For those who just want the facts, these are the facts: Mr. Korab is the highest peak in North Macedonia, fourth highest on the Balkan Peninsula, at 2764 meters (9066 feet). Located near the border of North Macedonia, Albania, and Kosovo, it is a little over 90 minutes to the turn off from Skopje, then another 30-45 minutes on rough gravel road. I would rate the difficulty level as high/advance, not that the climb is technically difficult, but it was physically gruelling. We were a group of six gentlemen, ranging in age from late thirties up into the fifties, average fitness level. It took us 5 1/2 hours to climb the 1200 meter (3936 ft) elevation change to the peak from the car park, and another 3 and change hours to come back down. I would not recommend this for families, but I would recommend it for the incredible views.
For those who enjoy a story, here is the story: 5:30am came early as we loaded up the cars and headed west in the pre-dawn darkness. Just past 7:30am, we were packing our water and hitching up our packs to begin the assent. From the start, it was an immediate uphill climb. After 20 minutes walking through the last of the forest coverage, we broke out onto a road that lead to the fork below a hodgepodge sheep farmstead where the trail to Mt. Korab truly began.
Above the farmstead, the land rises in rolling hills of golden grass. We find ourselves marching upwards through these gentle golden hills towards an endless blue sky.
The deceptive hills quickly become more and more sinister as the incline never abates and we find ourselves struggling with breath as the climb continues ever upward.
We reach the summit of the golden hills of grass and gaze upon the vistas…but still no Mt. Korab insight.
A bit further on, a trail marker arrow encourages us to continue the climb. We have no choice, but to plod on.
Our journey upwards through this sea of hills final breaks and we catch a glimpse of mountain peaks surging through the grassy landscape…but still no sign of Mt. Korab.
While the view of the peaks is inspiring, it is here I begin to falter. Cramps in my legs are slowing me down and making every step forward, which is inevitably another step up, full of pain. I grit my teeth, stretch my legs, and carry on to find another arrow trail marker pointing higher and higher.
For now we have left the hills of gold behind and are entering a landscape of dramatic rises and granite peaks. The view carries me through the pain, beyond the cramps in my legs, the ache in my shoulders, and the blisters forming on my feet. Each false peak promises to reveal Mt. Korab hidden just beyond…and each peak proves to be as false as the last.
With tremendous grit, determination, and many water breaks…about four hours in our uphill battle, we are greeted with our first views of Mt. Korab sitting in the distance.
And so we slog on, aiming to reach the top still some 500 meters higher. The pain in my legs is excruciating, the group continues to pull away, drawn to the summit we can now see…and I fall farther behind.
In my head, I know I need to stop. I can see the top, but I can feel that I am at the bottom of what I can give. To have come this far also means that I have that much farther to return. So I remain…perched on a small rise looking up at Mt. Korab, protecting myself from the cold wind and strong sun. At this time, one would imagine that I was beating myself up with failure, lamenting that I was unable to defeat the mountain, and shamed that I was the only one left behind. But this is where perhaps I have matured…I have no need to “defeat” the mountain, I only have a need to “be with” nature. And, I know that there is no shame in being the only one not to reach the top; I am resting so that I am not a liability on the way back down. And so I moved off the trail, connected with my surroundings, and waited another two hours for the others to summit and return.
I even had a few encounters with lone dogs roaming the mountain tops, both of us startled to find each other so close.
1:45 pm, the others have returned from the peak, and we fortify ourselves for the journey down. We turn ourselves back the way we came, and with Mavoro lake in the distance, we begin again.
From the peaks, we descend back into the grasslands below…the steep descent even more tricky than on the way up. So while it was cramps in the quads on the ever upward climb, it is the knees that rebel and scream in pain on the way down.Alas, we make it back to the ramshackle sheepstead, marking for us an end to our pain and a return to our cars that will carry us back to Skopje, hot baths, and aloe vera creams for our sunburns.
Before departing on this adventure, a teenager of one of the companions asked, “Why would you want to go do that?” in reference to spending a whole day outside climbing a mountain. And I have to say, it is a pretty fair question. This climb was brutal on my body. While I knew it would be tough, I did not expect to falter and fail in reaching the top…so; was it worth it? I am not a man to face a challenge to prove himself better, stronger, or smarter; for me, this wasn’t even about being challenged. This climb was about exploring, seeing a place and a space I have not seen before. It is not about conquering Mt. Korab…it is about being with Mt. Korab. And even as I did not see the world from its peak, I was with the world and experiencing its unique beauty throughout the journey…and doing so with good company.