Since 2015, Edita has been gradually ticking off the highest peaks in the UK. First it was Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales; then Scafell Pike, the highest mountain in England; and then in May, Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland and the whole of the UK.
It was high time she introduced me to the highest mountain in her own country, Lithuania. It’s a peak that you may not have heard of. Given that Lithuania is a country of 2.8 million people living in an area four-fifths the size of Scotland, and has a history dating back to the 13th century, it may come as a surprise to learn that its highest mountain, Aukštojo Kalnas or Aukštojas Hill (pronounced owk-stoy-as), wasn’t discovered until 2004.
Until recently, the highest point in Lithuania was believed to be 293m Juozapinė Hill in the ironically named Medininkai Highlands, close to the border with Belarus, a short distance west of Lithuania’s capital Vilnius.
But in 1985 a geographer called Rimantas Krupickas threw a spanner in the works by suggesting that a patch of woodland 500m away might actually be higher. In 2004, a team from Vilnius Gediminas Technical University carried out a survey using state-of-the-art GPS technology. They discovered that measuring in at a mere 292m 70cm, Juozapinė Hill wasn’t even the second highest point in Lithuania, but the third highest behind 293m 65cm Kruopinė Hill and the unnamed patch of woodland that was a whopping 293m 84cm high.
A national competition was launched to find a name for the new mountain. On 20 June 2005 it was given the name Aukštojo Kalnas after the pagan deity who is said to be the creator of the world in an unofficial ceremony involving potatoes (actually, I made up this last bit, but in Lithuania most festivals and ceremonies seem to involve potatoes).
Given that Aukštojas Hill is only 19cm higher than Lithuania’s second highest peak, you may be wondering if there isn’t a risk of some joker taking a wheelbarrow of earth up Kruopinė Hill and proclaiming it the new highest peak. The authorities have therefore built a 30m viewing platform on top of Aukštojas Hill to deter anyone from playing silly buggers.
Edita didn’t get around to climbing her country’s highest peak until June 2013, a month after becoming the first Lithuanian woman to climb a much bigger peak, Everest. To celebrate this latter achievement, she climbed Aukštojas Hill with Vladas Vitkauskas, who became the first Lithuanian of any sex to climb Everest in 1993. The pair climbed Aukštojas Hill without using fixed ropes, bottled oxygen or any form of Sherpa support.
At 4pm on Saturday a couple of weekends ago, Edita and I were in the middle of a Vilnius bar crawl. I was concerned that we might not be taking the mountain seriously when Edita’s twin brother Petras turned up with his family, including 2½-year-old daughter and pushchair, assuring us that the ascent would be straightforward.
We drove for half an hour along a forested highway before turning off into lush green farmland. The Medininkai Highlands lie at the end of a dusty farm track just outside Medininkai, a spacious village of wooden cottages with a ruined mediaeval castle.
It’s possible to drive to within 200m of the summit, but we stopped in a quiet car park a mile short and walked from there. We didn’t want the ascent to be too easy, so we decided to start with a full traverse of Juozapinė Hill from north to south.
I followed Petras as he broke trail with the pushchair, forging a route up a gentle track between newly planted birch trees. After 100m we broke out of the trees and found ourselves on a rolling grassy ridge with extensive views across a farmer’s field. A tractor chugged across the horizon as we stopped to catch our breath.
The last 50m were the toughest. A large boulder and a wood carving loomed out of the grass, spurring us on. Five minutes after leaving the car, we were standing on the first summit, congratulating ourselves on an epic stroll. The wood carving resembled a totem pole, and depicted King Mindaugas, who united Lithuania into a single kingdom and became its first king in 1253.
Below us the road swept past just 20m away. We could have saved ourselves a bit of a walk by parking just below, but we could be satisfied that we had chosen to climb Juozapinė Hill by its most difficult route.
From the summit boulder we could see the viewing platform on top of Aukštojas Hill 500m away, behind a copse of trees and across a ploughed field. Neither the viewing platform nor the summit stood out from the surrounding countryside, because behind them was the woodland that had obscured Lithuania’s highest point for hundreds of years. Juozapinė Hill was a more significant bump in the landscape, mainly because it was smaller and had no trees on top of it.
After taking some photos, we descended from the bump and followed the dusty farm track for another kilometre past a couple of farmhouses. The tractor continued to chug across the field on the slopes beneath the summit, and a flock of ragged sheep grazed nearby, on what was effectively the north face of Aukštojas Hill.
We reached the edge of the woods and turned left off the farm track and up a footpath which had been newly created to channel sightseers to the top of Lithuania’s highest point. The footpath followed the edge of the woods, round a little kink, and 200m after leaving the farm track we staggered the final few metres up the summit ridge and we were there.
There was a strange circular monument with four horse heads on its circumference and another large boulder on the actual highest point. The viewing tower lay just below, but all three monuments were dwarfed by the trees.
Edita and I had our photo taken beside the boulder, then we climbed the sturdy wooden steps to the top of the tower. The platform at the top was big enough to accommodate 20 people or more, but on this sunny evening in August we were the only people there. To the north we could look across a rolling landscape of farmers’ fields to Juozapinė Hill a short distance away.
But behind us to the south, the view was obscured by trees. The trees were actually higher than the viewing platform. To reach the actual highest point in Lithuania, you would therefore need to climb to the top of the tallest tree in the forest. I’m not exactly sure why they didn’t build the viewing platform a few metres higher so that you could see over the top.
But there was a more obvious question nagging at my mind – has anyone actually climbed to the top of the highest tree in the forest? Has Vladas Vitkauskas? Edita didn’t know. But if the answer to the first question is ‘no’ then it means that the highest point in Lithuania is still unclimbed. There’s a project for somebody there, and I can tell you that Edita isn’t interested, so the road is currently clear.
We walked back along the farm track and crowned our achievement with another full traverse of Juozapinė Hill, this time from south to north. On the summit, we stopped to help Petras’s family pick wild mint for dinner.
As we arrived back at the car another thought came to me: I still haven’t climbed the highest mountain in Latvia. I wonder how high that one is.