Paul tried to get up the Prag route this time last year with his friend Caroline, but they were beaten back before reaching the summit ridge by deep snow and avalanches, triggered by rapidly rising temperatures. The Prag route is a steep ascent, rising 1800m in just 4k, with a lot of scrambling aided by pitons and stemples, a short Via Ferrata section, airy exposed paths and then finally the narrow protected final summit ridge. If you add snow into the mix, you have a full-on mountaineering trip.
Our hopes were high, as the weather had been unusually cold, so though we knew we would have a challenge, particularly on the final ridge, we came prepared with a rope and a small rack, as well as ice axes and crampons of course, and expected consolidated snow. Unfortunately, on the day before we got there, there was 20cms of fresh snowfall. We had built in contingency days for weather, but it was due to get thundery, so we knew the best bet was to grab the forecasted clear day, and try and do it in one push.
We set off from the Alijazev Dom hut at 7am, with blue skies forecast, but worryingly, high temperatures again. The wall looks utterly improbable, a huge bastion of limestone buttresses rising almost two vertical kilometres above the valley floor. The route takes you past the impressive karabiner monument to the Yugolavian partisans from WW2, and on up the valley to the first snow fields, which you cross to attain the start of the scrambling at the foot of the wall. The path takes a devious route, zig-zagging up the face using breaks and gullies, and involves crossing a lot of old snow fields with some yawning drops ever present. Where the scrambling is steepest, there is a short VF section which we clipped in to, but mainly involves stemples to aid you, or nothing at all, (where to be truthful you would often have liked some protection!).
Eventually, after an awful lot of sweaty ascent, the crampons were out, and we were on steep snow fields which Paul remembered were tricky when icy. I can imagine they were, and was glad our feet dug in nicely. As we rounded what we christened the 'Bonson Curve', the steepest and most intimidating of the cramponing, we were dismayed to see evidence of a lot of avalanche activity in a shallow coire, which we had to cross to reach the main Kotel plateau. There was descent track of old footprints, (which we later discovered was a party who had slept in the winter room of the Valentina Stanica Dom hut), and we decided to use those to alleviate some of the effort, and also as they seemed to skirt most of the avalanche debris.
It was very hard work indeed, and more than a little unnerving as we crossed the headwall of the snowfield on the tracks, riven with avalanche evidence. We felt we could stay on sufficiently sound snow, and pressed on gingerly. That was until the plateau itself. Once we got there, it was clear that the planned route simply wasn't viable again, as the avalanches were obvious, and despite our good time and effort, it would only get worse as it warmed.
We opted for a more circuitous route via the refuge named above, as the descending tracks had at least broken trail, and we thought we may be able to use the ridge line to avoid the sloughs. By the time we got there, at 2332m, we were tired and very hot, and the avalanches were increasing in amplitude and evidence. With dismay, we saw the route would have to still cross a high, loaded wall of snow, and knew the game was up. After a rest, some food and an entry in the winter refuge log, we started our descent, again, following the previous party's tracks widened by our own. Unfortunately, the heat had made the snow softer, and the going was very hard indeed. I had run out of water, and we shared what we had. As we descended, we saw more and more avalanches, and occasionally jumped as some set off rock fall too, always scary.
When we got to the coire headwall again, we saw our tracks had been swept away by a shallow avalanche, and it concentrated our minds on descending steadily and carefully down the old debris, mindful that it probably wouldn't avalanche again. The Bonson Curve had to be taken facing in, and it was with relief we got the crampons off and safely onto (relatively) sound rock. It was then simply a case of descend slowly, carefully and efficiently, ignoring our thirst and drops all around.
The sound of the melt water river in the valley below was tortuous as we picked our way down, occasionally losing the way-marked trail despite ourselves and the best efforts of the guides who place them. Eventually we got to the river, and drank our fill gratefully as we looked back up the wall, resounding to the sound of rock fall.
So I had not made the top once, and Paul twice. The mountain is called Triglav, meaning 'Three Headed', so maybe it is a portent that it should be summited on the third attempt? There are many routes up it, but the Prag route looks the finest. In summer conditions, it would be an enjoyable day out, combining a strenuous walk with the added interest of VF sections and exposed paths and scrambling. In winter conditions, it would be a proper challenge, but certainly possible if consolidated. In mixed late spring conditions, it is too dangerous, period. It will always be there for the next time, and.....
We will return!