Tag Archives: Lake

13 Pitches

One of the reasons I moved to Germany was to play outside. I did as much of this as I could in Singapore, but the tropics don’t lend themselves to the same sorts of opportunities as this part of Europe. As it was, I scouted out the local climbing hall before moving into my apartment and purchased a bike before I had a bed. The universe smiled and I was very fortunate to meet people with whom to cycle, climb, and go skiing.

It was with these people that I visited Arco, Italy for a week of playing outside on the rocks.

Arco is located in Trento, north of Lago di Garda (Lake Garda), and this provides a beautiful environment in which colourful buildings and a wide range of trees (including palm trees!) are situated within the mountains. We took a walk around town on our first day, both for the purpose of getting the lay of the land and for the first of many breaks for gelato.

Spring was in a different place in Arco than what we had left behind in Germany, as well, and this created a general feeling of excitement among our group.

We headed out the following day for sport climbing routes at Regina del Lago. The rock was glossy limestone and very different to the porphyry I’ve previously climbed in the Thüringer Wald. The routes were fun with some challenges, I took my first outdoor lead fall, and the views were stunning. A stop at Lago di Ledro was in order later that evening, as well.

But we had not driven over 800 kilometers to Arco for sport climbing. Rather, we were looking for long multi-pitches, routes we cannot get close to home. Multi-pitch climbing was new to me when I first climbed outside in Germany. At that time, I had never seen anyone set up an anchor from the middle of a route and belay from the top, much less tried to do so myself. And months later, here we were in Arco and this is exactly what we were here to do.

My partner and I climbed our first big multi-pitch, a route called Trento, behind another pair of friends and were ecstatic when we reached the top. Two hundred meters and five pitches, by far the biggest route I’ve ever climbed. Some scary moves with big reaches, some polished rock, and phenomenal energy. It was comforting to meet our friends along the way, helpful to know we could call up to them if we got into trouble during the couple of hours the climb lasted. Safety guidance on multi-pitch climbing suggests that because the climb requires significant stamina, both physically and mentally, multi-pitch routes should be a grade below the climber’s maximum ability. This climb was well within our range but the polished rock made it harder and we were tired, in all the good ways, on the hike down.

The following day, some of us were ready for a break that turned out to be far less of a break than I’d thought. We drove to the nearby town of Mori for a via ferrata (or Klettersteig) on Monte Albano, which can best be described as a climbing route protected with cables and ladders. Rather than climbing attached to rope, you climb with carabiners leashed to your harness and clip yourself into the cables and ladders along the way.

The hike to the starting point was a nice warm up and gave us a taste of the views we could expect along the way.

Right from the start, I was taken off guard. Throughout the route, I was surprised at how scared I was, grateful for being there, and had already decided to do it again. The biggest difference between Klettersteig and climbing, to me, is that of partnership. There’s someone on the other end of a climbing rope who cares about you, and I cannot say the same for cables attached to cliffs.

The hike down was a reward, a journey through yet a different landscape.

Again looking for gelato, we stopped in Rovereto as the sun began to sink lower, creating shadows that could tell stories. I’m inclined to believe in magic, so I suspect that they have.

Before arriving in Arco, we had eyes on Claudia, a multi-pitch of thirteen pitches and 455 meters. Much of this route would be a slab climb, meaning a reliance on balance, friction, and making use of tiny footholds when they appeared. Without question, it would be the biggest outdoor adventure I’d ever encountered.

Climbing is about much more than physical strength. It’s about agility and dexterity, about safety, and, perhaps most importantly, about trust. We have systems, we check the systems, and we back up the systems. My life is in my partner’s hands and their life is in mine. Literally. And we know this every time. I have belay scars for a reason. One of the things that makes multi-pitch climbing so spectacular is that the experience is just you and your partner and the rock, and you are in this together for as long as it takes.

Four of us in the group were interested in Claudia and we assembled our gear and decided on pairs the night before. With such a long climb, the length a new experience for all of us, we needed an early start. As we had learned in our shorter multi-pitch routes, we needed to be familiar with the map to determine know how much gear was required at different points, as well as the line we were meant to follow to stay on the correct route. It actually is possible to make mistakes when there are routes bolted alongside each other, and getting into territory that is too difficult or doesn’t lead to an appropriate anchor can be dangerous.

We woke early, left the apartment early, and encountered no one else on our walk to the route’s starting point. We checked everything once more, gave a final round of hugs, and then we started to climb.

For something so enormous, there was remarkably little fanfare. We just did what we knew how to do and worked out the kinks along the way.

The weather remained consistent throughout the day and we were grateful for that because it meant one less thing to manage. Once all of our layers went on, they stayed on. At every snack break, we were surprised at how long we’d been climbing. We kept enough distance between our two pairs that my partner and I couldn’t see our friends below us and periodically strained to hear their commands to one another, just to make sure. We got into a rhythm of checking the map at regular intervals and our anchor setup became more efficient with each pitch. We paused occasionally for photos, celebrated milestones and scary pitches, ate snacks, laughed a lot and listened to the wind around us and the river below.

Six hours and 48 minutes after we started the adventure that was just us and the rock, it was over. We stood 455 meters, thirteen pitches, above where we began and realized how far we’d come. We watched the clouds move, the sky change, and took stock of the state of our feet and hands. The climb had been long and the fact that it was, for the most part, neither difficult nor scary was very important. Claudia required us to be tuned in the whole time, to be aware of ourselves, each other, the rock, the changing sky. We sat in silence for a while as we waited for the moment we’d see our friends, at which point adrenaline took over and carried us through the hike down.

After our day on Claudia, I went to bed with some vague thoughts about climbing again the next day. My body had other ideas, however, and a few of us decided to spend an afternoon in the port town of Riva del Garda instead. The antique bookstore came as a pleasant surprise, and of course I couldn’t resist a look inside.

The weather forecast for the last day of our trip had not looked promising, but we were lucky enough to climb for a few hours before it started to drizzle. Upon heading back into town, we made our second visit up the hill to Castello di Arco, this time heeding the sign that very clearly stated the time of last entry. What is left of the castle sits high on a hill, providing a walk and views of the world that had welcomed us to climb.

It was drizzling the next morning, which is always a sign that it’s time to go. I felt like a different person as we loaded the car and drove away, a feeling that remained with me through the next morning when I woke in my own bed. I went to Arco wanting to climb and left Arco having climbed Claudia’s thirteen pitches, after having spent a day with just my partner and the rock. I left Arco confident in my ability to climb, manage rope, set up a variety of anchors, and deal with unexpected situations. This experience made me a better climber for myself, and also for my partner, which is perhaps even more important.

It was almost a surprise to walk around back home and realize that only a week had passed. A week on the calendar but lightyears in what I had managed, physically, mentally, emotionally. And in that week, the trees were greener, the flowers larger, and I found myself changed.

A Week in the Thüringer Wald

A couple of weeks ago, I joined a group of students for a week in the Thüringer Wald, or Thuringian Forest. Our trip was their first group outing since Covid, and it was a delight to be in a reasonably rustic environment with young people who were both comfortable in that context and genuinely glad to be there.

This campground relies significantly on volunteer labour for renovation work and there was a great deal to do. This wasn’t the type of trip where we were doing that, but I think it would have been good fun.

It was dark at night and we were able to see the Milky Way and the Big Dipper, though my photography skills and equipment cannot attest to that. We also made a fire every night, making for a much warmer evening than we would have had otherwise. There’s poetry in sitting under the stars in the cold, but there’s comfort in sitting under the stars with a fire.

While the afternoons were largely free, we had activities planned each morning. A real highlight was the hike led by the campground director, Dagmar. She taught us about the bark beetles that are killing the young trees here in the beautiful Thüringer Wald. The devastation is occurring rapidly in part because of the monoculture that was once common here for logging. It was really sad to see so much empty hillside and to think about the consequences, such as landslides and flooding, that occur under these conditions, also making it really difficult to grow new trees. And trying to do so when they’re being attacked by bark beetles is, as we learned, no easy task.

It’s also interesting to contrast the immediate environment of the valley where our camp was situated with the forest conditions around a village just 15 minutes away by car. (And, for that matter, the stunning environs in yet another part of the Thüringer Wald where I’ve been twice to climb.)

One thing I am really enjoying about Germany is how much it looks just like you might expect from a travel brochure. A walk on our penultimate day from one town to a bus stop in another town was a lot of work on hills but they were really pretty hills.

On the last day, only about an hour from school, we spent the afternoon by a lake. There’s so much here that is a fairy tale – berries and mushrooms in forests that people just happily pick, for example – and it has been so lovely experiencing it all.

This part of the state of Thüringen (Thuringia) is right on the border with Bayern (Bavaria). You know that place. Home of Oktoberfest. Indeed.

After so much time on the Little Red Dot that is fully part of my heart, it’s a real gift to be somewhere else. I’m looking at the world with different eyes and for that, I am grateful.

Travel Guide: Lake Bled, Lake Bohinj, Trieste, Maribor

After four days in three cities in Austria, a beautiful drive through mountains, rolling hills, wind, sunshine, and blue skies led the way to Slovenia. After two nights in Slovenia, I headed into Italy just because “Let’s drive to Italy today” seemed like a fun thing to do. One more night in Slovenia completed this part of the road trip.

Lake Bled

I cannot say enough good things about Slovenia. And I almost don’t want to say anything at all because part of the magic of Slovenia is that it was quiet, though this might also be because I was there in the winter. But anyway, there are a million good things to say about Slovenia. Go see for yourself!

For my first night in Slovenia I stayed in Lesce, a small town in the hills that was close to everywhere I wanted to be but away from the much more popular area of Bled. The quiet, calm solitude was startling (even after a night at a farmhouse in Leoben) and contributed to quiet and calm in my mind, too.

However, I’d heard of Lake Bled in the past and knew I wanted to see it. There’s a castle and a church at the lake and while I didn’t venture up, I know you can actually visit. Instead, I opted for the 6km walk around the lake, which began with afternoon sun . . .

. . . went through a Christmas market celebrating its final night . . .

. . . and ended in the evening’s gathering darkness, though not without a cup of hot wine along the way.

Walking back from dinner that night along a silent street, I noticed the stars. The sky was dark and the stars were bright and the air was cold and I stood outside and just looked. We don’t see often stars in Singapore and when we do, they don’t look like Slovenian stars.

The world of that night was very different to the world of the morning waking up on a farm in Austria.

Lake Bohinj

The next morning, giggling at how I planned to spend my thirtieth birthday playing outside, I drove past Lake Bled to Lake Bohinj. There was snow on the ground as the road descended into another glacial valley and I actually got out of the car to look at the world. It was the magical winter fairytale of childhood that I haven’t seen in a very long time.

Before finding a parking spot at Lake Bohinj that turned out to be illegal, I stopped to visit Slap Savica, the Savica Waterfall. The walk up itself was nice and easy and it was beautiful to look out at the Julian Alps while listening to the rushing water and feeling the cold.

A picnic lunch on a bench in the sun was in order before a walk around Lake Bohinj. Later that day, I’d pay my parking ticket (oops) at the post office. The light on the lake was stunning, as were the mountains surrounding it.

I walked through a sub-alpine meadow and looked down at the lake and up to the mountains and felt the cold and the wind and the air.

There were plants and trees and runoff from the snow creating little rivers and puddles.

Once the sun disappeared behind the ridge and then grew smaller and smaller, it was time to go. It gets bitterly cold at night in January in Slovenia.

The drive to Bohinjska Cesnjica where I spent the night went through narrow twisting roads and tiny towns containing wood and stone guesthouses and farms. Late that night with the weather well below freezing, I walked outside to look at stars. How had I gotten here? How did any of us get here?

Trieste

The next day taught me that I never again want to have a car in an Italian city. I decided to go to Trieste rather than Croatia or Hungary, both of which are relatively nearby, based on the fact that Italy is in the eurozone. I drove through the sunshine and the Alps, which was lovely, and then into a busy city with small cars and limited parking, which was far less lovely. My tip for parking a car in Trieste: Spend a few euro and park in the spacious and huge parking lot at the port. It was easy to find once I knew it existed and the parking machines take coins, notes, and cards.

At least at that time of year, it appeared that all shops and many other establishments closed in the afternoon from 1 or 1:30 until 4 or 4:30, and I arrived close to 1. I had every intention of going back in the evening when shops would be open until 7 or 7:30, but the guesthouse where I spent the night was up a ridiculously narrow, winding road on a hill about 8km outside of town. There was no way I was going down (or up) that road in the dark.

One thing that struck me about Trieste is that this city is old. The buildings were beautiful but they had been standing for a long, long time.

It was also really neat to see a stadium from Roman times next to a car park and an apartment block. I very much love that about Europe.

I also really loved the greengrocer set up in the middle of a piazza.

And of course, there were grand piazze that are probably much busier in the summer.

The history of Trieste’s Jewish community dates back about 800 years and I walked to the synagogue . . .

. . . and through the old Jewish ghetto that was full of (unfortunately closed) quirky shops selling antiquities and used books.

All things considered, a wander through parts of Trieste was a perfectly acceptable way to spend an afternoon before settling into the little guesthouse on the hill. Looking down on Trieste both at night and in the morning was really cool.

Maribor

After a day away, I decided I missed Slovenia. In the morning, I drove to Maribor, Slovenia’s second-largest city. It was a bright and sunny day and not too cold yet, which was perfect weather for a walk. I looked at a map and found Jezero (Lake) Komarnik, which has marked running and hiking trails.

Remaining aware of the sun and the time of day, I chose the shorter of the two paths and found myself first walking along a dike at the edge of a field . . .

. . . and then crunching leaves underfoot in a forest.

There were nature signs posted along the route with information about plants, animals, and ecosystems and even though I didn’t understand any of it, I really enjoyed that it was there. The way a community treats the environment tells a lot about what that community is and what it stands for.

Later in the afternoon I walked through Maribor City Park, which is exactly what it sounds like. A large park in the middle of a city with ponds, old trees, a bandstand, and a nature centre.

On the drive to the park, I spotted signs for Pyramid Hill. As the sun was beginning to set, I followed the walking trail up the hill . . .

. . . through the vineyard . . .

. . . and past the recent excavations of a twelfth century castle.

Signs along the way, including some in English, explained Pyramid Hill and Maribor City Park and it was nice to get a sense of where I was. There are longer walking trails along the back of Pyramid Hill but it was far too late in the afternoon for those.

Once it was dark, I headed into the old town to find the town square, have some wine, and feel European. It grew very cold as night came in but the narrow cobblestones felt good under my feet and I walked until the need to actually feel my toes became urgent.

It had been a wonderful few days and I knew I’d miss Slovenia even before it was time to leave. I spent the last evening curled up reading a novel and researching international schools. This had been a very special adventure and it left me excited for the next day’s journey to Bratislava.