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Matka - climbing in Macedonia (pt. 1)

- a story by John Styles

Saint Nicolas's monastery (Sveti Nikola) is tucked away in the Matka Gorge to the north of Skopje. Jagged limestone ridges have formed its natural protection and are the reason for it's location to protect it from the marauding invaders of the past.

Today the gorge is dammed, but it is a popular walk along the path built into the gorge wall to another monastery at the now lake side directly below Sveti Nikola. Two obstacles now separate you from Sveti Nikola, the lake and a 150m ridge.

A boatman will ferry you across the lake, for a modest fee, and you then meander to the base of the ridge. Climbing is not new to the area as is evidenced by the preference for piton protection of routes. Some 12 routes lead from the base to the top, and there are numerous shorter variants on buttress features of the ridge. Our choice was the obvious "Matka", probably one of the oldest routes and taking the plumb line from tip to toe.

This was our first climb of the season. Isabelle & I had moved to Macedonia at Christmas, and climbing and training in general was a casualty of the upheaval. We were both feeling unfit and out of practice, but torn between doing something easy or something worthwhile. Of course being older, wiser and responsible for two young children we chose the "something worthwhile" option.

The opening pitches are on a pillar, or rather the corner that joins it to the face. It took some time to accustom my eye to finding the pitons. Will bolts be as dull someday, oh how I like those glinting eyes. It also may be my imagination but piton routes seem to be lonelier, spaced and not always sound. Perhaps it's just the jitters of the first outing. The climbing is not as steep as it looks from the other side of the lake, but the rock is also not as solid. Still it hasn't all fallen down yet so it can't be as bad as I'm making out. Pleasant climbing leads to a pleasant belay at a small tree, and Isabelle ascends rapidly to join me. A quick bit of rope-work and I'm on my way again, the day is also beginning to warm up.

As I approach the top of the pillar, my earlier words become prophetic. Ipso facto top of pillar = less solid rock. There is one particular section, capped by a small overhang, of course, which has the rotten peg to compliment the rotten rock. Hum ha, Hum ha, how long can I stand here looking at it. It is not so much the rotten peg and the look of the ground above. The next peg I can see is not close, over another bulge and certainly more than I was looking for on this first outing. But then in an act of faith I move on and behold over the first section 2 good pegs. This still leaves the nasty bulge, but I now have an excellent excuse to belay and ponder this while Isabelle again strides up the face.

Inspiration, I can skirt the nasty bulge, and there is a strange shape which looks tantalisingly like a peg on the arête I will be heading for. Hop, skip & jump. This refers to my spirit not climbing style, reaching the peg reveals another tree and spacious belay a few meters on. We had almost turned around just below, but our pig headedness has alarmingly paid off again. A saunter up a slabby groove leads me to the top of the pillar and the ubiquitous metal box to record our comments in. I'm feeling happy now, and miraculously the rock seems better as well, it is certainly easier with an interesting crux and it gives me an opportunity to start looking around more, down to the lake and across to neighbouring ridges to guess our progress. I can also see a couple of old mountain paths which wind their way across the scenery, they'd be great for another days outing.

The final wall and groove are a delight, or is that relief, and we come out onto the summit Alpine type ridge. The views are beautiful as we wind our way towards the summit block. Just below the summit we find a descent path, but Alpine ridge was right, it is not obvious which is the way down. Even an abseil just takes up down onto the side of the steep ridge but perhaps not to the base. The monastery is tantalisingly close and today crowded with people picnicking, a small but delicate traverse is all that's needed. We opt for the half way house of a short abseil to a flanking terrace and a scuttle across to the monastery walls. The monastery not only has this natural protection it has a natural spring, after out 5 hour trip we are thirsty.

A competent party would cruise this in 3 hours, and I have to say I was very surprised that there was not one single other party on the whole ridge, despite having seen groups before on weekends. The walk back down to the lake was followed by a then late lunch. We'll be back to repeat that climb and I hope several of the others again soon.

Our last proper outing was Paklenica in Croatia. That is a stunning gorge with a face of 300meters, and a must for anyone. Matka is not Paklenica, it is not even the best Macedonia has to offer, but for the 20 minute drive from our house it will keep us entertained for a while.

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