Wild bears, landmines, poisonous snakes, imprecise maps, avalanches, no mountain rescue, uninhabited area – these are only a few of the dangers people confronted us with while planning the winter attempt of the Peaks of the Balkans trail. This trail is a circuit that leads through untouched mountain wilderness in Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo. In summer, the trail is a rather easy hiking path, often done by organized hiking groups, but we never heard of anyone who did it in winter.
Still, this seemed like a challenge to us and the loneliness of the area rather fascinated than frightened us. Nevertheless, the lack of information made planning quite difficult and ended in nightly skype discussion weather to take snowshoes or crampons.
After a cold night in the tent in Vusanje (Montenegro), we started early in the morning and the frozen snow allowed us to cover a long distance during the first day. The mountains welcomed us with good conditions and the landscape was incredibly beautiful: sharp peaks, impressive rock formations, frozen and snow covered trees.
We could find no single sign of human impact along the way but the red white marks of the trail (when we eventually happened to find them…). We crossed the border to Albania just before our breakfast break and during the descent to the valley, we were happy for having chosen the “crampons option” as it was quite steep. With snow turning into rain as we walked further down, we were indeed relieved to find shelter in the little mountain village Thethi and experienced Albanian hospitality with a warm fireplace and amazing local food.
The joy of the rising sun on the clear blue sky the next morning vanished quickly as the snow started to melt and we began to sink waist deep into the wet snow with every step.
Our backpacks were heavy with lots of food and equipment which made it hard to break trail. Nevertheless, we love hard work and every corner or ridge we passed rewarded us with picturesque sceneries.
The descent into the next valley showed us how imprecise our map was as there were rocky cliffs in reality but none on the map – which actually makes a difference.
At one point we found ourselves at a steep break with only one not impossible option to traverse to a safe decent, however this was a about 50° steep rather icy and very exposed couloir.
As the risk of avalanches increased due to the sun energy we quickly improvised ice axes from ski poles, put on our crampons and made it safely to the other side – a lot of concentration and teamwork required.
We all felt relieved after managing this passage safely!
We were very happy to be down in the valley and enjoyed the needed breakfast break in the sunshine. Although the technically most difficult part of the whole trail laid behind, the energy was definitely important as the next hours meant sinking deep into the wet snow and our shoes felt like swimming pools full of water. After 10 hours of pushing ourselves close to the physical limits, we arrived in the mountain village Valbona, craving for a place to take off and dry our shoes.
With an average pace of 1.3 km/h, we did not cover a long distance that day, but were optimistic that the rest of the trail would be at least “possible” and we already made plans for our camping spots and route the following days.
But things would change. The “little bit of snow” for about one hour in the morning as predicted by the weather forecast didn’t stop after this one after hour – and neither after 2,3,4…. and with the snow falling, our hopes of continuing the trail were dropping too.
With every snowflake, the risk of avalanches grew and in the afternoon we finally started to realize that we had to change our plans. As there is no avalanche warning in Albania, we did not know the area well (the maps didn’t help us with that either), no such thing as a mountain rescue nor villages on the trail from now on. We decided that here and at this point we have no chance but ending our winter attempt of the PoB.
For me this was a incredibly difficult decision, we prepared this trip for weeks, we were determined to work very hard and we already completed the technically most difficult part of the trail. Even though the snowfall (which is very unlikely in April in this area) did not leave us any other option I felt like giving up. Looking back now, I know that this was the only right decision, it is not only this adventure that counts, but all the adventures in the next years to come and the most important thing is for sure to stay fit and healthy. Furthermore we now know that with good weather conditions it is possible to hike the PoB in winter and I promised myself to come back one day and complete the whole circuit.
On the one hand, this was disappointing to all of us, but on the other hand this made our trip so much more diverse. The Balkans are full of contrasts and we got to experience so many of them! One day we crawled through hot bushes full of thorns, the next day we were jumping of joy in waist deep snow, we swam in the sea, had a campfire at the beach and melted snow for tea on the stove in the mountains. We experienced the great hospitality of the locals and tasted traditional food. The wind sounded as it was about to break the tent in the evening and we woke up to the sound of singing birds in the morning. Sunrises and sunsets, hot sunshine and freezing hours during the nights, exhausted and joyful moments, loneliness and vibrant culture, mountains, forests and the sea. All of this is the Balkans — and so much more.
We took this ferry (which is actually a transformed bus!) a day after breaking up the PoB and we were stunned by the beauty of the mountains around the Komani lake!
Change of plans – change of landscapes! From deep winter in the mountains it felt almost like we skipped a few months and found ourselves in spring! We had so much snow in the last few days so we decided to hike at the sea where it was a lot warmer.
After a tough fight through the thorny and trackless bushes we were rewarded with a fantastic view over the deep blue ocean!
Perfectly equipped for the sea: Ice axe, gaiters, down jackets…but a bikini
Exploring a abandoned and ruined holiday club confronted us with many mysteries!
Back in the snow: The last two days in the National Park Biogradska Gora offered us amazing camp spots and loads of powder – we missed our skis a lot! Occasionally we had to break trail through hip deep fresh snow – in steep terrain with heavy backpack definitely a challenge.
Photo Credits: Simon Straetker and Jule Holland