I’m nervous about this next stage. It sounds beautiful but the trail is described as “unbelievably steep.” I thought most of the trail has already been steep, how is it possible that it gets worse? I look at the elevation profile on my map and see a nearly vertical line. It looks like we’ll be doing over 5000 feet of elevation gain in less than 4 miles. Gulp. Oh well, one foot in front of the other, I’ll get up there even if it takes me all day.
We start with a quick stop in Jablanica. We’re hungry and see a cafe cooking burek on their outside wood-fired oven. Burek is a traditional dish here that’s basically a pie made with fluffy layers of phyllo dough and filled with different things like meat, spinach, or cheese. We’ve been told we have to try it so we grab a table and order. It’s amazing! I get one with meat and potato and Express gets one with cheese. The slices are huge and the dough is flaky and crispy from being in the oven. We’re hooked. I also order a Bosnian coffee—I need the fuel for the climb that awaits us!
At first the trail doesn’t seem too bad, it’s a fairly gentle climb that flattens out every now and then. I’m thinking, “Great, I got this! Whoever said it’s steep is just being a wuss.” But then it does get steep…so steep. Knees to your chest, ground in your face steep. And the soil is loose and my shoes have no more traction so I keep sliding backward. I have to sprint every few steps until I reach a tree I can cling on to for dear life so I don’t slide back down. I no joke would wear crampons or microspikes if I had them. This misery continues for almost 4 hours as I inch my way up the mountain, a sweaty mess and legs screaming from the workout.
I’m so incredibly relieved and exhausted when I finally reach the mountain hut near the top (although there’s still more climbing to go) and Express is there waiting. I’m so spent and so sweaty, it looks like I’m peeing my pants because the sweat is pouring down my legs. My toes and the balls of my feet hurt so bad from trying to grip the loose soil. I feel like I can never walk again…but I do.
I rest for maybe 45 minutes and then we continue on. It’s already afternoon and we’re way behind on mileage for the day. We also don’t have much food. We planned to get through most of this stage today and then only have a couple miles to hike in the morning until we got to town, but it’s taken much longer than expected. We continue climbing but luckily the trail isn’t quite as steep and now we’re up in the mountains and it’s epic here. This area is referred to as the Herzegovinan Himalayas. It also reminds me of the Sierras, minus the lakes and streams. The trail is fairly well marked, another connect the dot situation, until at one point it becomes completely engulfed in dwarf pines and we have to fight our way through the stubborn branches. It’s ridiculous, another situation where I just have to laugh because what else can you do? We make it through but are left with battle wounds on our arms and legs.
As if the climb up and the dwarf pines weren’t enough, we hear thunder in the distance and can see that a storm is coming our way, and fast. What else is this mountain going to throw at us? We’ve read that it’s quite common for afternoon thunderstorms to occur up here. Unfortunately we are hiking in an area that’s completely exposed. Not a tree in site, just open rocky grasslands. The storm is quickly approaching and I’m getting nervous, we need a place to take cover. Suddenly the wind picks up and the rain starts dumping and the lightning is striking too close for comfort. We need to find cover now. We see a rocky sort of sink-hole area and quickly climb down into it. Even though we’re still exposed at least we’re a foot or so below ground level. I’m already soaked but put my rain jacket on anyway. We sit huddled in the rocks for what feels like eternity. It’s so scary. The lightning is cracking right next to us, it’s deafeningly loud. And the rain is so cold. I’m soaked and shivering and terrified. Finally the storm passes and we emerge from the rocks, a little shaken up but relieved we’re ok.
I’m so cold so we start hiking right away so I can try to warm up. We soon spot a rustic A-frame cabin and head towards it, hoping it’s not locked so I can warm up and change into dry clothes. Luckily it’s open and warm inside and filled with blankets and emergency supplies. I dry off and change my clothes and we get back to the trail, aiming for another hut that’s 4 miles away. Unfortunatejy we mess up and start following the wrong trail in the completely wrong direction but don’t realize it for quite a while. We’re so tired and frustrated and worried we’re getting lost. We get it Prenj Mountain, you win! We decide to throw in the towel before anything else happens and backtrack to the A-frame to camp for the night.
We feel much better in the morning and finally find the right trail. It’s well-marked and easy to follow. We’re in such better spirits this morning and the scenery blows us away. The rocky mountains in the morning light are magical. We’re so happy we called it quits when we did yesterday otherwise we probably wouldn’t have appreciated all the beauty.
We have another small snafu where we miss a turnoff and add an extra mile or so and pass more land mine areas, but after that it’s smooth sailing. We make our way off the mountain, and after a 14 mile day finally reach the tiny ski village of Ruište. Our plan is to hitch into Mostar which is only a 25 minute drive down the mountain. We’re taking a few days off to rest and get cleaned up, we haven’t showered in 11 days. Unfortunately there’s no traffic where we are, so it makes it kind of hard to get a ride. We finally give up on the hitch and start walking to a small hotel nearby to have them call a cab. A giant logging truck fully loaded with logs rolls by and on a whim Express sticks her thumb out and hallelujah the guy stops for us! We haul our packs up, climb the ladder into the cab, and ride into town in style. The guy is so nice but doesn’t speak a lick of English. We can tell he wants so badly to talk to us. We all just laugh a lot and manage to communicate a little bit. He scrawls numbers into the dust on his dash to tell us he drives the truck up 1600 meters into the mountains from Mostar every day. We also learn that he’s 48 and has an 8 year old son. I wish we could’ve talked more, the language barrier is so frustrating! We finally reach the edge of town and he motions for us to get out. We climb down and he gives us a honk and a wave goodbye.