David Mitchell’s uncensored account of a fateful (and sometimes fatal-feeling) climb of the Občji kuk, in the Paklenica National Park, Croatia with his climbing partners, Sé Ó’Hanlon (the old man) and Dónal Ó Murchú (the one who used to have red hair).
As with all climbing stories, the day started with the sound of the birds singing in the trees, the fresh sea breeze cooling our nostrils and the warm sun splitting the azure blue sky.
However, with the sound of revving diesel, accompanied by clanging and banging, the local bin lorry careered around the corner, brutally bashing aside the ambience of our leisurely breakfast. The smell of rotting fish, well-cooked by the morning sun, wafted across the balcony table. That foul odour foreshadowed the scene of events to come. Time to go!
Shortly after that, a party of three elderly gentlemen arrived at the base of Občji kuk, a minor peak in the Paklenica national park in Croatia. Parking close by we quickly skipped up through the lush forest, then picked our way to a base in the rocky boulders below the imposing limestone peak. Soon, we were standing underneath our intended victim – Cile, a 75 meter 4B. Picking out the bolt line I gingerly started climbing up the limestone slab, happily clipping each well-spaced bolt. The climbing was tough, severe to hard severe in old money and not what I expected. The soft angle yielded to a steep corner where a bolt appeared at a distance above.
“It’s too far up,” I shouted to my second below.
“There must be another in between,” was the quick reply — my thoughts exactly.
After a short discussion on route finding, my second agreed: “Yes, follow the diagonal line around the corner, there should be a bolt there.” Later, he would handily forget that advice!
Following on the ramp, I climbed a corner and turned into the adjacent groove, parallel to the one with the bolt at the top. There was no bolt!
‘Shit’, I thought, ‘I’m in the wrong groove’.
Looking down at the run-out, back climbing wasn’t an option. Blasé when starting the route, based on advice given two years previous that there were ample bolts in situ, I didn’t have a full rack of gear. That was a presumptuous error.
Under pressure, I lay-backed up to a stance. Fighting hard to stay attached to the cliff, I looked at my meagre supply of nuts.
‘Fuck’, I thought, as I tried to match a set of offsets to a flared crack.
Eventually, I managed to get a number 11 in. With some confidence, a strenuous move up led to another bridged stance. But the nut followed me up
As I advanced, I reached back down and grabbed it. Hastily, I clipped it back into my gear rack while holding on for dear life with the other hand. I was now in dire straits. Glancing back at the long run out below, my mouth dry with the taste of fear, I realised I was soloing.
A sweet smell scratched my nose. Looking down at my feet, I realised I had one foot in a small rosemary bush. The fresh bouquet fragrance masked the scent of my fear while gloomily reminding me of incense at a funeral. If I fell, death would come quickly.
‘Get a grip’, I thought, as I placed a number 7 offset in a small crack. With the assurance from the nut, I relaxed and looked around. A tantalising bolt, shining about 2 meters to my right, would get me back on route. I reached out and tried to clip it with my stiffie, or ‘panic express’ as they are aptly sold as. About half a meter short – that didn’t work. I again looked down at the long run out below. The thought of hanging out of the nut, as I reached out to clip the bolt was quickly brushed aside. No, if the wedge didn’t support a horizontal pull, disaster would fall.
With no option but up, and a flake to lay back on, I made a strenuous move onto a narrow slab, and there it was – salvation. Like a beacon of hope, a thread appeared at the top of the short, thin slab. For years, the water cascading down the softer limestone had washed away just enough to form the thin letterbox size thread in the rock.
Remembering a thin black Dyneema sling in my pocket and a 10mm maillon on the back of my harness, both gifts from well-wishers, I climbed up the slab. Squatting on it, my muscles seared by pain, I tried to thread the black sling through the small rocky letterbox. My hands wouldn’t reach or fit through, no matter how hard I poked them in. Crouching down and pulling myself closer, in desperation I shoved my right-hand further into the jagged cleft while clinging on with my left. Ignoring the pain and the simple fact that it was too small, alternating from left to right, trying to pass the sling through the tread, I continued to push my hands in. “Ah fuck,” I bleated, as the pain scorched my bloodied cut hands.
By now, my heart was pumping flat out to keep up with my body’s needs. I sensed the messages sent to the brain. “Brain, what the fuck are you doing, 63 next week and after one heart attack, do you think I’m still up to this?’
Brain pleads back: “Bear with us heart, if we don’t get this, you’ll be able to take a good long rest anyway.”
Panting while vacuuming in the oxygen, as the black sling refused to thread through the small hole, I shouted, “I’m fucked,” But brain stubbornly persisted, pushing panic back, it flashed a message of deliverance to the body. I unclipped the number 11 wire mounted nut, hanging on my gear sling, and using it as a podger, pushed the sling home.
With both ends now secured around the thread, I tried to retrieve the maillon from the back of my harness. Still squatting, with one hand welded to a flake to hold me on the slab, I gingerly unscrewed the gate. But it wouldn’t come free. Running my hands around it, the picture of where it hung burst into my mind. ‘It’s upside-down’, I thought, deftly turning it in one hand, I retrieved my second prize of the day. With a shake of a dogs tail, I had the maillon with the rope in, secured to the sling.
“Hold,” I roared, as my second took tension on the rope. Relief coursed through my body. It was thick and meaningful, so full of life and hope. Like when you are constipated for over three days, and the first shit passes from the bowel with torturous pain and agony. Then it’s miraculously gone, and the whole body slumps into euphoric relaxation.
Another thought nagged at my mind, what if the tread fails, the rock breaks or the gifted sling parts. Fuck it. “Lower off,” I shouted. “I’m knackered, I’m coming down,” I announced to the two below.
“I agree with that,” yelled back the second. The old man was noticeable by his silence.
Retrieving the gear, the number 7, of course, stubborn to the end, I arrived back at our stance below the slab. Looks said it all, no route to climb now, after such a long wait.
The old one peered out from his shaded seat, below a fig tree where he resided with his back to the cliff. “I looked around at what you were doing, and you know, what amazed me was how come a guy, who pays so much attention to the speed limit and drives so carefully, gets himself into a position like that?”
I unwisely replied, “you know I was also a safety officer.” Yes, I was one of those in a previous life.
“That so,” he said. His expression said it all. ‘You inexperienced young pup. Now here we are, after all your puny efforts, and no route to show,’ he seemed to be saying
He peered at me through his beady eyes, years of mountaineering experience carved into his rough face, the Alps, Himalayas, Andes and others. I squirmed under that rugged gaze. Finally, with a sigh, he turned away in disgust, relaxing back into his seat in the shade.
My second, the one who used to have red hair spoke. “During your efforts, the old man looked up and asked me, ‘why is he crawling deeper and deeper into the lobster pot?’ It was a question I had no answer for! What were you thinking, and why so far off route?”
“I wimped, it was a long run out, I’d have hit the deck,” was my supplicating answer.
They sighed and shook their heads, both past presidents of our mountaineering club. And I, not even an also-ran, or an old has-been — a nobody. How did I end up with these two legends? I wondered.
The one who used to have red hair scratched his grey beard. Years of experience, the Himalayas, the Alps, a guidebook full of routes and much more, were etched on his gnarled body. “You wouldn’t have hit the deck. I had the spot picked out on the slab,” he pointed, “where you would have arrived. True, with a splat, blood and guts everywhere. And we had reviewed the emergency contacts, so you were in no real danger.”
He paused, his blue eyes fixed on my drooping face. “However, such a fall would probably interrupt the flow of our holiday, so we’re glad you’re back safely.” Ever the politician, he tactfully continued: “May I suggest we recover the day by doing the three-plus we’ve done before.”
“Yes,” I said, “but you’ll have to lead the first pitch.” I was broken, exhausted, shaking like a leaf, defeated, and my mojo gone!
After a quick bite of lunch, the one who used to have red hair pranced up the slab, making a show of every move. Taking just enough time to contemplate the next step up as if to say, ‘this is how it’s done, sonny boy.’
An air of confident ability crafted over the years had him at the intermediate belay quickly. He took his time to build a secure perch for the old one who would follow him up. As I watched below I waited, beaten I looked around at the valley stretching down to the sea and in the distance the beautiful limestone ridges curling up to the kuk’s above. ‘Magnificent, this is why we’re here, to see this’, I thought.
Soon it was time for me to follow. Heart had recovered, with some prompting from the brain the body obeyed, and I found myself climbing again. The shaking was gone. By the time I got to their belay, the body had fully recovered. A good job too, as I was greeted by the smell of stale arse and oxter gently baked by the hot Croatian sun. I looked up at the two of them hanging silently from their belays. They had stopped talking as soon as I approached! Dangling menacingly from his harness, the one who used to have red hair’s razor-sharp Petzl knife glistened in the sun. Some thought he used it to cut tomatoes. But I knew differently. One flick from that would slice a 10mm rope like butter.
“Good afternoon gentleman,” I cheerfully called out. ‘So this is where the smelly grumps hang out’, I thought.
In a hurry to pass the offending odour I grabbed what gear I needed. Wasting no time, I climbed quickly up to the first bolt above the belay. The intimacy of a small belay ledge leaves little to the imagination. I wondered how they manage on the big walls. You rarely hear of how ‘he laid a big shit in the bag successfully’.
It’s always about ‘the magnificent move to E4 and beyond.’
Not for me, rattled in my mind, as I enjoyed the route up.
Two bolts up to an overhang, a traverse to the right and around the corner to a laddered thin slab. On and up, I climbed, to the top of the route, where two bolts resided just below Občji kuk’s summit. After making a quick belay the old man followed up.
His craggy face lit up with a smile as he crested the blocky finish. “Beautiful,” he said, as he feasted his eyes on the sights of the valley below.
Then it was the other’s turn. He climbed quickly, gurning about the heat and the sun. “Will I turn on the rain?” I asked.
“Well, that might be easier,” he said, referring to the last time we did the route when we were unceremoniously rained off the top.
We picked our way through the sharp rope cutting limestone, then down the scree in the adjacent gulley and onto our base in the boulders below. The day retrieved by the tenacity of the older adult’s experience.
The above is an account of just one of the eight days we spent in the Paklenica National Park, Croatia. Between the three of us, we completed 28 routes, one being the one hundred meters Oprosti mi pape 4B on Veliki Vitrenik, an exceptional mountain day out.