Tag Archives: Mountains

Travel Guide: Dubrovnik

My parents and I started our trip to Croatia with two nights in Zagreb, after which came three nights in Split. Dubrovnik was our final stop and as before, we reached our destination in the dark. But the trip leading to Dubrovnik was full of colour and anticipation.

We decided to take the scenic route along the coast, which was breathtaking. I am forever lost in the majesty of cliffs that drop off into sea, the islands in the distance, the colours of the water and sky, the villages that appear and then, just as suddenly, are gone.

The drive was indeed stunning, but we also decided to stop and explore. Our first stop was Biokovo Nature Park, essentially a nature preserve comprising of the mountains along the coast. I’d read that the best way to see the park is to drive up the road (be ready for serpentines and some negotiation with other drivers), ride an e-bike, or take a guided walk. Now having been there, I’m not sure where a guided walk would have gone as we didn’t see any paths. Rather, we pulled off the road at a point wide enough for a couple of cars and my mum and I spent some minutes scrambling up rocks.

Back in the car, we followed the road to the Skywalk, which seemed to be the primary attraction. The Skywalk is exactly what it sounds like – a glass bridge where you can walk above the cliffs and stand at the edge of the world.

After lunch at the only restaurant, which was frequented by horses and a mule in addition to the patrons at tables outside, we drove to Baćina Lakes, which is easier said than done. It was only with the aid of several blogs, several maps, and sheer dumb luck that we found a) the lakes and b)somewhere to park. This is the type of adventure that comes from travelling outside of high season when the campgrounds and kayak rentals, from which it would be easy to get directions, are closed. I’d read about beaches and a cycling/walking trail circling the seven lakes, but as Baćina Lakes was off the coastal road, it wasn’t immediately obvious where we were or where we needed to be. In the end, after a brief attempt at visiting the tourist information centre in the nearby city of Ploče, the address of which led us to an abandoned bus depot, we put Peračko Blato Beach into the GPS because I found it listed on a blog and there we were! Another car, a camper, and a few people sunning themselves at a tiny beach heralded our arrival. More importantly, we had reached an are with very well-marked walking trails that clearly went around beautiful lakes.

There were signs detailing information about the flora and fauna and the air smelled like spring. We saw pomegranate and olive trees and a wide variety of plants and flowers, as well as a snake and a jaw containing rather a lot of teeth. Considering we were following a black dog with a wagging tail who had come to greet us at the car and proceeded to walk in front of us for the entirety of our time at Baćina Lakes, we gave the skull a wide berth.

Throughout the day, we’d seen whole families spreading blankets underneath trees on the sides of the road and picking olives. We pulled over to do the same, which is when we learned that olives are not like apples and you cannot simply eat what you pull off a tree. After that, we left the olive trees to the locals, who clearly knew what they were doing.

Our last stop of the day was at a rest area that specialized in wine tastings. We didn’t stay for long, nor did we taste any wine, but remained for long enough to sit silently and stare out at the view.

Night comes fast at this time of year and Dubrovnik was quiet when we arrived.

The following day was our only day to explore, and the weather was glorious. Warm bordering on hot with bright blue skies and a breeze that came out from the harbour. I had one intention for Dubrovnik and that was to walk on the city walls, which are a UNESCO World Heritage site. When I paused to think about just how old these walls were, I had to wonder about anything we build today. Will anything last like the walls have lasted? Wherever possible, I like to visit the highest point in a city and look down. It makes me feel tiny, just like standing in a forest and looking up.

Dubrovnik is beautiful and we spent some time in the afternoon just strolling around. There are tiers of stairs all over the old town and each leads to another street or alley, stone buildings on top of stone staircases. As elsewhere in Croatia, Dubrovnik is also host to many well-behaved stray cats. We passed a small market and I bought some flavoured salt from the town of Ston, which we had passed on our drive.

Later in the afternoon, my dad and I took the cable car to the top of Srd Hill, from which you can look out to Dubrovnik, the surrounding mountains, and neighbouring Montenegro.

We spent some time on the walking paths, as well, and were lucky enough to watch a herd of sheep as they dutifully followed their shepherd.

Early the following morning, well before sunrise, we were off to the airport. My only expectations of Croatia came from what I’d heard from my siblings and friends who had visited – that it’s beautiful, that the people are wonderful and helpful, that it’s calm and relaxing and easy to explore. All I can add, I think, is that Croatia exemplifies strength – the strength to create, to survive, and to rebuild. It was a real pleasure to be there.

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.

Back on Skis

I learned how to ski when I was in kindergarten and skiing remained a significant part of my winters until I moved to Malaysia. That was eight years ago.

A few months ago, a friend broached the subject of a ski trip to Austria. We looked at photos and maps and shared memories of past experiences. I started making lists of what I needed to buy (everything) and began purchasing, trying on, returning. Other friends got involved, logistics were determined, decisions made and finalized. We did squats to get stronger, planned our grocery shopping, packed the car.

“I hope I remember how to ski,” I told everyone who asked. To a person they replied, “You’ll see. It’s just like riding a bike.”

Not just like riding a bike, perhaps, but not too far off. As it turned out, I remembered how to ski. I was certainly not as strong, elegant, or fearless on skis as I once was, at least in my memory of it, but my body knew how to move and my heart knew how to laugh. That’s really all I had hoped for in the mountains.

My experiences skiing took place in equal parts in the icy North American east and in the beloved terrain of the American Rockies. I’ve skied in plenty of powder, played in glades (once with a GoPro that we made the mistake of showing to my non-skier mum), and used to plan my ski days around ungroomed blacks.

I knew that skiing in the Alps would be different, and it is no exaggeration to say that skiing in the Alps has been a lifetime dream. Perhaps it was the landscape that hit me this time, for I’ve spent a long time away from mountains now, or perhaps it was something else, but I was overcome by a feeling of awe from the moment we arrived.

After half a day, tired of repeating “wow” ad nauseam, I mentioned that I wish I knew other words. A friend supplied a string of words in German, all words I already knew, and it was these words that sang in chorus in my head throughout the week.

And it really was beautiful, in all kinds of weather, the entire time. We skied fast groomers in bright sunshine; found patches of powder in a snowstorm and worked our legs hard in the moguls that remained the next day; felt ourselves tiny and insignificant in the howling wind that rose through the glacier where we spent our last day. My breath caught with nowhere to go and there was nothing to do but fly, nothing to do but trust the skis in the wind even as the snow swirled up from everywhere and rendered visibility impossible. And then there was nowhere to go but back up the glacier in the hopes that our trial by wind had been recognized.

The landscape was desolate and extraordinary.

I recognize how fortunate I am to know how to ski, first of all, and to be able to take a week to do it. I recognize what it means to have learned this sport as a child and engaged with it for my whole life, less an eight-year break. There are some really interesting cultural differences that I noticed between Europe and North America in this way, accessibility and affordability being only a part of that.

If I could bring everyone this experience, I would. There is something about being out in the world, about recognizing the world rather than the self in the world, that gets me every time. The world would be a better place if we recognized that more often than we forgot it.

And as always, I thank the mountains and the sky for that lesson.