As the snow was slowly receding even in Northern Sweden, I had to accept that even the best times in life will come to an end at some point and once again I found myself on the platform at the railway station in Sundsvall waiting for the train to Stockholm…..
A couple of days later I found myself at the former head quarters of a coal mining company in Genk, Belgium for my first veterinary conference in pretty exactly 2 years.
Swapping the operating theatre with the board room after such a long time, my colleagues and I soon realized though that our work hadn’t become easier – the social restrictions caused by the pandemic had been replaced completely by a conflict we all had thought no longer be possible in Europe in the 21st century.
These are sad days for an international organisation which has always worked towards the peaceful communication among veterinary professionals, but unfortunately with members from both waring parties.
It was somewhat a relief to be able to finally hand over the presidential gavel to my friend Denis Novak (something I had forgotten to do a couple years ago) and looking back, I considered myself very lucky having enjoyed leading our FECAVA “Family” in happier days, with memorable congresses both in Tallinn and in St.Petersburg.
But at least for now we once again enjoyed meeting again with our colleagues in person and later that day a conversation I had over a glass of wine is likely to open another chapter in the journal of the “Blue Vet” in the not so distant future…..
Before that though, I will need a change of scenery…..
It is the 24th of February and I am waking up to the news that Russian troops have started to invade Ukraine.
At the end of my second stay in Sundsvall I had taken a few days off to travel to Åre, the country’s most famous alpine skiing destination, to enjoy both downhill and cross country skiing and to write about my “two months skiing holidays” in this diary, but that seemed suddenly inappropriate and decadent.
Ignoring the ski pass I had purchased, I decided to take my backpack and a pair of skis that I had not used at all during my entire time in the North and to head for a remote mountain range on the border to Norway.
The skis I took were heavy, slow, fitted with steel edges yet still terrible on downhill sections, but designed to lay their own track where ever I wanted to go.
Before I departed from the hotel, I paid the monument a visit which I had noticed on a hill in the middle of the countryside. The Karoliner Monument told the story of the failed attempt of an army of 10 000 Swedish soldiers to conquer the then Danish owned neighboring Norway. During their retreat over the mountains back to Sweden over 3000 of them perished due to starvation, illness and exposure on New Year’s day in 1719.
Leaving a short while later the main road behind me and after traveling for a further 20 kilometers past high snow drifts, I arrived at the mountain station were the conditions were far from inviting.
A strong wind was coming over the hills exactly from the direction where I was heading. In addition to this the station team informed me that Blåhammar, the cabin I wanted to go to, was closed at the moment.
However there was a fair amount of blue sky and no new snow was forecasted until the next day. Relying on all the equipment I had with me, I decided still to go ahead with my plan and started on the well signposted track.
Right from the beginning the going was tough as the trail went constantly uphill and against the wind with very few areas of shelter. After 10 minutes I stopped and took a first break (which is a good routine to have when skiing in the mountains) as despite the weather I was starting to sweat. At -6C this is something to avoid and I drastically reduced the layers of clothes I was wearing to reach a comfortable temperature.
The journey then continued at a perceived snail pace and being on my own, lost in my thoughts, I slowly adjusted and became one with the world around me and just followed the red way signs ahead of me……
Although at the moment devoid of other human beings, these mountains had played a significant role in history, not only in the destruction of the Swedish army, but also as a thresh hold between life and death for many Norwegian resistance fighters during the second world war for whom the crossing to neutral Swedish soil meant salvation.
Heroes of this time like Max Manus or Claus Helberg lived and survived under these conditions, often having little or no food, sleeping in snow holes, without – unlike me – GPS navigation and under constant threat to be killed. Yet despite (or because of ?) this constant strain, they not only survived and they carried on becoming successful businessmen and social leaders.
I carried on walking and leaving the last small trees behind me, I entered a large plateau.
Once again I had to stop adjusting my clothes as the skin on the wind facing side started to freeze underneath the fabric. I was grateful for all the equipment I had with me – not only did this provide me with a range of different clothing alternatives, but it also gave me the certainty to survive – at least for a considerable time – in case of an accident.
In addition to this, walking uphill and against the wind had the advantage that once I decided to turn, the way back would be much easier.
It is 12 km from Storulvån where I started to Blåhammar. I had a good night’s sleep, was well fed and in reasonable physical condition and yet every meter was a challenge and my thoughts wandered to Scott and his comrades when they returned beaten from the South Pole. Some biographers point out that they eventually died “just” 18 kilometers from their next food and fuel supply (“One Ton Depot”) and I was wondering how long these “experts” would have lasted just at these conditions, with a much higher temperature and at just a third of the altitude the expedition was traveling at.
After 6 km I passed a small emergency shelter which made for some good photos and which gave me the re-assuring certainty to be able to make an additional stop if needed on my way back , but I decided to carry on to my main destination, especially as the trail started to rise again and I wanted to avoid returning to the mountain station in darkness.
I took out a pair of skins and fitted them underneath my skis and thankfully their was a fine layer of snow providing them with a fair amount of purchase so that there was very little backwards sliding, but still I felt every kilo additional weight from my back pack.
Finally the land around me plateaued again and in the far distance I could make out a large arial that was standing next to my destination. A last final push and I was standing in front of the entrance to the cabin, where I against my expectation found out that in a neighboring building an emergency shelter room was open. I was even more delighted when this even turned out to be heated.
This, together with some chocolate and some warm tea from my thermos flask was enough to feel fully restored after a short while, but it was very tempting to have a lay down in one of the fully prepared bunk beds.
I looked through the window and while looking at the snow drifting at speed between me and the next building, I realized how little was needed to be happy : a warm and dry place and being sheltered from the elements plus something to eat and to drink went already a long way…..
On my way back I was pleased to find that the wind hadn’t turned and progress was now much easier. With the sun slowly starting to set behind me, my thoughts traveled to a conversation I had with an Oslo police officer while crossing Hardangervidda, a mountain plateau in the South of Norway some years ago.
The previous night she had shown me images of her recent past when she had been working as a police instructor in Central Africa. Despite being a Norwegian kick boxing champion she was constantly aware of the potential threat she was under and often had to carry a fire arm for her personal safety.
While being pretty impressed by the images and by her life story, I became somewhat thoughtful about the complexity of the interpretations of threat and safety. By being familiar with the mountains and with the harsh climate, we both agreed that this at the moment was probably one of the safest places on Earth, where one was the least likely to be attacked or even killed and yet we completely ignored the fact that we were traveling through an environment that in case of an accident without immediate help would mean certain death. One of her African colleagues would have considered this as extremely threatening but in return would have felt far more at ease than us in an African urban setting where he would have been a far better judge of threatening or safe situations and places.
With other words, safety or the feeling to “feel safe” was nothing else than the ability of understanding and calculating the level of threat and to prepare for it – unless the threat was becoming too great…..
I soon arrived back at the small timber shelter that marked the half way point. Here I met two men with their snow scooters and we started talking.
It turned out that they were restocking the emergency boxes at all the local huts and shelters. I had read about this in the local newspaper and about the fact that most things had been taken by casual visitors to the shelters who had been in no distress at all. The older of the scooter drivers confirmed this, but then added, that following the newspaper article so many people had donated voluntarily to the scheme, that they in the end had so much money that they theoretically could have hired a helicopter to replace all the boxes.
While chatting a bit longer it also turned out that this man was already 76 years old and yet he drove at sub-zero temperatures with a snow scooter through the Scandinavian mountains doing a good deed for mankind and I felt that I had hardly met a more full filled and happy human being.
I carried on and I was pleased that I hadn’t given in to the temptation to turn around and to return earlier to the mountain station when the going was so tough and I realized that despite all the effort today, I felt tired but at ease and deeply grateful that I had had this experience and that it was entirely my own choice to decide how much I had to endure.
When I finally arrived at my car, I found that the wind had been far more forceful than I had thought and that because of this the access road had been closed to all traffic which meant that I was grounded.
Although I was now missing out on my already paid hotel room in Åre, I wasn’t too upset as there was still plenty of room in the mountain station and I had the great pleasure to finish the day with a lively conversation with some Swedish mountaineers over a glass of Chilean white and a beautiful dinner of locally caught mountain char followed by homemade cloudberry pastry.
While listening to the latest skiing adventures of my new companions, my eyes caught a large painting on the wall on the opposite end of the room and I realized that it was a depiction of some struggling soldiers of the Karoliner Army that was defeated not by war but by the forces of nature at this very spot some 300 years ago….
When I finally went to bed, I was deeply grateful not only for lying in a dry and warm place, but also for the food, the drink and for the company I had, but most of all for being safe, which hadn’t been the fate of the Swedish soldiers then nor was it the reality of the people in Ukraine today….
Those of you who are following my FB or my Instagram posts might have noticed that I only very rarely or virtually never change my profile image.
However, the time has come to do it now after I have thought over the last few days about a painting that will soon be over a hundred years old.
I am talking about “Guernica” the probably most famous work of Pablo Picasso, which was commissioned 1937 following the air raid of German and Italian forces on a mountain village in the Basque country during the Spanish Civil war.
First and foremost, it occupied my mind because despite its age, it remains so contemporary and engaging in its depiction of the terror and the suffering of a peaceful civil community when being exposed to the horrors of modern warfare. The images we are receiving at the moment from Ukraine will in their essence not differ a lot from the images in Spain and neither will they from any such conflicts in the future.
Secondly this paintings is speaking specifically to me as a veterinary surgeon as it highlights that it is not only human beings who are suffering, but also the animals that are living with us, which include not only farming animals, but also dogs and cats and all other companion animals we are sharing our lives with.
Thirdly I find in some of the images of the painting a link with Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” conveying the important point that the suffering is not only a physical but also very much a mental one and a sad fact is, that although a lot of physical injuries might heal with time, this might not be the same for the mental state of the victims especially if they have been children.
In addition to this there is another aspect that Picasso failed or omitted to include, which is the shame and the guilt these action will leave with the perpetrator.
And this will not only be limited to the person himself, but to his nation as a whole and in addition to this to his following generations. As a German I know what I am talking about: it had been my fellow countrymen who had bombed this Spanish village, it had been German soldiers that had laid waste over large parts of Europe and it had been Germans who had killed over 6 million jews.
My whole life – despite the fact that I had not even been born when these crimes were committed – I had to live with the stain this had left on my nationality and at all times I have to be aware of the deeds my country had committed in the not so distant past. This was not only the case when speaking to Holocaust survivors with their number tattooed into their skin who had been interned in a labour camp just a few kilometres from the house of my parents, but also when speaking to a farmer in the North of Norway, when he showed me the shed he had to live in for 2 winters as a child after German soldiers had burned down his parent’s house or when hiking in the Pyrenees on the same trails that were used by refugees and resistance fighters to save their lives or when speaking to WW2 veterans on a miserable pension in the UK who were coming to me to treat their dog or cat. It is something you can and you should never shake off.
The same applies at these moments to the Russian soldiers who have invaded a peaceful country that had not threatened their own.
Not only will they have to live with the guilt for their deeds, but so will the whole Russian nation not just now, but for generations to come. Having been the aggressor, having tried to mislead the world with their intentions and having brought suffering over the lives of so many innocent people carries a heavy burden…..
What Picasso tried to tell us is simple : there will be now no winners, there will only be pain and suffering and we are all going to loose…..
When waking up in the morning, it has become a habit for me to check two APPs on my phone:
The first is the Weather APP, to find out how cold it will be today – as a general rule: the colder the better –
because it not only preserves the snow with all the benefits it brings (more about that another time…), but with colder temperatures there will be in most cases beautiful weather with a clear sky.
The other APP – I actually use two different ones – is somewhat new to me : its an Aurora Forecasting APP.
The manifestation of the planet’s magnet field interacting and in fact protecting us from solar winds, is one of nature’s spectacles most people hope to see at least once in their lifetime and it may feel like a just reward for the long hours of darkness during the winter months for the people who permanently live at these latitudes.
Sundsvall, located still a few hundred kilometers South of the polar circle is experiencing a visit of the Aurora Borealis only occasionally during the winter, but it is still often enough to make it worth the effort to look out for it at clear nights.
Unless you happen to live in the middle of the countryside with an open sky and no light pollution, the seasoned Aurora Borealis hunter is wrapping up warm and ideally armed with a reindeer skin to sit on and with a thermos flask with a warm drink before heading out of town, usually in the middle of the night.
The best sightings are with a new moon and with as little clouds on the sky as possible. Once in place, it remains a matter of some luck (unless you live even further North) that the Northern Lights will appear.
Having then the phone in the pocket (to protect it from the cold temperatures) will not only give you an opportunity to take some amazing images, but the display will in fact further enhance the colours of the display.
Only a few more days left in the North, so fingers crossed that I will be lucky with another sighting…..
It is June 1888 and the city of Sundsvall is laying in ashes…….again……
To be precise this is now the fourth time since the Russian Army caused the first fire in 1721. This time an accident was to blame – a spark from a passing steam boat had set a local brewery alight and the strong winds on that day together with the dry weather conditions took full advantage of the fact that most of the buildings were made of locally sourced timber.
The resulting damage and devastation was huge, but as it was the era of the timber barons, this time there was enough money available not only to rebuild, but to think “big”:
Solide stone buildings replaced the timber structures in the center of the town and now no expense was spared to show the world that Art Nouveau was not just reserved to Paris or to wealthy metropolitan areas in Central Europe.
A shining relict of this time is Hotel Knaust right in the center of Sundsvall.
When entering this iconic building, the visitor’s view is immediately drawn to the center piece of the hotel – the magnificent staircase made of Carrara marble, which for many years has been the place to be to welcome the New Year in this part of the world.
Having enjoyed this view and sensed its history ( once a Swedish cavalry officer is said to have ridden up his horse on these steps and at another time the hotel entertained the King of Thailand while he was visiting the region…),….
I am heading for the other great feature of this place : the Room of Mirrors.
With one nightshift at the moment chasing the next at the veterinary clinic, I had decided to have a lie-in today and instead of a normal breakfast I would treat myself to an extended lunch before going to work.
It was a decision I didn’t regret: while sitting on the far end of this beautiful ballroom taking in the whole scenery, I was enjoying an excellent Nordic Bouillabaisse accompanied by a fresh salat and still warm homemade bread.
This was followed by good coffee and fresh pastries while I took my time to improve my language skills with a couple of local newspapers.
My only regret was that I couldn’t enjoy a glass of wine with the fish….well, may be next time…..
Even the bill for these two hours of absolute delight was a pleasant surprise: with just over £10 I was wondering if I was really in one of the most expensive countries in the world?……
Needless to say that this was a great start to another 16 hours of emergency care and it shows that the best experiences in life often don’t cost a lot of money, you just need to open your eyes (and your mind) to spot the outstanding among the normal, especially while working and traveling.
It is 3:45 pm and the sun has been setting already an hour ago….what better thing to do now, than starting another nightshift in the North?….
A brief glimpse at the car park of the clinic while finishing an evening run had informed me already that it will be busy tonight….
Following a shower and a quick change into scrubbs, I am arming myself with the first coffee of the night and head straight for the inpatient area.
Here I not only find out who will be on my team tonight (each team has its own chemistry….), but I also discover what patients I will be responsible for over the next 16 hours.
There are first of all the freshly operated patients that are not stable enough to go home that night. In addition to this there is usually a fair number of patients with various internal medical conditions that are connected to a range of infusions pumps and syringe drivers to keep them comfortable and most importantly hydrated. Some might also be cathederised or have been fitted with feeding tubes. This is when you appreciate having an experienced nursing team by your side that is keeping an overview…..
Finally don’t forget the patients in the various insulation wards that might for one or the other reason be infectious.
Thus “warmed up” and with most of my coffee drained already, my next stop is the team that is still admitting acute patients, initially to give a helping hand and then to take over whatever is left in the waiting room or what is on its way to the clinic (which can take a while in this part of the world…..).
Not surprisingly time is flying, especially at the start of a shift….
Nightshifts are a bit like Marmite……you either love them or you hate them….
If you – like me – join a veterinary team just on a temporary basis, it makes more sense that you see more acute than established patients with long and complex clinical histories which will take a fair amount of time to read up on and with clients that would prefer more continuity of care.
Because of that, I am quite enjoying nightshifts : most of my patients are clinical “white sheets” with short or with no clinical histories, where I can make a fresh start.
In addition to this I have always enjoyed working at nights (even more so here in the North where at the moment the hours of darkness are making up more than 3/4s of the whole day….). In addition to this working with a smaller, but dedicated team is giving you a greater opportunity to learn more about your co-workers while spending time together at the operating table or over a cup of midnight coffee in the otherwise abandoned cafeteria.
One of my first patients tonight is a Jämthund, a member of the canine family that at first sight doesn’t look much different from a wolf, but usually with a far more amicable personality. Following the successful destruction of a whole carpet followed by a three hour journey through half of Sweden, this dog doesn’t look happy at all and a control X-Ray of its abdomen shows so many abnormalities, that we are progressing without delay to the operating theatre.
As it turns out not a moment too early as the carpet fibres have already started to string up the whole small intestine while cutting off part of its blood supply. The fast intervention – the removal of the foreign body material – allows the full recovery of the gut. A couple of hours of further delay would probably have required the removal of a large section of the intestine combined with a much higher risk for postoperative infection.
Once the Jämthund is recovering in his cage, I have to return to the theatre as an obese cat is already waiting there for me, unable to urinate due to a small bladder stone. This poor boy has to be cathederised and will then also enjoy our hospitality for the rest of the night.
The next patient is then straight forward – its a Golden Retriever puppy where the owner is reporting that a rubber ball went missing just an hour ago. While the puppy is actually looking pretty innocent, the immediate application of an emetic gives a rather impressive result
and both owner and dog are sent home again 1/2 hour later.
The next patient has also traveled more than 200 km to us – a cat with a “loose screw”…..to be precise one that has unmistakably lodged itself in the stomach and here an emetic is not having the desired effect.
At least it is a very rewarding surgical case and half an hour later there is the unmistakable plinging of a metal object being dropped into a kidney dish. Another half an hour later and the cat is sitting upright in its cage asking for food and the screw has been washed and returned to the owner in pristine condition for the next DIY project.
Time for a midnight snack of household cheese and polar bread and for once not a coffee…..
Now there is also time to check again on the inpatients and to give the canine patients their regular toilet break.
This is an undertaking you need to be prepared for with slip resistant footwear for all team members
and with the necessary arctic weather clothing as by now the outside temperature has dropped to -12 C.
Thankfully our feline patients – like this 9kg HUGE Maine Coon – do not require this service.
They are happy to stay in their warm cages, where regular meals, their medication usually administered via established catheders and the occasional cuddles (sorry – can’t resist it…..) is all they need.
Another patient arrives – a dog that sustained a jaw fracture after chasing a moose (not a mouse….). Here another anaesthesia and thick cerclage wire is needed to both stabilise the fracture and hopefully safe the canine tooth. Luckily the root was undamaged.
Although it is by now already early in the morning, the nurses still find the time to comfort the severely ill patients
or to wash and groom a patient that is ready to go home in a few hours.
It is still dark outside when we are handing our patients over to the morning team and I am arriving back home for a “good day’s sleep” – or may be for another coffee ?!…..
Not often enough did I follow this maxim, but luckily I have always been wise enough to make a move before settling permanently for a poor compromise. There are just too many hours in the day when you are not working and you owe it to yourself to spend these in nice surroundings.
This had been the case in Surrey and since starting to work and to travel at the same time, I have always made it a precondition for all my recent as well as for my future placements.
It shouldn’t stop you from trying something new, but don’t commit yourself for too long if it doesn’t feel right.
I had no such doubts with Sundsvall and the town and I hit it off right from the start : a sizable place with a good selection of shops and restaurants, right on the shores of the Baltic Sea, where not only I was born, but where also a lot of my friends and colleagues are working in other Nordic and Continental European countries. In addition to this a landscape broken up with a few hills and a lot of forest and lakes – what more do you need ?
In the middle of November I took the opportunity to explore the countryside around my new (temporary) home:
Norra Berget – a hill at the Northern end of the town – gave me a good overview over the “Stone City” which the place has been called since its fore-fathers had decided to change its main building material after the town had burned down for a second time at the end of the nineteenth century.
Thankfully they didn’t make a bad job at all of it, with a lot of Art Nouveau features on many of the central buildings, with a picturesque church in the middle of town and with a couple of great view points for everyone to enjoy from the hills both in the North and in the South.
The somewhat sleepy harbour is sheltered by Alnön, a low lying and completely forested island in the East, which at one point counted more than ten saw mills.
Today there are mainly signs that are telling the tale of the great timber trade and its main feature are a lot of weekend and holiday cottages and beautiful beaches.
Heading further North I am crossing the spectacular Högakusten Bron
which is not only the gateway to the cities of Umeå and Luleå, but also to the border to Finland and to the areas of Sweden that are located North of the Polar Circle.
Not far from the bridge is the small Skuleskogen Nationalpark with a dense pine forest that has hardly changed since the last ice age.
With the sun now just reaching above the trees in the middle of the day, it is my last opportunity for hiking before the snow is coming…..
Once again I am finding myself in new surroundings – the clinic in a recently converted industrial building houses some 60 staff, which includes this time some colleagues from Portugal. In addition to this some German colleagues are occasionally drafted in from Östersund to help out.
I find it interesting to observe the dynamic of Swedish teams that are integrating the cultural and educational background of colleagues from other nationalities into their working routines. Frequently individual clinics seem to prefer or are ending up with a group of vets from a specific country: in Kumla I found a fair number of French colleagues, Falun favored the Brits and here it was the above mentioned combination.
A new clinic also means a new uniform, a new practice management system (now once again in Swedish, rather than in English or in German), a new set of passwords (don’t we just love them…..), a lot of new names to learn (including an over representation of Annas, Lena/Linas and Åsas this time) and a new uniform – this time a set of blue and white scrubs which turned out to be a good match for the colour of my hair…..
The clinic is extremely spacious, featuring 16+ consulting rooms, a large reception area plus a separate area for feline patients. A state-of-the-art ultrasound machine is inviting to play with, as well as direct digital radiography machines (similar to, but much better than in Virginia Water) and as already mentioned a CT, which appears to become the standard in clinics of this size.
As it turns out, Sundsvall Djursjukhuset is one of only a few clinics left in Sweden that is providing a true 24/7 service which results in animal owners traveling huge distances to get their canine and feline companions treated, especially at nights or on weekends.
One of the first patients I was presented with was a Jämthund that had sustained a jaw and a couple of rib fractures after getting too close to a moose – an as I now found out common set of injuries for this sort of encounter…. His owner had driven over 300 km on mostly countryside lanes to reach us…..
Swedish veterinary clinics are constantly concerned about the mental and the physical wellbeing of their staff. Because of that there will always be tea and coffee in ample supply plus a couple of huge refrigerators for the storage of personal food and for large quantities of cheese and spread which together with traditional flat bread are provided free of charge to all employees at any time of the day and night.
If you haven’t brought your warm lunch or dinner, don’t despair – another couple of industrial freezers is stocked up to the brim with frozen ready meals, which are not for free, but that can be obtained at whole sale prices.
To add to these physical wellbeing efforts, the large cafeteria features a quiet corner where a large massage chair appears to be in frequent use.
Another novelty for me is a whole floor dedicated for the accommodation of the dogs of all team members. With most employees being dog owners (of often two or three sizable dogs) this is an important perk not a lot of other employers can offer. As a result the number of staff dogs frequently surpass the number of canine patients.
So now I have a house, a decent place to work at and what was still missing?……a car to get around with!
As I had not traveled with my own car that far North at this time of the year, I had insisted that this was a basic requirement, considering the distances that have to be covered in this part of the world. However, I had also indicated that I wouldn’t care what car I would get, as long as it was somewhat reliable and as long as it featured some heating.
What I asked for, I got and admittedly it was love at first sight !…..
When asking Markus at the end of the day about by “Porsche”, he presented me with a key with a fob for “The Beast” – the clinic’s all purpose mini-van!
This car, which was certainly not a head turner, featured everythingI needed :
Decent tires with spikes (!), an engine heater (hence the fob on the key ring) for a reliably working diesel aggregate, a working radio permanently set (by me) on a local station that was playing the best rock music of the Seventies to the Nineties and a large loading bay that would later become handy for my skis. The cracked windscreen and the odd dent in the body work I considered as an additional plus, as it was indicating that this was a working vehicle and not a show room car. I much appreciated though that the dodgy brakes which apparently were also a perennial feature of this carriage had just been fixed.
So someone over here was interested in me staying alive – at least for the duration of my stay…
While in my dreams still on the descend from Triglav, I am waking up just in time for the train’s arrival in Sundsvall. Not to get off here would have resulted in a time consuming detour, as the next stop would have been Östersund – 200 km to the West….
Hauling my considerable luggage down the platform, my pass is suddenly blocked by a 2m bearded giant in a high Hi-vis overall….
“Hej, you must be Wolfgang !” my welcome committee says in a deep voice, ” I am Marcus – I was told to collect you and to bring you to “the house”….”
“Nice” I thought and after Marcus had disposed my bag into the boot of his Japanese All-Terrain vehicle, with not more than two fingers of his left hand, we hit the road.
It turned out that Marcus came from Kiruna in the “very” far North of Sweden; a town that is famous for its iron-ore and where everything – including its people – need to be a bit bigger and tougher than the rest of the country to withstand the extreme weather in the winter (that at least is what I am telling myself….)……
At the clinic Marcus works as the caretaker, the fixer of pretty much everything broken and he is in charge of health and safety. And as if this wasn’t enough already, he was also a member of the local life boat crew and in fact “on call” that evening.
Without a nautical emergency “call out” we arrived after a short journey first at the clinic – the place of work for circa 60 vets, nurses and support staff – and Marcus gave me a short guided tour of the place, which with so little daylight at this time of the year reminded me more of a ship or a polar station.
I was pleasantly surprised that it featured a set of state of the art operating theatres, digital radiography and even a CT, plus – also very important – a spacious cafeteria with an industrial sized coffee machine, where the black stuff was available in decent quality and quantity pretty much at any time of the day (and night…). Once Marcus had ticked off his H&S duties including advising me that the local electrician would suffer a nervous break down, if I would attempt to address a fire at the main fuse board with a foam extinguisher (which I had somewhat guessed….), we continued our journey to “the house”…..
“The house” as it turned out is quite a place….a beautiful bungalow right at the edge of the forest and at the bottom of a downhill skiing slope (more about this another time….). The place has a large kitchen, two (!) living rooms, a huge TV screen, an excellent working broadband connection and even a large jacuzzi outside (though frozen solid at the moment…). In addition to this it has five individual bedrooms, all of which include extra mattresses for dogs of all sizes!…..
The down- or (in my case being a pretty social individual) upside was, that you are never or seldom alone in the house, as all non-resident vets, nurses and other visitors live here as well and most of the time people turn up – usually together with one to three dogs – and then disappear again without any prior warning.
In the beginning I had to get used to it, that while sitting in front of the television set, suddenly someone was standing next to me or that when I was coming home from work at night, I found strangers fallen asleep on the sofa in the living room…..
It is great though meeting new team members already over breakfast in our kitchen and it turns out to be wise to always prepare dinner for two or for three, as you never know who else might be turning up.
But where are all these people coming from ?…..
Some are colleagues who normally worked in our branch clinics in Jämtland just 20 Swedish Miles (= 200km !….) away – it is somewhat understandable that they are not overly keen to cover that distance twice daily if they are working a shift in Sundsvall. Traveling these distances to work or – as I soon found out – to see a vet is nothing unusual in this part of the world.
Others arrive from much further away in the South and usually stay then for a whole week.
And then there are the more unusual or adventurous types like me ( and so far only me….) who travel through 1/2 of Europe to make it a whole month – or more – to experience the beginning of winter in the North…..
” So, tell me about Triglav.” I said to Neca Jerkovic, who was living on a sailing boat in the Marina of Portoroz, while my skin was drying after a swim in the Mediterranian Sea, “I want to be up there by tomorrow afternoon….”.
This probably requires a bit of background information….
Triglav with nearly 3000 m altitude is Slovenia’s highest and also its National mountain, placed in the center of a national park right at the border to Austria. There are only a few places in the world where you can swim in the sea in the morning and stand on the country’s highest mountain on the same day – Mulhacén in the Sierra Nevada and Galdhøpiggen in Jotunheimen are a few other examples. Climbing Triglav is not only a thing you have to do if you want to experience Slovenia, it is also a rite of passage for Slovenians themselves.
Despite the fact that her parents own a sailing boat, Neca is really a child of the mountains and I found it always useful to listen to the locals before embarking on a new challenge in an environment I was not familiar with.
“It is quite a walk, but the weather is supposed to be good and you will be fine. Are you good with heights ?”
“It don’t like them, but I can handle them. Do I need any climbing equipment ?”
“No – if you have some good hiking boots you will be fine!……”
And this was the last time that I listened to local advice…….
The sun hadn’t risen the next day when I immersed myself in the warm water of the Gulf of Trieste, before hitting the motorway due North…..
After a brief breakfast at a roadside cafe in Bled, I reached the trail head near the ski shooting stadium in Pokljuka where I left my car at the end of a dirt track with the strong hope that I would not find it on four bricks and without the tires upon my return……(so far this has never happened to me, but it is something you should never talk about or you might jinx it…..).
On a well signed-posted track it took me only a couple of hours to reach Vodnikov Dom, a beautifully located mountain hut which I had visited a few years ago in the late autumn together with a Croatian mountain guide, but by that time there was already too much snow so that she deemed it safer for us to turn.
With hindsight this was clearly the right decision, as right after this hut, the first exposed sections with steel wires and with individual safety holds in the walls started. However, with a blue sky and with dry and warm conditions it was not a problem this time and I made good progress to Planika Dom, another refuge resting on a rocky ledge, just a few hundred meters below the summit. This place has absolutely no natural water supply and all drinking water has to be carried up the trail. Washing facilities are none existent….
After checking in at the hut, I reduced my equipment, had a drink and “hit” the mountain again – just another 400+ altitude meters – how hard could that be ?…..
It unsettled me slightly that most – but not all – people who were coming towards me were equipped with helmets and Via Ferrata harnesses featuring a double set of solid karabiners. The people without this equipment – to make matters worse – didn’t look like experienced mountaineers…..
Soon I reached the first overhangs and the vertical sections which would have been difficult to scale without the solid steel ropes anchored into the wall.
While being faced with another challenging climb, I started to fall into the trap that has caused a lot of accidents in the mountains: although I was not sure if I could do the next section, I was just too lazy to turn around because I had gotten so far already….
The ascents became more extreme the further I went and I was happy that I was only responsible for myself. What kept me going was that the weather was great, there were a few other people around and once in a while I came across another idiot who had seemingly managed the ascent without the necessary gear as well.
Eventually the small tin box, that is such a well known feature of the summit, came into sight and after nearly three hours of climbing, I finally was able to rest in front of it.
The view on this day was truly breathtaking and well worth the effort, but probably not worth the risk taken.
Another mistake of mine was to think that going downhill would now be much faster…being well aware that more accidents happen on this part of a climb, I was extra cautious and looking now downhill, I came across several sections where I wasn’t sure how I had managed them uphill in the first place.
Moving them downhill was only possible by focusing just on the rock features in front of me and by having blind faith, that if it had worked on the way up, it must also do so on the way down…..
Finally, just when the sun was setting, I reached the ledge of Planika Dom and with that the safety of the hut, especially as the outside temperature was now dropping fast.
The hut was packed, with dinner served in three sittings and with all the mattresses taken in the dormitories (I had bed number 30 in one small room…).
With beer now seemingly being the main liquid to replenish any fluid deficits (remember, there was not even tap water…), the atmosphere became progressively jolly and all Covid restrictions – if there were any in the first place….- went by the way side. Admittedly and as I really had no choice to go elsewhere, other than freezing to death or breaking my neck outside in the darkness, I decided to just enjoy my time at the hut and to rely on my double Astra-Zeneca jabs……
I can’t deny that it was a brilliant feeling being in a mountain hut with simple but good food, with something to drink and to enjoy the time with a lot of likeminded people from other parts of Europe.
My hangover the next morning was not so much due to the amount of alcohol I had (probably a couple of beers ?!), but more so due to dehydration as there was absolutely no drop of water to be found once the shutters had come down at the bar over night. A minor detail that I had overlooked……
Well, I survived and while enjoying the view of the mountain peaks around me the next morning, while the countryside below was covered by a blanket of clouds, I started on the final descend trying to reach Ljubljana and one of Europe’s finest veterinary dentists in time.
Sure enough, about 4-5 days later I developed a slight fever and a nasty cough, but four lateral flow tests (the first I performed on my trip to see Ana) and a PCR test failed to confirm my fear that the virus had finally caught up with me as well, but I think that it highlighted the sad reality that some simple human pleasures like a night in a mountain hut will probably have to wait until next summer.