The stones clattered furiously over the cliff as I desperately clung onto the narrow rock face and inched ever so precariously along the mountain path.
This was supposed to be easy. An easy jaunt to the top of a hill. But no, I found myself on a black graded climb, with no mountaineering equipment, a long drop below and a long way up before I even got close to the mountain summit.
With death on one side and rock on the other, it was risky to even acknowledge what in any less fearful situation would be a fantastic view. All my focus was on surviving the dodgy path I’d so recklessly begun to climb. Directly below were jagged rocks that would kill me, and slightly further out was a lovely, glistening lake, which I doubt would have stopped any free fall, and was currently committing the horrible act of sending shimmering sunlight straight into my line of view. To embrace the wonderful surroundings at this point, would have been to embrace death itself.
This was the wild and untamed beauty of Durmitor National Park, a little known masterpiece of nature in the Montenegrin mountains. When I got to a safer- or rather, wider- part of the trail, I could look out over the rugged alpinesque landscape that stretched out endlessly onto the horizon, a good distraction from the gut wrenching sound of stones trickling over the precipice as I scrambled along the loose scree.
I had set out to conquer one of the parks smaller mountain peaks, Crvena Greda, a slab of rock which rises 2175 metres above sea level, and throws shadows across the lakes and forest below its mighty mantle. It’s a wonder I thought this to be a simple task, but hindsight, as I’ve hellishly learned too often, is bullshit to think about afterwards. What I should have learnt by now though, is that if someone on the internet says it’s easy, you shouldn’t most definitely not believe that to be fact. At the very least I should get a second anonymous comment to back up the first anonymous comment I just took as infallible truth from that obscure and badly translated Montenegrin climbing website.
From below the peak didn’t look too bad. 2175 metres sounds high, but the whole range is high. The town of Zabljak,the best place to establish yourself to explore the area, is already at 1456 metres- the highest town in the Balkans- and when you look at it like that, there was only, exactly 719 metres of climbing ahead of me, and if I believed the internet- which of course, every one bloody does- it would all be along comfortable park trails, which gently wound their way to a flat plateau at the peak.
The park, which is 390 square kilometres in area, takes its name from the monstrous Durmitor massif. There are 48 mountain peaks in the range which are over 2000 metres in height, the tallest being the beastly Bobtov Kuk at 2522 metres. I might be reckless, but I wasn’t foolish enough to attempt to tackle this monster on my own.
The trails in Durmitor National Park start at the glacial lake of Crno Jezero, which in Montenegrin translates as the black lake. Crno Jezero is the largest of 18 glacial lakes within the park boundaries. I’d visited the day before, and it was fairly easy to figure where the name came from. The national park charge 3 euros per day for entry, so being a broke ass backpacker, I of course decided to simply walk through the forest and avoid the lake and ticket booth for my second day of mountain action.
The hike started easily enough. A lovely jaunt through the villages and along woodland paths. The incline of the trail gradually increased, and then the climb began as I emerged from the woodland and onto the open ground at the base of the peak.
A few dogs even accompanied me from the villages, bounding upwards like the altitude meant nothing.
From Jablan Jezero- another glacial lake- I was in the shadow of the peak that I was aiming for. It was from here, after the first two hours of hiking, that the real work began.
The easy paths turned to rocky trails as I headed through the trees from the lake. The trees disappeared as I got higher, and then the well maintained trail began to disappear too, replaced by an old narrow path that shepherds must have used for centuries to graze their herds on the higher plateau.
I was now completely out of the safety of the woodland, and I could see the peak across from me, on the other side of the lake, but there was a lot of path left to tread before I reached the other side. The wind began whipping along the rocks, as I felt the force of the elements battering me along the exposed route I was now treading.
The dogs were still with me, scrambling along the path with ease, but for me it became narrower and narrower as I got further around the mountain side. This was becoming a lot more difficult than the internet had told me it would be. At points the path fell away completely- only small sections, but I was forced to leap over, not daring to look down at the drop below. Before long I was no longer hiking, but hauling myself over piles of fallen rock and inching myself along horrifyingly exposed ledges.
I could see my goal ahead of me, but as I climbed, I finally met with the impossible. What little trail was left fell away completely, and the only way onwards was to scale the rock face. The wind was howling around me, and with no climbing equipment, ropes, or anything really, it would take a miracle to survive. I wasn’t far off the peak, but it looked as if the mountain had defeated me. Even the dogs, those fearless alpine animals, were already turning back. One last look at the void below convinced me that it was time to turn around too, before the mountain not only defeated me, but claimed me also.
I was not to reach the summit, the climb proved to be too treacherous with my inexperience and lack of equipment, but the mountains of Montenegro proved, regardless, that they were spectacular. Later that day, I found at that as I had been pondering risking my life to summit the mountain, that I’d become an Uncle. It was for the best that I’d hit my point of recklessness before it was too late.
After an equally precarious climb back down, I hiked back through the meadows and woods of Durmitor National Park to the black lake of Crno Jezero again. I found the peak I’d been aiming for detailed on the trail information board there, and realised that, just maybe, I should have read this before I set out. Crvena Greda, the peak I attempted to summit, was listed as a black climb, and one that should only be attempted with proper mountaineering equipment. I had learned this to be true- the hard way.
The Durmitor National Park is best accessed fro the small town of Zabljak. There are buses here from Kotor on the coast or from Podgorica, Montenegro’s capital.
From Zabljak it’s an easy half hour stroll to Crno Jezero, and from the lake, there are trails reaching across the whole park, from easy half days hikes, to week long expeditions.
There’s a lot of cute puppies around the lake too…