Matej’s mountains | A Slovenian day tour in the Julian Alps

ski touring in Julian alps, big, steep mountains dusted in fresh snow

Eric Kendall buckles up for a Slovenian day-touring adventure in the Julian Alps

Images | Penny Kendall

On the shores of Slovenia’s Lake Bohinj stands the statue of ‘four brave men’ looking towards 2,864m Mount Triglav. It commemorates their first ascent of the peak, in 1778, establishing the nation’s mountaineering credentials, as well as putting its highest mountain, and the Julian Alps, on the map.

I’m lucky to know several ancestors of those four brave men: Slovenian guides Matej Kovacic, Klemen Gricar and Rok (great name for a guide) Zalokar. Over a decade ago, Klemen-the-giant gave us a short sharp introduction to his homeland: we skinned up to Triglav’s Kredarica hut, then summited the peak, before skiing down the following morning in a thunderstorm, with lightning coming at us from below as well as above…

Not a ski tour I’ll forget in a hurry.

ski touring in Julian alps, big mountains covered in fresh snow

And even if the classic views over the Julian Alps, the nearby Italian Dolomites and – just to the north – Austria, weren’t the best that day, it was clear there was more to comeback for, ski-wise.

In the intervening years, Matej, the human template for Action Man, has become a regular visitor and days-off ski buddy at our home in Zinal, Switzerland, where he guides for part of each winter. Rok (sometime Alaska ski guide as well as mastermind of Heliski Albania) is an occasional visitor, and Klemen ducks through the front door from time to time, usually on his way to guide Mont Blanc or the Gran Paradiso. But even if Slovenian guides are keen to explore all over the Alps and beyond, talk is often of home.

It was only a matter of time – OK, 15 years – before the stars aligned and we finally headed back to Slovenia for a week’s skiing and touring, with Matej showing the way. The plan was to ski the very best Slovenia has to offer, freeriding and touring, with a night or two in a hut. But even before we arrive, the hut is scuppered. Snow is sketchy across the Alps and Slovenia hasn’t been spared; storms from the nearby Adriatic, which often give snow when the Alps has none, have failed to materialise.

But with Matej in charge, we’re not concerned. The first thing you learn in guide school is how to say ‘plan B’; I reckon on home ground, Matej’s plan Z would be worth turning out for.

We reach an intimate, almost cosy gaggle
of lifts and playful, rolling pistes, with one
big descent back to the lake

a skier makes a turn on fresh snow, the top station of a chairlift in the near, surrounded by skiers distance
three skiers on a chairlift in Julian alps, surroundings covered in fresh snow

Smoke and mirrors

We start with a lift-served warm-up in Vogel, where Rok joins us. There’s one cable car straight up from Lake Bohinj, to reach an intimate, almost cosy gaggle of lifts and playful, rolling pistes, with one big descent back to the lake, snow-permitting.

In the lift station is a poster harking back to the communist era, describing day trips from Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital, by train and bus, then queueing for the lift, to fill your entire day in return for about 45 minutes on skis. Things have moved on: there’s now a snow-o-metre webcam snowman, and – today at least – no queue. In fact, the place is almost deserted, and only a couple of lifts are open.

After a whizz around the pistes we skin to the top of a closed chairlift to follow the Sija ridge; views are 360, with Triglav dominating the skyline to the north. Rok’s in charge– this is his special playground. He leads us down Za Šijo, a lumpy bumpy valley that would be a fun ride in any condition, before picking up a track to skin gently back to the top of the cable car. It’s a mercifully easy-going warm-up day; if there’s a danger with Matej over the coming week it’s that he might get carried away on home turf. We’re certainly expecting our early season legs to be stretched.

two skiers ski touring in Julian alps, surroundings covered in fresh snow
ski tourers in between two mountain peaks

Back at Hotel Bohinj, we get the map out to see what’s in store. We’re moving on to Kranjska Gora, from where we can easily reach the key valleys that radiate from Triglav seldom needing to drive as much as an hour.

Compared with the Alps, everything is incredibly compact here, though the mountainscapes look rugged and massive; there’s some kind of smoke and mirrors going on. But there’s no trick about the next day, from Planica: simply a long walk-in through magical forests past the Planinski dom Tamar hut, beyond which the way begins properly to climb.

Huge cliffy mountains rise to our left, and at the head of the valley is a likely looking couloir: the Jalovčev Ozebnik, a classic steep line of the region. We hook right before reaching that to climb higher, to Kotovo Sedlo. At just over 2,100m it’s as far as we’ll go today, 1,200 vertical metres from our starting point and rather foggy. Our descent is through big country with nowhere to hide, though the challenge today isn’t avalanche but simply staying upright in steep, sometimes rocky terrain.

mountain hut in snowy julian alps

I’m glad to reach the hut we passed on the way up, for refuelling with hearty Slovenian mountain food. My top tip is to avoid ‘Zganci’ – buckwheat porridge that often comes topped with the part of a pig you wouldn’t normally include on the menu. At least it’s power food for the final leg. As we reach the car in the gloom, Matej announces: “OK, perfect timing, we can still see.”

It’s actually too dark for me to see from his face if this is a Slovenian joke or a statement of fact. The biggest surprise of the day, apart from being overtaken, downhill, through twisty forest by a bloke on cross-country skis (in my defence, we’re in World Cup training territory), is Kranjska Gora’s Hotel Skipass. The name hardly conjures mountain charm, so the stylish, spacious rooms are a welcome find, as is dinner, which might as well come with three Michelin stars, all based on traditional ingredients and with amazing Slovenian wines to match.

Only in the morning does the hotel name become clear: as we breakfast, streams of skiers file through the front door to buy their day passes at reception. We never do find out what’s wrong with the ticket window at the lift station.

two ski tourers on a fresh cut skin track in the high mountains

Passes and snow-plastered peaks

The following days are each as different as could be, almost like visiting a new country as we move from one valley to the next.

The terrain around the Vršič pass verges on fantasy art; after yesterday’s big day, we’re happy to reach it via the twisting road from Kranjska Gora, which – astonishingly– frequently remains open.

Skinning steeply up west from the pass, our aim is a notch between peaks. Matej’s straight through, even though, at a glance, it’s the last place you’d want to be heading: a steep snowfield on the far side drops to oblivion; the bottom of the neighbouring valley is visible untold metres below, and it’s clear there’d be no stopping if you started to slide.

With exaggerated gallantry Matej sees Penny safely through, leaving me to fend for myself. But that’s OK – it’s not a proper ski tour if at some point you don’t ask yourself the question: why am I doing this? And it turns out that’s the toughest bit of the day – in just a few more metres we reach the 2,080m summit of Nad Šitom Glava for a bit of back-slapping and wondering which is the way down. I’m not entirely convinced we couldn’t have reached the peak without the death-defying bit. Perhaps that was just a special Matej-test.

two skiers looking over cliff, high in snowy mountains

The Pokljuka Plateau – a major cross-country ski destination – is altogether more relaxed for our next day’s start. As we climb above it through gentle forest, dots of colourful skinny-skiers are whizzing round the circuit. More business-like is a troop of camo-clad infantry, making a good job of descending the slope we’re climbing, with all sorts of dangerous-looking kit dangling from their rucksacks. They hail Matej and we have a breather while they swap stories. Above tree-line, we enter an undulating moonscape of a bowl, just north of Viševnik peak, to climb to a ridge between Mali Draški Vrh and Draški Rob.

The world runs out here, or rather drops a
thousand metres, pretty much straight down
into a long cleft of a valley

The world runs out here, or rather drops a thousand metres, pretty much straight down into a long cleft of a valley. Heading back the way we came, the view ahead, away from the high peaks of Triglav National Park, looks east over the broad, green Sava valley and the Karawanken mountains stretching along Slovenia’s northern border with Austria.

Our finale begins in another country: from Kranjska Gora it’s easiest to reach the domain of Kanin, on the western edge of Slovenia, via the lifts of Italy’s Selle Nevea, connecting at the craggy mountain-top border. It’s another world again.

We’re high among snow-plastered peaks, with cloud blowing through, giving momentary glimpses of the Adriatic and a sense of the deep Soca valley – the course of one of Slovenia’s most famous rivers – over 1,500m below. We could be here for days, exploring endless lift-served lines, except that every inch of snow-cover is bullet hard. None of which is a surprise to Matej. He’s here for just one final exploit for our memory banks: a short, steep skin to reach Prestreljeniško Okno – an impressive rock window – for a final, framed view of Slovenia stretching away to the east.

Matej’s plan B has been ‘B’ for Brilliant…

Eric also went behind the scenes of the iconic Slovenia-based ski brand, Elan, on a factory tour… Read about it in our mammoth 2024 Gear Guide.

a skier sets off on virgin snow, high in julian alps

Classic Slovenian ski touring

You can devise various Haute Route-style traverses of the Julian Alps, which can include a summit climb of Triglav (2,864m), and which make the most of several excellent mountain huts.

A new initiative, for softies, is the 52km Juliana ski tour, which takes you across the Julian Alps, ascending and descending nearly 5,000m, from Kranjska Gora to Tolmin. What sets it apart from other moving-on tours is that you stay at a comfortable hotel each night at valley level, rather than in a mountain hut. Though designed as a four-day trip, there are eight tours in all, to offer an easier and harder option each day. Click here for more information

The Slovenian tourist office also has a good general section on ski touring.

Do it

TRAVEL Frequent flights to Ljubljana with Easyjet from £35 one way. Kranjska Gora and Bohinj are about one hour by car or two hours by public transport from the airport

STAY Boutique Hotel Skipass, Kranjska Gora is ideal for the majority of tours described above; twin rooms from €250 per night, B&B. Hotel Bohinj is an ideal base for Vogel resort and southern tours; twin rooms from €175 per night, B&B

SKI For ski guiding, Matej Kovacic – email – costs from €400 per day