Boyan Stoyanov is a mountaineer from Bulgaria who is on a mission to climb the highest mountain in each European country. This includes tough nuts like Mont Blanc, Triglav or Elbrus. Luckily, Boyan visited me when I lived in Lithuania. The highest point of the country is less than 300 meters/1,000 feet high. For that, I am ready.
It is 18 March 2013. It has been snowing almost every day for four months, the temperatures never went above zero (32° Fahrenheit). It looks accordingly white and winterly when we take a minibus from Vilnius towards the east. The villages are getting smaller, the snow is getting deeper and the bus is getting emptier.
We stay on all the way to Medininkai, the last village before the border to Belarus. Here, the European Union and the Schengen area come to an end. If there is any remnant of the Iron Curtain anywhere in Europe, then it is 2 km (1.2 miles) from here. Freedom on this side, Europe’s last dictatorship on the other side. F-16 fighter jets of the Danish Air Force patrol the skies. Lithuania has only one light attack aircraft, so the NATO partners intervene supportingly.
Not a single cloud roils the blue sky. The sun is mirrored in ice and snow. Picture-perfect weather. When you turn the face directly towards the sun, you can even bear the temperatures of minus 10 degrees (14° Fahrenheit). Nobody is out in the streets. Medininkai only has a population of 500, no mountain tourism has evolved yet.
Shortly after we leave the village, a sign points the way: 2 km (1.2 miles) to Aukštojo kalnas, 1 km (0.6 miles) to Juozapinės kalnas. “Kalnas” is the Lithuanian word for mountain and for hill. The further course of the expedition will reveal why this language, despite being more than 1,000 years old, is content with a single word for geographic elevations of different characteristics.
“What mountain?” I hear the disappointed readers exclaim. But take a close look and you will recognize a wooden cross on the summit. Only a few minutes later we are already at the foot of the mountain. Here it is, in all its majestic size:
I could attempt to counter the noticeable disappointment by pointing out that this one is not the highest mountain in Lithuania. But in all honesty I would need to add that Juozapinės was considered to be Lithuanian’s highest mountain until 2004, before it was relegated to second place.
Boyan and me try to take our time with the ascent to get at least a bit of a mountaineering feeling, but for a Bulgarian and a Bavarian what we see in front of us is not more than a field which is slightly higher than the surrounding fields. Where we come from, only sledding children would call this a hill.
To prevent the summit from being overlooked by those riding their horses across the fields, a heavy stone was rolled up and one of these totem poles which one sees everywhere in Lithuania was driven into the ground.
So this is our destination. We face a long and arduous ascent. Time to recapitulate the history of these two competing mountains. Since the beginning of time, Juozapinės was regarded as the highest point in Lithuania, until 1985 (when it was still the Soviet Union!) the geographer Rimantas Krupickas bravely dared to register doubts. Academic disputes between the geographic faculties of the universities in Lithuania ensued. At the University of Vilnius the Aukštojas faction was formed, while the majority of the surveying colleagues in Kaunas remained steadfast in their loyalty to Juozapinė. Seminars were organized, Master and doctoral theses were written, articles were published in scientific journals. The argument escalated so much that the Soviet Commission for Mountain Geography wanted to step in, but then the USSR broke up and Lithuania became independent in 1991.
With independence came progress and with progress came GPS. In 2004 a new field survey was carried out, and Aukštojas narrowly emerged as the victor. Students of geography saw themselves robbed of a fruitful subject and had to turn back to the Curonian Spit. But now the philologists appeared on the scene because the hill later known as Aukštojas didn’t have any name back then. After all, it was not yet a mountain, but a nobody, a nameless spot at the edge of the wood. A contest was proclaimed for the name of the newly discovered point, on which the pride of the nation would henceforth focus. Again academics debated, researched, argued and published. The winner of this contest was Libertas Klimka, professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Vilnius, whose proposal Aukštojas is derived from Aukštėjas, who is something like the Lithuanian Zeus. Lithuania was the last country in Europe to become christianized and which caught a crusade due to its slow conversion. Pagan cults are still widespread, as you can see from the woodcarving on the totem pole above. But I digress.
Aukštojas also received a heavy stone, of course.
And the tower. Climbing it took almost as long as climbing the whole mountain, which it adorns. Finally we get out the thermos flask with tea and the chocolate cookies. We are only modestly hungry, and even that little bit of hunger was probably built up more during the bus ride than during the short walk.
But now I cannot postpone telling you the solution to the greatest geographical mystery of modern times. The curious reader has already prepared pen and paper to note down the exact altitude of the much discussed hills.
It is suggested that you take a seat before daring to glance at the values gained with the help of the most current scientific methods:
293.84 meters (964 feet 0.5 inches) beats 293.60 meters (963 feet 3 inches), but a difference in height of 24 cm (9.45 inches) makes the long-lasting discussions appear as ridiculous as your traveling reporter has tried to portray them. Twenty-four centimeters! Less than ten inches! In Nepal or in Switzerland nobody knows the decimal points of their highest mountains even. Twenty-four centimeters, that is less than the altitude gained if you take a book from a shelf and place it on the next shelf above. If one of the mountains grows a mohawk (after all, the totem pole is already in place), puts on a hat or wakes up one morning with something which I am too decent to mention, then the ranking has to be rewritten again.