Conquering the Julian Alps – Trenta to Villach (57/17,836ks, 1,375m)

(written by Dave)

We’ve conquered the Julian Alps – enough said!

It was a short but hard day.  In fact, we climbed more meters per kilometer today than we have on any other day of the trip.  And the climbs lived up to everything that we had read.

We knew it was going to be hot and hard, especially the second climb so we had a 5AM alarm.  When it went off, Nancy suggested that we sleep in and have a rest day.  While I’m more of a morning person than she is, I think she was a little nervous.  At any rate, there was no stopping us today.  We rolled out of camp about 7AM just as the first rays of sun were hitting the camp area.  The peaks around us were already sunny but it takes some time for the sun to get high enough to penetrate the deep canyons in the Alps.  (Note that this early start meant packing a wet tent, breaking several LWOP tenticate rules – oops).

There was about 1k of flattish before the start of the climb up Vrsic Pass began.  The sign at the bottom said that it was 14% for 9k.  Well, for any cyclist out there, you know that those numbers are just silly.  How could that be?  Even on a lightweight racing bike, that would be a darn hard climb.  Right after the sign, there was a real steep pitch, hitting 12% on my computer but from there on for most of the next 6k it stayed pretty steady at only 8-11%.  There was one pitch at the top where we hit 15% and the last 3k was all pretty close to 12%.  We stopped a couple of times for water and view breaks.  I managed to sneak in a few photo stops as well.  We were pretty darn tired when at 9:30, after 2.5 hours of climbing, we finally reached the summit. Surprisingly, there were a lot of people on top and we received a few cheers from folks as we reached the top.

After a snack, water and some more photos, we headed off down the other side.  I should mention that all 50 of the switch backs on the pass are numbered.  They start at number one on the side we climbed and finish at 50 at the base of the other side.  Luckily Matej from Skofja Loka informed us that only 26 switchbacks were required to reach the top or we may have thrown in the towel at the bottom when we saw turn number 50.  The descent was just as steep and to make it just a little more difficult, all of the corners were cobblestoned.  The steepness, combined with the rough surface, meant that we had to really ride the brakes on the way down.  I was quite fearful of overheating our rims and blowing or melting a tire so we stopped three times just to let everything cool down.   Nancy touched her rim on the third stop and almost burnt her fingers.

Eventually we made it to the bottom, giving back 800 meters of the 1,000 that we had climbed.  It was a short ride across the valley to the start of Wurzen Pass.  We climbed Wurzen from the easy side and it was only 300 meters of total climbing.  What it lacked in elevation gain, it made up for in fear factor.  The sign at the bottom of the pass warned of 18% grades.  It took us less than an hour to ride 3k and make the summit.  It was very hard, especially given the mid-day sun and heat.  I only managed to equal Vrsic’s 15% on Wurzen.  But I think the steepest parts of Wurzen were steeper than Vrsic – just in case you are wondering.

At the top of the pass, we crossed the border into Austria, country 18 on the trip.  The border has all the official signs and stations but they are all unattended as both Slovenia and Austria in the EU.  Surprisingly, there was still left over defense bits and pieces.  This border would have been a key dividing line between the Iron Curtain and the west only 25 years ago.  We read a lot about this side of Wurzen but were still shocked by how steep it was going down.  There was one section about 1k long where I seriously thought that we would blow a tire or two.  I’m sure that it was over 20%, the road surface was quite bumpy and we were doing all we could to keep our speed in check.  I was hanging off the back of my seat, mountain bike style and thinking about using my feet as a last resort.  We stopped at the bottom of this pitch, right by a runaway truck ramp for more brake cooling.  We were grateful that our tires held.  We saw a couple of guys riding up this side of the pass.  I’m not sure how they could do it unless they had super low gears on their racing bikes.  We were both petty happy to finally reach the bottom sections where the road straightened out and we could let the bikes run.  Both of us had very sore forearms and hands from braking on both Vrsic and Wurzen passes.

We were trying to make it to Villach by 1PM as it was rumored that tourist information closed at that time.  We made it just right at 1, but couldn’t find the shop.  By the time we located it, it was too late.  We are getting closer to Germany where shops open and close exactly when scheduled.  Rats.  We had no place to stay and no one to help us find something.  We wandered a bit, eventually finding a place to eat lunch and think over our options.  We knew that there was a hostel in town but couldn’t find anyone who knew where it was.  We couldn’t get our phone working because all the phone shops were closed (Sunday).

After eating, we decided to head to the top of town so see if we could spot some form of pension.  I saw a sign up the road that looked promising so I left Nancy in the shade at an ice-cream shop and headed up.  Well, the one sign was no use but our good luck of the day continued as just a little further there was a sign for the hostel.  I followed 3 more signs and located the hostel and they had rooms.  Everything seems pretty expensive here but it was too hot to camp and we both needed a good night’s sleep after such a hard day.  By the time I made it back to Nancy to report the good news she was starting to worry about what had happened to me but happy to hear of my find.  We agreed to head back up to the hostel and give it a try.  There is supposed to be some event coming in tomorrow but at least tonight it seems to be very quite.

We are thinking that tomorrow we will take a day off here to figure out the route ahead.  Villach looks like a nice little town and as of this moment, the LWOP senior editor is passed out on the bed [editor’s note – I was not passed out, just resting my eyes…].  I’ll have to wake her for editing but may wait a bit longer – it was a hard day but we conquered the Julian Alps…

We included a few more pictures today to try to give you better idea of the stunning scenery today- hope you enjoy.

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8 thoughts on “Conquering the Julian Alps – Trenta to Villach (57/17,836ks, 1,375m)

  1. Those mountains are something! You had to pay dearly for that great view. I’d hate the ride down. I was always one to ride my brakes on my bicycle. In fact, I associate bike riding with that brake sound.

    Congratulations on making it!

  2. This day deserves some serious congratulations. What a day you had! Glad you made it safely. I can’t imagine the descent with those cobblestones! The scenery looks amazing. Enjoy Austria!!!

  3. Why did it remind me of the bus trip in the French Alps? Please try the flat land, I need to recuperate..
    A white knuckle reader., Mom

  4. BEAUTIFUL!!!!! Slovenia is on my list. So are these Julian Alps. I think I’ll try them in a car, though! Whew!!!! “Just resting my eyes” is what Dad used to say. Good one, Nanc! We’ve all heard that before. Of course, this whole day could be a tribute to Bucky. I bet you could hear the phrase in your memory, “It’s just around the next corner,” a few times up and down those passes! Congrats on number 18!

  5. By the time i finished reading your blog – i could hardly breath from climbing. i am completely pooped out. Patti

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