, frostbitten and exhausted, having survived through the luck of the draw.
McDonald picks Nejc Zaplotnik (b. 1952 Kranj, d. 1983 Nepal) as the thread that runs through this group of climbers, who either knew the man or grew up hearing about him, not least through his book Pot. Despite its lasting success in Slovenia this work remains untranslated, but the title means “the Path” or, in a more Daoist sense, “the Way”, and the excerpts in Alpine Warriors set out a philosophy of climbing and being in the mountains that’s very tempting if divorced from the realities of life at 8,000 metres – “A path leads nowhere but on to the next path. And that one takes you to the next crossroads. Without end.”
The story begins in 1960, with the first Yugoslav team being sent to the Himalayas as part of a state-funded expedition, with the bulk of the talent coming from Slovenia. As McDonald notes, “the topography, combined with the hard-working, pious, matter-of-fact Slovenian temperament, honed and perfected under German/Austrian domination, created the perfect climbing machines.”
One side the of the narrative thus follows the changes in Slovenian society from the simplicity and relative poverty of the 1960s and 70s, when just leaving the country with visas and enough equipment was a trial, to the more open and individualistic 80s, 90s and beyond, when media interest and commercial sponsorship gave climbers more options than following the dictates of the Alpine Association. As McDonald tells it, the Association, as a nationalist endeavour, remained focused on goals such as climbing all 14 eight-thousanders, while the climbers themselves often had their own ambitions, like finding new routes up challenging faces, no matter what the height or where their partners came from (with, for example, Marko Prezelj forging a long partnership with the American Steve House - as seen in the following documentary, along with Vince Anderson).
Within this setting McDonald sets up various the personality conflicts, making clear there’s not one type of climber, even at the highest levels. Zaplotnik is thus presented as the romantic mystic, Silvo Karo (b. 1960 Ljubljana) and Marko Prezelj (b. 1965 Kamnik) as taciturn and plain-spoken (the latter on Kangchenjunga “At first it looks shit, and then you begin to solve the problems. Without complexity I am not challenged.”) and Tomaž Humar as an unstable, driven man, pushing himself into a public role and then retreating from it, eventually dying alone at the top of a mountain after his life at base level seemed to have fallen apart.
There are many scenes when even the most imaginative reader will struggle to feel what it’s like to experience 200 km per hour gusts of wind or -36°C while trying to bivouac on a ledge “three butt cheeks wide”, or to find your tent has been crushed by snow, equipment lost, ice axe shattered, partner vanished, with no hope of rescue but a will to live and endure that might not be enough. These are extraordinary men (and a few women), the kind who can say, like Tomo Česen,“I knew…that I could go three to four days without food and two or more days without sleep”.
Česen himself is presented as a pivotal figure, both for his early acceptance of sponsorship as a way of breaking free of the Alpine Association, and for the scandals related to claimed ascents of Jannu and Lhotse’s South Face, which suggest how commercial pressures changed the nature of the sport, demanding ever-greater spectacles, leading to the circus that often surrounded McDonald’s last focal climber, Tomaž Humar.
Others covered in the book include Tone Škarja (b. 1937 Lubljana), Stane Belak-Šrauf (b. 1940 Ljubljana, d. 1995 Mojstrovka, avalanche), Marjan Manfreda (b. 1950 Bohinjska bela, d. 2015 Gorenjska, traffic accident), Stipe Božič (b. 1951 Croatia), Drago Bregar (b. 1952 Višnja Gora, d. 1977 Pakistan), Viki Grošelj (b. 1952 Ljubljana), Borut Bergant (b. 1954 Podljubelj, d. 1985 Nepal), Franček Knez (b. 1955 Celje, d. 2017 while climbing in Slovenia), Andrej Štremfelj (b. 1956 Kranj), Slavko Svetičič (b. 1958 Šebrelje, d. 1995 Pakistan) Janez Jeglič (b. 1961 Tuhinjska dolina, d. 1997 Nepal), and Vanja Furlan (b. 1966 Novo mesto, d. 1996 Mojstrovka). There are thus too many interesting characters here for this review to touch them all, but one we’ll highlight is Aleš Kunaver (b. 1935 Ljubljana, d. 1984 Jesenice, helicopter accident), the team leader on many expeditions who was able to bring out the best in his climbers while remaining in the shadows and often off the summit. It was also Kunaver who opened the first school for Sherpas in 1979, in order to reduce accidents in the Himalayas, and from whom we get the quote “In the mountains magnificence is diametrically opposed to comfort”.
And while there are deaths throughout the book many of the characters are still alive and active on the scene, firmly enmeshed in the both the history and present of alpinism and climbing in general, not just in a Slovenian context, but globally. The move from high to steep mountains, to walls with more technical difficulty than altitude, can be seen in pop culture triumphs like Alex Honnold’s free solo of El Capitan, as well as less publicised ascents such as that of the North Face of Latok, the “holy grail” of high altitude climbing that was finally achieved in summer 2018 by a Slovene-British expedition consisting of Aleš Česen (Tomo’s son), Luka Stražar and Tom Livingston (as reported here).
So although the book Alpine Warriors was published in 2015, and ends with Humar’s death, the story continues, and is one that those of us who live in Slovenia can easily feel a personal connection to, through the men and women who live among us when not climbing, and through the stunning landscape that has shaped such people and inspired dreams of the freedom that’s possible when one leaves the towns and cities and goes up into the mountains with good friends or alone.
In short, I enjoyed this book a lot, and if any of the above struck your interest then consider picking up a copy of Alpine Warriors, by Bernadette McDonald, and learning much more about Slovenia’s climbers. I’ve seen both English and Slovene editions in bookstores here, and it can also be ordered online in paper or ebook versions.
STA, 16 January 2019 - Slovenia will play along Russia, Finland, Turkey, Macedonia and Belarus in Pool C of the preliminary round of this year's Men's European Volleyball Championship that the country co-hosts in Ljubljana's Stožice Arena, a draw in Brussels determined on Wednesday.
As the co-hosts of the tournament, to be held between 13 and September 29, Slovenia had been put in Pool C, with France getting to host Pool A, Belgium Pool B and the Netherlands Pool D.
Slovenian fans in Stožice Arena will thus have the opportunity to see the defending European champions Russia as they were drawn in Pool C today.
"We certainly did not want Russia, while the other teams are acceptable. I think that we have a good group," Metod Ropret, the head of the Slovenian Volleyball Association, told reporters from Brussels.
Ropret avoided answering the question who will coach Slovenia at the tournament. "We have a coach, but the question is for how long we will have it. More will be known soon," he said referring to the current head coach Slobodan Kovač.
Assistant coach Sebastijan Škorc said in Ljubljana that "the group is attractive, also because of the Russians. Them and us are the favourites of the group."
Top four teams from each of the four groups will advance to the single-match elimination round of 16, with the teams from the Ljubljana group getting opponents from the French group.
It will be the first European championship in volleyball to feature 24 teams. The final match will be played in Paris, while one of the semi-final matches will be played in Ljubljana.
- Preliminary round pools: A (France): France, Italy, Bulgaria, Portugal, Greece, Romania
B (Belgium): Belgium, Serbia, Germany, Slovakia, Spain, Austria
C (Slovenia): Slovenia, Russia, Finland, Turkey, Macedonia, Belarus
D (Netherlands): Netherlands, Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Ukraine, Montenegro
STA, 14 January 2019 - Slovenian cyclist Janez Brajkovič announced on his blog on Monday that his sample taken during last year's Tour of Croatia had tested positive for a banned substance, earning him a ten-month suspension from the International Cycling Union (UCI).
The 35-year-old from Metlika handed over the sample, which tested positive for methylhexanamine, on 18 April 2018 as part of the main men's cycling stage race in Croatia, which is a part of the UCI Europe Tour.
The sample reportedly contained an extremely low level of the stimulant and energy-boosting drug, which the member of the Slovenian professional cycling team Adria Mobil believes is connected to his use of food supplements.
The Slovenian did not appeal the test results, while attributing the failed test to one of the food supplements he consumed being contaminated with the drug.
Admitting that the substance is banned in professional cycling, Brajkovič said it was a "small quantity, because as far as I know the concentration was 20 to 40 times lower compared to samples of other athletes," he said on the blog.
"I could fight this and bring the case to the anti-doping court, where it would be reviewed right from the beginning. But to be honest with you, I neither have the will nor the money to challenge this, which is why I have accepted the penalty."
In addition to being the world under-23 time trial champion in 2004, Brajkovič's biggest achievements include wins at the Criterium du Dauphine (2010), the Tour de Georgia (2007) and the Tour of Slovenia (2012).
He was ninth at the Tour de France in 2012 as a member of Astana Pro Team, which was the best ranking for a Slovenian until Primož Roglič finished forth last year.
Brajkovič, who was also a member of the professional teams Bahrain Merida, RadioSchack and Discovery Channel, said that testing positive for doping was not actually the worst thing that had happened to him in his career.
"I was a victim of mobbing and an outcast in a team because I did not want to expose myself to the deadly consequences of doping.
"During the Tour de France, a team mate even started strangling me because of this. After I signed the contract, they said I was nobody and valueless and that they will make sure I never race again."
Adria Mobil, which Brajkovič represented at the Tour of Croatia, said it had been informed about the positive test last July, but added that it did not need to suspend the cyclist under the anti-doping rules.
"Considering the quantity and type [of the substance], there was no direct and immediate suspension of the cyclist. Under an agreement with the competitor and the UCI and under the team policy on doping, Brajkovič has not competed since last July," the team said in a press release.
"The competitor has been cooperating with the UCI all the time in proving the origin of the banned substance found in his sample," it added.
Adria Mobil, which did not extend its contract with Brajkovič, noted that the cyclist had proven the failed test was a consequence of his carelessness. He purchased the food supplement on-line, and the label did not say that it contained the banned substance.
The usual penalty for such violations is a 24-month ban, but the UCI has reduced it to ten months due to these circumstances, the team said, adding that only the result from the Tour of Slovenia would be deleted from his record.
STA, 31 December 2019 - Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Jan Oblak has confirmed for the STA he is returning to the national team after an absence of more than a year.
Oblak had not played for the national team under previous managers, Tomaž Kavčič and Igor Benedejčič, but it was expected he would return now that Matjaž Kek has taken over.
He says he will now be available for the qualifying for the Euro 2020. "My future in the national team was never questionable and my decision was not adopted based on the appointment of the new manager," he said.
Many football experts see Oblak's return as crucial if the team is to put behind a long dry spell, though some have also raised questions about how it will affect the team given that he stayed away during the painful downward spiral.
"I have a very positive outlook on that. I believe that I can give the team a lot and help it achieve the goals that we have set for the next qualifying.
"As far as the fans are concerned, I think it is everyone's wish that the results the team has been achieving lately change... I have been in touch with some of the players but there has never been any talk about hard feelings or any problems," he said.
Oblak, one of the world's best goal keepers who has also been nominated twice for the Ballon d'Or, last played for the national team in October 2017.
STA, 19 December 2018 - After clinching her first Alpine Ski World Cup win this season in yesterday's downhill in Italy's Val Gardena, Ilka Štuhec followed it up on Wednesday with a win in the women's super-G at the same venue to complete her comeback to the elite after a serious knee injury.
The reigning downhill world champion finished the race ahead of Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein and Nicole Schmidhofer of Austria, who both were only 0.05 seconds behind the Slovenian.
This is the ninth World Cup career win for the 28-year-old Maribor native and the third in the super-G, with her previous best this season in the discipline being 10th place in Lake Louise, Canada.
"I skied relaxed. There were still some mistakes, but it seems it was enough. I was a bit surprised when I arrived in the finish, especially when I saw how close together we are. It's great!," she told reporters.
"Today the split seconds were in my favour, and someone else could be favoured some other time. It's crazy anyhow," Štuhec said, admitting that the "season is long, I'm facing preparations for the January races."
With the World Cup win number nine, Štuhec became the second-best Slovenian skier in this respect, and now trails only the legendary Tina Maze, who holds what are probably an unreachable 26 wins.
It was only the sixth race for Štuhec after she missed the entire 2017/2018 season and the Winter Olympics as she tore a cruciate ligament in her knee which required surgery and months of rehab.
The double win in Val Gardena propelled her to fifth place in the overall standings with 302 points, with Mikaela Shiffrin of the US being in the lead with 689 points. In the super-G standings, the Slovenian is fourth with 144 points.
Štuhec will appear in the World Cup next on 12 and 13 January in Austria's St Anton, with both the downhill and super-G scheduled.
Ilka Štuhec, who tore a cruciate ligament in 2017 and thus missed this year’s Winter Olympics, is now back in full force on the slopes, taking first place at Val Gardena, Italy. The skier finished 0.14 seconds faster than Italy's Nicol Delago, and 0.51 ahead of Austria's Ramona Siebenhofer.
The win puts Štuhec in second place in the season's downhill rankings, with 158 points to the Austrian Nicole Schmidhofer's 226 points.
Overall the Slovene is 8th, with 202 points, far behind America's Mikaela Shiffrin, who has 689 points.
STA, 13 December 2018 - Slovenian snowboarder Tim Mastnak opened the World Cup season with a win in the parallel slalom in Italy's Carezza on Thursday, beating Benjamin Karl of Austria convincingly in the finals.
The 27-year-old from Celje first defeated Darren Gardner of Canada in the round of 16, then Italian Aaron March in the quarter-finals and Sebastian Kislinger in the semi-finals.
In the finals, he was 0.73 seconds faster than the Austrian veteran Karl, who has won a total of 15 World Cup events.
"It's a perfect start to the season. It couldn't have been better," Mastnak described his second ever win the World Cup, with the first one coming in March in Scuol, Switzerland.
STA, 9 December 2018 - Finnish biathlete Kaisa Mäkäräinen won the women's 10-kilometre pursuit World Cup event at Pokljuka on Sunday ahead of Italian Dorothea Wierer in a repeat of Saturday's sprint standings. Slovakia's Paulina Fialkova came in third.
Mäkäräinen and Wierer both hit all the targets, but the Finn outpaced the Italian by more than 40 seconds on the skis (+41.3).
Flawless at shooting, Fialkova moved ahead from eight starting position to finish third (+59.2/0), overtaking Italian Lisa Vitozzi just before the finish line (+1:01.5/0).
"I knew I must be fast because Wierer shoots fast. I didn't feel as strong as yesterday but it was enough. I like Pokljuka, the conditions aren't so tough cos there's not much wind," said Mäkäräinen.
Weirer remains in the lead in the overall standings, having collected 144 points in Pokljuka events. Mäkäräinen is second with 131 points, followed by Fialkova with 129.
STA, 9 December 2018 - Norwegian biathlete Johannes Thinges Boe won the men's 12.5km pursuit race at the Biathlon World Cup meet on the Pokljuka Plateau on Sunday, pipping France's Quentin Fillon Maillet for the victory in a photo finish.
The younger of the Boe brothers had a 48 second lead ahead of the runner-up before the last standing position shooting stop, but missed two shots.
Russia's Aleksander Loginov hit all the targets, heading for the final lap a few metres ahead of Boe, but Boe overtook him at the 12th kilometre.
Loginov fell just below the top of last climb, which enabled Maillet to squeeze ahead, but Boe was first through the finish line.
Boe, who is in the lead in the overall World Cup standings after winning Tuesday's sprint on Pokljuka, ended the race with three missed shots 0.1 of a second ahead of Maillet, who hit all the 20 targets.
Loginov finished third with one missed shot and 1.9 seconds behind the winner.
The best Slovenian, Jakov Fak came in 22nd. Having missed one target he finished 1:57 minutes behind the winner. His team mate Miha Dovžan was 49th.
"I cannot be completely satisfied, but I'm happy to have partly achieved the goal of making progress. One missed shot is solid enough result, but it's not perfect," Fak commented, adding that he still had reserve running-wise.
"It's great to compete in front of the home crowd, it makes you fly ... But shooting at home is always hardest psychically because you get cheered for each shot," he added.
- men's 12.5 km pursuit:
1 Johannes Thinges Boe (NOR) 30:20.4/3
2 Quentin Fillon Maillet (FRA) + 0.1/0
3 Aleksander Loginov (RUS) 1.4/1
4 Simon Eder (AUT) 31.2/0
5 Julian Eberhard (AUT) 32.5/1
6 Tarjei Boe (NOR) 32.9/1
7 Henrik L'Abee-Lund (NOR) 35.1/1
8 Lukas Hofer (ITA) 35.8/2
9 Benjamin Weger (SUI) 35.9/2
10 Antonin Guigonnat (FRA) 42.5/3
22 Jakov Fak (SLO) 1:57.1/1
49 Miha Dovžan (SLO) 4:18.1/4
- overall World Cup standings (3):
1 Johannes Thinges Boe (NOR) 156
2 Simon Eder (AUT) 123
3 Antonin Guigonnat (FRA) 119
4 Aleksander Loginov (RUS) 108
5 Quentin Fillon Maillet (FRA) 93
6 Tarjei Boe (NOR) 87
7 Simon Desthieux (FRA) 81
. Sebastian Samuelsson (SWE) 81
. Michal Krčmar (CZE) 81
10 Artem Prima (UKR) 78
17 Jakov Fak (SLO) 64
STA, 7 December 2018 - Norwegian biathlete Johannes Thingnes Boe won on Friday the second individual men's race, a 10-km sprint, hosted by Slovenia's Pokjuka as part of the opening meet of the Biathlon World Cup season.
Boe, who missed one shot, was followed in second place by Antonin Guigonnat of France (+16.1 seconds), while third place went to Russia's Alexandr Loginov (+16.5).
Slovenia's biathletes did not have a good day, with Jakov Fak, who finished fourth in Thursday's opening race, missing three shots to end up in 39th place as the best Slovenian.
1 Johannes Thingnes Boe (Nor) 23:46.3/1
2 Antonin Guigonnat (Fra) + 16.1/0
3 Alexandr Loginov (Rus) 16.4/0
4 Tarjei Boe (Nor) 31.2/1
5 Benedikt Doll (Ger) 32.5/0
6 Sindre Pettersen (Nor) 32.9/0
7 Simon Desthieux (Fra) 35.1/2
8 Henrik L'Abee-Lund (Nor) 35.8/1
9 Simon Eder (Aut) 35.9/0
10 Michal Krčmar (Cze) 42.5/0
39 Jakov Fak (Slo) 1:40.4/3
45 Miha Dovžan (Slo) 1:45.1/2
62 Klemen Bauer (Slo) 2:04.8/4
76 Rok Tršan (Slo) 2:24.2/1
101 Mitja Drinovec (Slo) 3:37.4/4
- World Cup standings (2):
1 Johannes Thingnes Boe (Nor) 96
2 Antonin Guigonnat (Fra) 88
3 Simon Eder (Aut) 80
4 Martin Fourcade (Fra) 77
5 Alexandr Loginov (Rus) 60
6 Sebastian Samuelsson (Swe) 59
7 Michal Krčmar (Cze) 57
8 Simon Desthieux (Fra) 55
9 Johannes Kühn (Ger) 54
10 Tarjei Boe (Nor) 49
14 Jakov Fak (Slo) 45
STA, 6 December 2018 - Slovenia's Jakov Fak started the new Biathlon World Cup season at the home venue of Pokljuka with a 4th place in the men's individual 20-km race on Thursday. Victory went to Martin Fourcade of France.
Fak was 34.4 seconds behind the winner as he missed one shot to squander a good chance for a podium finish.
Also finishing ahead of the Olympic runner-up in the discipline were Johannes Kühn of Germany, who was 4.2 seconds behind the winner and the Austrian veteran Simon Eder, who finished 19.7 seconds behind the French.
It was the 75th Biathlon World Cup win for Fourcade, who was perfect at shooting, as were Kühn and Eder.
It was the fifth win in a row for the French. "I like it here. I'm proud of winning race after race," he told reporters.
Fak was meanwhile not happy about the missed shot. "My legs were not in the best shape on the track. I hope that it will be better tomorrow," he said in reference to the men's sprint on Friday.
They will be competing without a day of rest, as today's race had been scheduled to take place yesterday but was moved to today due to thick fog.
"I hope that everybody got tired today. The younger you are, the easier is to recuperate. And I'm not among the youngest any more," said the 31-year-old.
The race will be followed by the women's 15-km individual race, starting at 2:15 PM. Slovenia will be represented by Urška Poje, Polona Klemenčič and Lea Einfalt.
1 Martin Fourcade (FRA) 47:09,2/0 missed shots
2 Johannes Kühn (GER) + 4.2/0
3 Simon Eder (AUT) 19.7/2
4 Jakov Fak (SLO) 34.4/1
5 Simon Schempp (GER) 38.6/1
6 Sergij Semenov (UKR) 45.0/0
7 Johannes Thingnes Boe (NOR) 1:11.9/3
8 Antonin Guigonnat (FRA) 1:13.5/1
9 Sebastian Samuelsson (SWE) 1:18.5/2
10 Lars Helge Birkeland (NOR) 1:22.0/1
56 Rok Tršan (SLO) 4:02.6/2
71 Klemen Bauer (SLO) 5:14.0/5
75 Miha Dovžan (SLO) 5:43.3/5
92 Mitja Drinovec (SLO) 7:32.9/5
Ukraine's Dzhima wins women's 15km biathlon event at Pokljuka
STA, 6 December 2018 - Ukrainian biathlete Yuliia Dzhima is the winner of Thursday's individual 15km event for women as part of the Biathlon World Cup meet at Slovenia's Pokljuka, followed by Monika Hojnisz of Poland and Marketa Davidova of the Czech Republic.
The winner did not miss any of her shots and finished the race in 43:06.6, beating Hojnisz by 5.9 seconds and Davidova by 16.5 seconds, both of whom had to run one penalty loop.
It was the first World Cup win for Dzhima, who is coached by Slovenian Uroš Velepec. "Last year I had hoped for a win. This year I decided to get it. I'm happy and I hope that this is not my last win," she told reporters.
The best out of the three Slovenians to compete in the race was Lea Einfalt, who finished 77th, more than six minutes behind Dzhima in what was her debut appearance in the Biathlon World Cup.
Einfalt, who competed in cross-country skiing until last year and today's race was only her fourth ever as a biathlete, missed four shots, but she said she was satisfied with the overall performance.
"But I will be really happy when I manage to shoot perfectly and run fast. I was nervous a little bit. I can't wait for Saturday, the ice has been broken and I know I'll be much more relaxed," she said about the women's sprint.