Articles - Paklenica: Climbing paradise for all in Croatia
Climber just above the crux on Pitch 8 of Mosoraski(350m,5c)
by Ed Douglas
It was 1980s night on Hrvatski Radio 1 as we drove south from Trieste along the Kvarner Gulf.The last time I listened to Soft Cell’s Tainted Love was in a youth hostel in the Lake District in 1981.That was also, most probably, the last time the two-lane road that snakes along the coast of northern Croatia was given a fresh coat of tarmac. And they didn’t use your normal, moderately sticky tarmac either. Old Croatian roads are covered with used chip fat and axle grease, which explains why they are so black and yet so greasy.
As a consequence, our crappy little Fiat ballooned round hairpins at low speed while Marc Almond reassured us that “I give you all a boy could give you” – change down a gear – “Take my tears and that’s not nearly all.” Just south of the Slovenian border, we looked down on the lights of
A friend of mine at university towards the end of the 1980s studied Yugoslavian politics. He seemed fascinated by all those committees and five-year plans but the spellings put me off. A country that calls itself Hrvatska? Not for me. I can spell
Now, of course, I am enchanted by the place and it’s almost incredible history. But I’d be lying if I didn’t explain that we ended up in
Pretty soon I was shaking the internet tree and the name Paklenica dropped from its branches. From the few pictures available, it seemed decent enough. People said it was top class but you don’t know, do you? Not for sure. But in a spirit of adventure we climbed on board a Ryanair crate and took off for the
Thanks to that long and winding road, it took six hours, including a dinner break, to reach the village of Starigrad that acts as a kind of gateway to the
This being April, there were only climbers in town, so we found digs easily enough for a few quid a night at the family-run Auto-Camp Vesna and tucked into the first of many plates of fresh fish. A genial fellow with a bit of a paunch arrived at the table.
“You want drink?” It was our host, who seemed a bit piffed, waving a carafe holding a clear fluid. “What is it?” “Is like Schnapps.”
Paklenica National Park
The focus of
This is where you hide after a week spent climbing alongside 19-year-old Slovenian boys and girls reminding you that you’re fat and middle aged. I thought the place mesmerising, stuffed full of exquisite flowers – including a beautiful fritillary and fat clumps of euphorbia – that made the limestone dales of the Peak District seem rather tawdry. Maybe something similar could be done in Chee Dale? No one would miss the climbing.
The northern gorge – Velika Paklenica – is where all the action takes place. It is also beautiful, full of dwarf beeches and fig trees, a green river splashing through the rocks and towers of limestone all around. It’s a mile or so from the coast, and you’re pulled up by a barrier at the entrance of the park where you have to negotiate the authorities by buying a pass. (A multi-day version saves you money.)
Another short drive and you park – assuming there is room – at the start of Klanci, the most popular single-pitch sport-climbing area. Here the routes are heavily bolted and you won’t need any traditional gear. Most of the climbing slots in between F5a and F6c+ and I thought it was interesting enough, so if you like that kind of thing you'll be perfectly satisfied.
Just beyond that is the wall of Debeli Kuk which has some five or six-pitch classics. I would love to tell you how good these routes were, but the place was off limits in preparation for a speed-climbing competition sponsored by Red Bull. Hijacking a sport’s image and closing access to visiting climbers inside a national park. Now that really did stimulate me.
Continuing up the gorge, I soon forgot all about Red Bull when I saw the wall of Anica Kuk. My heart gave a little skip and the expletive part of my brain took over. We knew it was there, but concept and reality rarely share the same bed. So as we gained a bit of height and the scale of Paklenica’s chief attraction was unveiled, all we could do was gawp. Not since Moses reached the heights of Pisgah and looked down on the Promised Land has a climber felt so strongly the hand of the divine on his enterprise.
“Jesus.” “Let’s go get the gear.”
Anica Kuk is around 1100ft high and I’m guessing two kilometres long. So far more than a hundred routes have been put up, a few of them serious aid climbs, others traditional routes, some straight sport routes and many a mixture of the two. Several of the best climbs focus on Anica Kuk’s tallest section and its biggest feature, a huge corner whose right wall forms one angle of a soaring arête. The walls either side of this include the cliff’s three best-known mid-grade routes, Mosoraski, Velebitaski and Klin, all climbed by Croats in the 1950s and 1960s with varying amounts of aid.
The Development of Paklenica
Inevitably, given how close
In 1990 the Rémy brothers, Yves and Claude, chipped in – if that’s the phrase I’m looking for – with the 7a Rajna, which has become a neo-classic, and Welcome which is almost as good. Soon after, the civil war closed the park and everybody was off-games until late 1995. Since then routes up to 7c+ have been put up on the wall, mostly by Italian climbers, along with shorter sport routes up to 8b+. But I wager there’s a lot more to come. More importantly, for the vacationing masses, a major re-equipment programme has made lots of the classics much safer.
Let the climbing begin
The cliff has an alpine scale, but it takes half an hour to reach its base from the car park and at the top there is an easy walk off that brings you back to its base in less than an hour. If you’re fit, and going well, then two routes a day is reasonable, but I do think it’s possible to get too intense about these things. Because the wall faces north, you’ll be in the shade for much of the day, so starting after a leisurely breakfast is no problem. Relax. You’re on holiday.
After doing some sport routes at Klanci,we kicked off on Anica Kuk with Mosoraski, taking part of the wall that lies back a little. Much of it is pleasant VS and gives you the chance to adjust to climbing on a big wall. I had to rush off to the climbing shop before we embarked to buy a helmet, having realised that while the cliff is mostly solid, the number of climbers at Paklenica increases the chance of something landing on your head. We assumed from the guidebook that Mosoraski would be fully bolted and left the wires behind. So imagine our amusement when we discovered 50- foot run-outs between each bolt. Near the top is an excellent HVS corner that is much better protected, but if F5c is pretty much your grade, then do take some gear.
Much as we enjoyed Mosoraski, both of us were anxious to do something harder and Velebitaski seemed the obvious next stage, the second of the Anica triumvirate. It takes a superb and improbable line at around E2 5b with 11 pitches of utterly scrumptious pleasure. There were cracks, overhanging, corners, pockets, flakes and some face climbing but the crux was something special.
I arrived at a hanging stance up an HVS flake, the ground appearing between my feet 500ft below. Then I watched Tom easing his way up some exposed face climbing to the base of a big overhang. I can’t pretend I don’t get terrified at these moments. I am quite simply the world’s most frightened climber. In my world, harnesses undo, bolts pop from the rock and ropes snap. I’m in my own disaster movie. Oh God.
And then, all around us, crag martins spun and whirled, turning through three dimensions on a sixpence. They have exquisite almost white roundels on their tails, like holes, which you can only see if they are in front of your nose. The terror was worth it, just for that, to see these birds tumbling through the air, while the sweat dribbled down my spine. After that the climb eased up and I slipped back into a mood of total relaxation.
On Mosoraski we had carried a little sack, so we had shoes to walk down in, across the razor edges of the summit rocks to the path below. I didn’t want the draggy weight on my harness for Velebitaski so figured I’d manage without. What a mistake. Few things really do make your toes curl, but descending in rock shoes is one of them. Tom very sweetly came back up the track to rescue me from my crippled feet.
With a bit of rain in the morning – imagine! – and leaden skies in the afternoon before our departure, we had time for only one more route. Both of us had clocked the stunning white spire to the right of Anica Kuk, called Stup. Unsurprisingly, it features on the cover of the guidebook and several times inside too. The must-do route is Domzalski at F6a, but given the weather and our experience of grading at Paklenica, we figured this would be too much and settled for an easier three-star classic Karabore that is graded F5b and felt like English 5b.
It was, however, superb limestone climbing, a steep wall leading to a sharp pull into a long groove. This culminated in a roof and above a pulpit stance like no other. Tom led the final slab above to complete a climb of outstanding quality. Bliss.
Back at the guesthouse we contemplated our final plate of fish. Our man was back with his carafe. What the hell? “Make mine a large one.”
Where is it?
Who’s it good for?
Paklenica is one of those places that’s got something for everyone, apart from bouldering. Some routes have been left
deliberately as trad leads, but most are bolted to some extent. The best climbs, however, are multi-pitch and there’s a huge amount of F6a to F6c.
When do I go?
Spring is best, late April and early May being the optimum times. Summer is too hot and in winter there is a strong wind blowing along the gorge.
Who flies where?
Ryanair fly to
Where do I stay?
Finding somewhere is easy and there are several campsites too. Dinko’s has rooms, there is the big package Hotel Alan, and lots of smaller pensions. We rented a room for around £12 a night for two with a shower down the hall. Local climber Boris Cujic has an apartment for rent email@example.com.
What’s the scoff like?
Fresh fish daily could be Starigrad’s motto. The squid is particularly good. The Rajna has a good kitchen, Dinko’s is an excellent bar and Degenija serves steaks, pizza and pasta. All these places are located on the main drag.
Which guide do I buy?
Boris Cujic’s excellent guidebook gives a brief historical overview of climbing at Paklenica, lots of local information and generally clear topos. Grading is pretty tough. Best purchased in Starigrad on arrival from the small climbing shop or at the park entrance.
Where can I buy gear and food?
There are several supermarkets but eating out is cheap enough. There is a small climbing shop called Iglu near the petrol station that sells pretty much anything you’ll need in an emergency.