I awoke with the sun in the shepherd’s hut in the mountain village of Doberdol, unsure if I had really slept at all. I spent the night tossing and turning and getting up to use the outhouse due to some, uh, digestive issues that had started two days earlier in Valbona. Now, I tried to be quiet as I tiptoed past the four sleeping Frenchmen sharing the hut with me to head to the outhouse once again.
I washed up and managed to change clothes under my bedding while the French guys continued to sleep and then quietly packed my things together. Mentor (my guide) and I planned to leave by 8:00 a.m. (in part to avoid the heat and in part because I was getting anxious to return to civilization!), while I think the guys were in no hurry. I still felt sick at breakfast, but tried to have at least a few spoons of yogurt and some fried potatoes. I had eaten almost nothing at dinner the night before, so I knew I really needed some nourishment, but everything I put in my mouth just made me nauseous.
Just after 8, I filled my water bottle from a spring and said a cursory goodbye to Gaspar and Alex (two of the four French guys), figuring they would eventually catch up to us and I could say a proper farewell to them all at that point. For most of the climb out of Doberdol, there was no real path – I just tried to follow Mentor’s zig zags through the high grass. I implored him to go incredibly slow due to how sick I felt. It was already quite warm even at 8 a.m. and I felt even weaker than the previous day. I struggled to just put one foot in front of the other and I paused about every 10-15 minutes for water.
It took an hour to make it up the first section, but there was still a lot more to go. Mentor gave me a choice of going a shorter, harder way or a longer, easier way and of course I chose the latter. However, even that so-called easier way was incredibly difficult. The last few meters of that way were just so steep that I felt like I might fall backwards off the mountain if I took one wrong step and lost my balance. As we were climbing through tall, slippery grass, there was often no good place to step without slipping a bit. Without strong ankle support in my shoes (I had low hiking shoes instead of ankle boots), my ankles and feet were constantly turning over. As my breathing got quicker and heavier and tears formed in the corners of my eyes, Mentor grabbed my hand to try to steady me and pull me along with him. I moved both my hiking poles to the other hand and let him drag me the rest of the way up the mountain. As much as he got on my nerves over the previous few days, I was incredibly thankful to have him there at that moment.
I have never been so scared while hiking and I have never been so happy and relieved to reach the top as I was when we finally made it over the edge to see the marker for the triangle border – the place where Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro meet!
After I ditched my pack, caught my breath and chugged some water, I handed my camera to Mentor to document the fact that I actually made it! I tried to pose so that I was getting at least one limb in each country, but I have no idea if I actually got it right or not! Then I plopped down on the ground and just looked around, enjoying all of the natural beauty around me. No matter how challenging the previous eight days had been, it was all so worth it.
Before we began the descent back to civilization, I wrote an entry in the log book that was kept in a metal box at the top. I searched for entries from fellow bloggers Audrey and Dan, who had completed the Peaks of the Balkans trek just a week before I began but I didn’t see anything. I wrote my own entry and included a note to my new French friends, wishing them luck on the rest of their journey since it was clear now that I would not see them again – they would be trekking all the way to the village of Milishevc while I would be meeting a car to take me to visit the Decani Monastery before returning to the town of Peja in Kosovo.
The way down wasn’t too bad compared to other descents earlier in the trip, but it felt incredibly long because I still felt so miserable. After an hour following a non-existent path through the vast meadow, we finally came out to a dirt road to follow the rest of the way down. An elderly woman along the way invited us to stop at her house for a coffee and a bit of rest – I took advantage of the rest but declined the coffee. So she gave me a pack of Orbitz gum instead!
After meeting the jeep somewhere in the middle of nowhere, we continued along the dirt road to the Decani Monastery – a Serbian Orthodox monastery that is protected by UN troops. The grounds were pristine and I felt like a complete bum in my sweaty clothes and matted hair that hadn’t been washed in two days. But we were about the only tourists there and I had the main church to myself to take pictures of the colorful frescoes that covered the walls and ceilings.
Finally, by late afternoon, we were back in Peja, where I checked into my hotel and enjoyed the longest, most amazing shower ever! Slipping on my jeans afterwards, I guessed I probably lost at least five pounds – not surprising considering I had been hiking seven hours a day and had barely eaten a thing for the last three days.
The Peaks of the Balkans trek definitely kicked my butt and was probably one of the most physically challenging things I have ever done. But even with my stomach churning and a fever burning as I lay in my crisp, white hotel bed in Peja, I didn’t regret it at all. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?