Total Distance: 18.77km / Total Ascent: 1496m / Total Descent: 973m
By 9.15am, we were packed, breakfasted and ready to depart on what was expected to be a tough day. Just before setting off, expedition-style, we posed for a group photograph outside the Hotel Rudi Alpina.
|Kushtrim, Dimitrije, Missy G, Jules, CJ and Musa
The route began with a steady pull out of the village along a dusty road. One of the challenges that make an ascent of Hajla Peak from this side a significant undertaking – quite part from the stats of the day – is the fact that after leaving the village there is no water source en route. For a long day in hot weather (35°C temperatures were forecast again today) with little shade to mitigate the effects of the sun, that meant carrying all the water we needed. And that meant heavy packs.
|Taking on water
At the spring we drank our fill, topped up to the limit, and drank again: for me, a good half-litre consumed and three litres carried. Our preparation must have been good, though, as we all coped well with the extra weight.
|Leaving the village
We followed the track up on to a level plateau reminiscent of the Yorkshire Dales, then climbed again to reach an obvious col. At this point, just under two hours had elapsed: a steady pace had been maintained, and we had made good progress.
Hajla Peak stands on the border between Kosovo and Montenegro, and the col marked the line of the border at this point. Photographs were taken to celebrate the moment: it seemed ludicrously easy to hop from one country to another.
|Graves beside the border
However, a pair of graves brought the reality of the situation back to us: these lands have been the scene of conflict and struggle for hundreds of years. In that time there has been loss and hardship, and the human cost has often been high. Against this backdrop of strife and distrust, it has taken years of work by many people to reach the point where five trekkers can walk this way unhindered, something we should not forget in the joy of the moment - or take for granted.
We turned east and continued upwards. At first, we threaded our way between minor rock summits. Soon, though, the trail steepened, and we reached an altitude where the trees dwindled and were replaced by low pine bushes about two to three metres tall. Again, summer growth had all but blocked the path, and pushing through the bushes was scratchy, hot and tiring. With waymarks infrequent and obscured, bushes too tall to see over, and no obvious line to follow on the ground, route finding without assistance would have been almost impossible. Thankfully, Kushtrim’s local knowledge once more came into it’s own, and we bullied our way up through near-impenetrable vegetation with only a few minor scratches to show for it.
We took a now-customary one-hour lunch break in the shade cast by these stunted pines. Kushtrim helpfully informed that this was the favoured countryside of the Brown Bear, so we were slightly nervous about nodding off lest we become Grizzly fodder.
Fortunately, they kept themselves to themselves.
|Not far to go now - main summit on the right
Carrying on, we plodded along on an ever-upward trajectory. Gradually, bit-by-bit, we gained height. Eventually, we popped out on to an open grassy area from where the summit could clearly be seen. Another hour should see us on top.
There were flowers aplenty to take our minds off the remaining ascent, including rare Edelweiss. We also saw some young, grouse-like birds hopping from rock to rock. From what I could find out, I think they might be young Rock Partridges.
|Young bird, possibly Rock Partridge
All these distractions helped us negotiate the remaining uphill plod. Soon, the summit was just a stone’s throw away, and we were scrambling up the last few rocky metres to the top. 2403m, many of them earned the hard way.
|A well-earned rest
|Dimitrije on Hajla Peak
We spent a good half-hour on the summit, resting, soaking up the views and enjoying the sense of achievement. From Bogë to the top had taken us about six-and-a-half hours, including stops, so we had earned these moments. Photos were taken, messages sent, and memories cemented in the mind.
|Looking down the precipitous north side - Grope Hut just visible
From here, many of the principle peaks of the region were visible. The hut where we were staying the night was a precipitous 400m below us, and we could also see all the way back to Jelenak, the pass we had crossed two days before.
|The mountains we have crossed
All too soon it was time to begin our descent. The trail was quite steep, with loose rock hidden beneath the grass – the sort of terrain where tired legs and lack of concentration can lead to a stumble – and, but for one minor incident, we all managed to get down relatively unscathed.
After dropping off the summit ridge, it was time to say our goodbyes to Kushtrim. Other commitments meant him descending back into Kosovo, and we were sad to see him go. In the way that only mountain trips are able to do, he had become a good friend over the past four days.
|Approaching the Grope Hut
We continued down the Montenegrin side. It was still steep, but the path was clearer and we could see our objective ahead of us. An hour or so later we were shrugging our boots off and downing cold orange squash – the first chance to top up on fluids since 10.00am.
The Grope Hut is not much to look at from the outside, but is comfy and cozy on the inside, and we were made to feel very welcome by Zuko and his uncle (who owned the hut). It turned out we were the only group staying the night: unlike a typical Alpine hut, this one was usually only open by arrangement.
|Inside the Grope Hut
So we had a communal room for about 14 all to ourselves. We dumped our things and went almost straight down to dinner. Zuko had rustled up grilled chicken, salad, peppers, bread, pudding and fruit, followed by coffee and mountain tea – another huge meal, which this time we wolfed down. For perhaps the first time in days, we were actually starving.
|Mountain tea drying
We spent the evening in cordial conversation with Zuko and Dimitrije. Occasionally the generator had to be coaxed back into life, but it was all wonderfully relaxing. Finally, we retired about 9.00pm after a tough but memorable day.