(All photos © Sean D Sorrentino, 2012)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

What the hell was I thinking??!!??

I’ve wanted to drive over Vršič Pass for as long as I’ve known about it. It’s the highest pass in Slovenia and it has a fascinating military history. Go read a bit about it and come right back, I’ll wait.

Pretty cool, huh? Somehow they left out the fact that it is absolutely insane in dry conditions and stupid to the point of suicidal in the snow. Can you guess what the conditions were today?

I would like to take the time to thank The Wife of 5 years for not beating me over the head with a rock once we got off that mountain. I think she remained really calm for someone trapped in a front wheel drive FIAT Punto with a husband who had not driven in snow for 3 years and had never in his life driven in snow on a mountain pass.

It started out innocently enough. We left Bohinj in the rain this morning, marveling at the beauty of the snow in the higher elevations. The wife had her anti-nausea ear patch firmly in place and was enjoying the ride out of the valleys of Bled and Bohinj.

The twisty roads yesterday didn’t sit well with her stomach, but with the patch, she had no trouble at all. What’s funny is that we were only going about 20 Kilometers as the crow flies. Of course in good weather it’s a 2 hour drive.

It was just raining during the run up to the pass. We should have paid attention to all the motorcycles in the first turn off. They were looking at their maps, probably considering other options. We drove on by, secure in our ignorance. Zoom, zoom, zoom, up the hill we went, looking for something I really wanted to see. The Russian Chapel was built as a memorial to 400 Russian POWs who died in an avalanche during WWI when they were building this road. I wanted to see that.

I paused for a little prayer for the souls of the poor prisoners dead building this road for the Austrians to use to attack the Italians. I will definitely be getting a copy of A Farewell to Arms, which is set in this area. The wife refused to get out of the car. It was cold, and snowing lightly. She broke out the strawberries and had a snack while I was up at the chapel. We found some mountain goat poop in the parking lot, so she left a few strawberries for them. They were a bit overripe, but she thought that the various little goats would like the treat. Plus she left them the ends of the strawberries she ate. We joked that she was leaving them as a bribe to Zlatorog, the mythical chamois goat, so he would watch over us as we went through his National Park.

It was all just fun and laughs until the car decided that 8 inches of snow and steep grades were too much for it. Just before the summit, almost 500 meters altitude above the Russian Chapel, we hit the last pitch, and the car wasn’t going to make it. I realized that it was engaging the traction control system, and making it impossible for us to go forward. There was a guy who had parked his van and was walking up the hill. We passed him, then he walked past us. At that point I found the TCS button and disengaged it. We spun the tires all the way to the top. When I say it like that it sounds so easy. It wasn’t. It was damned scary.

Then we had to go down. Here’s where it went from merely scary to terrifying. Going up we could count on gravity to stop us if we started sliding. All we had to do was hit the brakes and let gravity work with what little friction we could come up with and we’d be fine. There was even a little mountain hut on top. We could have stayed there if we had to. On the way down, gravity was no longer on our side. I swear to you with my hand on a stack of bibles that I did not exceed 15KPH all the way down. Sometimes we were in second gear with the brakes on full, ABS screaming, but I kept the speed down. I didn’t want to hit a guardrail at all, but if I did I didn’t want to be going fast enough to punch through the thing. It’s amazing how fragile they look when they are the only thing between you and a 500 meter plunge down a mountainside. In the snow. We met a van with a tour group going up. They looked like a bunch of young people who had rented a van and were off to see the sights. We told them in no uncertain terms to turn around and come back another day. I hope that they listened. I don’t think that they would have made it.

We stopped once on the way down, still in the snow, to clear the wipers.

You can see our wheel tracks behind the car. Just below here we stopped another car, a FIAT even smaller than ours. They heeded our warning and turned around. I don’t know if I saved a life today, but I think I might have. No sense anyone else being as stupid as I had just been.

Remember the strawberries? The Wife is the least superstitious person I know. She threatened to punch me out for trying to carry her across the threshold when we got married. She pulled out the strawberries and dumped a few more while we were clearing the wipers, just in case Zlatorog and his little goat friends hadn’t gotten enough near the Russian Chapel. That tells me more about how bad it was than anything.

We survived. It was an adventure. I’m glad to have lived through it, and glad to have the experience, but I’ll be damned if I ever do it again. I think that if it’s raining near that pass next time I’m in the area, I’m going around. FAR around. Those poor Russian POWs who had to build that road.

We are save in Bovec, using the internet in the café/restaurant below our hotel. The rain has stopped, but the cold remains. Tomorrow should be a nice day, so hopefully there will be more, but safer, adventures. The kind of adventures where you pay some professional guide to keep you from doing stupid crap like driving over the highest pass in Slovenia in the snow.

Federal Trade Commission Disclaimer:
These blog entries reflect my personal opinions about the locations The Wife and I visited during our travels. I have not received money, freebies, or any other inducements to provide positive coverage of anyone, anywhere, or anything. In fact, no one on this trip knew or had any reason to know that I am a blogger. I do not work for the Tourist Boards of any country, nor am I employed in the travel industry in any way.


  1. The Passo Stelvio on the other side over in Italy is pretty bitchin' too...

  2. When telling our tale to the locals in Bovec they made it pretty clear that without going 200km out of the way, ANY pass we went over would have been dangerous that day. But just THINK of all the character we built that day!

    -The Wife