Walking on Edelweiss
There comes a moment on most mountaineering routes in Pirin when you will come across an Edelweiss. These beautiful little flowers are the symbol of mountaineers around the world. They live high up on cliff faces away from man. At one and the same time they are super hardy and super delicate. Growing in tiny cracks they thrive in the most inhospitable environments. While they are able to live where nothing else can, they are not very robust when it comes to contact. Pick their flowers and they die, step on them, knock them or disturb them in any way and they die. For me spotting Edelweiss on a route is the sign that we are somewhere wild.
As you look up from Bansko Pirin dominates. Todorka with her pistes. Flat topped Vihren and oh so pretty Kutelo. Next to these lonely giants Banski Suhodol tends to be ignored. Suhodol blends into the horizon all but forgotten. Koncheto and Koteshki chal demmand the viewers attention, while Suhodol fades into the foreground.
For Mr Davies and I Banski Suhodol has burnt brightly in our imagination for over a decade. The summit is of no consequence in the grand scheme of things. Dropping down from the summit is a ridge. A long ridge, a ridge that plunges down into the valley below buttressing the main wall of Pirin. This ridge of marble has been crying out to us to be explored.
We have visited the base of the North Ridge of Suhodol many times. Trying to find a route to the bottom of the ridge has been challenging. The valley of Suhodol is remote and little visited, the path sketchy in places and the distances a little daunting. After a few false starts we finally managed to get to the bottom of the ridge 2 weeks ago. I hid some gear in a cave and comitted to climbing it thisweek.
Normally mountaineering is a game of study. You read up on the route. Talk to people who have done it before. Discuss, analyse plot and plan and then go for it. In Pirin the game is very different, the info about routes is at best sparse and in the case of most of our routes here nonexistant. The best info I could find on the route was "It's a little flakey" and " I had a look from the top and it doesn't look nice". With this wealth of info we set off at 5am on Saturday morning.
We parked the car at the end of a dirt road just as the first light of dawn made it possible to see the path. The hike up Suhodol is just stunning. The path is little used and wiggles its way up and across a stream bed that in turn wriggles down through old forest. for three hours we climbed up through forest, then kleck and finally out into meadows filled with snow fields. From the first patch of snow we hacked our way up through cliffs and gullies thick with kleck until at 9am, just as it was starting to get hot we got to the bottom of the first pyramid.
The Banski Suhodol ridge is made up of two main features. A pyramid of marble about 3 pitches high that rises alone above the boulder fields and then drops again to the foot of the main ridge. Then the main ridge rises in steep steps all the way to the summit at 2884m.
The pyramid was a pleasant little climb there were hints of the troubles to come but all in all it was fun. A few easy moves a little, scramble, the odd wobbly rock and some flakey pieces that came away in your hands but nothing to write home about. We had been assuming that the whole game would have been on good clean marble but were not really bothered by a few crappy hand holds and some loose rock.
As we prepared to climb the main ridge we were joking about how nice it was to be climbing on rock that clearly never saw many people. A normal popular route is polished by many hands and feet. Belay spots are clear from regular use and hand holds are marked by patches of chalk. Here there was none of that. the rock was old and untouched, pristine and wild. There was a feeling that we were the first people to climb here and it gave us a thrill of excitement.
Mr Davies is a little older than I and I am a little rounder than most. As a pair we are not a typical mountaineering team. We have done a lot together and understand eachother perfectly. Di leads and I carry! We swung back into the easy routine of moving up the rock pretty quickly. Di as always cursing and swearing his way ever upwards, mostly free climbing the first two pitches as there was nowhere to put in protection.
Di is a slow and careful climber, even more so without protection. Many years of experience mean he can route find by smell and belay from rotten spots confidently. Old injuries and even older bones means he climbs slowly but very safely. I'm a strong climber if not confident enough to lead unknow routes . Our progress was thus a dance of slow analytical leads followed by me rapidly catching up once the route was discovered.
I started to get nervous on the second pitch. The rock was rotten and there was nowhere for Di to put in protection again. My belay spot was exposed and I had no way yo build a hanging belay. If Di came off the rock we were both going to fall to our deaths. With the Mantra of "Well just don't bloddy fall" running through my head I made my way up the ridge.
From there on every pitch was the same chilling nightmare. Di leading a route with no protection and me belaying with little or no protection. To find one piece of gear fixed as I climbed up was a joy. To belay with one nut wedged into a shonky crack , blessed relief!
On or 5th or 6th pitch we found a shelf to rest on. The view was exceptional as the shelf curved elegantly round the ridge onto the more exposed steep eastern side. The next few pitches hung out over this cliff with hundreds of meters of near vertical wall plunging down to the rocks below. Loose handholds, loose footholds, the sound of cursing as Di found some more rotten rock, the sound of rotten rock crashing down the face. My memories of the next few hours are blurred. Checking every hand hold 3 or 4 times became the routine. Kicking every foot hold over and over just to make sure it would take my weight. The sinking feeling as something gave way, the ecstasy of finding holds that worked. Trusting your boots to hold onto smooth rock and your tired fingers to grip little cracks focuses the mind somewhat.
After we had got up about a hundred meters it became clear there was no going back. There was no way we could set up an abseil on this rotten marble. Our only way out was over the top. The dread of finding a section that we couldn't climb hung over me for the rest of the route. The joy of completing each pitch ever more ecstatic.
After 6 hours we came to the base of a tower of rock about 15m high. A little flat patch covered in grass made a lovely little garden at its base so here we stopped to rest. There was plenty of goat poo in the little meadow which is always a good sign and it looked like there were 2 routes around the tower as well as a little chimney over the top. I sat and smoked, drank water and ate some flapjack.
As my mind relaxed I realised quite how tightly I was wound up. Every failed hold had focused my mind tighter and tighter. No matter how calm and logical I had been, keeping my mind focussed on making good choices, I now felt this knot clenched in my gut, exhausted from the hours of concentration. As I sat smoking my second then third cigarette I could feel my muscles tightening, aching from the weight of our bag. Cuts and bruises I hadn't noticed now called for attention. Tiredness that I had kept at bay for so long now came flooding in. Memories of holds that had failed, rocks that had fallen footings that had slipped rushed up from the depths of my mind where I had burried them. I felt dizzy and weak, the world swam in front of me. I needed to get a grip there was no way I could climb out of here in this state.
On autopilot I set up a hanging belay with a couple of nuts and before I could compse myself Di had set off up the cliff. By the time his curses were out of ear shot my head was still spinning the little chimney he had dissapeared up looked impossible and an incredible loneliness descended on me. After what felt like an age I felt the rope come tight on my harness and I started climbing again.
I remember almost nothing of the next 25 minutes. Just flakey rock, hard moves and a bottomless cliff. Crawling on my hands and knees across a chock stone, flowing up a pile of lightning shattered rock, a view of Di silhouetted against clear sky. The slope levelling out, walking without using my hands, tourists having a picnic. Suddenly we were stood on a path! The Tourist Path! Joy!!! So much Joy!!! I remember hugging Di full of so much joy just repeating over and over 10 years , 10 years, we did it!
There are many ways up a mountain. Sometimes the hardest routes are the most joyful. I remember seeing the first edelweiss near the bottom of the ridge, I remember making sure I didn't touch any of the others along the way. I remember crushing one beneath my boot as I desperately scrambled to find a footing when the rock I was standing on gave way. Rightly this little flower is the symbol of mountaineers the world over.