An Ode to Davo Karničar: Slovenia’s Ski-Mountaineering Legend

Last month, whilst driving through the beautiful Jesersko valley en route to Breg, I was reminded of a meeting I’d once had there with a man called Davo Karničar, seven years previously.

The Jezersko valley: home village of Davo Karničar

I had wondered what he was up to now. Was he still climbing up and skiing down the world’s gnarliest peaks? Most probably. I vowed to get in touch with him and see what adventures he had been on since our last meeting.

Sadly there will never be another meeting with Davo. Tragically, I learned he was killed last month whilst felling a tree near his home in Jezersko. He was 56.

Back in 2012, in the wake of a breakup, I’d taken my entire allocation of annual leave in one go and come to Slovenia for five weeks. My plan was to drive solo around the country and meet as many interesting Slovenes as possible.

Thanks to Rok and Ivo – two enterprising young Slovenians I met early on in the trip – I was lucky to be able to arrange conversations with many Slovene characters; bee-keeping experts, wine-makers, and Slovene celebs such as Big River Man (Martin Strel) and Davo Karničar , a world-renowned ski-mountaineer.

Amongst his lengthy list of achievements, Davo was the first man to ski down Everest, and the first to ski down The Seven Summits – the highest peaks on each continent (which incidentaly, he did on a pair Elan skis, the Slovenian brand which sponsored him his whole life). He also skied down the northern wall of the Eiger and the eastern wall of the Matterhorn.

Having a love for mountains and snow myself, I was keen to learn more about him, and Davo was kind enough to take time out from his highly active life, to meet me one September evening.

We had met in the café of a small hotel in Jezersko, Davo’s home valley. The evening was warm and we sat outside, where I watched the Alpine glow come off the spectacular spiky peaks of the mountains that dominate the Jezersko valley. Davo said he had climbed and skied all of them.

Jezersko peaks: Davo said he’d climbed and skied them all

Davo was 50 when we met but looked much younger. He had a wiry, muscular build and a crushing handshake. Like with all the people I met during that trip, I recorded our conversation. I had always meant to do something with these stories but never quite got around to it. Hearing about Davo’s passing, prompted me to dig up that recording and listen to it again.

Davo was not just an extremely accomplished extreme ski-mountaineer, Yugoslavian ski champ, and adventurer, but a visionary, creator, hunter, hard grafter, gardener, father, family man and builder.

At the time of our conversation, he was in the middle of building his own mountain lodge, which would serve the guests that he planned to bring to the area for his climbing tours. He showed a deep love for his home of Jezersko and had dreams of sharing it with a larger audience.

“Skiing and mountaineering wasn’t a sport I chose to get into. Here in Jezersko, it’s just normal. My mother, my brothers, my sisters – we spent all our time climbing and skiing our mountains”.  

Davo was cheerful, funny and friendly; we laughed a lot. I enjoyed hearing about his adventures, his family, his philosophy and how he lived his life in such a beautiful, wild place. He explained his ideas of trying to live from the land as much as possible. He said he took deer and chamois from the forest, which supplied half of his meat requirements for his family.

We discussed Slovenian independence, and his hopes for the new Slovenia, which hadn’t come to fruition. He mentioned fears of Slovenes losing their identity being such a new and small country.

He also talked about his visions for developing mountain tourism in his home town and the problems of being a well-known personality in a small village. (Although I noted it also had its benefits; when I went to settle the bill, the waiter had waived it, because I was ‘with Davo’).

Although Davo lived life to the full, racking up far more achievements than most, I’m sure he would have had many more adventures to come, had his life not been cut short. His death is a great loss to Jezersko, Slovenia, and the entire mountain-loving world.

I only spent one hour with Slovenia’s most famous ski-mountaineer, but learning of Davo’s death made me sad. Our conversation had ended with invites to get in touch, go skiing together, and visit his lodge.

I never did. And now I wish I had.

It’s a harsh reminder to do things before it’s too late.

RIP Davo.

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Skiing to My Local Pub: Powder Snow at Pikovo

I was now living in Ljubljana, but with reports that Koroška already had 60cm of snow on the ground and more on the way, I couldn’t resist heading back to the Hinterland.

I have maintained a lifelong love of snow. Not just snowboarding or skiing, but walking in it, taking pictures of it, and just being out in The Great White Deep is one of my greatest pleasures.

My new car was put to the test and passed easily. In 4×4 mode it fired up the snow-covered track with not the slightest hesitation. Pikovo, a small mountain inn lies even further up the mountain, and with the roads up there covered in over half a meter of snow, it was the perfect day to try out my new touring skis.

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Snow road? Snow problem in 4WD mode

I attached the skins to the base of the skis, threw some water, chocolate and extra clothes into my backpack, and began skinning up the slope behind my house which leads to the road to Pikovo. I’ve done a fair bit of snowshoeing in the past, normally with a snowboard strapped to my back, but ski touring is far more efficient.

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skinning up

The skis glide over the surface of the snow, the skins prevent you from slipping backwards even on steep inclines, and the lightweight boots and bindings mean that overall, you’re carrying less weight and moving much faster than with a board on your back.

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The forest was beautifully silent. The sporadic ‘whumpfff’ of snow falling from a tree, the only sound. The first half of the route was quite steep, and with the deep snow, it was hard going. I had to stop frequently to catch my breath. Once at the pinnacle I found the other side had been ploughed more recently leaving just a couple of centimetres of snow on the road.

The underside of my skis would have preferred a deeper covering, but it was enough to ride over, albeit with the occasional p-tex gouging stone taking a bite. I reconfigured my bindings into downhill mode, and skied most of the way, although there were several flat parts where I had to free my heel and employ more of a ‘cross-country ski’ technique.

It took me nigh on two hours to reach Pikovo. It’s always a pretty spot but covered in pillows of snow it looked even better. Nataša and Felix, the proprietors, welcomed me in and served me gulash washed down with a Laško pivo. Sometimes I meet other people at Pikovo, but today it was my own personal bar and restaurant. Conversation was limited as my Slovene is still extremely basic, but this is a perfect place to practice, as their English is also basic, so it puts us on an even keel.

When it comes to communication, I’ve found a little can go a long way. Although I must sound like a caveman, we were able to share some conversation and learn a little more about each other.

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The gulash was a welcome meal after the two hour journey

The gulash hit the spot and after resting for an hour, it was time to make my way back to Breg. I kept the skins on for the first half, as it’s mainly flat, but upon reaching the ‘peak’ it was back into downhill mode and deep snow.

It was deep but not so steep, so I had to ski in my own tracks for most of the ride or I came to a halt, but I did cut through a couple of sections where powerlines run, and I got a nice taste of Slovenian powder.

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Powerline cuttings provide powder pistes from Pikovo

It’s a great little ski-hike, and one I’ll do again and again whenever conditions permit.