Author: Ken Taylor
Over the last few years, we’ve got into the habit of going on a week’s climbing trip in the spring. Finding a good venue has become a bit of a challenge because the core of the group is from the Kendal Fellwalkers. This means we want somewhere with good walking as well as a challenging mix of sport and trad routes, all in a sunny setting, with sensible flights (i.e. cheap, good start points/destinations, reasonable timings). It was Costa Blanca 2 years ago, Mallorca last year; where was it to be in 2010? We thought about Sardinia but the good walking and good climbing are too far apart, I’m told. We thought about going back to Spain but I wanted to go somewhere I hadn’t been before.
A bit of surfing around on the net took me to a useful website - http://www.climb-europe.com/areas.htm - and I found myself being drawn to Croatia and the Paklenica gorge in particular. It all sounded a bit too good to be true: - by the sea, just a short walk to the crags, sports routes in abundance and long trad routes on massive limestone crags, with some good walking in the area too (if you ignore the minefields, that is). My interest was reinforced after talking to Annette (who’d been there with George, Neil and Tanya the year before); she left me with a good impression of the place. So I set about convincing everyone else in ‘the gang’ and ended up being more successful than I’d expected – a group of 18 of us headed off there in early May this year.
I’d managed to find a set of three apartments together in one building that housed 18 people (19 at a push) at Starigrad Paklenica, located only a mile from the National Park entrance. I can recommend them – see: http://www.dalmacija.net/starigrad-paklenica/mia/. There were plenty shops, restaurants and bars nearby. The only downside was the long drive from Dubrovnik (we had hoped to fly to Zadar – only 40km from Paklenica but Ryanair had different ideas), which will get shorter when the motorway is completed.
The gorge is around 6-700m deep for much of its length. The layout is pretty simple – a good track runs up the bottom of the gorge, sharing its course with a river. Crags rear up straight from the track or river bank and this is where the sports routes can be found (in an area called Klanci). On the slopes above the bed of the gorge is a multitude of bigger crags, some of massive proportions. The most famous and spectacular is Anica Kuk, with routes up to 350m in length, but there are at least a dozen others. All in all, there is at Paklenica something for everyone. Which is just as well, as we had a wide range of abilities and experience in our group to cater for.
On our first day, we headed for the sports routes at the start of the narrow part of the gorge. After a short delay caused by a shower of rain, we threw ourselves at a set of three F4b routes. A bit of moisture on polished limestone made sure that this was more than just a stroll and we were grateful for the bolts. By the time me, Chris, Conan and others moved up the gorge a few hundred metres, the sun was shining and the crowds were out. This limited our choice of routes, and I found myself ‘warming up’ on Marina, which rated a hardish F6a. It proved to be a subtle and interesting climb because of the switch from the very steep rock at the start, pulling over overhangs on fingery holds, and then having to switch to delicate balance moves on the steep slab above.
To left and right, others in our group were putting ropes up on F5s, so we rotated around using the in-situ ropes. All the climbs had some interesting moves and felt a little undergraded, possibly because they were a bit polished in places, but perhaps we were just settling in. Chris notched up the second F6a lead on Kanjon Special. It didn’t have a specific crux, but it was very steep and the hard moves “like the sexual athlete’s fantasy, just kept on coming” (quote for fans of Ken Wilson’s Hard Rock) until the welcome traverse line and upper groove was reached after about 20m.
Tuesday dawned to grey skies. Rain threatened, so we thought we’d try an easyish multi-pitch climb - Tinin Smjer – graded at around F4a (we had two editions of the guide and, worryingly, each gave different technical grades, some of them quite radically different). It took us almost as long to find it as it did to climb it due to some ambiguity in the guide. With me climbing with Chris, and Conan climbing with Hilary Robertson, we raced up it without any real difficulty; most of it was scrambling and only about 4m of the route felt like proper climbing. However, we felt vindicated in our choice of route as it started to rain heavily on the descent. Dave and Sue Carr, and Harry Salisbury tried a different multi-pitch route that morning, at a slightly harder grade (F4b+), but they had to bail out after the first 3 pitches because of the downpour.
On the next day, the weather was even worse and an air of despondency set in. We checked out the Croatia guide and realised that there was a crag on Pag Island called Stogaj, just across the Velebit Channel from Paklenica. Away from the influence of the Velebit mountains, we reckoned we might get some better conditions there. We were right. It was quite a long but fascinating drive round but as we approached the ‘crag’, I was a bit dismayed at what I saw – it just looked like a jumble of huge boulders in a rocky wilderness. But, first appearances were deceiving. Tucked here and there, almost hidden amongst the boulders, were some excellent climbs – some slabby and with tiny holds, some steeply overhanging with huge jugs. The sun shone and warmed the rock and sent us looking for shade in between climbs.
I started on a short (15m) F4a climb called Prui Koraki which went up a slab, although it felt harder than this. Moving to the right, I then climbed the centre of the slab along a route called Paski Trokut. At F5c, I thought this was perhaps a bit overgraded. The corner crack further right (Vino na usnama, F6a – see photo below) beckoned but was wet, so I came back to it later. The crack was ‘off-finger’ sized, rounded and still wet, making it virtually impossible to get my fingers to stay put. I gained height slowly by bridging delicately and using a mix of wet lay-aways and small holds on the overhanging right wall. I got close to the top but finally ran out of ideas and enthusiasm, so retreated.
The ‘elephant in the room’ of Stogaj was the pinnacle – 60+m high and more or less vertical - tapering to a wafer thin edge on the south side. Three routes weave their way up the front face and once the sun had moved round so that they were in the shade, Conan and I, followed by Dave and George (Wolstenholm) climbed La Vida Loca (F5c). What a brilliant climb! The first pitch was as vertical as makes no difference but there were always enough holds and no real crux move - it was just a case of staying cool, using good footwork and keeping going. The final pitch was amazing. Shorter than the first and not so unrelentingly steep, it followed the sharp prow of the south end of the pinnacle. Each side fell vertically over 150ft to the ground and the prow was almost sharpened to a point – it was so thin, there were holes through it. Although the setting was stunning, the climbing was pretty straightforward and I soon pulled up onto the surprisingly large and fairly flat summit. A long mainly free abseil down the ‘short’ side (30m) found us safely back on level ground.
Thursday was also a bit iffy weather-wise and it didn’t need a genius to work out the yesterday’s heavy rain could put some climbs out of condition. Sjeverno Redro (F4b+) offered an interesting possibility, because it follows a ridge line for 5 pitches graded at F4a and F4b. Climbing as three pairs, six of us ascended it in fine style with seepage only affecting a tiny section of pitch 4. After an interlude for more rain, Conan, Jill Robertson, Hilary and Derek Capper tackled another multi-pitch route (Krele, F4c) and found this to offer even better climbing than Redro.
Friday heralded a change for the better in the weather and a chance to bag the route that Conan and I had set our eyes on – Mosoraški, on Anica Kuk (see photo below). At 350m, 10 pitches and a crux pitch of F5c at pitch 8, it sounded like it was going to be interesting. I think we were all a little apprehensive, especially after all the rain of the past few days; would we be able to force the crux pitch if it was wet? If not, would we be able to abseil down? We rushed up to the start to avoid being stuck behind others. There was one party already ensconced and they set the pace for the climb. Other parties piled up behind us and Conan furthered Anglo-German relations with a few well-chosen words and a well-timed shove directed at two Germans who had aspirations to overtake us (after which they decided to abseil off muttering something about the rudeness of English climbers).
Again, Chris and I climbed together, alternating leads, and Conan climbed with George behind us. We launched ourselves up the first pitch (graded F3) and all admitted afterwards that we each thought – “If this is F3, what’s the F5c going to be like?” Pitch followed pitch, all at a pretty reasonable standard (each about British VS 4b/4c). The guide said the route was bolted but I think we’d have been more comfortable had they been a bit closer together. We’d only brought a small rack of gear with us so had to be choosey about when and where to place it on the longer pitches.
After seven pitches, we stood in a cosy corner below a big overlap which marked the start of the finishing sequence of pitches - graded F5c, F5b and F5a respectively. I had the pleasure of the F5c pitch. It started rightwards along a ramp below the roof and was running with water; and the first bolt to aim for was at least 30ft away. As it turned out the ramp was furnished with excellent holds and the climbing was easy, although the situation was mind-blowing (we were about 850ft up by this stage and the ground below just an abstract concept). It was the corner above the end of the ramp that presented the challenge. Onward progression was up a slightly overhanging crack/corner. Although the wall to the right was dry, the cracks were dripping with water. But, the cracks were excellent for jamming, there was plenty of natural gear between the bolts to bolster confidence and it was possible to find resting positions between each set of hard moves, so it was not too bad – perhaps English 5a, or 5b given the wet. However, Chris was carrying the rucsac and found it somewhat harder going, as it was not so easy to climb up the chimneys or to find the resting positions. George suffered the same problem following Conan (see photo taken by Conan of George on the crux pitch).
The last two pitches offered some fine moves and positions (especially the last 5m or so up a delicate wall) but were not so sustained. We soon found ourselves stood on the top, congratulating ourselves on completing what is one of the best climbs I’ve ever done. The walk down was a delight too – over the summit and down through boulder fields of weathered and contorted limestone, complete with a series of bizarre rock pools each in its own natural little ‘cubicle’, and dotted with verdant bushes and colourful flowers.
Our last day was Saturday and it was a complete washout. We put the gear in the cars and drove up to the gorge with good intentions (a triumph of hope of experience) but ended up walking up the gorge and on to the idiosyncratic PD Paklenica Hut for a cup of tea and a sausage sandwich at the Forester’s Hut on the way back.
So, looking back, what do I think of climbing in the Paklenica Gorge? It’s probably fair to say that the sports climbing routes were not as plentiful as other places we’d been to, compounded by the crowds of other climbers queuing for routes. But, I thought the sports climbs had more character about them than Mallorca (e.g. Cala Magrana) or Costa Brava (say Echo Valley). It’s probably in the longer multi-pitch ‘trad’ routes that Paklenica comes into its own. Mosoraški has to be one of the best middle grade climbs around (eat your heart out Puig Campagna and Sa Gubia). Given better weather or more time, there were a lot more excellent multi-pitch routes we could have done.