A Hiking and Climbing Trip in Montenegro

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Hiking above clouds in Bjelasica.

In August 2016, right after finishing our Alta Via 4 hike in Italy, we flew to Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro. I had first got the idea of travelling to Montenegro when I heard the Tara River Canyon mentioned in a documentary – apparently it’s the deepest canyon in Europe. After some googling I came upon a website detailing all the hiking and cycling possibilities of the country and I made up my mind: I was ready to go.

With its canyon, national parks and decent mountains, it had much to offer for us. As is typical of us we wanted to instantly do the hardest thing – hike the tallest mountain in the country (2534m). Through a trip provider called Zalaz, we planned our route to include this climb (with a guide) and to climb in the Komovi peaks at Stavna, do rock climbing in Kolasin, hike in Bjelasica, go rafting on the Tara river and visit the Black Lake at Durmitor National Park. All our transfers were included in the reasonably-priced offer. We initially planned to mostly stay in our own tent but with the evening thunderstorms and us being very tired in the evenings we went the easy way and stayed at the eco villages (eko katuns) or privately-rented rooms.

Day 1

We were picked up early at our motel by our driver and our mountain guide Zeljko: we set out to drive to the base of Zla Kolata – the village Vusanje. The weather seemed promising – not too hot, not windy. Today’s hike would be 23km with 1600m ascent and the same in descent. We moved up the mountain rather fast – filling up our water bottles from a spring on the way. There wasn’t necessarily a “trail” at all times but the route was always marked on the rocks – one could easily find his way around, at least up until the mountain pass.

During the walk we discussed the dangers of climbing this mountain without a guide (Zeljko is also a mountain rescuer) – even though Zla Kolata does not boast with insane heights, it’s notoriously dangerous during thunderstorms and rain. We heard of a horrible story of a father with two sons attempting the climb on their own and with wet conditions – somewhere on the approach they took a wrong turn and the father with one of the sons slipped and fell. Anything can be dangerous when the risks are not properly weighed.

When we reached the mountain pass (maybe around 3h after starting the hike) we could see the storm clouds gathering over the hills on the Serbian side of the mountains. Zeljko was adamant that it would be insane to attempt the Zla Kolata summit today but that we could try something easier and faster. After hiking maybe only a hundred meters up towards one of the closest peaks to us the thunder set in. With all the echo and the dark clouds it felt very close and dangerous. Without further thinking we started to basically run down the mountain, hopping over massive boulders and trying not to slip.

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Right before the thunderstorm. Zla Kolata peaks to the left.

It wasn’t really raining but the rumbling of the thunder made the situation very real. Luckily we all made it to lower grounds safe, without any mishaps. On our way down we met four people going up, suggesting them to turn around. But they wouldn’t listen. By the time we got back to Vusanje, however, the clouds had mysteriously cleared and the sun was shining at full force. So much for our big summit ascent.

Instead we enjoyed the warmth and sunshine, the guys had a beer while we waited for our transfer. We would be getting a ride to the Komovi peaks, which we would then try to climb the next day.

Day 2

We woke up early, fearing an afternoon thunderstorm. This time we were on our own, without a guide, but the route was to be well marked. I think we set out around 8, heading directly up to the nearest peak to us – Kom Vasojevica (2461m). The hike was very pleasant – the approach was rather long and flat but once we got to the steeper grounds, it got very interesting. Mountains really have a way of making you feel small.

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Climbing towards the Kom Vasojevica peak.

However, we could already see the darker clouds moving in from afar and I instantly had a bad feeling about this. We continued our climb at a faster pace, hoping to top out before the storm sets in. With maybe just 300 height meters below the peak I heard a rumble. I told Kristians that I am turning around. As he had heard nothing, he decided to carry on as he could go much faster alone anyway. After about 4 minutes of speed-hiking down the mountain, I heard another rumble – and this was a big one, Kristians heard it too. Within 4 more minutes, Kristians had caught up with me and we both started running down.

We of course made it down the mountain safely – we could see the peak completely swallowed by the storm clouds. The second day had again not treated us well.

Day 3

We started day three with a transfer to Kolasin. Here we met up with our guide Zeljko again to do some rock climbing. We had our own climbing equipment with us as we had used it in Italy during the previous week.

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Rock climbing in Kolasin.

This time the weather was perfect, nearly not a single cloud. This climbing area had been established with the help of Austrian rock climbers and maybe that’s why all the routes are very hard (even the ones with grade 4 are challenging). We climbed for a couple of hours, until our arms were pumped and it got too hot. We only saw two other climbers out there – a couple from Germany.

After the climbing we got a transfer to the Vranjak eco village, where we would be starting our solo hike the next day. We stayed at a VERY small house, very typical of these eco villages – it is basically a house that’s filled with a bed and you have a shelf above the bed to put your backpacks on. That’s it. But it was so cosy and of course, cheap! The family who runs the village made us dinner, we took a shower and enjoyed the calm evening.

Day 4

Being afraid of another thunderstorm afternoon, we set out early – I think we had our breakfast at 6:30. The goal of the day was to climb the Crna Glava peak (2139m), so we started hiking up from the village, following some old shepherd trails. The moment we got over the hill and onto the plateau with a view of the surroundings, we could see darker clouds in the distance. Hoping for the best, we hastened our steps and carried on.

There was a higher peak close to our way and it had a tall antenna (or a radio tower?) on it. This would’ve been the obvious point for the thunder to attack and that’s exactly what happened – just when we had reached so far to actually see the Crna Glava peak in the distance – Babahhh! We instantly went to survival mode, trying to figure out where to go. We were basically on a plateau, with the most obvious target right next to us – not good.

We decided to opt for a small forest we had just seen lower down in a valley – we turned off the road and ran down through waist-high grass. The rain set in just as we reached the treeline. Initially we just stayed at the edge of the forest but as the thunder strikes came closer, we opted to go deeper into the jungle. Then the rain really started and the thunderstorm was right above us. We just sat, each on our own tree branch, huddling to keep warm and keep ourselves dry, for an hour or more.

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Just before the rain set in – hiding from the thunder.

When it finally got a bit calmer – the rain lightened and the rumbling got further away, we started to hike along the edge of the forest back in the direction of the village. When we had made it to the other side of the forest (i.e. the other side of the valley), we had no other option but to climb to higher ground again to get back to where we had come from. So we started to slowly move away from the trees. Maybe just 300m out, the thunder again strike very close and scared us into running back into the forest. So we had lunch, sitting on some rocks.

After half an hour we again thought it was rather calm and attempted again. Same result – it’s as if someone didn’t want us to get back. After another half an hour we finally got lucky and were able to cross over this pass. We started to follow some shepherding trails that for some mystical reason were on Maps.me but could not really even be seen on the ground. We tried to still follow trees – in places where there were any. The whole time the thunder would be right on our tails, often making us turn around whenever we were about to cross a higher pass.

Eventually, after hours of wandering completely off the route we had initially planned, we reached the eco village again. This night, to spoil ourselves, we decided to rent the bigger hut – with bunkbeds, stove, table, benches and the possibility of drying our clothes. What a luxury.

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Just before the hailstorm, eating dinner.

We had dinner outside – under the roof – while enjoying one of the biggest hailstorms we had ever witnessed. And an amazing sunset followed.

Day 5

In the morning of day 5, we started to hike early again – this time with all our gear – towards the Biogradska lake. This hike was very well marked and thoroughly enjoyable. The weather was once again friendly and we were literally walking above the clouds. We had a nice lunch at a farm on the way and kept making our way down the hills. Just before reaching the Biogradska lake the trail goes steeply down for maybe 300 height meters. All in all, the whole trail was great.

After some well-earned ice cream (can be purchased at the small cafe at the lakeside), our transfer picked us up and we drove to the Tara River Canyon, where we rented a hut at the Kljajevica Luka rafting camp.

Day 6

This was our first ever try of rafting – our group consisted of maybe 15 people, three rafts + guides. We put on the life vests and the special wetsuit shoes. We were transferred to the starting point by some 4×4’s – we then got some instructions and took our places in the rafts. The section that we did that day was perfect for beginners – some faster and bumpier places but mostly just fast but calm fun. Midway through we stopped to go check out a waterfall and take photos. Later on we stopped at some overhanging cliffs where the ones not afraid of cold water could then jump off into the river. Together with the breaks the whole tour was maybe around 3h. We then got the transfer back to the rafting camp.

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Rafting on the Tara river.

We were then picked up by our driver again and we drove to the Black lake at the Durmitor National Park. This time we stayed at a private house, where we had a small room upstairs. After showering we walked down through the forest to the lake – it was an amazing place. After Kristians took a quick swim in the cold and clear water we instantly decided to go back to the house, put on the running clothes and come back to run the trail around the lake. This was one of the best runs I ever had – even though it was a bit harder due to the altitude and the fact that I got lost somewhere on the way. Nevertheless – a great memory.

In the evening we had dinner in Zabljak, which is kind of a ski resort city during the winter and holiday destination during the summer. We bought fresh berries from some farmers and ate like we hadn’t eaten for a long time. Truly a good day.