So there I was, hiking in the pouring rain and feeling pretty lost, mentally and physically, on my 30th birthday.
Nestled next to Croatia’s capital city, Zagreb, is a small mountain called Medvedgrad. There is a pretty amazing system of trails through the woods and up the mountain ranging from popular and well trodden to small and narrow paths. At the top is a radio tower at 1,035 metres (3,396 ft), and since I’m a pretty big fan of walking in upwards directions, I thought would be pretty cool to spend my birthday day going to check out the tower and then party at night. Spurred with hopes of getting to the top and feeling like I accomplished something after 30 years of being on this planet, I woke up at 7AM on Sunday November 6th and set out on my way with a map of the mountain trails.
I was told that there would be some mountain huts along some of the trails to stop for lunch, so all I brought with me was my rain jacket, a rain cover for my knapsack, a bottle of water, some chocolate, my wallet, phone and music, and a map. I found the bus that would take me to the base of the mountain without any problems, asked the driver to let me know when my stop would be, and sat back thinking about how this was a great idea.
When the bus arrived to my stop and I got out, it started to pour rain. And I don’t mean a nice shower, I mean I couldn’t see 5ft in front of me because it was like being inside a waterfall. I had my newly purchased waterproof jacket, but what I forgot to realize was that as soon as rain hits the jacket and runs off, it has to have somewhere to run off onto. Like my pants. Which are not waterproof. After 5 minutes in the rain, I was completely soaked. After several hours, I didn’t know what was rain wet or sweat wet. I looked at the bright side of the situation: I hadn’t washed my jeans in a while and this was more or less like getting free laundry.
Most hiking trails around the globe are usually marked with some sort of square or circle on trees and rocks so you know you’re on the right path. Quickly finding my trail indicator (red circle with white around it) and even the trail number, I set on my way into the forest. While walking, each step I took up I slipped back about half a step because of the wet leaves on the ground. No hiking boots in the world can prepare you for that. After about 20 minutes, already feeling like a cat following a red dot around the forest, I decided I’d get about a quarter of the way to the top (to a castle) and decide if I was too wet and cold to continue. Even though I thought this, I knew deep down I was too determined to give up a quarter of the way. At one point, I thought I saw a person in a white plastic poncho so it felt like I was following a ghost through the forest.
One perk to the rain was that the trails were mostly empty, the air smelled fresh and clean, and the sound of water falling added to my focus of keeping on going no matter what. When I made it to the castle after about an hour and a half in the rain, the unbelievable happened: The sky opened up and the sun came out. Laughing and shedding my layers, I started to dry up and felt that I could continue on.
On my way up after the castle, I got pretty lost at a junction of trails. I was sweating, still a bit damp, looking a bit dishevled, and holding my map up trying to figure out where I was. Out of nowhere I see these two guys all in spandex looking fresh and fit and I yelled out to them for some help. I said I was trying to get to the radio tower and they said ‘just keep walking up!’ and then proceeded to leave me and go sprint up the mountain. While alone for multiple hours physically exerting yourself, you start to wonder what it’d be like to be that person who goes sprinting up mountains in spandex in 5 degree weather.
Since it was November, all of the mountain huts were closed and there was no food to be found. It was about noon and I had been walking for nearly 4 hours at this point and getting pretty hungry. I thought there had to be something at the top and kept on going in an upwards direction. The higher I got up, the colder it got, and the foggier it became. So foggy that I started to be unable to see the trail markers on the trees. Forks in the paths and the road became eerie, like if I made a wrong turn down the darker path I would end up very lost. When I had given up hope of finding the radio tower, I finally saw the base and beside it what looked like an abandoned hotel. Overcome with hunger, I didn’t bother to celebrate at the top since I couldn’t see anything anyways, and I walked up the stairs of the hotel hoping for the best. Luckily, there was a restaurant and I could sit down, dry off the sweat, fog, and rain, and figure out how to get back down in half the time it took me to get up. The sun starts to set around 4:30PM, it was already almost 2PM, and I really didn’t want to get stuck on the mountain in the dark.
Replenished, warm, and with my path in mind, I was ready to back down. Within 2 minutes, I was lost and couldn’t find my trail entrance. I tried asking a man who is waiting by the side of the road and he didn't speak English, but kept saying ‘bus! bus!’ and for a moment I debate cheating out and taking the bus down.
10 minutes of deliberation later, I decide to try walking a bit further and eventually saw my trail. This trail was small, almost completely covered with leaves, and was not well marked. Within 30 minutes of walking down, I took a wrong turn and ended up lost. When lost in the woods with no cell connection and the sun going down, you start to think of the worst: 'What happens if I’m out here over night? Where the hell are the tree markers? How do I start a fire to stay warm? Will anyone find me? What the hell am I doing on my birthday? I can drink water off the leaves right? I can’t do this’ and all the other negative thoughts that creep in when you realize you’ve really screwed yourself over.
With the pressure of time running out, I realized I needed to stop and take a few deep breaths. I found some clarity in my mind and thought ‘just keep going down. That’s all you need to do.’ Walking quickly and downhill, I linked back up with another trail and eventually to a mountain hut that was on my map. With a sigh of relief, I was on my way back to where I started and knew I could do it even in the dark. Just as the sun went completely down at 5:00, I was back in the town where I first began.
When I got back to the hostel and sat down with everyone to celebrate for my birthday, I found that feeling of accomplishment that I was looking for at the top of the mountain. I had actually made it through the rain, the fog, 25km, the physical exertion, and the mental journey of it all. I did it, even though I doubted I could at many times throughout. The lesson of knowing I can keep going despite being lost, scared, and tired is the best gift I could have given myself for my birthday.