STA, 23 May 2019 - Two Slovenian mountaineers have completed a series of climbs in remote mountains of Alaska on routes that no human ever set foot on before, conquering three virgin peaks in the process.
Janez Svoljšak and Miha Zupin pioneered five complex new routes in the total length of 4,250 metres in the mountains above the Revelation Glacier between mid-March and mid-April.
The longest and toughest to descend was a 1,300 metre Slovenian route up Apocalypse North, a 2,750 metre peak never climbed before. It took the pair eight hours and a half to climb the mountain.
The expedition was supported by the Slovenian Mountaineering Association, which noted in a press release that the area explored had been visited by one mountaineering expedition a year on average over the past decade, and that the base camp was only accessible by aircraft.
"The area is remote, which means communication is limited to satellite phone messages, and access to the base camp depends on the weather," said Svoljšak, the head of the expedition.
"The weather there is very unsettled, which was hardest during the first few days when the wind bent the poles supporting our tent, and forced us to move on our knees while climbing the ridge."
The strong winds blew large amounts of snow into the face of the mountain, which they had to remove in order to hit the rock or ice, which Svoljšak said was harder than climbing.
Svoljšak, like Zupin member of the Kranj mountaineering section, won the European ice climbing championship title plus a World Cup event in 2016.
The Slovenian Alaska expedition also pioneered the conquest of Four Horsemen East (2,600 m) via a 600 metre East Ridge route, and a peak that they named Wailing Wall (2,450 m).
They also climbed the east face of Golgotha (2,724 m) up a virgin 900 metre route that they named Farther, and Seraph (2,650 m) up a 700 metre new route they christened as The Last Supper for Snow Strugglers.
The weekend saw another IFSC competition event, this time bouldering in Munich, with five Slovenian women in the top 8, and two Slovenian men in the same.
As usual, the women’s event was won by Janja Garnbret, with second and tird places going to Fanny Gibert (France) and Mia Krampl (Slovenia). The other Slovenes in the top 8 were Katja Kadić (6th), Vota Lukan (7th) and Lučka Rakovec (8th).
Turning to the men’s event, this was won by Austria’s Jakob Schubert, followed by Adam Ondra (Czech Republic) and Jan Hojer (Germany).The Slovene’s in the top 8 were Anže Perharc (5th) and Gregor Vezonik (8th).
If you’re in Ljubljana and want to see the world’s best sports climbers in action, then note that on Saturday Kongresni trg will see Janja Garnbret and others in a free event, Triglav the Rock, with details here.
STA, 13 May 2019 – May 13 marked 40 years to the day since Andrej Štremfelj and Nejc Zaplotnik made history as the first Slovenians who reached the summit of the highest mountain in the world. On this occasion, the Slovenian Alpine Museum in Mojstrana (NW) honoured the anniversary with a ceremony and an exhibition about their conquest of Mount Everest.
Štremfelj and Zaplotnik were part of a Yugoslav expedition which featured 25 members, with 21 of them being Slovenians, and was led by Slovenian mountaineer Tone Škarja.
The two mountaineers achieved their goal after 45 days of climbing the mountain's western ridge in extreme weather conditions and struggling with oxygen deprivation.
The museum located under Triglav, Slovenia's highest mountain, started the ceremony exactly at 01:51pm, when, according to local time, Zaplotnik announced the exciting news to the base camp.
"Tone, we're at the top. We're sitting at the Chinese pyramid and don't know what to do," he famously said.
Books about Slovenia: Alpine Warriors, A History of Modern Slovenian Alpinism
Two days later the peak was also reached by Slovenian mountaineer Stane Belak - Šrauf and Stipe Božić, the first Croatian to summit Mount Everest, as well as Nepalese mountaineer Ang Phu.
A majority of the Slovenian members of the 1979 expedition and representatives of the Mountaineering Association were received today by President Borut Pahor, who congratulated them on the anniversary.
They also attended the ceremony in Mojstrana, with Škarja pointing out that a number of factors contributed to the accomplishment, including successful preparation, courage, experience, cooperation and pursuit of the common goal.
Štremfelj reminisced about the feat, saying that he and Zaplotnik congratulated themselves at the top and shed a few tears of joy.
"Resounding cheers from all camps told us everything we needed to know about the collective spirit. We reached the top on behalf of all of us and saved the exhibition from fears of failure so that all our efforts would not have been in vain," said Štremfelj, adding that their joy could not last since one of the members had a fatal accident.
The realisation of what they had achieved sank in later, when they were already back and celebrating in Slovenia. Nowadays, their route is considered the most difficult among eleven established routes. Only the 1984 Bulgarian expedition has succeeded in conquering it as well.
To mark the feat, the museum is also hosting an exhibition featuring items and archives about the expedition and Mount Everest in general, including a journal entry by US chronicler of Himalayan mountaineering expeditions Elizabeth Hawley, describing the 1979 expedition.
The 8,848-metre Mount Everest has been summited by 18 Slovenians, who climbed to the top using three different routes.
Slovenian mountaineers have made a name for themselves among the Himalayas' world records, succeeding in climbing a route that had never been attempted before, women's ascent and ascent without the use of supplemental oxygen as well as the first ski descent from the top of the mountain.
All our stories about mountaineering and Slovenia are here
This weekend saw another leg of the IFSC Climbing World Cup, with both bouldering and speed events in Wujiang, China. As usual, Janja Garnbret, who competes only in lead and bouldering, took the top spot on the podium, this time followed by Akiyo Noguchi and Ai Mori, both from Japan. Two other Slovenes also made it into the top 20, with Katija Kadić at 13th position, and Lučka Rakovec at 15th.
Turning to the men’s bouldering event, this was won by Austria’s Jakob Schubert, followed by Keita Dohi and Kokoro Fuji, both from Japan. Slovenia’s Jernej Kruder, usually much higher ranked, had to content himself with 16th place, with Gregor Veznok at 15th , while Anze Peharc was 20th.
Another bouldering competition and another first place finish for Janja Garnbret, as the young Slovene took gold for the third time in the third event of the season in Chongqing, China. She was joined on the podium by Akiyo Noguchi (Japan) in second place, and Austria’s Jessica Pilz. Katija Kadić was the other Slovenian in the top 10, finishing sixth.
Turning to the men’s bouldering, this was won by Manuel Cornu (France), followed by Japan’s Tomoa Narasaki, with Slovenia’s Anže Peharc in third, while Gregor Vezonik was eighth.
The results means that Slovenia remains at the top of the team rankings for bouldering, ahead of Japan and France, while the women’s event is led by Janja Garnbret. With regard to the men’s overall rankings, the Czech Adam Ondra is in the lead, followed by Slovenia’s Jernej Kruder.
It was another good IFSC Climbing Worldcup weekend for Slovene climbers in Moscow, with Janja Garnbret coming in first place in the bouldering event, followed by the UK’s Shauna Coxsey and France’s Fanny Gilbert. In 4th place for the women was another Slovene, Lučka Rakovec.
With regard to the men, Jernej Kruder took the gold, followed by the Czech Adam Ondr and Japan’s Yoshiyuki Ogata, with another Slovene in 4th place, Anže Peharc.
These performances secured first place for Slovenia in the team rankings, with 331 points, followed by Japan (210), and France (151).
All our stories on climbing – both sport and alpine – are here.
Climbing, both sport and alpine, is one of those activities in which the little nation of Slovenia has an outsized presence, and this weekend saw the opening event of the season with regard to the former – the first bouldering competition of the IFSC 2019 Climbing Worldcup, held in Meiringen, Switzerland.
Taking first place for the women was Janja Garnbret, the Slovene teen said to be “the best climber in the world”, and an athlete whose progress it’s been a joy to follow over the last few years, as the sport gears up for it’s first appearance in the Olympics (Tokyo 2020). Garnbret took gold, followed by Akiyo Noguchi (Japan) and the UK’s Shauna Coxsey.
With regard to the men’s event, this was won by Japan’s Kokoro Fuji, followed by Jongwon Chon (Korea) and Tomoaki Takata (Japan). The highest ranked Slovene was Jernej Kruder, in 11th place.
The breakout sports star of the year is Alex Honnold, the ice cool and humble vegetarian and climber who’s the focus of the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo.
Since we’re big fans of climbing here at TSN, given the nation’s outsized contribution to the sport, our YouTube playlist lined up the following video for us. A National Geographic special from 2014 featuring Honnold on a series of climbs in Yosemite – including El Cap. The reason we’re posting it here? It comes with Slovenian subtitles, so you can watch, read, listen and learn.
“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”.
Aleš Kunaver. Source:
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.