Monday, March 16, 2009

Still Here, Just Barely

The area this story is about can be viewed by a satelite view if you go to google maps and type in Dubrovnik, then move north along the coast to find the long, finger-shaped channel that arches due east into the mountains. Click "More", then "Photos" to bring up clickable photos of the area. The click will take you to a site with pictures from various places in the area. The picture posted is a view of the place where the river flows from under the mountain.

Still Here, Just Barely

We called ourselves the Billy-Goat Club. We were just a few guys who liked to climb mountains and we were all stationed on board the U.S.S. Barney during the ’89-’90 Mediterranean deployment. Each time we visited a port that had a mountain near enough to walk to, we climbed to the top. Sometimes it was an easy hike, while others taxed our endurance severely before we reached the summit. We conquered the mountains of several ports and shouted our triumph across the land before one nearly conquered us.

We had nearly finished our six-month deployment and our final port of call was in the ancient coastal town of Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia. The coastline there is rough and mountainous. I think we all had already thought of the prospect of climbing one of the mountains before we ever spoke to one another about it. We all agreed in short order that it must be done.

One immediate obstacle jumped out immediately: at that time Yugoslavia was deeply entrenched behind the iron curtain and was a communist country. We were not supposed to leave the ship in anything other than our dress blue, “crackerjack” uniforms.
Crackerjacks are the dark wool uniforms with the black neckerchief and the white sown-on stripes, known as “piping”. They are hot, scratchy, and not at all suited for a mountain climbing adventure in a foreign country.

Several of us found the loop-hole at once. We were allowed to go out in PT gear to exercise. We managed to stretch exercise from the definition of “running or jogging”, all the way out to “climbing yon mountain and conquering it for the greater glory of the Billy-goat club”

It actually took a couple of days to arrange for us all to head out, but finally, one bright sunny morning, dress in appropriate “PT” gear, we started on our way. It was a fairly long walk to get started, but the scenery was nice. The ship was moored at a pier near the end of a long, narrow fjord that arched nearly due east back into the mountains for nearly two miles. The mountain we wanted to climb was at the end of the channel and just north of it.

We left the ship and went through the gate just off the piers, but instead of turning right and heading down to Dubrovnik, we turned left toward the inlet and walked rapidly to get around the bend and out of sight of the ship and port authorities.

The water was clear and blue, reflecting the sky with its few puffs of small white clouds. The morning was crisp and cool with an early spring chill that lingered in the air. To our right a line of good-sized hills lifted up a wall that traced the south edge of the water way. Across the channel to the north was a high range of craggy, rock-strewn mountains standing silent and tall against the deep blue sky. We walked along with the world at our feet and nothing to worry ourselves over. We joked and ribbed each other and there was a lot to talk about as we made our way along a narrow waterfront road.

In a couple of places the land along the shore opened a bit wider, allowing a small village to exist as a cluster of houses and a few small stores, with a pier or two to access the water. The first had houses scattered up the face of the hill and some piers along the water front. It was quaint with beige-colored houses with red tile roofs packed in close proximity between the road and the hillside. The second, near the very back of the cove, was more elaborate, with an enclosed marina which was populated with dozens of yachts of every size. The view was post-card perfect, but the nicest surprise was soon to be discovered, just around a bend in the road.

We could see that the channel to the ocean was being fed by a crystal clear river at the end of the bay, but could also see that the mountains wrapped all the way around the end of the waterway. Where was the river coming from? I suspected an unexpected turn must connect the river in to the upper end of the valley allowing it to turn and flow straight out into the channel. I was wrong. A long, sweeping curve in the road brought us into view of a bridge that crossed the river. Beyond that the river ended abruptly at the base of a cliff.

It was amazing. Thousands upon thousands of gallons of water were flowing straight out from under the cliff, bubbling up into a large, clear, pool approximately one hundred feet across, and then tumbling over a broad, low waterfall to form the river that fed the channel. We stood for some time on the bridge taking it all in. I have seldom seen a prettier river.

We continued on around the curve, and turned back toward the sea, looking to our right to find a good place to climb. Before we knew it, we stood at the base of a high, steep, rocky mountain.

There were six of us if I recall correctly. We started up the mountain as a group, laughing and joking until the strenuous climb began to demand heavier breathing with less of it wasted on words. We paused occasionally to catch our breath and look back at how far we had come.

The mountain was terraced at regular intervals with orchards of some type of tree on most levels, and cultivated gardens on others. It was still early spring so no crops were planted yet, and the trees were mostly bare. These stair-step terraces continued for quite some distance up the mountain.

Time passed quickly and soon we were about two thirds of the way to the top. The terraces fell away behind us and we stood with a rough cliff in front of us and to the right, while the mountain sloped on sharply to our left. It was here we paused once again, and made the fateful decision that nearly got Tim and I killed.

“That cliff looks like it would be a lot of fun to climb.” One of us said. I really can’t recall if it was myself, or if Tim had said it, but I do recall feeling a little more adventurous that day and it seemed like a lot of fun.

Mike Murphy was quick to voice his opinion, “You’re crazy! I’m not climbing any cliff. I’ll just go this way and meet you at the top.” He pointed to the steep slope to the left and three of the others quickly decided with him.

Tim and I discussed it briefly, and noticing all the cracks, crevices and ledges, decided it would be as easy as climbing a ladder. Step by step from rock to crevice to root and we could be at the top in no time. It was as easily as that we risked death on a cold, rocky mountainside in Yugoslavia.

At first the climbing was as easy as we had predicted and we made good progress. Then things got a little harder and we had to start working sideways as we climbed. We moved around the corner of the ridge and into a V-shaped notch cut into the side of the mountain. Below us, about forty or fifty feet down, were the jaggedly upturned rocks that had fallen from the cliff over many long years and tumbled to rest there like sharp teeth looking for a tasty bite of warm flesh. I cursed my imagination and continued to climb, by now sweating from exertion.

Looking up, I could see it was still a long ways to the top, but to my right it looked like the going got easier.

“Let’s move over this way, it looks a little better for climbing there in the corner.” I said as I headed cautiously along a ledge toward the deepest part of the notch. “Watch this rock it’s loose.” I was in the lead and was trying to warn Tim of any upcoming dangers.

“Ok, I’m right behind you.” He said. I could hear him coming along as I moved up and to my right.

“OH MY GOD!” The shout from behind me made me almost fall, and the sound of a large rock tumbling down into the rubble below gave me a sick feeling in my stomach. My heart jumped to my throat and I had an instant of panic as a vivid picture of my best friend mangled and broken among the rocks below raced through my brain.

I jerked my head around to see Tim grabbing for a secure hold and grimacing in pain. He had thought I was speaking of another rock and he had stepped right on the one that was loose, nearly following it to the craggy rocks below. He had twisted his ankle, but not badly, and once his nerves settled a little we were able to continue. It was close, too close. It should have been a dire warning to us to give this crazy quest up for a safer route. No way, not us. We had hills to conquer and being a mere twenty-five years old, we were still semi-bullet proof.

After a few minutes Tim spoke up. “I am sure now that God must have something left for me to do, otherwise I would be down there in the rocks, dead.” It was obvious that the near miss on that fall had spooked him.

I chuckled dryly. “You’re right there, something sure helped you get a grip before you fell, and it wasn’t me.”

It was only a short time later we were in the notch and climbing once again became like climbing a ladder. From ledge to rock to crevice we made good progress and soon our confidence returned as we moved ever higher above the tumbled boulders, which were now sixty to seventy feet below. The top was very close and we knew that we soon would be on much safer ground.

The final ten feet lay ahead and I was still leading the way. The ledge I was standing on tapered upward to an outward-leaning rock about chest high. All I had to do was get across that rock and I would be free of the cliff and safely headed on up the mountain. Simple, yet not.

With careful study of the rock, I decided that I could step in a crack about knee high and push upward and grab a rock jutting up from the upper side and pull myself up, over and then on to the top. Once that was determined, I stepped, pushed myself up, grabbed the rock, and it came out in my hands! I began to slip backward, desperately grabbing for any sign of something to stop my movement. There was nothing but the smooth surface and I was beginning to feel the emptiness of the space behind and below. My desperate fingers clawed and felt for any sign of a crack or bump to stop my slide

My mind went blank for a second and I can’t recall thinking anything at all. Then, suddenly, there was a small tree branch, no larger than my little finger, hanging down just barely within reach. In an instant, I had the branch in a death grip. It was attached to a shrub about four feet high, growing from the top edge of the rock.

“Dear Lord, please do not let this branch break.” I breathed a whispered prayer as I pulled myself carefully back from certain death. My heart was racing, but staying where I was balanced was not an option, so I eased my grip a little further up the limb and reached with one hand to grip the hole the fallen rock had left in the top of the ledge. In a few seconds I was up and safely stationed on the top edge of the cliff.

I turned and helped Tim to get across the rock and up to the ledge, where we both sat and rested.

“Thank Goodness for that bush! I thought I was a goner!” I said, gasping for breath.

“Yeah, no kidding. I can’t believe it didn’t break! There was nothing I could do to help. You were just out of reach and all I could do was watch!” Tim replied.

“I guess the Lord has something left for both of us to do. We both came close to taking the big dive today. Lets get out of here.”

We caught the others at the top of the mountain. The view was everything we thought it would be and more. A vast expanse of semi-arid, rocky terrain stretched away to the north. Trees populated the valleys and sides of the mountains, while the higher elevations lay bare beneath the afternoon sun. We stood on the highest point and did our victory scream across the empty land. The only answer was the lonely wind in the scrub brush and broken rocks. Looking back, we could see the fjord and its blue arch toward the west into the Adriatic Sea.

There were some access roads cut into the backside of the mountain and we went down that way. We wondered from animal trail to farm path, to road down to the lower back slope of the mountain. By that point we were miles from the ship and very thirsty, and were all a bit tired.

We came upon a local farmer, who, in spite of a total language barrier, was able to understand our need for refreshment. He gave us all something to drink and with many smiles and gestures pointed out the quickest way back to the fjord and the ship beyond. We had a long walk back but were immensely gratified in having beaten the mountain and seen the country.

It was the last excursion of The Billy Goat Club. The events of most of our climbs are misty and clouded with age, but that mountain in Yugoslavia is etched clearly and permanently into my memory. Every time I think of that climb I realize that though Tim and I are both still here, it is only by the narrowest of margins.

James Lee Frady (c) 3/16/2009