Standing on the summit of Mount Triglav a pretentious and portentous line uttered by some actor in a toga strangely came to mind: ‘Those whom the gods would destroy they first raise up’. I immediately dismissed this irrelevant thought and after the obligatory photos I checked my watch and figured I had enough time to make it down to the valley below.
Days before my guidebook had declared ‘that it is the duty of every true Slovene to summit Mount Triglav’. This patriotic declaration had not impelled me to climb Mount Triglav. Rather, the idea had come to me after visiting a small museum dedicated to reminding visitors of the horrors of war. Coloured, life-size pictures of men whose faces had been severely mutilated stared me in the eyes. Incredibly these men had survived. Whether it was thanks to medical science or a triumph of the will, they were, in time, to provide the impetus for the nascent craft of plastic surgery. At my foot were placed the ordinance that had caused these horrific injuries. They were cunningly arranged so you had no choice but to touch and feel them. The display did not allow for detachment and it took no effort at all to imagine soft flesh shredding before these jagged chunks of high velocity shrapnel.
This museum was situated in a beautiful valley that formed part of the Isonzo Front of WWI and above it sat Mount Triglav like a stony spur. Part of the Julian Alps its abstract outline was the distinguishing feature of Slovenia’s tri-coloured flag.
As I ascended the mountain it occasionally levelled out to reveal the remains of well-preserved fortifications and latrines. Conserved by the dry mountain air only the blackened beams gave any indication that soldiers hadn’t simply walked away the day before. Like most of WWI the Isonzo Front had been a wretched affair wasting men and materiel for no obvious strategic gain. The grey rock was shale like and gravelly. A bullet would ricochet. The impact of a shell would be magnified by the shards of stone that were sharp as glass. The Julian Alps were beautiful in aggregate, but by itself Mount Triglav was dry, dusty and colourless. This is what purgatory must be – a viewing platform between heaven and hell. I’m wondering where those haunted men featured in the small museum believe they ended up. They had survived hell only to be viewed as its ghoulish ambassadors. This giant rock now seemed like a gravestone. The energy and determination that had sustained me on the way up now started to fade on the descent. Unfamiliar paths and false trails diverted me time and again and added to my anxiety as I raced against the fading light. At one point the path suddenly narrowed, and I found myself scaling a ledge under the watchful eye of a mountain ibex. His ancestors had probably observed the same thing time and again until it had become a tribal memory; a miniature scene that was destined to replay itself as long as the mountain, man and the ibex existed. The path eventually resolved itself into another fortified camp with its burnt out latrine. I took the opportunity for a brief rest and pulled out a tin of tuna and a crust of bread which was all that remained of a lunch enjoyed by the shore of Lake Bohinj. The breeze changed direction and for a moment the smell of shit and sweat and something more – a metallic odour – filled my nostrils. I jumped up and looked around and approached the latrine apprehensively. It had been scrubbed clean by weather and the intervening decades and was empty, but for a cigarette butt by the footpads. Could scents and odours echo through time I wondered? I resumed my descent with legs that now moved stiffly and robotically. There were no more diversions or detours. I felt instead that a permission had been revoked and I was being guided firmly off the rock. Others had staked their claim here with blood. The tourist was tolerated, but come evening it became the domain of the dead and mountain goats. By now the twilight had dissolved into night but the track seemed endless and in my exhaustion I was now stumbling rather than walking. I didn’t notice a change in the terrain. The gravel trail with its puddles of slippery shale had given way to an evenly graded pathway that suddenly opened up onto a picnic spot. I looked back with weary relief not daring to sit down lest I couldn’t get up again. The moon was shining a benign light on Mount Triglav. History slept and it had become once again the mountain of tourist brochures and nationalist iconography.