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Matthew Bourne

April 09 2020

FW STORY: BALKAN'S TRIP

Prior to watching Teton Gravity Research’s “Paradise Waits” (2015) and seeing former Faction athlete Johnny Collinson and his sister Angel zooming down the snow-laden slopes of Kosovo, I was oblivious to the fact that there were large, picturesque mountains to be skied in that country. In the subsequent years, I noticed more and more ski film segments showcasing skiers in the Balkans. I thought it was refreshing to see something outside of the status quo: a big-mountain segment in Alaska, or a pow segment in Japan.

I developed an itch to ski in, and experience Kosovo for myself, yet I expected it would be a tough sell trying to get people onboard, as the country doesn’t quite meet the standard criteria of a sought-after skiing destination. Much to my luck though, an old friend was spending his winter in France and without an awful lot of convincing, he was in. And so the plan was hatched.

Fast forward a few months, and after a short two-hour flight we had landed in Pristina, Kosovo. Alarmingly, Ollie had spoken with a local on the airplane who was intrigued about our visit; Ollie mentioned that we were using a rental car for the trip and the stranger chuckled, saying, “Good luck.” Within 15 minutes of being on the open Kosovan roads, the stranger’s advice had become apparent.

 

The evening darkness and the lack of street lights made it difficult to navigate potholes in the road. With Fleetwood Mac pumping, concentration levels were less than optimal, and sure enough our little Polo drove over a giant hole at decent speed, resulting in the car popping a wheelie and letting out an extraordinarily unforgiving sound. The adventure had begun.

We spent our first day in Kosovo moseying around Pristina, where we found ourselves on Bill Clinton Boulevard staring at a 10-foot statue of the man himself, with the American flag draped below Kosovo’s own. The former U.S. president is held in high regard amongst Kosovans for his influence in ending the Kosovo War and bringing about independence.

Fueled by Turkish coffee, we visited various sightseeing spots, including a local museum and also the national library, which draws attention for its “unique” design—or as Ollie described it, his “favorite ugly building.” The highlight of the day, however, was being serenaded by a local who sported traditional Kosovan clothing, banged on a big drum and incorporated my name into a song. How flattering!

Undeterred by a night of sampling the local beers we managed to rise before dawn and made our way south towards the Brezovica Ski Resort, situated in the Šar Mountains. After an hour’s drive we had reached the access road of the resort, which proved to be a(nother) real test for our noble steed. We eventually made it to the ski hill after battling through a seemingly never-ending minefield of cavernous potholes. But a look around quickly put us in a better state of mind; our initial impression of this quaint resort was one of having been transported to the 80s. The small community was immediately welcoming, and we felt happy that this quirky little resort would be our home for the next few days.

We spotted a single-seat chairlift and were very excited to get going, only to be disappointed upon learning that the lifts weren’t running, which unbeknownst to us would become a common theme of our time in Kosovo. Deciding to make hay while the sun was shining, we strapped on our climbing skins and went for a tour, heading south of the resort. After a short climb we made it onto a ridgeline where we enjoyed a stunning view of the Šar Mountains. Looking around, there were wide-open bowls, cliffs and steep faces. The terrain options were endless. After skiing down the hill we found ourselves quite far away from the resort, making for a moment of uncertainty. Luckily, a local baker was driving up towards Brezovica in his van and was kind enough to give us a lift. Again, we felt very welcome in this place.

Day two brought more of the same: no lifts running and a ski-tour that came to an abrupt stop due to high winds. We took solace in the idea that with the wind would come a storm, and indeed it was not long before the snow began to fall. We hunkered down in Pizzeria Tina, where the Serbian owner, Igor, and his family made us feel at home with that sort of warm atmosphere you might generally associate with your Grandma’s house. Pizzeria Tina became our rendezvous point from then on out.

Looking out of our hotel room window the following morning, the tree branches were loaded and the storm showed no sign letting up. We were both quickly up and at ‘em. Unfortunately, we were told that only one lift would be running and that it would kick into gear around noon. So, we waited. When the lift finally started turning, we enjoyed the old-school system of paying €3 per ride. It was like being at the funfair. And the wait was well worth it, as there was plenty of pow to go around.

The avalanche risk was high, with many slides visible on exposed faces and steep pitches, so we kept to the trees. After two hours and heaps of yipping and “YEW-ing” through the forest, the lifties decided that 2 p.m. was it for them, and so that was it for us. The snow was too good to stop skiing, however, so after a quick coffee break we decided to tour in the direction of Piri Breg Peak, situated on the opposite side of the resort, which had been closed for the day. Stopping just shy of the summit due to poor visibility, we pointed our skis downhill and had ourselves one truly epic blast through the trees. This was easily the best run of the trip. 

Riding a wave of excitement, we treated ourselves to a few brews at our local watering hole where we met a young guy named Nolly, who invited us ‘round to his place for more beers with his friends. It was a bizarre experience and before long we found ourselves firing an air rifle out his window at an out-of-service ski tower. We’d later come to learn that Nolly is one of the top ski guides in Kosovo.

It was striking to hear Nolly open up about various difficulties of being a Kosovan citizen. He explained that he was unable to leave the country due to political unrest between Serbia and Kosovo—which is brewing over disputed territory. It was sad to hear, I must admit, and his words gave valuable perspective on being able to visit different countries freely.

The snow continued to fall overnight and the skies opened up in the morning, delivering a bluebird day for the ages. We struck gold that day, as even the lifties were keen to get the lifts operating without delay. The snow was on point, with 20+cm of fresh champagne. The yipping and yew-ing commenced once again.

One of the highlights of the day came in the afternoon when we skinned over to the other side of the resort, again in the direction of Piri Berg Peak. It was the first time we’d seen the piste being groomed. It seemed they had purposely left this side of the mountain closed the day prior, with the intention of providing fresh pow one day, then perfect groomers the next. We couldn’t help by notice that even on the steepest pitches they didn’t use winches to support the snow cats. Instead, they just careened down the piste, relying on the fresh snow to slow them down. Crazy and fearless, those drivers were.

We spent our last evening with Igor and his family. Throughout the week we had been treated to Igor’s homemade brandy and his mother’s cooking, but they saved the best for last: his mum made her famous donuts. It was a memorable send-off, and even without having left the small ski resort, I knew I’d miss this lovely family.


Our next stop was Macedonia. To get there, we battled through the Brezovica access road one final time, then drove two hours before arriving at the capital, Skopje. We enjoyed two down days here, exploring the city and doing the usual touristy stuff. In the pouring rain, we found ourselves at the Old Buzaar, where the narrow streets were full of coffee shops and restaurants, and we indulged in Turkish delights, ranging from coffee, to baklava and kebabs.

As the proud new owners of a Turkish rug, we made our way towards the ski resort Popovo Šapka, which, it turned out, hadn’t been open all season due to minimal snowfall.

However, our visit was well timed, as the resort benefitted from the same storm that rolled through Brezovica a few days prior. We ended up skinning to a resort’s peak, where we experienced variable snowpack, making it our most challenging tour of the trip. In hindsight, maybe it was the snow, or perhaps we had overindulged in Skopje.

The following day was our last day of the trip, so we opted for a mellow “cruiser” tour, and we soaked up the Macedonian sunshine while making our way slowly uphill. Following a similar route as taken the previous day, we managed to find some fun terrain. We ended the trip with some goosing around and some good old straight-lining.

When we returned to our home in Innsbruck, Austria, we were completely unaware that the COVID-19 pandemic had escalated to such a dramatic extent. So much so that Ollie, being an Australian citizen, was asked by the government to return home ASAP. Within three days he was at his childhood home, self-isolating in Melbourne. As for me, I’m now three weeks into my quarantine, penning this recap while enjoying one of life’s greatest gifts: ice cream in the sun. As I reflect on my trip, it gives me hope for the future—I so look forward to the next adventure, the next potholes, pizza, donuts, tree-skiing and the next summit. Stay positive, my friends.

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