Optimism is fickle; no more so than at the beginning of a bikepacking adventure into the unknown.
A nervous glance out of our train window, and the snow-capped Venetian Pre-Alp peaks stood shivering as Duncan, Dave and I sped east across the Veneto plain. Conditions weren’t looking great for the first stage of our trip – a ride up and over the 1611m Vršič Pass – let alone the next three-days on the bikes. Vršič was one of only two routes across to the lands of the Soča, so we kind-of-needed to cross Slovenia’s highest road pass. A quick call to Tanja, the hut’s host we planned to stay with halfway up the pass, and the optimism was back in the carriage – “the road is clear up to 1200m, but I can’t speak for higher up” she said. They hadn’t expected the last 24-hours’ snowstorm, and had been out ploughing the pass all day. “The kitchen is open until 9pm, so do your best to get here before then”.
Alighting the train in Tarvisio at 18.30 we had a slow slushy 25km to ride – crossing the Slovenian Border at Kranjska Gora, before heading into Triglav National Park to the sanctuary of Koča na Gozdu, where the three of us spent the night eating hearty hut Jota and Njoki, working out which of Slovenia’s biggest beers was better (Union or Laško), double-checking the maps, triple-guessing the weather, and recouping after the day’s travelling…
> The Emerald Spine of Slovenia
> River, born near Mt. Vršič, which flows through the Trenta Valley into the Adriatic Sea at the Gulf of Trieste
In hindsight, we can refer to this trip as a super example of planned spontaneity. We had no plans, except that we did: three-days riding the new Salsa Warroad bikes, to check out various sections of a mixed-terrain route for a Pannier.cc self-guided trip, full bivvy-kits packed for flexbility … and a credit card for even more flexibility. Route wise, the aim was to piece together the famous road passes of north-western Slovenia, with sections of the Trans-Slovenia and Alpe-Adria trails to curate a 180km all-road bikepacking route.
I can’t remember why I bought Julian Kugy’s 1934 book ‘Alpine Pilgrimage’ but I’m 99% sure it had something to do with the ace, alluring fold-out hand-drawn map of the Julian Alps at the back. Kugy was a Slovene mountaineer, writer, botanist, humanist, lawyer and officer – renowned for his travelogues opening up the Julian Alps, in which he reflected on the relationship between man, nature, and culture. He had explored these mountains and foothills to the nearest Larch needle (Slovenia is 60% forest), where he discovered and marked more than fifty new routes both solo, and with local guides. However, I struggled to get into his book and map because I found, like Slovenia’s border regions, it appeared a confusing melting-pot of Italian, Austrian, German, and Slovenian/Balkan to the extent that place names, peaks and passes were cross-language – some of whose names have also changed too, of course, since his writing it. I’d brought my copy with me to make more sense of it. On the ground I could piece the peaks, passes and places together and, it turns out, the three of us planned to follow many of his tracks so I have used some of his relevant and evocative quotes amongst the photo essay of our journey…
“One should not seek for a mere scrambling-ground among the mountains, but rather for their spirit” JK
The snow continued to fall the next morning, slowly but surely settling on the pass’ tarmac outside our cosy hut. Triglav’s stunning surrounding limestone peaks disappeared into the snowy skies, drifts and forests; it seemed there would be no break in the weather to make a simple dash for the col, whatever state it was in. Was there even any snow above 1500m? Would we have to hike the last of the pass? Were the conditions any better the other (south) side? Anyway, we could have put it off all day … so at 09.30 we left the warmth of the hut, repacked the bikes in the cellar against Laško beer crates, and pedalled off up the last of this sides’ 24 cobbled switchbacks, or “serpentines” as Tanja (and every other local) called them. Edging ever-closer, slowly but surely, to the Soča…
“…the bitter cold rouses me, but it is a journey through a winter’s dream … On the zigzags, at corners, you stand listening to the marvellous silence. How lonely, above shimmering valleys and circling mists, the trees sparkle in snow. They stir themselves, and the dust trickles and whirls down, like a rain of sparks…” JK
Rolling virgin tracks into fresh snow, on such a humbling stretch of road, was the experience of the trip for me – following the original tracks of farmers needing to get to pasture on the Trenta side of the valley, and folk from the rural Trenta valley needing to stock up on supplies from Kranjska Gora. According to the information boards, the original path was widened in 1909 for the timber industry, before being fully developed into a road by the military when the Soca (Isonzo) Front opened up. Somewhat unintentionally, it seems the name Warroad had great relevance here. I hadn’t quite pieced together why there was a Russian Church on the pass prior to seeing it, but it turns out the road was pretty much built by 10,000 Russian prisoners of war, which they completed in 1917, including the 24 cobbled switchbacks (for horse/vehicle friction on these steeper sections?). The road pass was complemented with a military cable supply line, built in 2.5km sections, each with a 20-35HP engine to carry loads of up to 100kg when the weather was too bad to use the road.
We plodded on, upwards. The Erjavčeva Hut perched high near the top of the pass for sanctuary, if needed. And then it was only 10km or so to the next civilisation on the south side. If avalanches were a risk, we’d turn back. The worst that could happen was a long, chilly hike with a bike. Our Slovenian bikepacker friend, Neza, had mentioned meeting up in Bovec that night for Labour Day celebrations, so that became the aim for the day.
It was at this last hut where the rideable snow ended; turning to foot-deep-snow and a good old hike-a-bike up past the final no.24 switchback sign to the 1611m col. Nevermind optimism, this was in-your-face realism. Type-Fifteen Fun…
“…forests groan beneath their white burdens…” JK
“Success did not come at once. Bad snow defeated us the first time a short distance above the Voss (Erjavčeva) Hut, near the summit of the Mojstrovka (Vršič) Pass … When we crossed to the south side, the snow was so bad that it was only the greatest toil that we made any headway. In the early hours of morning the sun had softened it to knee-deep pulp … ‘this isn’t even snow, it’s polenta!’ exclaimed an enraged Oitzinger…” JK
“Powdery avalanches glided playfully over the cliffs, then shot more fiercely down the gullies, raising their voices in a mighty crescendo. From all sides came the sound of falling water…” JK
“Beyond the mountains, they told me, lay the Trenta (Valley). My imagination leaped over the wide gateway of the Mojstrovka (Vršič) Pass and saw the fabled valley deep among sublime peaks, in a splendour of poetry and romance…” JK
Our snow saga, followed by wet wet rain showers and warm sunny spells later in the day, meant we’d ridden through “four-seasons of weather in one day” according to Duncan, who was kept busy looking after his camera and kit, whilst trying to document this lush spring-green, rugged-limestone, snow-dusted valley without getting pneumonia.
Riding off the other side of the col, on pretty much clear but sodden tarmac, was a big moment for us. The optimism was back. We’d made it, and were now in the lands of the Soča – the stunning, roaring emerald river, whose watershed’s roads and gravel tracks we’d be riding for the next two days, to Bovec, and beyond…
“…let us look back once more, and greet the green border far at our feet, beside the gleaming silver ribbon of the infant Isonzo (Soča), before we turn our eyes westward in search of new mountains…” JK
“I still hold that the Isonzo (Soča) is the most beautiful stream in Europe. Were I a painter, the waters of the Julian Alps would be my subject” JK
“At the melting of the snows, the note of the swollen Soča rolls through the hills like the thunder of God … the roar of water in endless crashing harmonies … echoes through the mountain ages. You listen breathless, stirred to the depths of the spirit” JK
“There was not a breath of wind. The mountains shone in their winter’s beauty beneath a cloudless sky, and the sunshine had almost the warmth of spring…” JK
“There are places in the mountains marked out for halts … shepherd, hunter, woodman, poacher, climber, [cyclist, bikepacker,] whoever it may be that passes by. Here they stand, look around and rest … each halting-place has its own pleasant way of attracting us, even in these forgotten corners of the mountain world … someone has been here, maybe yesterday, and someone may still come, who knows whence…” JK
“Week by week, the foothills have comforted us, to shorten the days from one mountain journey to another … if the great peaks are the stern milestones of a mountaineer’s life, the foothills build a cheerful causeway from one peak to another…” JK
“The mountains are so great, so forbearing, so patient … I cannot imagine any place less suitable to choose than the high mountains, wherein to display the mastery of mankind…” JK
Words & Illustrations
Bikes & Kit
Salsa Cycles – Warroads
Ortlieb – Bikepacking Bags (Limited Edition, Black)
Supplied by Lyon Cycle
Julijske Alps – 1:40,000
Alpine Pilgrimage – Julius Kugy