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On The Highest Peaks Of European Countries

(This article I wrote was published in Estonian travel magazine „Go“ 5/2009)

1. THE BEGINNING

Coming from a flat country, in all likelihood it started with Suur Munamägi (Big Egg Mountain – 318m, Estonia’s highest point). I remember first going there on a class excursion in 1989 or 1990. The exact time isn’t that important. What matters is the feeling I experienced there – that you can look over the high fir tree tops and count all the churches within a radius of 30 km. It felt high and it was an impressive and powerful feeling. And there is no irony in there.

However, the recognition that I absolutely have to get to know mountains more closely came in 1991 when I, being 16 at the time, found myself in the Caucasus for the first time on a summer camp bonus trip. We spent our time there pretty much as tourists and it would be a serious overstatement to call it a hiking trip. But besides swimming in mineral water and dining in the “Inturist” hotel we were treated with a one-day trip to the Caucasus Main Range. Already from down below the view was powerful, but the true ‘high’ came when we had ascended to 2800m by cable car, and then continued another couple of hundred metres with a small group in order to get to the “three kilometre club”. Well, after that there was no going back – mighty young 4000-5000m Caucasus Main Range peaks all around me, and Russia’s highest peak Elbrus (5642m) in its snowy glory and mighty solitude a bit further away. I was sold. Simple as that.

My first real trip to mountains was to Norway in 1994. During that trip we also reached the highest peak in the Nordic Countries, Galdhoppigen (global warming had melted the former highest peak of Norway, Glittertind, so that it was now lower), which was sort of a point of recognition for me – I understood that I want to go to mountains for a period of time every year. Luckily, on that very same trip, we formed a group of about ten people with similar feelings, and I reached the next few highest points of European countries together with them. In 1995 we went to the Tatras and reached the highest peak of Poland (Rysy, 2499m). However, on that trip, the joy of reaching the highest point of Poland was overshadowed by not reaching the highest peak of Slovakia (Gerlachovsky Stit, 2655m). In 1996 we drove to Romania with the same group, and that trip culminated by reaching the highest peak of Transilvania (and, of course, Romania), Moldoveanu (2544m). I think that on that trip we first discussed the idea of reaching the highest peak of every country in the world during our lifetime. It was just a humorous thought that popped up while drinking beer – after all, we had already managed four out of over two hundred countries in the world. But this thought lingered somewhere in my mind.

In 1997 we went to Caucasus for the first time with the core members of the same group. On that trip I crossed the 4000m limit during acclimatisation, and later reached the height of 5300 metres on the slope of Elbrus. Then I had to turn back because of health issues. Four members of our group reached the lower, Eastern peak of Elbrus (5621m) on that day. However, it turned out that for me, another moment of that trip assumed critical importance – it was the “follow-up trip”. Since quite a lot of food had been left over from the trip to the Caucasus, we decided to make us of it and climb one more peak. We chose the closest peak to us, i.e. the highest point of Latvia, Gaizinkalns (311m). The only difficulty with this peak was finding the right spot, because it was essentially possible to drive all the way to the peak. But I remember that standing up there I made the decision that from now on I’ll be reaching the highest peaks of different countries. I had done five. There were about 200 remaining.

2. STANDSTILL

At the time I had my first encounters with mountains I was also busy acquiring a diploma in acting at Viljandi Academy of Culture. After graduation I was invited to work in theatre Endla in Pärnu. Essentially it was all very well and good, but my going to work there caused the first and extremely serious standstill in attaining my goals related to mountains. The reasons were, of course, very simple: firstly, everybody working in the theatre had collective holidays at the same time; it wasn’t possible to choose anything. And secondly, well, a young actor doesn’t tend to have a lot of money left over. In fact, there was absolutely no money left over. Which means that the holiday (which was often divided into two parts, to complicate things further) had to be filled with activities that bring in some money. And this is how these five years at the theatre went by. My leaving the theatre in 2002 was partially also motivated by my desire to spend some more time in mountains in different parts of the world. And this desire was urgent.

The pause from mountains lasted another two years due to inertia, because I needed to get settled in my new home town in the capital of our republic. But during this period I already thought intensively about the future and became friends with Veikko Täär, my travel companion during many of the next few years’ trips. Together with him we decided that in October 2004 we’ll be going to the mountains. Where exactly, we didn’t know. But we knew that we had to go.

3. NEW BEGINNING

October 2004 was the first time I went to the mountains by car (except for Latvia of course), because all previous trips had been by plane or train. And since together with Veikko, Kadri and Katrin we managed to visit the Austrian Alps, Italian Dolomites as well as the Alps in Slovenia (we reached the highest point of Slovenia, Triglav (2864m)) within twelve days, after this trip I was able to sit down peacefully for the first time and look at the list of European countries, concentrating on the question which peaks I could reach during a single trip. Because distances in Europe aren’t really that long. The first calculation revealed that in order to attain the highest peaks of all European countries I needed to take 12 trips and the last one would be in autumn 2008. The plan for Europe was born.

4. SETBACKS AND SURPRISES

Some of the unattained peaks have been due to poor planning. I don’t always delve very deeply into where I am going and what is in store for me, because I like to improvise once I have arrived. Most of the time it only adds to the quality of a trip, but sometimes there is the occasional unattained peak. For instance, when we need a rope but don’t have one. Some peaks cannot be reached due to weather conditions. If the weather is bad for a while, we simply run out of time. And some peaks, of course, cannot be reached because of the group’s skill levels. As a result, reality started to diverge from my original plan. In most cases I tried to fit the unsuccessful peaks to another trip’s list but it didn’t always work. This means that the number of trips in my calendar increased.

On top of that there were also a few surprises, which filled my calendar further. For instance, I discovered that the highest point of Portugal is not on the mainland at all – it’s about 1500 km away from the coast in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean on the Azores, and therefore it required a completely separate trip. Another surprise was at the beginning of 2008, when Kosovo was added to the list of European countries. This was complicated by the fact that the highest point of former Serbia was located on Kosovo’s territory (Daravica, 2656m). When one country was separated into two, I was faced with the problem that the Serbs still refuse to recognise Kosovo’s independence. And therefore they also don’t think their country has a new highest point. It took me over six months to ascertain that the new highest peak of Serbia is Midzhur (2169m) located on the border of Bulgaria.

Anyway, speaking of setbacks and changes in plans, in 2005 May I failed to reach the highest peak of Finland, Halti, due to severe snow conditions, and in spring 2006 I couldn’t reach Grossglockner, the highest point of Austria due to serious avalanche hazard. Freshly fallen snow ended my first trip to the Balkans in October 2007 at the point where I had reached the highest points of Croatia, Greece and Bulgaria. The peaks of Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro still remained. A year later on the second attempt (which began with reaching the highest peaks of Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine), I successfully reached the highest peaks of Serbia, Macedonia and Albania, but failed to reach the highest peak of Kosovo on our first attempt. And since out of the three of us, only my feet were still in a more or less working condition, we didn’t attempt it again. During the second trip to the Balkans, in summer 2008, I managed to reach two peaks that had been vexing me – Gerlach in Slovakia and Grossglockner in Austria. But on that trip, after successfully climbing Mont Blanc, I failed to reach the highest peaks of Italy and Switzerland due to insufficient experience. Plus, extremely severe winds made us turn back at the crest just below the highest peak of Liechtenstein.

Due to the above reasons I changed my plans already at the beginning of 2008 and extended my journey along the highest peaks of European countries until September 2009, i.e. for one year. Despite the setbacks I had managed to reach twenty eight out of the forty five highest peaks of Europe by the initial deadline, i.e. by the end of 2008. This meant that I had to attain seventeen peaks in 2009.

2009

This year has been a truly great one, because I’ve had the opportunity to spend as much as two and a half months in different countries and mountains. I have taken five trips and they all have been very different.

The year began on January 1 on top of Suur Munamägi. Fir branches were drooping under thick white snow and smoke was rising from chimneys in every direction we looked. It is still amazingly beautiful there.

I headed south for the first time this year at the end of March together with my aunt Aino. Our goal was to reach all the peaks under a thousand metres where I hadn’t been yet.  The list included 8 countries – Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Monaco, Vatican, Malta and San Marino. The highest of these was San Marino (755m) and the lowest was Vatican (75m). Interestingly, despite the less than intimidating heights we were faced with slight delays already in Denmark, because at different times, as many as three different hills have been regarded as the highest peaks of this extremely flat and low lying country. Luckily I could rule out one of these right away, because it has been raised artificially in ancient times by building a burial ground. As for the second one, I learned immediately before setting off on the trip that exact measurements have revealed that it is a couple of dozen centimetres lower than the highest hill. We also knew that there should be a large millstone at the highest peak. After several hours of totally un-chaotic searching we found the peak. It was behind a cow shed J

For decades, Buurgplatz (559m) has been regarded to be Luxembourg’s highest peak. A fancy tower has been erected on top of it and there are signs directing towards the peak. But the real highest peak (Kneiff, 560m) of the small country is located about a kilometre away and the only sign at the peak is a white concrete blob with a diameter of about half a metre lying on the ground next to a small path. Just be patient and find it.

Another great treat during this trip was reaching the highest peak of Vatican. I had found out earlier that the highest, 75-metre hill (because the respectful title of a “mountain” is given to peaks starting from 200 metres) of the smallest country in the world was located somewhere in the Pope’s Gardens. This area, however, is not open to everyone, because in order to avoid overcrowding, only a limited number of guided tours are made every day, and a ticket to these must be reserved months in advance. On the online booking site I had the option between two English-language tours in two weeks and luckily one of them fitted my schedule. We paid 30 euro per face and got a confirmation in return.

During the tour I discovered that the higher part of the garden is a bit further away from our trajectory, and there was no other option but to quietly deviate from the group, with the approval of my aunt, and quickly pop to the highest point with my camera. Once there, I took a picture and hurried back to the group. During the entire manoeuvre I had to look as natural as possible in order not to attract the attention of the Swiss guardsmen, holy men, nuns or ordinary security guards. Everything went smoothly – I found my group and my aunt and wasn’t even arrested.

The rest of the peaks were easier to reach, and in order to get some physical exercise before returning home, I also climbed Europe’s highest active volcano Etna (3323m) in Sicily. I recommend this peak to everyone who wants to see craters emitting sulphur. The sight is powerful.

Now I’d like to speak about something else than peaks for a change. One of my most memorable trips this year was in May, to the highest point of Portugal, Pico Alto (2351m) with my friends and partner. Similarly to Spain, where the highest peak is located away from the mainland in Tenerife, Canary Islands, in Portugal you first need to fly to Lisbon and then take a domestic flight about 1700 km to the west towards America. This will take you to the Azores archipelago, which is located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and is part of Portugal.

I truly recommend visiting the Azores. Compared to, for instance, the Canary Islands, all 9 Azores islands are also of purely volcanic origin, but the nature has blessed them with a lot more rainfall and thus the vegetation in the Azores is infinitely more lush and green. Unlike the Canary Islands, it is a relatively little-known destination among tourists; the locals haven’t got tired of them yet and are thus truly sweet and friendly towards them. Fortunately, the typical tourist in the Azores seems to be not a German pensioner, but their own fellow countryman from the mainland. To those travelling with a tent I can say that you can pretty much pitch the tent anywhere where the land is smooth enough. At the same time, the camping grounds are super cheap and it doesn’t always make sense to rule them out. It is warm, nice and peaceful in the Azores, and the defining factor for me was that you just feel so damn great there.

In June I went on my third trip to the Balkans and this time I reached all the peaks that were left – Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo. Mind you, even though Montenegrins themselves and many Internet sites claim that the highest point of Montenegro is Bobotov Kuk (2522m) located in the mountains in the central part of the country, don’t believe them. In reality, a whopping three peaks on the border of Albania are slightly higher, and the highest peak of the country is Zla Kolata (2534m). During the same trip I managed to erase another debt from a year ago, as I also climbed the highest peak of Liechtenstein (2599m).

In July I experienced the only setback of the year. We drove to Iceland to climb their highest peak (Hvannadalshnukur, 2110m), and since we knew it is located on the Iceland’s (and Europe’s) largest glacier, Vatnajökull, we had taken along a rope, belay equipment,  crampons, ice axes, ice drills and the rest of the climbing gear. However, this is also the point where my preparations for this trip ended. The only thing I knew was that the peak is reachable and the weather in Iceland is extremely changeable.

The local mountain guides tend to be tongue-tied. They don’t want climbers to attempt the peaks on their own, because that would deprive them of their earnings. One of them did however drew us a line designating the path across the glacier to the peak, but apparently he personally hadn’t used the path for months. Already at three o’clock next morning when we reached the glacier (parts of it stretch out about two hundred metres), we were faced with some pretty hardcore climbing. It looked as if someone had thrown a bunch of Lego pieces into a huge pile. The only difference was that these pieces were made of ice and weighed from a couple of dozen to several hundred tons. We fought our way upwards but turned back completely exhausted a little after midday. In ten hours we had ascended from 100 metres to only 900 metres.

Once we were down we learned with a slight delay that there is still another way up and it initially takes you to 800 metres without even stepping on the glacier. Naturally we tried that track two days later, but extremely severe wind and rain forced us to turn back even before reaching the glacier. Continuing wasn’t an option. We spent the remaining time driving around the island and constantly tuning in to forecasts to see if the weather in the Vatnajökull area would improve. It didn’t happen. On the remaining days we visited quite a few famous Icelandic waterfalls and geysers, and also climbed the most famous Icelandic volcano Hekla, but none of this consoled me much. We still failed to climb Hvannadalshnukur.

The fifth trip this year first took me to the summit of Andorra’s highest mountain. By entering this small country I actually reached a very interesting milestone – it was the only country in Europe I hadn’t set foot on yet. After this we ventured to Mont Blanc together with my climbing partner Aare Hommik, and a few days later I climbed the highest point of France for the second time. Then we moved towards Italy, because the highest point (but not peak) of this country is on the slope of Mont Blanc at about 4760 metres (the precise altitude is hard to determine because of varying snow conditions in different years) on the border of France and Italy. After that we moved on to Switzerland, because according to my plans the last European peak to conquer was presumably the most challenging one – Duffourspitze (4634m). And in fact it was. In addition to remarkable height, the crest of Duffour also requires a skilled belayer, or you may suddenly find yourself a couple of hundred metres below in case of a mistake. Or actually, others would find you there… Keeping all that in mind we moved on calmly and carefully, and on the beautiful date of 09.09.09 at 10 a.m. we had reached the point where it’s not possible to climb any higher in Switzerland.

I was definitely happy, but this happiness was slightly overshadowed by the knowledge that I was supposed to have reached this peak as the first Estonian who has climbed the highest peaks of all European countries. But alas, as always, the mountains showed me my place, saying: “We are big. You, Karu, are small.”

FURTHER PLANS

The highest peak of Iceland is expecting my visit in May 2010. And after that, I’ll be taking time to visit the highest peaks of very different countries in the world.