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Budva, June 2nd 2005
Two days ago we climbed Savin Kuk, a peak 2,313 metres high in the Durmitor region of northern Montenegro. It's not the world's most beautiful mountain, and we were already at the Black Lake (1,416 metres), but it was a very satisfying experience all the same.
We'd woken up about seven in our tent in an alpine-style meadow - beautiful, with various steep-roofed houses around us, and only a rusting car at the bottom to remind us that this wasn't Switzerland. The heat woke us up (you can't stay in a small tent on a hot day), and the weather looked great - but Di's face had swollen up during the night. She said she looked like a chipmunk, and it was true. There was no apparent reason for this, and it hadn't happened since an overnight journey from Kolkota to Sikkim, so we were concerned - but as we waited around, and she cooked breakfast, the swelling went down a bit, and we decided to set off. (We now think Di's problem is just an allergy to strong sunlight.)
We were going to try and climb Savin Kuk, but we didn't think our chances were that high; our guidebook and map weren't very detailed, we had already met difficulties following the trails, there was still quite a lot of snow about and there was no way I was going to cross a sloping mountain snowfield; but most of all because it just looked too big and too forbidding.
We knew the first part of the trail - down the road to the Black Lake, round it a bit (climbing to avoid the path, flooded by snowmelt), and up a path through the pine forest.
This was a natural forest, I think - not as close-planted as in the UK - and it was a pleasant path in spite of the snow patches. Soon we got to a spring - water flowing from a wooden trough - and it was the most magical nectar. Taste and temperature just right!
On and up we went, further than we had been before, and came to a more open area. Unfortunately the waymarks took just this moment to stop! After scouting around, and re-reading our guidebook's scant instructions several times, we took a right-hand path, and soon the marks re-appeared - very faint (they had been bleached by the sun in this more open area). It was a magical place, with Christmas trees of different sizes. The path was made clearer by the tracks of tree trunks dragged along by local foresters, though you have to be careful not to assume that they're going where you're going.
After a while the track went downhill, and we began to see human detritus - bottles, furniture, a car. Not a good sign, but worse was to come as the forest thinned, then stopped, and we found ourselves on the edge of an abandoned ski resort. Abandoned only, presumably, for the summer, but no-one was about, and some of the ski lifts had broken wires. With no snow you could see how the terrain had been smoothed out for mankind's winter entertainment. Not a pretty sight.
But we could see why they had chosen this bit, it was a way up the mountain, we could see various huts and ski-stations further up (one ski lift went almost to Heaven, it seemed) - and there, further up, was a track zig-zagging up the mountainside.
So we turned right and started up the nursery slopes, across some rough ground, and up the artificial scree of a steeper slope, past a hut with three different size boxes marked 3, 1 and 2.
Then the zig-zagging began. This part was hard and boring, but really helpful with the vertical metres. There were a few patches of snow, easily avoided. As we climbed, our view over the countryside increased - dotted houses, a little cultivation, but mainly open grassland.
Then on the left we passed a mountain cirque with lots of snow, and a moraine at its edge. The scenery was changing, there were no more trees, heavy slabs of mountain were everywhere.
But it was still hot, and we sweated up in T-shirts to the top of a ski lift for lunch. This was where we thought we might turn round - we were exhausted, we had made a good stab at it, and above us was a steep gully filled with snow - just the excuse we needed to stop.
However there was a stark empty beauty about the place, and as we sat eating our bread, chorizo, apple (never has an apple tasted so good) and snack-size Mars Bar (ditto) and looking out over the landscape below, our spirits rose. I had a look upwards, and saw that there was a small path zig-zagging up the scree to the right of the snow. A hundred metres up was a rock band, which might yet stop us, but above that the slope looked gentler, and I thought it worth a try; Di agreed.
We had to be careful about water, though - this was limestone country and there were no streams out of the snowfields, the water just sank away. Once I found some drips and tried them but they tasted foul - too much grit, probably. I encouraged Di up the scree, up to the rock band, but the path went between the rocks and the snow, and we were through with only a bit of scrambling.
The slope above the rock band was indeed better, and the path zig-zagged through high grassland with wild flowers. At one point Di thought she heard a horse, but there was no horse. We saw no animals of any kind, and we saw no people on the entire trip. It was just us and the mountain. Across the gully, sheer cliffs towered above us.
We trudged on, and then I saw a summit that looked as if it might be a real one. As we neared it the wind, which had so far been minimal, increased, and when we got there a new vista opened up. Mountain scenery everywhere, and we were overlooking the side of a huge valley.
But this was just a col, and we could see that the true summit was a dome to our right. More zig-zagging, and ten minutes later there was a cairn, a stick - and a view. All that we had seen before - fir forest, alpine meadows, plus the Black Lake. We tried to see out tent just above it but it was too far away, and the cloud had thickened, making the light more murky. It was windy, but not impossibly so, and it was great to be on such a peak with no guides, no fellow hikers even.
As we were walking away from the top, we came across another pile of coins. This time I decided that my projects could do with some extra help, and asked Di for a coin. She produced a 10-cent piece, and a Serbian 20-dinar coin worth approximately nothing, but I felt that if a wish was worth wishing it was worth 50 cents. Then I found as I wished that wishing for Di and me was more important than wishing for my own things, and she wished for us too. I told her what she meant to me, and we had a Kodak moment on the top of Savin Kuk.
Downhill was easy. We knew the path was good, knew the way; it was not an exploration of the unknown any more, just a test of the knees. And a test of concentration, too - we knew that most mountaineering accidents happen on the way down, when climbers get too relaxed. We both slipped once - Di on the scree, and grazed a hand, me in the forest and got mud on my bottom - but nothing serious. In two and a half hours we were back at the lake. It had taken us about 6 hours to get up, including breaks. The signs said 3 hours, but that could only be for a fit, young Montenegrin who knew the route.
That wasn't the end of the trip, though, because we knew about the lakeside restaurant and its Nikšic beer, draught lager at 65p a pint that tasted like lager should taste - rich, fruity and (at the risk of being pretentious) complex. We also wrestled with the menu and ordered a sort of sausage with meat and sour yoghurt inside, with garlic tomato salad, pommes frites, and the soft, tasty local bread. The staff were a bit reluctant - we were the only guests, and were keeping them there - but they didn't mind too much, especially when we said we'd just climbed Savin Kuk - and they allowed us to savour our meal, sitting at a wooden table, looking at the gentle waters of the Black Lake through the fir trees.
As I write this, Di tells me I look younger for having just climbed Savin Kuk. I certainly feel happy. One recipe for happiness is to set yourself challenges, and then achieve them. The beauty of climbing a mountain, as distinct from, say, playing a concert or writing a journal, is that you can achieve it absolutely. We set out to climb Savin Kuk, and we did.
© Jeremy Polmear 2005
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