"High in Alpine Battlefields of the Julian Alps" Slovenia Travelogue by mtncorg

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World War I flared up as a result of Gavrilo Princip's assasination of the Crown Prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his wife in July of 1914. There used to be something of a shrine to Princip at the site of his deed, across the street from an old bridge which crosses the Miljacka river in Sarajevo. A small museum was there, as well, but that was Yugoslavia. Now, it is considered a shrine to Serb nationalism, which it was, more or less. The Yugoslav dream is dead now and Serb nationalism is not a popular thing in the heart of Sarajevo, the victim of a brutal 3 year siege, once more in the name of a greater Serbia. The museum is boarded up.

A recent trip started out in Sarajevo, flashpoint of WWI, so, it seemed natural upon reaching the Julian Alps of Slovenia, I should seek out some of the battlefields fought among peaks over 2000 meters high, between armies of Italy and the Austrian empire. The battles were fought upon peaks grand and high enough to offer spectacular wide-ranging vistas,and beneath the peaks lie tunnels, trenches, bunkers, observation posts were all carved out of the hard dolomitic rock.

From the Lepena Valley and the Dom Dr. Klementa Juga (a roadend hut at 700 meters high) - a few km east of the town of Bovec in the Soca Valley - I retraced old Austrian muletracks which connected positions on high with the supply route coming over Vrsic Pass. The tracks serpentine up over 600 vertical feet through a dense deciduous forest which did not exist during the war. It is best to do this section in the cool of early morning. You reach the reach the hut at Dom pri Krnskih Jezerih (hut by Krn Lake) at 1385 meters and the Krn Lake/Krnsko jezero is only 15 minutes beyond. Just before the lake, another trail which follows old supply lines crossing the Komma plateau from the Bohinj valley, joins the main trail. The lake, as a source of water, was a key Austrian forward supply base. The Italian-held Krn peak and ridges held by both sides tower above the lake.

It is a couple of hours to reach the top of Krn directly from the lake and another 850 vertical meters. You cross a gorgeous plannina/alp/meadow, Plannina na Plju, which had been held by the Austrians, but in full view of Italina guns, higher up. At an unmarked trail junction, the main trail bends to the right, west, to climb directly through the rocks up Krn, but I headed straight up making for the pass Prag/Batognisko sedlo with the cliffs of Vrh nad Peski rising to the east and the massive walls of Batognica to the west, a big massif with a flat plateau atop, just to the SE of Krn.

Austrians held the eastern ridges, with Batognica being divided atop - Italians holding the NE half next to Krn and the Austrians, the SE half. Going up the valley, you begin to come across rusted bits of barbed wire and other pieces of metal scattered through the rocks. More and more as you gain elevation. The view from the pass is glorious, but you can also gain an appreciation for how alien the environment was in which to hold longterm siege operations, the type of which took place here from 1915 to 1917. It is said that more troops died from avalanches and rockslides than actual fighting - though those comments were directed to the fighting in the Dolomiti around Cortina d'Ampezzo, further to the west. It is also said that more people were hit by ricochets than direct bullet hits - though those comments were geared to the fighting that took place sout in the Karst area near Gorizia. Looking at the mountainscape up here, it is easy to apply both comments here, as well.

At the pass, I turned right - NE - on trail '1' - the Slovene Alpine Transversal, a trail that is indeed a glorious and memorable trail. Here and there, along the trail, small monuments describing different features and events occur. Tunnels, trenches, bunkers are all evident as you walk along the edge of Batognica, cliffs dropping off over 700 meters to the west. The ridge to the south was also the scene of heavy fighting during the first two years of the war.

Large amounts of rusted barbed wire, other metallic shreds and pieces of leather lie mutely about attesting to the desperate battles atop this mountain - so far from the mud of France, the brightness of Rome, the splendour of Vienna or even the cry of the imam in Sarajevo.

At one spot, a memorial comments on mining operations atop the very peak. Each side put tunnels out, hopefully extending underneath the trenches of their opponent in order to explode huge bombs and lead to the future successful breakthrough, which never did occur atop here. Italian miners were beaten to the punch by the Austrians who blew up 4100 kilograms of nitroglycerin (not the only mine detonated up here) on Sept 24, 1917, dropping the peak's top by several meters thereafter. Just one month later, the battle of Kobarid/Caporetto moved the battle off the ridgelines for the remainder of the war, shifting far to the west along the Piave River in Italy.

Pillboxes remain, staircases carved out of the rock still serve well. On this day, there were several people atop Krn, but I seemed the solitary visitor to Batognica, clouds swirling atop both peaks adding to the feeling of surrealism.

It is a short way to the top of Krn from Batognica. Just below the peak, there is a hut - Gomisckovo Zavetisce, 2182 meters - where you can get food, drink or sleep the night. The hut takes Slovenian tolars so leave your euros behind. The hutkeeper was a nice older woman who did no better with my English, German or Spanish, than I did with her Slovene. Remember the word for water in Slovene is voda; mineralna will get you water with gas. 10 minutes higher, you reach the top of Krn, going past more bunkers and tunnels, with barbed wire splayed out along the slopes. Italian troops surprised Hungarian reservists early in the war and captured the peak. They held on tenaciously until the late October battles of Kobarid/Caporetto shifted the front far to the west.

Views from the peak are glorious. Sailplanes, paragliders and hanggliders outnumber hikers in the late afternoon sun. This hike is highly recommended to all alpinists with a sense of history. Visit the museum in Kobarid before you come up here, if you can to gain a better understanding of the conditions atop these mountain battlefields. Booklets are available in English, Slovene, Italian and German plus maps will show you the frontline positions.

  • Page Updated May 9, 2016
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