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In his preparation for Mt Everest, Safet Mavrić – Ćako spent a lot of time on his favorite mountain Hajla, which stands close to Rožaje, on the border between Montenegro and Kosovo. He was an experienced climber and mountaineer. On January 6th, 1997, he climbed the top with two friends and like on every other day he wanted to take a photo, made a step backwards and fell through the snow covered ridge, deep down the slope. They found his body the day after. He was only forty at the time, but had climbed many mountains before (Aconcagua – 6962 m, Elbrus – 5,642 m, got close to Cho Oyu – 8201 m, and Annapurna IV – 7,525 m). Hajla was his home.

Since then a memorial climb to Hajla is organized every year at the beginning of January. It is the most massive winter climb in the region. Last year the first twenty of 200 climbers fell through an avalanche and luckily went unharmed. This year there were almost 300 people on the climb. We went the day after, through tough snow, although the blizzard covered up tracks. The memorial climb starts from the village of Bandžov (Brahim brijeg, 1479 m), around 10 kilometers from Rožaje, to the mountain hut (refuge) Grope and up. The top of Hajla stands on 2403 meters above sea level.


Bandzov Brahim brijeg

I had climbed Hajla for the first time in September last year and that was one of the best days/weekends I had, relaxing, lots of laughter and blueberries. We slept in the mountain hut – Grope and ate the best jacked potato (that our hosts cooked and served with amazing cheese and tomatoes) in my life. It was a short, two hours climb from Grope to the top. I remember how we walked through the fields of dwarf mountain pine (also called creeping pine) and blueberries and how we ended the day laughing to each other because our faces and teeth were smeared with blue. I remember how exalted I felt when I almost ran along the 2,400 m high ridge feeling the summer breeze almost picking me up – and that was the closest I felt to flying.


dwarf mountain pine

Climbing during winter is nothing similar to a summer climb. Nature is different, the creeping pine was covered by snow, which we only realized when our feet occasionally fell through, onto the top of a snow-covered pine. Creeping pine is around two meters tall. That’s how deep the snow was. The walking on the ridge was stumbling through the snow and blizzard where the snow was so freezing at -16 C, that we almost cried for our frozen fingers (we, of course, needed to take a ton of selfies, and took off our gloves).

Hajla memorial plate

Our guide Danilo told us about how Ćako died, how he lost ground and showed us his memorial plate. It was a warning and a good way to keep us away from the edge of the ridge. We have encountered numerous memorial plates on the mountains we’ve climbed but this one somehow made a special impact on me. And it was not so much about feeling sorry for this person I never met. It was more a humble admiration to what he had done before that, even though I don’t know much about him, only that he climbed many 6-thousanders. I knew that the mountains have given him something that many people never felt.

Don’t get me wrong. I agree with Sir Edmund Hillary, who was the guy who climbed Mt Everest first (together with Tenzing Norgay), where he lost almost all of his fingers and toes, and who said: “Human life is far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain.” He also said, “It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”

Why do we climb?

At our descent, we started to talk about why do we climb, mostly because we were surprised we have done it so “easy”. Some of us were sick because we ate too much the night before (some got drunk on a wedding the day before), but still, we all went up. It was a hard climb of more than 900 meters difference in altitude, it was cold, long and foggy. Most of the time we only saw endless white. But we were all elated. So why do we climb, in spite of all the danger, the pain in our legs, short-breath, and heart-pounding while going up and knee-wrecking while descending, and still feel after like it was easy? Maybe Nejc Zaplotnik gave a good answer:

Mountains have given me what people in the cities lost long ago… For thousands of years people had to adjust to nature, from which they drew strength and life. Now, however, they were suddenly expected to live a quiet, sedentary mundane existence, day in and day out. We forget that, despite all the machines and buildings, we are still a part of nature. Inside me, I carried the lives and deaths of millennia. But they didn’t weigh me down. They gave me strength that even I wasn’t able to fully exhaust. A fire burned inside me and I knew only two ways out: either keep stoking it or allow myself to be burned by it.”

Or maybe these small accomplishments that we can achieve by the strength of our minds and the muscles of our legs, is a way to feel good for ourselves because we overcame our personal boundaries.

hajla, montenegro

Photo credit: Filip Ivanovic, Elmina Premtic

Guide: Danilo Ivanovic, Montenegro Guide




Natasa is an avid hiker, but still discovering herself and the world of hiking. This blog is a place where she shares her thoughts of the mountains.

An economist by education, Natasa is the chief marketing officer of Domain.ME, the international tech company that operates the internet domain “.ME.” She’s spent her entire career at the intersection of airline, banking, social media, leadership and technology, and is constantly trying to figure out the secret to being in three different places at the same time.

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