Shaken in the Julian Alps

I am going to kick off my new blog with the most terrifying story of my life so far. I’ve had accidents and close-calls before, but never have I been so sure of my impending death as I was on this day. Every time I tell this story it evokes powerful feelings in me. I don’t tell it often.

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On Monday July 12, 2004, I started out on a four day hike in the Julian Alps of Slovenia, during which I would be staying the night at various mountain huts – large huts high up in the mountains where food, beds, and blankets are provided.

I hiked up through Krnica Valley, a long narrow forested valley with high mountain walls on both sides, until I came to the head of the valley, which ends abruptly in a towering cirque. At this point you’d think that there would be no way to get up these vertical walls without ropes, but the trail turns into a “via ferrata” (Italian for “iron way”). Basically it’s a marked path that winds its way up through the vertical cliffs via the path of least resistance. There are cables and pegs bolted into the cliffs to grab onto during the hairy sections.

So off I went, scrambling and climbing up and around cliffs and traversing on narrow ledges, all the time following the little red and white circles painted on the rocks to mark the path. I had just come off above a vertical section onto a flatter section about halfway up the mountain face when I was shocked to hear an awful low-pitched rumbling sound. For an instant I was confused, but before I could even think, I heard the terrible sound of a massive rockfall coming down towards me from above like a freight train from hell. I couldn’t see anything above, since the closest cliffs blocked the view, but I could hear that the loud rumbling was coming down towards me fast. At this point the entire mountainside was shaking badly, but I had enough sense to run uphill toward the nearest cliff so that hopefully the boulders would fly over my head. As I was running towards the cliff, about three or four paces away from it, I could see and hear the first rocks zipping past my head — luckily none hit me. I made it to the base of the cliff, which was only about ten or fifteen feet tall, and huddled in the corner as rocks cascaded over my head and bounced off nearby boulders. At this point even the cliffs I was clinging onto were shaking violently, and combined with the deafening noise of crashing rocks, I was convinced that the entire mountainside was collapsing in a major rockslide. I am sure you can imagine how helpless and terrified I felt at this point. The only things I remember thinking about were first of all how completely pulverized I would soon be and therefore how completely helpless I was, and secondly I just thought, no, I’m not done yet! I don’t want this to happen!

Well, to my great surprise and relief, the rumbling subsided and the cascade of rocks died off into a trickle of pebbles as I could hear it all settling down below in the valley. I still clung to the wall for about a minute, my body shaking from the fear. After I was able to gather my senses, I looked over into the valley where a dust cloud was lingering. At this point another rockslide was triggered on the opposite side of the valley. Get me the hell out of here!!! The obvious way out was to continue upwards to the top ridge where I would be safe. With shaky legs I quickly but tenderly climbed as fast as possible, constantly looking for places to hide, and speeding past exposed (from above) sections. I soon made it up to the ridge and hurried back from the edge where I knew I was finally safe.

I hiked the final mile or two to the Pogacnikov Dom hut, the whole time reviewing the event in my head in a sort of state of shock. I got to the hut and ordered a large beer. Luckily the girl who worked there spoke English. I had to get the story off my chest. As Sasha gave me the beer I said, “I almost died on the way up here.” She chuckled and said something like yeah, it’s a long way isn’t it… “No,” I said with a straight face, “I ALMOST DIED ON THE WAY UP HERE.” She was all ears and as I started telling what happened two other girls came out of the kitchen and listened too. After I was done telling my story (with much animated theatrics or course!) they said, yeah, there was an earthquake today! The hut had shaken so much that they thought that Razor (the nearest mountain) was falling down. The epicenter was in a town called Bovec, just down-valley. So I was in a damn earthquake!!! We talked for a while and the radio said that one man was already found dead in the mountains. He had been hiking with his wife and was knocked off of a cliff by rockfall. A tragedy indeed, but thankfully for me that was the only death that day due to the earthquake.

It’s hard to explain the overwhelming gratitude you feel after a brush with death like that. As I sipped my beer I browsed through some Slovenian travel magazines, just savoring the pictures of the people in traditional costume playing their accordions, and the pictures of the houses, and the pictures of the trees and just the colors and all of it. I became immensely grateful for all these simple things that constitute this life – the colors, the conversations, even the simple act of sitting down and resting on a chair. I talked with some cool people that night, ate a lot of food, and drank my share of beer. The next three days in the mountains went on without any major craziness; I saw some awesome scenery, took some photos of some ibex lounging in the grass, and met some more fellow hikers. I am happy to be alive.

Click here to see my photos from Slovenia

3 thoughts on “Shaken in the Julian Alps

  1. Scary stuff!
    I was in the same area climbing up Mt Triglav, and the climb is a pretty steep one even without rocks falling over your head!
    I had a few close calls myself in life and every time I get out of it safely I appreciate what I have even more..
    Enjoy life!

  2. Hey there,

    Very frightening experience in deed!

    As I am reading this I recall a similar event which happened here in Bucegi mountains, Romania, a few years ago, when a huge 100 ft slab cracked and fell out of the Costila-Galbenele climbing wall (a whole rope length).

    Useless to say that the boulder just swept with rage through the valley below and changed the landscape forever.

    I’ve been there some while ago, I came face to face with it, and for a moment I remained completely stunned, it was as big as a train wagon, right at the bottom of the valley!

    It took place at night, fortunately it is in a remoted area and no one got hurt, but it still may be an interesting fact to think about.

    I’ll upload 2 photos if you want to see the scale of it

    http://www.peisaje-montane.ro/costila-galbenele-slab/1.jpg
    http://www.peisaje-montane.ro/costila-galbenele-slab/2.jpg

    Cheers!
    Gabriel

    1. Hi Gabriel,

      That’s nuts! I’m glad nobody was climbing that slab at the time! It would have been pretty amazing to [safely] witness, I’m sure. Thanks for the photos!

      Jack

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