Just when I thought I wouldn’t have topped my 12 hour day on Mt Talbot, I surprised myself by breaking that personal record less than 2 months later in Croatia going for a 350m rock route. Flying in to the coastal town of Zadar, Nicky and I set off to Paklenica National Park in our rental car to begin the Europe tour. The limestone gorge was grandiose with sheer walls towering over us as we walked through, climbers littered on both sides throughout in Klanci, the main single pitching area of the national park.
We warmed up on some smaller multi pitches (100m, 120m) to get back into the swing of climbing after a short hiatus in the days leading up to the big one and also to get used to the famed Paklenica bolting (aka. run-outs). After many days of procrastinating it, one night we said “fuck it, let’s do the 350 tomorrow”. The largest undertaking either of us would have done till date. After some short beta from another group of climbers, we estimated it to be a likely 6 hour mission for the pair of us but added an extra 2 to 3 hours for our third addition to the team, Delfi, for good measure. With nothing more than a bowl of cereal, half a dry sandwich and a little less than a litre of water to sustain me, we set off on our adventure at first light (0515 hrs); after the half hour walk in, we arrive at the bottom of the climb; marked by a giant carabiner.
The route we were looking to do was called Mosoraski, one of the three classic and easier routes up the prominent cliff Anica Kuk. A 10/11 pitch climb that was supposed to be a simple cruise up easy grades with one crux pitch of 6a.
About the third pitch up, things started to go wrong as Nicky went up a chossy traverse on a separate line, bailed and swap leads onto me. After retrieving the gear, I went up a narrow dihedral, laybacking up to the next anchor.
At one point I reached a ledge expecting a bolted belay and felt my spirit dropped as it was devoid of any such equipment. Quickly building a five point anchor with nuts, I set up the belay for the others and halfway through the seconds up the pitch, looked to my left across a ledge to see the bolted belay having a movie-like “fuck” realization.
Tangled ropes, crowded hanging belays, terrible route-finding, uncomfortable run outs, horrible trad placements and other climbing nightmare-y scenarios followed us all the way up in true adventurous fashion. I started girth hitching nuts after using up all my available carabiners and had shocking placements which would probably have held but glad not to have tested them.
Three pitches of 6a, one pitch of 6a+ and one pitch of 6b for good measure later (which we discovered on inspection of the book at the top that we were actually climbing a 8 pitch route called Nostalgia; we had to break it into 10/11 pitches because of rope drag and other issues) we found ourselves on the summit, 12 hours after we started. After Jimmy Chin-ing (as Nicky described it, with inspiration from Meru) the shit out of it hauling Delfi up past the crux sections while Nicky ascended the rope off two prussiks.
Exhausted but happy, we took obligatory selfies and started planning our descent route which was to be no more than an hour or two while we eagerly anticipated getting exceptionally intoxicated on cheap Croatian beer… If we had gone down the right path. A fork at the top, a choice between left and right; a 50/50 chance and we took the wrong descent route!
Following the faint red markers, we first came to a gully and after descending for around 10 minutes, ran out of markers and had to go back up on the ridge to find the markers again until reaching fixed steel cables. We had some interesting encounters along the way with the local mountain goats and even capturing a picturesque arch with one of the aforementioned goats.
The sun was beginning to set and our earlier joke of “if we need our head torches we’re definitely doing something wrong” was not so funny anymore. The cables were sharp and sliced our hands as we descended sketchy vertical cliffs on them; which should have been a hint aside from the fact that even the descent route had a name, Duzin silaz ,a bad-ass one at that. When you know the descent has a name, you’re in for a bad time.
The steel cables eventually ran out, as did our water over an hour ago and we were parched. The trail markers had disappeared and I was leading blindly down the gully in the dark, unknowing of whether we were on the right track at all. By some lucky chance, I stumbled upon a fixed rappel that was anchored to a questionable tree. It seemed like someone had used this path as a bail point after facing the same dilemma as the equipment was a stark contrast to the fixed, bolted steel cables we had just been following.
By this point I was exhausted and thirsty as I quickly chucked my harness on and set up my abseil, unsure of where the line went, if it even touched the ground. Halfway through the rappel, I annoyingly hit a knot (unsure of why it was placed there, who puts a knot in a rappel line!). After passing the knot, I lowered into a tree (yay) and then finally to the ground. Waiting for the others to join me I sat, thirsty, in what I later learnt to be the prime rockfall zone as moments later, missiles were whizzing past me. Like in a wild west saloon, I heard the pings of bullets (see rocks) pass and I quickly ducked under a tiny overhang but not before getting hit by a pebble on the leg which was rather painful and all too good a reminder of why we wear helmets. I quickly moved to another safe spot as I was getting eaten by ants and waited for the hailstorm to pass.
The fireflies had come out and reminded me of glow worms in New Zealand, aside from the fact that they were flying. Fluorescent green dots darting through the air, a magical experience if not for the the dehydration and delirium setting in.
Once all three of us were safely down the rappel, we started moving again where we hit scree 50m further on. Butt sliding down the rubble and causing mini land slides, we quickly developed a strategy as I was ahead path finding, I would find a rock to safely wait for Nicky and Delfi to arrive whilst avoiding their mini rock slides.
I hadn’t seen water for that past three hours, my mouth was dry and it was painful to swallow. I felt like I was on an episode of I shouldn’t be alive, except I wasn’t getting paid by Discovery Channel. Talking consumed too much energy so I jangled the hexes on my harness to let the others know where I was while I waited for them to catch up. I could feel my body shutting down as I started developing light tremors and having to focus to stay awake.
We continued descending in this fashion until we hit a cliff; in the darkness and delirious state, my depth perception was greatly diminished as I evaluated that we needed to rappel the section to reach the ground safely. Slinging a tree and making a double rappel (as I thought one rope wouldn’t reach) I went down first, into a tree again as seemed to be the common theme on the trip. The ropes were tangled as fuck and I made the decision to leave them and return for them tomorrow as it would have been near impossible to untangle 130m of rope in the dark. This was the right decision as we learned the day after retrieving the ropes as it took a ridiculous amount of time to untangle them in broad daylight. We sadly also learnt that rappelling was unnecessary as the cliff wasn’t actually that high (a shoddy 10m) and was easy to down climb.
After ditching our ropes, we headed down in our previous strategy on more scree slopes. Seeing the occasional flashlight thinking someone was looking for us like a little beacon of hope but later found that it was just the park ranger on patrol, and conveniently out of earshot as well.
At some point while ahead of the others, I heard the sound of flowing water; like a madman, my primitive brain took over and I stumbled forwards forgetting about everything else with only one objective on my mind. Water.
I reached the treeline and light was no longer a thing as it was pitch black under the canopy. I fell over repeatedly in my delirium, looking back I was surprised I didn’t walk off a cliff or break my ankle. I finally hit a dry creek bed and a wave of elation rushed over me as I could hear running water mere steps away. I stripped off my harness and pants to sit in the stream and drank an inadvisable amount of untreated water of unknown origin but man I didn’t care. The water trickling down my back was a godsend and even better was the water that I was drinking. Finally! After over five to six hours of continuous activity, it was liquid gold pouring down my throat.
Once my thirst had been satiated, higher cognitive functioning returned as I went back to assist my friends in reaching the stream. Nicky arrived at the treeline first and I advised him on the path to the stream while I went to aid Delfi. I had a Gollum-esque moment as Delfi finally reached the treeline 5 to 10 minutes later; I guided her through the pitch black, my eyes having the benefit of having adjusted to the darkness; running around in my underwear, moving on all fours gesturing “this way, this way!” (cue my precious) to the stream.
Overjoyed at reaching water and having had some, we found ourselves next to a dirt road, unsure of where the fuck we were. Using the remaining 13% of my phone battery (which had been switched off in the event we needed emergency services), we first used the GPS to locate ourselves which was of no use as it told us things we already knew (i.e. we were in the national park). On turning on the flashlight, we saw the magnificent sight of a familiar boulder which marked the entrance to the park. We were but 2 minutes away from the car! I had the biggest smile on my face as we walked back and saw our Hyundai i20. We drove back to camp at midnight and after drinking a stomach-grumble inducing amount of water and I collapsed in my tent completely destroyed.
Mind, body and spirit shattered but back to safety 18 hours later.
Planned to climb an easy 350m bolted multi pitch. Went up the wrong route up a significantly harder line mixed route with more than expected trad. Under-provisioned and misinformed. Lead for five straight pitches and belaying up two seconds with no rest. Went down wrong descent route. Took three times longer than anticipated. Didn’t die.
- Dropped one sling and nut
- Left a quickdraw behind
- Fucked my harness butt sliding down scree
- Tore two holes in my brand new pants, thanks again scree.
- Soul destroyed