The Outside Blog

Dispatches

The Last of the Desert Dwellers

Namibia, some would say, is an African country that actually gets wildlife conservation. So much so that a conservation mandate is actually written into its constitution. Which makes it all the more perplexing why the Namibian government has issued permits to hunt its iconic desert elephants. 

That policy has certainly sparked a lot of Internet outrage. There's a campaign on Facebook devoted to saving the elephants, and a recent entry expounds on the killing of a 17-year-old bull named Delta, apparently the first elephant shot because of the permits: 

“Delta was killed close to his family, and a short distance from a school, where there had been peaceful co-existence between humans and animals for some time.” 

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/namibia-desert-elephants-mom-baby_fe.jpg","caption":"Desert elephants can now only be found in Namibia and Mali."}%}

The furor is predominantly based on the fact that only 100 of these animals remain in Nambia, according to Laura Brown, a scientist and the director of Desert Lion and Elephant Conservation. And since word broke about the permits, there have been conflicting news reports, allegations of government secrecy, and suggestions—and counter-claims—that the permits were issued in exchange for political votes. So what’s really going on?

The answer is murky, but it starts with how Namibia manages wildlife. In 1996, the Nature Conservation Amendment Act spawned the formation of conservancies, which essentially gave rural communities consumptive and non-consumptive rights to wildlife. There are 79 conservancies, with 240,000 people living in them.

According to Colgar Silkopo, Director of Regional Services and Parks Management at Namibia’s Ministry of Environment Tourism, permit allocations for wildlife occur at the beginning of each year. This year, MET allotted nine elephant hunting permits to six local conservancies in the Kunene and Erongo regions in the northwest—areas where the desert elephants live. 

Seven of these permits are trophy-hunting permits. And the other two are “own use, which means, they can be used for meat,” explain Silkopo. However, these “non- trophy animals can be hunted by the conservancies themselves or a professional hunter or company they have a contract with.”

But is this actually antithetical to Namibia’s conservation ethos? Like most things about elephants in Africa, it depends on whom you talk to.

Dr. Margaret Jacobsohn is a trustee at Namibia’s Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) and a Namibian anthropologist who has been working in community based conservation for three decades.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/namibia-desert-elephants-three_fe.jpg","caption":"Desert dwellers were once more widespread across Africa, until hunting in the 1980's caused numbers to plummet."}%}

She recently wrote an opinion piece for Africa Geographic stating she’s against any elephant hunting, but says that doesn’t mean there’s an irony at play: “No, there’s no irony here. The irony is not in the trophy hunting. Rather, it is that the public—those who do not live with wildlife—is attacking the country with one of the best conservation records in all of Africa.”

CJ Carrington, a South African freelance writer who wrote about the controversy for the organization Conservation Action Trust, says she does find Namibia’s actions antithetical to its conservation mandate, especially because she believes the government has tried to keep the permits on the down-low. “Attempting to keep it secret and then scurrying to provide flimsy excuses—these are not the actions of an institution with nothing to hide.”

What is clear is that the whole concept of wildlife conservation in Africa is altogether complicated. “Listen,” says, Brown, who has been closely studying some 70 of the remaining desert-dwelling elephants for nearly a decade, “there are many different ways African nations maintain wildlife. Some governments throw all the animals into a national park and keep the people out. Some don’t have national parks and all the wildlife is gone. And Namibia has an in-between, where you have these conservancies where people decide the use of the wildlife.” 

Brown makes a point of explaining that hunting isn’t new in Namibia, just all the sudden attention to it. “Hunting has always been allowed in Namibia. It is always been able to issue permits to hunting. It just hasn’t been highly talked about. In fact, Namibia has been very much ignored [in the conversation about Africa’s elephants] until very recently.”

Brown says that eventually, her organization would like to see people deter elephants with non-lethal means. “That is something we are working towards. “But at this point,” she adds, “the country just isn’t there, yet.”

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What if Sitting Doesn't Kill?

Think you’re “resting” at your desk job? Yet another study has attacked Americans' favorite activity: sitting. The latest report, from the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, finds that for every hour you sit, you lose eight percent of your fitness gains from each hour you worked out that day. Sound really depressing? We thought so. That’s why we’re happy it’s probably not true.

Much has been made over the past few years about our sedentary lifestyles and how they’re killing us and how we should probably never, ever sit down. In this latest jab at the seated position, researchers tried to figure out the relationship between exercise and time spent sitting. Depending on whose article you’re reading, and whether or not you’re an athlete, you’ll either be really, really excited about the results, or really freaking depressed. 

Time put it like this: “Because exercise has a more powerful effect in helping the heart than sitting does in harming it, one hour of physical exercise could counteract the effects of sitting for six to seven hours a day.” 

Runner’s World put it like this: Each “time unit of sitting cancels out eight percent of your gain from the same amount of running. In other words, if you run for an hour in the morning, and then sit for 10 hours during the day, you lose roughly 80 percent of the health benefit from your morning workout.”

[Note: Running counts as vigorous activity. If your activity has less vigor, you can count on losing 16 percent of your workout-induced fitness gains every hour you’re hunched over a desk.]

Fortunately, it’s not that black and white. “People forget the gray area,” says Stanford exercise physiologist Dr. Stacy Sims. “If you go for a run, you’re going to get the benefit, but it’s better if you go for a run, then don’t sit all day.”

The issue here seems to stem from the study’s definition of fitness. Researchers looked into cardiorespiratory fitness, the kind involving your heart and lung capacity. Or, as many athletes may know it, the kind VO2 max indicates.

Look at it that way, and it’s not surprising athletes don’t have enormous gains from each day’s exercise, even if they don’t sit all day. It takes weeks to see a measurable change in VO2 max. And that’s with a concerted effort of high-intensity exercise.

As for your musculoskeletal and neuromotor fitness, this study did not look into those systems, which should improve with training even if you do sit during the day. “If you plan your recovery right, like your nutrition recovery, you won’t be losing fitness as long as you get up and move around during the day, too,” Sims says.

Neuromotor gains, for example, should be preserved if you follow the recommendations the researchers put forth: walking up stairs at work; standing while talking on the phone; holding walking meetings; sitting on a fitness ball or using a standing desk; taking a lunchtime walk.

“If you’re training heavy weights,” Sims says, “and then you sit on that muscle, it gets compressed, so you’re actually reducing that neuromuscular signaling.” But just getting up and walking around will reduce pressure on that muscle so you don’t lose the signaling you built up.

As for strength gains, you won’t lose strength by the hour as you sit, either, Sims says. Just get up every hour so your muscles don’t tighten up, which can lead to imbalances, which can lead to injury.

So don’t give up on your training. Just make an effort to stand up, stretch, and move a little throughout the day and you can kiss this new eight-percent rule goodbye. 

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What It Takes to Finish the World's Toughest Ultra 20 Consecutive Times

On July 11, human anomaly Kilian Jornet smashed the six-year-old course record at the Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run. Despite Jornet’s unbelievable speed, Coloradan Kirk Apt, who finished in 39:38:51—nearly 17 hours behind Jornet—received the loudest applause at this year’s awards ceremony.

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That’s because the 52-year-old—who broke the course record in 2000 with a time of 29:35:00—kissed the Hardrock for the 20th consecutive year, a new record. The race was his 48th hundred-miler since 1991; that’s an average of 2.1 hundreds per year, and he’s managed to show up healthy and fit to all of them.

In an era when elite ultrarunners drop out as soon as the smallest thing goes awry, Apt is the exemplar of what determination and perseverance can accomplish: a level of lifetime fitness unknown even to the most famous and revered professional athletes.

We caught up with Apt at his home in Grand Junction to see how 20 years of Hardrock is even possible.

OUTSIDE: When did you start running ultramarathons?
APT
: I actually don't remember; it was probably a year or two before my first hundred, which was Leadville in 1991. In 1990, I paced my friend Greg Brunson at Leadville. The next year, we reversed roles, and since then I've lost count of how many times he has paced me in my 48 total hundreds. Probably close to 20, including Hardrock again this year.

What initially drew you to the sport?
The simple love of running in the mountains and the challenge of resetting the edge of the envelope physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. 

Who was instrumental in you getting hooked on the sport?
In addition to Greg, my early mentors include Steve Mahieu, Charlie Thorn, and John Cappis. 

You dropped from your first attempt at Hardrock in its 1992 inaugural running due to food poisoning. Was that a formative experience?
Maybe, in the sense that the experience solidified the feeling that I really don't like not making it to the finish line. That remains my only hundred-mile DNF.

You finished Leadville before you first ran Hardrock. Did that prepare you for the 100.5-mile loop through the San Juans?
Oh, it was so different than Leadville, and I was still quite low on the learning curve. There was so much uncertainty before the first Hardrock; we wondered whether it could be completed in 48 hours. I remember going into the run with a healthy dose of fear and respect. Certainly it was beneficial to have the 100-mile experience of one race, but Hardrock is a very different experience than other hundreds.

What memories do you have from your first Hardrock 100 finish, or have they all blurred together?
I do remember my first Hardrock. As for gear, I had the whole house with me, a huge backpack. I wasn’t even experienced enough to think I knew what to expect. My plan was to go out and see how it came to me. That first finish line was very special. I remember running super conservatively and feeling huge elation running into the finish, which was down by the gazebo and courthouse [in Silverton, Colorado] back then. It made up for the disappointment of the DNF the year before. 

What was winning the 2000 race like for you?
We were living in Boulder that year, and it was a low snow year. So, just great training in the Front Range. I certainly didn’t go into it with a “win or bust” attitude, but I knew I was super fit.

I did my thing through the race and found myself in the lead. We were going counterclockwise that year, and I got to Chapman aid station [mile 82] feeling pretty good and thought, “I've got a shot at winning this.” I’m really not competitive by nature, so I had to convince myself to go for it because it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. It was a big mental effort to keep myself pushing.

I had the best running day of my life on probably the best day to have it. That was the high-water mark of my lifetime fitness.

Being able to show up at Hardrock for 20 straight years and fit enough to finish such a tough course is a level of lifetime fitness most people can’t achieve. How do you do it?
Luck. Also, because I've made Hardrock the focus of my year, all my training and other prep has been all about getting to the start line in the best position to be successful. I try to have a healthy lifestyle, eat well, get regular bodywork, train smart. I also take time off when necessary. And I stay positive.

What has been the key to your training?
I now train at really low intensity. I don’t have any problem walking if a climb is working me. My [slowing] times kind of reflect that.

For me, it’s just been the long run. Time on my feet. I don’t care how much ground I cover or how fast I’m going. I do try to get as much terrain [vertical gain] in as possible. May and June are the key times, but you can’t always get up high with snow in Colorado. I just do what I can.

When I was more competitive, I was underemployed, so I had more time to train. My partner, who is also a runner, and I have been together for almost 20 years. We don’t have kids. She’s key to keeping me on track with my training. 

Have you had any injuries along the way?
About five to eight years ago, I realized that my adrenals were kind of shot. That really had a hand in increasing my finish times at Hardrock. I worked with a naturopath doctor, got regular acupuncture, and was on multiple herbal adrenal-health supplements. Eventually that fixed it. Three years back, in the spring, I started to roll my ankle a lot—worse than usual. I ended up having to wear an air cast every time I ran for a year.

What’s your diet like?
I eat mostly vegetarian, but certainly not completely vegetarian. Dinners are always centered around a gigantic pile of steamed vegetables. I also eat beans and quite a few eggs for protein. 

What keeps you motivated year after year?
Well, there’s nothing I’d rather do than spend all day on my feet in the mountains. Motivation hasn’t been an issue.

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Your Wicked Wednesday Workout

When getting outside is the goal and training is what makes your adventures possible, Wednesday is the perfect day to push it. Why? You’re recovered from the weekend and can rev yourself for the days ahead.

Now, there’s nothing that says you have to hit the gym for a strength and endurance sweat session. With a little space, minimal equipment, and less than an hour, you can have an intense workout that preps your heart and muscles to complement your main sport.

In this Wicked Wednesday Workout, you’ll work on upper- and lower-body strength and mix it in with some high-intensity spurts. In the final stretch, you’ll have to push your body when it’s already zapped—to help you get more mileage when the tank is almost empty. And that’s the hump that’s worth getting up and over.

This Week's Workout: Six by Six

Total Time: 20-25 minutes

Equipment and Set-Up
You'll Need: A dumbbell or heavy object that you can use for overhead presses and a field or playground with trees or monkey bars.

Set up six stations. At each one, you will perform one exercise for the number of repetitions outlined below, starting with 12 repetitions. Complete the six stations, then rest for 30 seconds to 1 minute before doing the next circuit. Complete six rounds of the six exercises.

Stations

  1. Perfect pushups, two seconds down and two seconds up.
  2. Squat jumps. Hinge at your hips when you squat down so that your butt thrusts backward and your knees don’t extend past your toes. On the way up, explode up into a jump. (Optional: Hold some kind of weight.)
  3. Overhead presses, using any kind of weight (dumbbell, sandbag, cinder blocks).
  4. Mountain climbers. Count one rep every time your lead foot comes forward.
  5. Pull-ups on tree branch or monkey bars. (Optional: if you can’t do pull-ups, do a modified pull-up by hanging a towel around a (sturdy) branch or bar. Jump up and grab each end of the towel and pull yourself as high as you can go on each jump.)
  6. Set up cones or markers about 20 yards apart. Sprint from cone-to-cone. One rep is running one length.
  7. Rest

Circuits

For the first time through, do 12 repetitions of each exercise. Each time through, you'll do fewer reps—until the final circuit, which is 15 reps of each.

  1. 12 reps
  2. 10 reps
  3. 8 reps
  4. 6 reps
  5. 4 reps
  6. 15 reps

About this Series
The Wicked Wednesday Workout is designed to help you break up your week with a high-intensity, total-body workout of strength and endurance that uses minimal equipment—to help better prepare your body for the randomness of your weekend at play. 

Ted Spiker, who has designed and led backyard and neighborhood workouts for his friends for the past three years, is a journalism professor at the University of Florida who specializes in health and fitness writing. He recommends you pick up a scrap truck tire to add more variety to your workouts.

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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.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/lukomir-bosnia-herzegovina-village.jpg","size":"large"}%}

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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{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/tara-canyon-bosnia.jpg","size":"large"}%}

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.”

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/kenan-muftic-consulting-map.jpg","size":"large"}%}

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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