The Outside Blog

Skiing and Snowboarding : Exploration

A Heavenly Lodge in the Land of Light

Iceland is so full of adventure, it can be hard to know where to dive in. Plenty of lodges offer great accommodations, but few can match Hótel Glymur’s access and views. A quick 45-minute drive from Reykjavík, Glymur is set amid the countless hikes, rivers, and volcanic fields around 20-mile-long Whale Fjord. The lodge has 22 rooms and three suites, but we suggest splurging on one of the six villas, which have floor-to-ceiling views of the fjord, state-of-the-art kitchens, and private geothermal hot tubs outside. From there, head 13 miles east to the highest waterfall in the country (and the hotel’s namesake), which cascades 643 feet in a single drop from the Botsna River over the side of Hvalfell volcano. Inaccessible by road, the waterfall is one of Iceland’s least visited attractions—and one of its most stunning. The hotel will point guests in the direction of the trailhead, a 20-minute drive away. After the five-mile hike, return to a dinner of lamb fillet served with blueberry sauce and baked potatoes. Then pour yourself a Reyka vodka with a lemon twist and take it out to the hot tub to toast the waning midnight sun.

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Icelandic Getaway: A Few Pointers

Access: Fly Iceland Air to Keflavík International Airport in Reykjavík. Rent a car at Höldur (from $197); no four-wheel-drive needed in summer. Rooms from $300, villas from $480.

Climate: In August, 55° high and 46° low

Detour: The 5,200-foot-long Vidgelmir Lava Tube is only 46 miles northwest of the hotel. Extreme Iceland helps you explore it and other caves in the Hallmundarhraun lava field ($1,060 for two).

Indulge: Made right at the lodge, Glymur’s ice cream ($18) is infused with chocolate cake bits and soft caramel. 

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The Last of the True Cowboys?

It took six pairs of boots, 240 horseshoes, and 24 months for Filipe Leite to ride on horseback from Canada to Brazil. The cowboy traveled 10,000 miles through 10 countries to reach his home in South America, an epic journey that has earned him a spot in the historic Long Rider's Guild, an international association of equestrian explorers that requires its members to ride at least 1,000 continuous miles. 

We last caught up with Leite back in 2012, when he was only three states into his journey and about to cross the infamous and treacherous Million Dollar Highway in Colorado. Since then, the cowboy has snuck through jungles full of drug traffickers, ridden bulls, encountered endless bureaucratic obstacles, and experienced unending generosity on the trail. As he nears the final stretch of his journey, we asked him for an update.

OUTSIDE: Aside from countless miserable border crossings, what has been the most difficult part of the ride?
LEITE: Keeping my horses healthy. I have spent 24 hours a day, seven days a week with these animals for the past two years. As we made our way south, we created a bond only comparable to that of father and son. When I didn't have the basics to offer them, like water or a pasture to graze, it broke my heart. We crossed many countries where vets were extremely hard to find and medication for horses even more so. Keeping my animals healthy required me to work extremely hard and become a bit of a vet myself.

This Long Ride has also been full of dangers. We crossed paths with a grizzly in Montana. One of the horses (Bruiser) fell in a deep ditch in New Mexico. The other (Frenchie) was hit by a truck in Southern Mexico, and the third (Dude) walked into a cattle guard in Nicaragua—nearly breaking his leg. I remember having Dude's head on my lap after finally calming him down while he lay there with his front right hoof stuck in that cattle guard thinking I was going to lose him. These were by far the worst moments of the trip. These horses are an extension of my soul; they are my children, my heroes, my everything.

What type of schedule do you maintain to give the horses, and yourself, much-needed rest?
On a Long Ride like mine, there can be no set schedule. You must always listen to your horses and let them rest as they need it. I always try to ride no more than 30 kilometers [nearly 19 miles] daily and allow my ponies to rest for a day or two every four to five days of riding. This has been a good system for us. I have also stopped for a month at times in order to give them ample time to rest or recover from an injury.

Scariest moment of the ride?
Hearing a husband trying to kill his wife with five gunshots just outside my window in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. I will never forget her yells of desperation as the gunfire silenced her pleas.

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What about the loneliest moment of the trip?
The loneliest moment of the trip was crossing a mountain in southern Wyoming. I spent several days riding without seeing another human being. It was only the horses and I, and I had an extremely hard time finding water for them. I remember coming down that mountain into a town of 25 people, swallowing my tears. I ended up staying with an elderly gentleman who lives by himself in a ranch home. It's funny how life works out. It was one of the deepest connections I made on the journey.

You've traveled through jungles infested with drug traffickers and passed through dangerous cities. Was there ever a time you've been afraid for your life or the life of your horses?
My entrance into Honduras from Guatemala was with the protection of a major Honduran drug lord. He not only rode with me but also hosted me in his fortress for two days. His house was in a little village in the mountains and sat behind high walls and a thick metal gate. His house was a mansion with plasma TVs, a home gym, and even a small petting zoo. While trying to sleep the first night, I kept imagining the shootouts and killings happening at the hands of the drug cartels in town nearby. Needless to say, it made it hard to get some shut-eye.

You've been posting video segments throughout your journey. Tell us how you film while riding alone, edit footage, and post updates while on the trail?
Filming my Long Ride has been extremely difficult! I have to get off my horse, set up the tripod and turn on the camera, get back on, ride by the camera, then go back to stop filming and fold up the tripod—all while making sure all three horses are watched after. My girlfriend, Emma Brazier, has helped me a lot in this aspect. The moments she has traveled with me, we have been able to capture moments I couldn't otherwise. The dispatches are edited in Nashville by OutWildTV. I'm very thankful for having such an amazing group of professionals behind me. It makes all the difference.

Most of your nights are spent camping in a tent. What key items have made this possible for two years?
My Leatherman is always on my belt. Other items include a one-burner stove for preparing dinner, my MEC Tarn 3 tent, MEC Mirage sleeping bag, and peanut butter. I've also been carrying Naomi's ashes. In Colorado, a gentleman who hosted me asked if I would carry his sister's ashes to Brazil with me. He told me how she loved horses and adventure and had recently passed away. He felt as if faith brought me to his home and that Naomi had to go on one last ride. I have carried Naomi's ashes all the way to Brazil and will spread them in the field where the horses will be retired.

You're trying to pass through the largest rodeo in Latin America, the Festa do Peao de Barretos. Think you'll make it?
Definitely! Because I left from the largest rodeo in Canada, the Calgary Stampede, it has always been my goal to pass through Barretos. This past year, they began sponsoring my trip and are currently building a monument of the horses and I that will be forever in the rodeo grounds for people to visit. On August 23, I will ride into the rodeo's arena as more than 50,000 people watch from the stands. I imagine it will be a very emotional moment.

What are your plans for after you arrive?
I will retire my horses at my parents' farm in Espirito Santo do Pinhal, Sao Paulo, and work on a documentary on my ride. I will also be writing a book on my two-year journey from Canada to Brazil.

Can we expect to see a Journey America documentary from your travel?
Absolutely.

Catch all of Leite's Journey America videos at OutWildTV and follow along as he finishes his journey at @FilipeMasetti on Twitter and Instagram.

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Duckworth WoolCloud Snap Shirt

In the winter, we can’t get enough of these insulated wool snap-down shirts. They’re way more streamlined than many Stay-Puft-Marshmallow jackets, which means they wear well out to dinner, and they layer neatly under a storm shell when the forecast delivers wet, sloppy slush instead of light, dry flakes.

The Duckworth WoolCloud Snap Shirt caught our attention not only for its good looks. Launching this fall, Duckworth’s tailored collection of wool apparel is made entirely in the United States by the founders of former wool fashion apparel brand I/O Bio.

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Follow Duckworth’s manufacturing process and you’ll see that it’s unlike the majority of wool-apparel makers, which source their wool from Down Under (most often Australia or New Zealand), send it to China to be turned into clothing, and then ship it to the U.S. to be sold.

Duckworth has beat this manufacturing process by sourcing all of its wool from the Helle sheep ranch in Montana and then sending it to the Carolinas, home to some of the few remaining textile factories in the U.S. The climate of the Rockies in Montana—hot, dry summers paired with freezing winters—nurtures wool that’s not only soft and breathable, but is naturally more crimped than other wool on the market, aiding its durability.

A jacket that can handle the trail but looks tailored enough for a dinner in Aspen—and is 100-percent American? We can’t think of a better package.

$200, duckworthco.com

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A Balkan Journey: Slovenia to Croatia

Heavy storms and a 100-year flood battered the Balkans in May, but by the end of the month, the sun appeared and I was bound for Slovenia and the northern head of the new Via Dinarica hiking trail, which follows the Dinaric Alps, a 620-mile string of peaks spilling south and east from the Alps proper.

My goal: to walk several sections of the route, which, like the range, parallels the Adriatic Sea and connects countries down the length of the Balkan Peninsula. The main artery of the Via Dinarica—named Outside’s Best New Trail for 2014—is called the White Trail. It crosses, in geographic order, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, and Kosovo.

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For countries along the Via Dinarica, the hope is that this megatrail corridor—a project funded by the European Union, the United Nations Development Programme, and the U.S. Agency for International Development—will eventually showcase an underutilized mountain range to a global audience. The route would act as a vehicle to highlight the breadth of the region’s outdoor adventure possibilities and often-overlooked Old World culture and promote environmental awareness. With any luck, it could also ignite and galvanize camaraderie among the range’s historically contentious neighbors.

“Connecting the dots, combining resources and offers, and sharing a common visual identity will help put the Via Dinarica on the outdoor traveler’s radar,” Tim Clancy, media consultant for the project, wrote in an email. “It will provide sustainable incomes for mountain folks as well as youth (where unemployment is as high as 60 percent in many places), and it will force governments’ hands in establishing better channels of cross-border communication and cooperation because of tourism, border-crossing issues, and branding.”

But with all that the Western Balkans countries have endured the past 20 years—hell, the past 500 years—imagining that a trail could act as a tourism engine while also loosening the grip and memory of dictatorships, cross-border wars in the former Yugoslavia, and intolerant fate seems, at the start of our journey, mighty ambitious. The plan does possess one giant trump card: Few acts are as simple, straightforward, beautiful, and universal as a hike in the mountains. For visitors such as myself, this is the brand-spanking-new Via Dinarica’s hopeful, peaceful plea.

Driving through western Bosnia, however, nothing appeared brand spanking new. Old men in coveralls and women with kerchiefs scored black soil with hoes that looked as if they’d been handed down since the Habsburgs. A horse pulling a red wooden carriage filled with hay loped past the occasional burned-out building—souvenirs from the 1990s Yugoslav conflict. Villages were demarcated by symbols devoted to higher powers. The call to prayer, bellowing from a mosque’s minaret, gave way to clover-shaped Orthodox crosses, which morphed into Catholic churches taking shape on the next horizon. Everywhere, axes splitting wood paced the drive with a discordant, metronomic orchestra.

As we drove north, the two-month, six-part journey became real. My trek will begin in karst- and cave-filled Slovenia. Afterward, I will hike through Croatia, which, like Slovenia, is a member of the European Union. Known more for its coast, Croatia possesses a jagged relief of dramatic mountains, including the trail’s namesake: Mount Dinara. Some of the most epic hiking will take place across Bosnia and Herzegovina’s virgin forests and sweeping, untouched vistas.

Then, I’ll take part in a 500-kilometer bicycle ride across Bosnia to commemorate the anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre in 1995. Next, I move into Montenegro to experience the Tara Canyon, the deepest river canyon in Europe, and Durmitor National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Finally, I will hike into Albania, home to the rugged Prokletije Mountains and the 8,839-foot Maja Jezerce. I’ll end in Kosovo, one of the world’s newest countries and outdoor-adventure destinations. 

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During each stage, I will travel with a different cast of vagabonds—mountaineers, outdoor enthusiasts, and climbers—who will hike and bike with me and provide local expertise. The exception will be a Dutchman named Thierry Joubert, a friend and mountain guide with a these-aren’t-the-droids-you’re-looking-for demeanor, who runs the Bosnian-based eco-adventure outfitter Green Visions. Thierry has lived in the region for 22 years and will be my partner in crime throughout the journey. 

“The tagline of the Via Dinarica is ‘connecting naturally,’” Thierry said from the driver’s seat, resuming a sentence he’d started before he handed his passport to the border patrol officer. “But what the trail actually does is reconnect people across the Balkans from Slovenia to Albania.”

Though we won’t walk the path step for step, we will be pioneers of sorts. (Most expeditions will be about a week long, and we will occasionally use transfers along the way, due to time constraints.) The nascent trail, fully actualized conceptually, still lacks much in the way of signage, maps, and publicity—even here in the Balkans. Mountain associations along the route have started to jump on board, but for many locals the term Via Dinarica is as foreign as my mama’s homemade apple pie.

The part that won’t be foreign about the Via Dinarica for experienced through-hikers familiar with European trails: the rush of trekking from summit to summit, from hut to hut, from village to village. The difference for those who have hiked in Western Europe: This trail has some polishing yet to do. For folks who like to discover places while they’re still wet-paint-fresh, the time is right for a trans-Balkan jaunt.

I’ve hiked multicountry European megatrails before. In 2007, I walked from Trieste, Italy, up and over the Alps to Monaco on the well-groomed and tourist-heavy Via Alpina. Connecting eight nations, the Via Alpina was the inspiration for the Via Dinarica, which started to take shape on paper in 2010. The skeletal frame for the Via Dinarica, in the process of being fully marked, combines long-standing hiking paths, shepherds’ tracks, smugglers’ routes, and former World War II military trails carved by partisan soldiers while outmaneuvering Nazi regiments.

The populations spread across the Via Dinarica speak three distinct languages and observe four religions. Their histories were molded by the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western churches in 1054. Their empires were carved up by the Habsburgs, the Ottomans, and the Venetians. Their alliances are ancient. Their rifts are current.

Though the countries of the Balkans have a long history of mountaineering, for the most part people here don’t consider hiking a birthright like those in France or Switzerland might. With the exception of Slovenia and to a lesser degree Croatia, mountain huts aren’t evenly spaced the way they are in Western Europe. Trekking here can be untamed at times. Trail markings can be inconclusive. Maps are precious. Advice from locals and shepherds is even more so. A local human guide’s consultation is often necessary. If one gets lost, it could be for a while. Worst-case scenario: You end up in a Balkan village and take up residence. Best-case scenario: You find a Balkan wife and learn obedience.

“The Via Dinarica is challenging from a sport perspective,” continues mountaineer Kenan Muftić, who was the trail’s project manager during its original planning stages. “But it is removed, and the conditions aren’t perfect like in other places. And,” he looked at me with a mischievous glint in his eye, “it’s wild.”

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The reasons for that wildness are manifold. Some explanations are theoretical, and some are concrete. Theoretically, this isn’t Western Europe. People here are tough. Rare is the generation that hasn’t known hardship of the sort that most living Americans will hopefully never see. My people are from here (my paternal grandfather emigrated to the States), but by every definition I am a delicate flower in comparison.

More concretely, the great outdoors here are, by design, less developed. Massive swaths of the region are unsullied, unindustrialized, and nearly untouched. There are primordial forests. For decades, this region has bucked modernity—through communism and conflict—in an unwitting quest to remain one of the last wild places in Europe. Locals make their own cheese, concoct their own brandy (called rakija), and cook coffee on ancient iron stoves. Shepherds still wander remote hilltops and along craggy mountaintops. Hidden rivers, canyons, and lakes pop up from behind peaks as if a director had moments before called out, “Places!”

And then there’s the war. Folks here—including frequent tourists like me—are desperate to get past the war. At best, the subject is boring for locals. At worst, the fear is that by focusing on the war that splintered Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1995, visitors will continue to focus on the war. I won’t go too far down this rabbit hole then, except to say two things. First, the war was devastating in every way a war can be: physically, psychologically, governmentally, and economically. Second, tourists are absolutely safe here. Full stop.

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For the purposes of the Via Dinarica, the war had another, unexpected effect. Especially in Bosnia, the war changed the mountains conceptually. For many, mountains still represent the frontlines during the four-year conflict in the mid-1990s. Armies lobbed mortars into cities from peaks and ridges. Hilltop snipers aimed at children scurrying through streets carrying water.

“A generation of fathers and grandfathers stopped taking their kids into the mountains,” says Samer Hajrić, a Bosnian mountain guide, who was in our SUV on the way to Slovenia. “There is a gap in the tradition.”

And there are the landmines. Landmines are a big problem, especially in Bosnia, which was supposed to be mine-free by 2009. According to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Mine Action Center, mines still cover 2.4 percent of the country, and their complete removal is now projected for 2019. However, safety concerns for trekkers are minimal. Most mine-risk areas are clearly marked. The rule here is “if you don’t know, don’t go.” Translation: If you aren’t absolutely sure about where you’re about to hike, get a guide. You’ll learn more about the trail and the culture, and the price, relative to the United States, is cheap. 

Sound like a lot to digest before a hike in the mountains? It is. The Balkan Peninsula is a beautifully complicated place. Readers should think less about trekking here in terms of reaching lung-busting elevations and more from the perspective of achieving personal-best cultural interactions.

 

After leaving Sarajevo, we had one goal on our first day: get to the Postojnska Jama in Slovenia, the self-proclaimed “best-known cave in the world.” An admittedly tourism-heavy affair, the entrance to Postojna’s 21 kilometers of labyrinthine underground passages is a giant Secessionist-era manor with an apron of cafes, fast-food eateries, and trinket shops. The spot is, however, emblematic of the karst substrate that will cover much of my hike through the Balkan Peninsula’s western half. 

We arrived late in the day and zoomed through the cave on a train moving at a speed that could only be the result of a driver ready to go home to dinner with his wife. We whisked past the stalactites and stalagmites that are indicative of the subterranean level here. Much of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia is riddled with such caves—porous limestone carved by underground rivers—making it one of the largest karst fields on the planet.

The next day, we set off on the first of three days of hiking. We met up with Jernej Jež, a Slovene geologist working with the Geological Survey of Slovenia, appropriately, and a member of the nearby Mountaineering Club Podnanos. As we hiked to Veliki Snežnik, the highest peak in the region at 1,796 meters (5,892 feet), Jež explained that the Dinaric Alps, composed of carbonate rocks, were formed after the Adria microplate plate, moving north and east, collided with the European plate and was tucked underneath. He moved his hands to display a thrusting and folding motion as if he were making an invisible crust-and-mantle Dagwood sandwich.

We walked to the summit of Snežnik Mountain, strewn with patches of grass covering pocked limestone like bad teeth under an unkempt beard. We looked across the southern frontier of Slovenia, often called Little Switzerland. Jež stopped making his earthen hoagie and swung an arm, pointing in the near distance with Vanna White–like grace: “That is Croatia.”

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Coming down from the mountain, we walked past World War I bunkers and tank traps built to protect the border. A mama brown bear saw us and hurried her two cubs over the next ridge. “The Via Dinarica is a perfect plan,” Jež said a few kilometers later when we reached Sviščaki, the next mountain hut. We ordered beer. After a mandatory discussion with the hut’s owner about which of Slovenia’s main beers is better, Union or Laško, Jež continued, “It connects places with similar geographies and different cultures. With different but also the same histories.”

After leaving Jež, we debated our next move. We had originally planned to walk across the border to Croatia, but hiking through countries with relatively new political realities is a logistical challenge. Though both Slovenia and Croatia are EU members, the latter has yet to be admitted in the Schengen Area: a border-free zone that, according to the European Commission’s website, “guarantees free movement to more than 400 million EU citizens.” Rather than risk a large fine and the administrative headache of getting caught illegally crossing the border, we drove through passport control. (Croatia was admitted into the EU in 2013. Rumor is that it will be admitted into the Schengen Area in 2015.)

At around 11 p.m., after a teeth-shattering four-wheel-drive crawl that locals passionately warned us to avoid, we entered the Planinarski dom (mountain hut) Hahlić. We sat with Romina Vidrih, who, with two other families, runs the hut for a mountain association that boasts 200 members. The renovated, meticulously clean hut sleeps 40 and sits in the middle of 10 peaks—all a day hike away. Though Vidrih was a seasoned hiker and had bagged many of the summits I was planning over the next two months, she had not heard of the Via Dinarica.

The next morning, we took one of the day hikes to the nearby Obruč peak before setting off west to Risnjak, the northernmost of Croatia’s eight national parks. Designated a national park in 1953, Risnjak covers more than 24 square miles and forms a synapse between the coast and the continent. As we stared across the unmolested, undulating forested terrain, it became obvious how important protecting sensitive chunks of real estate can be, even—perhaps especially—in a small country about the size of West Virginia. The park provides habitat for more than 1,000 different plants, as well as wolves, bears, and lynx.

It’s a nine-hour hike from the Hahlić through the Platak ski center, across Snježnik—a peak inside the park’s western edge—to the Schlosser mountain hut, which sits just below the Risnjak’s highest point, the 1,528-meter (5,013 feet) Veliki Risnjak. While dining on bowls of polenta-and-beef goulash, we spoke with the proprietor Gari Devčić, who was, he proudly announced, named after Gary Cooper. Every day, Gari treks in daily supplies for the hut, recognized in 2013 as Croatia’s best.

“The Via Dinarica is a fantastic idea. We will build a new Yugoslavia,” Gari said and laughed. “It will be great for mountaineering all over the region. We need many more people to come walk around the mountains for us to stay open.”

We woke at five the next morning to summit Veliki Risnjak. From the peak, we—two Bosnians, a Croatian, a Dutchman, and an American—could see the sun rising over Western Europe. Behind us, the light inched across the park and began to illuminate the coast. “It is easy to feel small, isn’t it?” Thierry asked rhetorically as he turned around to watch the Istrian Peninsula and Croatia’s northernmost islands, Cres and Krk, take shape in the dawn mist. Behind them, our next stage: a hike from Croatia’s Velebit Mountains to Paklenica National Park, famous for its climbing above the Adriatic Sea. “Past those waves, the mountains are waiting for us. We have a long way to go to get to Albania.”

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