When I started writing about this trip, I was planning to write neat little stories about each climbing destination we visited. But as the trip rolled on and I got behind with writing, I couldn’t help but contrast each place with the next or the last.
I couldn’t talk about the free camping, parking, and access to the outdoors in Romania and Bulgaria without mentioning the opposite in the more developed countries like Slovenia and Croatia. I couldn’t explain the perfectly equipped beautiful routes of Bosnia Herzegovina, that are unfortunately covered in greenery due to the lack of climbers, without contrasting it with the over crowded, polished walls of Paklenica. Suddenly, it did not make sense to write about them individually when the most interesting features were the curious comparisons.
Additionally, I fought my own love-hate relationship with this trip. For most of the trip we were climbing alone. We went some beautiful, remote, exotic and unusual places but the lack of human interaction made it feel some what hollow for me. I was lonely. This wasn’t like the travel I had done previously. It reminded me more of the time I went to Yosemite by myself for 5 days. It was stunning. I know it was. But I only have vague memories of the trails, of the beauty. What I remember most is meeting two Aussie guys on the trail on my 4th day. We talked for 2 hours up a trail until we spilt ways. I can’t remember what we talked about but I know making that connection was a highlight for me, in one of the worlds most beautiful places.
I would consider myself an introvert. I’m scared of calling people I don’t know on the phone. I write long, navel gazing, introspective blog posts like this one. [Advanced warning ⚠️. If you just want climbing beta hold on a minute I’m compiling a PDF containing places, route names, suggested topos and camping spots. I will post it soon, I promise]. I’m normally very happy with my own company for hours on end like a 21 hour 100km race. But this trip made me realise something had been missing in my life for sometime now, community. Sure, I’ve have a great two years trotting around the globe. But it doesn’t matter how cool the stuff is you do, if you don’t have cool people to share it with. Someone wise told me that more than once, I wish I had listened.
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to sound ungrateful and depressed. Some really great things happened too. I saw a bear in Romania, well two bears, the first one however was about three metres from my face. The towers of Meteora were like being on another planet. There should be sky running races Bugeci National Park (Romania) and mountain bike shuttles in Vrattsa Gorge (Bulgaria). Bosnia Herzegovina’s wild mountainous landscape was a huge surprise. In Paklenica (Croatia) we climbed my longest, hardest route in limestone, and swam in the sea every day. We climbed Triglav, the tallest mountain in Slovenia, in a day. A mountain I had promised myself I would come back for three years earlier. There were endless sunsets to capture and beautiful expansive views.
However, all of that nice stuff is documented on Instagram, because that’s what Instagram is for. Happy memories, don’t you wish you were me, #YOLO #livingmybestlife and all that new age social media stuff. I wanted this to be the raw and honest account of 3 months of #vanlife.
The climax of my love hate relationship with this trip came when we had safety returned to Italy and the Dolomites. The famous, teetering towers of orange limestone. We were following the recommended descent route from our second line of the day. It, of course, started with a diagonal abseil. I hate rappelling in general but going diagonally means you have to push back from the wall with your legs while your harness pulls you in the opposite direction. You feel at any moment you might just lose your footing and go for an uncontrolled swing. I descended painfully slowly, trying to carefully manoeuvre myself to the Col where Rovin was waiting. All of a sudden, I heard Rovin yell “ROCK, ROCK” I only had time to look up and see a big black dot obscuring my vision. Nothing of the next few seconds was conscious. I know I screamed, a guttural cry, because I heard the sound after I made it. The rock collided somewhere with the wall above my head a ricocheted over my left shoulder. After the dust settled, I looked up to see both ropes still intact and my head still on my shoulders. I promptly burst into tears and by the time I finally made it to the Col snivelling and shaking I had resolved to burn my harness as soon as we got to the ground. It was the closest I had ever come to death.
There had been a few times already on the trip when my “risk line” had been crossed. We had to make a 52m diagonal abseil across a blank face in Meteora on a 50m rope (I’ll let you do the math). I couldn’t bring myself to commit to a poorly protected traverse move in Paklenica. We had to back down from a couple of climbs because they were just too hard and exhausting for me or not even start others. All of these instances left me deeply upset and questioning my purpose in life more than ever. Why was I doing this to myself? Why was I putting myself at risk this way?
The incident in the Dolomites rapidly compounded my angst. I did not want to die for this sport. I did not want to die for any sport. Not being as mediocre as I am. But of course, I didn’t burn my harness. I had been brought up horse riding and if you didn’t get back on the horse right away, you never did. However, the next two days we failed on both our routes, retreating after the first pitch. I was just too spooked.
After the second route attempt sitting in the van feeling completely defeated, looking out at my surroundings, I renamed the trip “how to be perfectly miserable in beautiful places”. The only thing I felt I had truly mastered. Part of my angst was because I knew I wasn’t good enough, as Rovin eloquently put it, he had prepared everything for this trip but me. I knew If he had been climbing with someone of a similar level they would have achieved so much more. There wouldn’t have been so many failures, so many tears. I knew it and I bullied myself for it.
But as myself loathing subsided I silently began breaking down why I was beating myself up. I realised somewhere along the way I contracted a nasty strain of “Chamonix disease”. I had started to believe that my self worth depended on how many scary mountains I had climbed or shitty couloirs I had skied. It would somehow make me a better person or at least better than everyone else. It was an ugly moment self realisation. This was not who I wanted to be.
Right now, I have no job. I have no money. Instead, I am rich in time. I chose to spend a lot of that time climbing. Not succeeding in what I was investing so much of my time in to was devastating for me. However, it has made me realise I need a bigger purpose in my life than the mountains. That I don’t want to continue having my happiness revolve around something so trivial as what peaks I have climbed or skied especially when one day Mother Nature might just drop a rock on my head. I want to have a job I love, not just one to sustain my hobbies. I want to be part of a community. I want to be helpful. I want to belong somewhere. I want to have achievable, finite goals.
Realistically, I don’t yet know how to achieve any of this. All I know is it will involve sacrifices and compromises. But at least I realised a little bit of what I am looking for and what I feel so lost without. I am one of those people that have to learn the hard way. This trip has been one heck of a lesson that I will always be grateful for.