Just a Little Hike to 2,800 Meters Above Sea Level (Part II)

Posted by in Dispatches

Svetla at the top of PirineThe next day of the mountain adventure, we got up at 10 AM and packed up the camp. The rowdies who had stayed up until 5 AM couldn’t be stirred to get up and join us, so the four of us (Svetla, Hristo, Vera and myself) put our packs on and started up the rocky trail that follows the path of the icy river. Hristo and Vera had given Svetla and I decent packs to use, and while I was appreciative, the pack that I ended up with was pretty large – a 100 litre affair. As most travellers know, the size of your pack usually determines how much stuff you pack (rarely do you find yourself with a half-full backpack) and so I had mine filled with our tent, my sleeping bag, clothes, some food, and the box of wine plus a big bottle of beer. The combined weight proved to be a little too much for my injured spine, and so it was good to rearrange our gear later in the day in order to lighten my load. The trail along the river was, in retrospect, a pretty mild incline with easy walking, and so it is now quite amusing for me to think that after just 15 minutes on that part of the hike I felt as if both lungs were about to implode inside me, as I bathed in my own sweat and felt my leg muscles tremble like sinewy branches from an old and malnourished willow tree…Hristo and the LentilsNow a few days later, I can tell you that having almost collapsed in a feeble lump of sweaty exhaustion in the first fifteen minutes is quite unbelievable: I was only a fraction of the way into 13 hours of gruelling excercise. On the first day, we stopped at a lodge (pictured to the right, with Hristo eating lentil soup and Vera in the background) two hours up the mountain and met up with the other ten hikers of our expedition. There were benches, old wooden huts people rent out, and an old stone and clay lodge where some women sold us delicious lentil soup and tea. There was also a beer hut, which we took advantage of on the way down, mostly. This stop was so great, I imagined at the time that every couple of hours we would be stopping at such quaint lodges nestled into the side of the mountain to eat soul food and sip on energy-giving tea. Unfortunately, there is one lodge, and when you leave it behind, you leave behind a world of comfort.

The hiking on that first day was an intense race up to 2,800 meters. In all, we hiked/climbed for almost six hours and rested for about eleven minutes. I’m not quite sure if it is a Bulgarian disposition to run up a steep rocky mountain without stopping for water or breath, or if this is the way of the mountain climber the world over, but it is now confirmed that this strategy is not for me. While gasping for breath and swiping hot tubs of sweat out of my eyes, I managed to barely keep pace with the ardent nature enthusiasts but felt like I had another human curled up in a heavy ball on my back. We climbed 65 degree inclines through grass, trees, shrubs, fields of yellow flowers, spiky alpine trees (a species that seems to have developed a defense mechanism against hikers on the mountain, whereby it’s prickly branches form a formidable crosshatch of foiliage above the path right at backpack height), rocks, more rocks, and finally a wide assortment of rocks.

The vistas were incredibly beautiful (see photos) and had it not been for the rivers of salty sweat stinging my eyes, I would have savoured even more of such delicous eye candy. The hiking, as mentioned, was strenuous and constant, with the odd quick stop to let some of us catch up and for me to of course punctuate the experience with a bit of whinging between hyperventilations. “We…just….don’t….do….it…..like this…..back home…don’t you people need water?” I imagined that I had somehow joined a Bulgarian alpine android squad who’s mission it seemed, was to bring death to this human by running him up a mountain. But alas, they are not androids, just great people who love the outdoors and are generally in much better shape than this arse-sitting academic. It would have been good however, if we had been forewarned of the extreme nature of our little jaunt, prior to embarkment. Thankfully, I was able to buy some cheap hiking shoes that barely held their stitches, and Svetla’s wise mother had stuffed some warm vests into our bags as we were heading out the door (basically she has saved my life, having now survived freezing nights bundled in thirty layers of clothes like some kind of cotton sausage).

Group BreakAbout four hours up the mountain we did manage one rest by a gorgeous little moutain creek, (pictured at the left) and we cooled off our overheated brows and drank crystal clear water. One particularly adventurous chap even dipped his whole body in the glacial water – merely watching him do it had the effect of cooling me off, so I declined to join in. After some cookies, nuts and water, we were off again. Hristo pointed way up in the air to a pass between two mountain peaks (“the gates” and the pass are in the photo above and to the left) and indicated that just over that ridge was a lake and our future campsite. Ahhh, I thought, that’s pretty high up there, but looks like it’s not that far at all, maybe one hour max. However, the trick to climbing mountains is to not look up, I’ve discovered, as the destination has a habit of not getting closer, despite hour upon hour passing of intense climbing. It is much preferable to look down in these situations, as one may be instantly rewarded with the alarming sight of the vast distance one has just surmounted, seeing that teeny speck where the group had just been only on half hour before. I know this now, and had not really finalized this philosophic approach to coping with climbing at the time. And so, the elusive pass seemed to disappear and reappear several times over so many hours, leading me to consider the possibility that it might be a mountain mirage induced by my having lost 68 litres of liquid, sweated out on the way up.

Exhausted EzraThe pass did finally come within reach, after negotiating an endless incline of glacial till (basically thousands of jagged rocks covered in dry lichen, formed by the movement of massive bodies of ice). Before we got there, I did have one small freak-out, that probably solidified my sketchy, ill-equipped (mentally and physically) image in everyone else’s minds. Some of the group had got separated and Svetla was among them. I had been forging along on the rocks, so focused on hopping like a mountain goat, that I hadn’t noticed how fragmented our group had become. While many of us were far ahead, forging up past an azure blue lake, I looked back to see only a steep hill of cumbersome rocks. I dropped my backpack on one such rock, and headed down the mountain, zig-zagging through trenches of well, rocks (is there another word for rock?). Every few minutes I would stop and scream “SVETLA!!!” like a character from a Tenessee Williams play. They wer nowhere to be found. As everyone knows, I am very level-headed and rational, so I instantly thought that they were all laying beneath a pile of rocks, bones broken and too weak to yell back. I ended up frantically scaling down the mountainside hopping and yelling like a sociopath escapee from an alpine asylum, until giving up and going back up. Upon reaching the lake and my backpack, there was Svetla and the others. (She snapped a picture of me – weary and about to fold inward, that is pictured above on the right) Of course they had merely stopped and rested. No broken bones, just one Candian idiot who frantically hiked an extra kilometer or two for fun.

Group at the CampsitePictured at the left: the group finally rests at the campsite, and gets ready to eat.

Svetla and I climbed the last bit before the pass, which was the steepest – needing to climb with all four limbs – along a slippery stream. The stream was from the lake, which, glorious and clear, lay on the other side of the pass. Here, people swam, drank beer and relaxed. We set up camp in the lumpy meadow overlooking the lake, and the insane among us immediately dropped their gear to run up to an even higher peak. I was invited, but informed them of a Canadian habit we call “rest.” We made some food – everyone putting their supplies together, sitting on the grass, cutting up fresh tomatoes, feta, bread, olives, salami and more on nice flat rocks. It was great, but I soon established a deep chill that I could feel in my bones. To combat the coming cold night, I wore underwear, swimming shorts, jeans, then army shorts. On top were several shirts, a sweater, vests, and a hat. When I emerged from our tent I looked ridiculous, but hey I kept warm. That night a little fire was kept ablaze, and everyone gathered around to sip Rakia and tell legends of the mountains and even the solar system. Svetla and Vera did much of the translation for me, which is always nice as it keeps me from talking to myself like a crazy person. While I dozed in the tent later, I could hear everyone singing like crazy. They were singing folkloric songs about the mountain and it’s legends.

At the end…The next morning we packed up tiredly (no sleep again, a wee bit too lumpy) ate, and headed up to the highest peak of the cluster of peaks we were nestled in. The way down was easier going, and I found myself hurling my body across a steep landscape of rocks. This proved to be stupid, and the final leg of the hike down saw me hobbling with two walking sticks, agony stretched across my sunburnt face like someone who had just been thrown off a mountain instead of walking down. I guess everyone has their moments where they feel invicible, and for two hours I was an immortal figure flying down a mountainside with the grace of goat on magic mushrooms. We swam in a lake, ate lunch in a meadow, and walked at a relaxed pace down a beautiful little path that criss-crossed and followed a bubbling creek down. At the lodge we celebrated with a beer (pictured above and to the right) and several hundred thousand mosquitoes, at least 148 of which found Svetla’s epidermous to be delectable. A relaxing drink and toast and we were off again for another two hours down to where the cars were parked.

Although I ended up limping in at last place – having twisted my knee during my “I’m an invicible force showing this mountain who’s boss” phase – I’m proud of myself for having achieved such a climb. The good nature of all the Bulgarians on the expedition kept me in a great mood even when I was in agony. The breathtaking mountains here are a treasure in this country, and it is not surprising all that were with us take advantage of them whenever they can. I am very fortunate to have been included along on this last adventure, and although it has shown me jus how incredibly out of shape I am, the pain in my legs is a good kind of pain – one that will become a warm memory of a great adventure in beautiful Bulgaria.