We’ve always liked the idea of trying out a Via Ferrata which is a climbing route fixed to a mountainside with metal steps, cables and ladders. You have to wear a harness with two carabiner clips which you use to clip onto the metal rope. We do a lot of hiking and rock scrambling so it sounded like the next stage up for us and Kosovo seemed like a great place to try it.
We enquired at the office in Pejë where the staff are the ones who actually made these Via Ferrata routes along the Rugova Valley so they know it better than anyone else. We asked how much a guide would cost and they said “it’s €20 per person or you can just hire the gear for €8 and go on your own”. This was something we’d never even considered as we thought we needed a guide for this sort of activity. We explained that we hike a lot but have never tried this before which they said was fine as 90% of their clients try it for the first time with them. As for routes there were four in the Rugova Valley and they highly recommended Shpellat which translates to ‘Caves’. They rated the route as moderate difficulty but explained it was doable with or without a guide. The other option for us was Ari which was rated as easy and they explained that they take kids on this one so they made it sound a little too easy for us. We discussed the routes in further detail and they explained that they both start at the same place and there’s one awkward section where you climb up some metal steps with an overhanging rock section and if we could manage that then that’s as bad as it gets so we’ll be fine to take the Shpellat route.
After yesterdays hike in the storm and similar weather predicted for today we wanted to start extra early to make sure we finished before the storm arrived. Hiking on an ‘iron path’ in lightning is extremely dangerous as you’re basically clipping yourself onto a high voltage object. We headed to the office as soon as it opened and checked with some different staff members about which route to take as first timers without a guide and once again we were recommended Shpellat. Then we totally embarrassed ourselves as the lady said “I just need to get a photo of you first” so I stood next to Craig, ready to strike a pose and the lady came back with her iPhone and said “oh…sorry, no I just need a photo of your passports” and we all roared with laughter.
We managed to hitchhike a few kilometres up the canyon to the start of the route where we stepped into our harnesses, put our helmets on and clipped onto the metal rope for the first time. The sky was crisp and blue and we began at 8:30am so we were making great time to beat the storm. On our harness were two shock-absorbing cords with carabiner clips on the ends. The rule with Via Ferrata is that you always have one clip attached to the rope. So if you can imagine the metal rope is screwed into the cliff face and to keep it tight they have it bolted to the wall so as soon as you reach a bolt you need to unclip one carabiner and place it on the other side of the bolt, then move the second one over and continue walking until you reach the next bolt. Sometimes the bolts were a couple meters apart while other times they were just half a meter which meant we had to keep clipping on and off.
The first section was nice and easy with a rocky path for most of the way and we were having a lot of fun. Then we reached a metal sort of ladder leading up a cliff. The steps are iron bars shaped like half a square and drilled into the cliff. I went first and to be honest I didn’t like it much. It was quite exposed and then the cliff face started protruding out which meant I had to lean right back to get over the ledge. It was also tricky using the carabiners while going uphill, they kept slipping down and made it a very un-fluid climb as I had to keep leaning down to reach for them so I could clip onto the next section. But I made it up to a flat section where the Ari trail continued up a steep ladder to the left and the tougher Shpellat went around the cliff on the right. To be honest Shpellat looked more appealing from this angle but whatever decision we made we couldn’t turn back, these routes are one-way only. Not only because you can’t overtake people on the iron path but it’s also designed to be easier climbing up than down. The staff made Ari sound so easy that we decided to go for the more challenging Shpellat so off we went with Craig leading the route.
Within just a few steps Craig stopped and said “I don’t even know if I can manage this next step, it’s a big lunge and the step looks broken”. At that point we could of still turned back but after a bit of head scratching Craig attempted the lunge and said it wasn’t as bad as he first thought. The step wasn’t actually broken, it was designed to just be a metal stump about 6 inches long and that’s all we had to stand on. The next step was a tiny ledge on the rock-face just big enough to fit the edge of my foot. That was bad but then it got 10000x worse as the route took us around a sheer cliff face and suddenly we had a 300m or so drop below us. Holy shit. I hated it straight away and asked if we could turn back but Craig said “it’s too late, the manoeuvres would be too difficult going backwards” and I could of cried at that point.
In a split second my legs began shaking uncontrollably like a jackhammer pounding into concrete. I was stepping onto tiny metal bars with a sheer drop right below me and my heart was pounding. The scariest part was not knowing how much worse it would be, was this the worst section or was it only going to get more terrifying?
Well, it got worse. I was furious. It wasn’t fun in the slightest and I was so angry at the staff in the shop for misleading us and suggesting we’d be fine on our own. There wasn’t a soul around which made the situation even scarier. Some of the sections required extreme upper strength which we weren’t expecting. The locations where I had to stop and un-clip were absolutely mental with the rock face leaning out towards my face so I had to hold on with all my strength with one hand while I used the other to clip back on. At these points I had to put the rope under my arm for extra strength but I only felt comfortable doing this with my left arm – the arm that has a contraceptive implant in it so I had big problems as I couldn’t let the rope press too hard into the implant incase it snapped or moved it.
There were 7 cave openings along the route and they became our safe haven where we could sit down and complain about our life decisions. I didn’t want to sit for long though, I just wanted to get off the damn mountain. It was so scary that at one point I was trying to figure out how we could get rescued as I really didn’t think I could continue. But I didn’t want to get mountain rescue to help because I put myself in this situation and think that’s a wasted call and my own fault. But I was actually contemplating a ridiculous phone call to 999 (because I stupidly didn’t take note of the Kosovo emergency number) and asking them to contact the Via Ferrata shop to send a guide up to help us. I know, a ridiculous idea but I was so petrified and we didn’t know how much worse the route would become. Normally companies try to sell you things you don’t need so the fact that the shop said we didn’t need a guide really made us think it wasn’t necessary. Also we figured a guide wouldn’t actually help much as you can’t get lost on a route like this and I would still need to do my own clipping on so it’s just like having a third wheel on the climb. But now I see that just having a professional there would of given me confidence and at least they could let us know “just two more death-defying steps until the next sheer drop”.
Every cave we got to I checked the map to see how much further we had and eventually we reached the final cave. People pose right on a precipice at the edge of this cave and there’s even a bell on the ceiling that you can ding…to which I said “like fuck am I taking one hand off the cable to ding that bell”. I thought the trail couldn’t possibly get any trickier but it still had some challenges up it’s sleeve for us. Now we were probably 500m above the valley floor. I was trying to not look down but it was unavoidable as I had to look where to place my feet. At one point I had both feet squished onto a 6 inch rod while leaning back with my arm wrapped around the metal rope for dear life while I faffed about with my clips and swore constantly. Sometimes the metal rope would be too close to the rock-face and the carabiners wouldn’t glide along and I was shouting “who the fuck designed this piece of shit?!” while trying to jiggle the carabiners free.
At one point I started to picture The Alpinist a documentary we watched about Marc-André Leclerc, a one of a kind free climber from Canada who would tackle the worlds steepest mountains with just his bare hands. Him and his girlfriend Brett would just casually climb 1000m up a sheer wall without any ropes and act like it was a walk in the park. They were so fearless, stopping to look down at the drop while holding onto the rock with their fingertips. I thought, maybe I’ll channel their fearlessness as it might help me enjoy this climb but it just made my vertigo even worse and I was desperately trying to get the imagine of them climbing out of my head.
The final section was a series of metal steps leading straight up and Craig said I needed to take my hands off the rope and just hold onto the steps which made me feel so uncomfortable as that rope had become my comfort blanket. I was still clipped onto the rope as it followed me parallel up the steps but Craig was right, it was much easier to have both hands on the ladder than one on the ladder and one on the rope as they were too far apart.
And then it was all over…no I didn’t fall and die but I finally made it to the top where an Albanian flag greeted us. The majority of Kosovo are ethnic Albanians so there’s a mix of both flags around the country. Boy was I relieved to be on flat ground. When we got back we looked at the difficulty grading online. Shpellat was ‘Grade D: Very difficult, vertical, often overhanging terrain, mostly very exposed’ holy moly. I can’t believe our first ever Via Ferrata was one of the most difficult routes and we did it without a guide. The grading system goes from A to F and the alternative route that we didn’t take up Ari was ‘Grade B: moderately difficult, steep rocky terrain, some small steps, exposed sites’. I’d love to know how we’d of coped on that route, maybe it would of been the perfect amount of adrenaline and excitement. Either way, for me it was just as scary as skydiving…actually I found skydiving extremely fun so the Via Ferrata took a step too far over the adrenaline line for me.
From the top we followed a trail through the woods that led back to the main road and we spent most of it talking about how crazy that route was and how on earth we were allowed to do it on our own. I didn’t want to ask at the time but geez what would of happened if one of us slipped and were left hanging on the cable by our bungy cords. In fact I think it would be worse if it happened to Craig as I’d be no good at helping. When we reached each cave I tightened up my harness as it became a little loose but by the time we finished my harness was so loose I could pull it straight down my legs…which made me wonder how fucked I’d be if I fell upside down. Craig normally suffers from vertigo way more than me, there’s been hikes we’ve done in the past where I continued without him as his legs turned to jelly. But I think with me being such a mess on this trip he sort of blocked out his own fear to try and make me feel more comfortable.
Just to add to the excitement we passed a fresh bear poo on the trail! It was pretty cool to see a wild bear was living in the woods just 3km away from the town though. When we got back to the shop we let the staff know how terrifying the climb was. They were really sweet people though and genuinely didn’t see the route they sent us on as dangerous so I didn’t dare complain but we told them how scary we found it and that a guide would of been better for us. I handed back my sweat-drenched gloves and was amazed that they were only offered to us as optional extras. Not only would my hands of been slippery from sweating so much but the metal rope would probably of given me blisters. We headed straight to a coffee shop to have one of Kosovo’s finest macchiatos and the song ‘Stuck in the Middle with you’ was playing though the speakers. We couldn’t help but laugh as it felt like the lyrics were written about our Via Ferrata experience “Well I don’t know why I came here tonight, I’ve got the feeling that something ain’t right, I’m so scared in case I fall off my chair, And I’m wondering how I’ll get down the stairs” oh how we laughed. When we got back to our hostel we told our lovely host about our crazy experience and she was shocked that we did it without a guide. We certainly won’t be forgetting this experience for a long while.