The United Nations of Shred - back to Kosovo

And so it was that we left our idyllic valley of Valbona, briefly visiting the nearby town of Bajram Curry for a bit more culture before crossing the border into Kosovo to the ski town of Brezovica. Kosovo, comprised of 90% ethnic Albanians, had been a province of Serbia within the Republic of Yugoslavia, but with the help of the 1999 NATO bombings, gained independence from the Serbian government which had undertaken a campaign of ethnic cleansing to eradicate the Albanian identity. Today, Kosovo is bordered by Serbia, Albania, Montenegro, and Macedonia and its recent history of violence and nation-building accounts for the strong United Nations and European Union presence throughout the country. With Pristina, Kosovo being the best airport access to Valbona, we had actually spent the first night of our trip in Brezovica, incidentally arriving on their 3rd anniversary of independence. We joined the somewhat surreal celebration in an Albanian bar, enjoying the night with people who had actually been a part of their nation’s fight for independence. With entertainment provided by a gypsy band, the excitement/enthusiasm was tangible despite the quaintness in the ski town bar and the relatively small Albanian representation in town.
The ski resort in Brezovica was built as a backup for the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, the Yugoslav government desiring to assure the games could go on if Bosnia had a low snow year. Although 3 lifts were constructed and remain in place, only one has ever operated. Communist Yugoslavia under Tito, as described by the locals in Brezovica, was much “looser” than the austere and severely restricted image most in the west have. As such, Brezovica thrived as an international ski destination for the region, welcoming many from throughout Yugoslavia and foreign nations. Since the eruption of violence in the region, culminating in war in Kosovo, the ski area has suffered substantially, including multiple years of being closed, as well as one year without power when the locals continued to hike for their turns. Brezovica itself, as well as the town which supports it at the base of the mountain, have traditionally been Serbian villages, with Albanian influx only in recent years, due in large part to the fact that Albanians in Kosovo can’t get a passport since they are not formally recognized by the UN Security council as an independent nation. As such, the only ski options are obtaining a passport on the black market, or skiing within the country. As a result, Brezovica today consists of a mix of Albanians and Serbians who interact constructively, due in large part to their shared mountain passion as well as economic interdependence. I had the chance to talk to a local Serbian restaurant owner and snowboarder who confirmed his friendships with the Albanians in town, but who expressed frustration at the treatment of Serbs in Kosovo and his strong feelings against Kosovo’s independence. While once an international destination, travelers to Brezovica from outside Kosovo are rare today, with many Serbs being nervous of the treatment they may receive travelling across Kosovo to get there, and other international travelers still considering the region war torn and unfit for holiday. With that said, however, growth is returning to the region with multi-ethnic youth camps being held to build relationships amongst Serbian and Albanian children, and growth of a freestyle scene complete with competitions and construction of terrain parks.
Our first morning skiing in Brezovica, it was actually unclear whether the lifts would operate. It was a Monday and skiers were pretty sparse, so we spent about an hour having coffees on the deck until about 11am when someone showed up and the lift started turning. After a week of earning our access out of the lowlands in Valbona, we were thrilled to be carried 2000’ up to the alpine on a chairlift. Most of the group investigated the sidecountry and terrain under the mothballed lifts, while Lea, Lorenzo, and I took off to explore outside the ski area. Venturing along the most obvious ridgeline to the top of a line we could see from the valley, we were pleasantly surprised to find an alpine playground unfold before us on the other side. Lea and I, who have explored extensively in the Andes, couldn’t help but feel like we were in a mini-Las Lenas Argentina. With a lovely face covered in sparkly snow below us, we all chose wonderfully aesthetic technical lines to descend and were all smiles at the bottom as we set the skin track to do a few more laps, increasing the creativity of our lines as we better learned the terrain and snowpack. Eventually, we skied the original line we’d scoped as a means to return to the hotel, skiing the creek bed all the way to the road which accesses the town. The terrain we discovered was so unexpectedly wonderful, we headed back out the next day to explore further along the ridge and ski a more distant peak we’d seen the first day. Yet again, we were overwhelmed by the aesthetic and efficient ridge travel, the steep and interesting lines, and the limitless options for future ski exploration. Alas, the weather rolled back in and our trip came to an end before we could explore further, but skiing the sidecountry of Brezovica was a perfect end to an overwhelmingly unique trip.

The United Nations of Shred - Valbona first days

In 1992, the Albanian Communist Party led by Enver Hoxha collapsed as the iron curtain was falling across Eastern Europe. Albanian, located in the southeastern Europe north of Greece and across the Adriatic sea from Italy had been a closed society under the communist influence, with outside news available only with subversive techniques like using antennas at night to pirate Italian tv signals. Fast –forward 19 years: The Lonely Planet has named Albania #1 on the top-ten places to visit in 2011, due in large part to the intersection of culture and natural beauty, coupled with the insanely hospitable Albanian culture and reasonable travel costs.

Although substantially more modernized and connected, much of Albania today still remains detached from mainstream commercial centers, most notably (especially for skiers) the Albanian Alps in the NE corner of the country. This area, bordered by Kosovo and Montenegro is home to the roughest terrain and the highest peaks in the region. These highlands, considered “unconquerable” to past invaders due to poor access and difficult travel, was often left alone, the Ottomans and others figuring that controlling the cities below would suffice. Between the fall of communism and the construction of the road to connect the major cities of Tirana (the Albanian capital) and Pristina (the capital of Kosovo) less than 5 years ago, the area was essentially lawless, subject to vigilante justice due to isolation from any government officials. In the outskirts of this isolated region lies the Valbona Valley, a dramatic landscape of steep mountainous walls along an idyllic valley and a culture that, although undergoing modernization, has a sense of being stuck 100 years back in time.

The mountains surrounding this remote village in the Albanian Alps had yet to be thoroughly explored on skis and was the reason that our international group had come to the region. Self-named the United Nations of Shred, we were ultimately a group of 12 skiers representing Albania, France, Switzerland, Germany, the UK, and the USA. This trip was the brainchild of photographer Benoit Vollmer, a French skier with a knack for culturally adventurous ski trips, and Gent Mati, a passionate Albanian skier who owns and guides for an adventure tourism company called Outdoor Albania. Summertime sees the valley full of tourists exploring the heritage trails amongst the Shepards that return every summer to raise their animals, but winter has little to offer economically-speaking, which accounts for an exodus of the valley’s residents in Valbona and other similar villages to find better opportunities in commercial centers. In order to sustain the local economy with sustainable tourism throughout the winter, Gent and Outdoor Albania are seeking to develop a base for the world class ski mountaineering Valbona has to offer, offering a truly unique adventure while simultaneously supporting the preservation of Valbona’s mountain culture.

And so it was that I find myself landing in Pristina, Kosovo, the nearest major city to Valbona. We arrived in Valbona travel-weary after dark to a very comfortable lodge – nice rooms with hot showers and one main dining room with espresso and a bar . . . perfect for our program. We awoke the next morning to partly sunny skies illuminating a valley so dramatic it was overwhelming to consider from the standpoint of a skier. Not having much context for “what went,” info the best access into the upper elevations, or any other beta from previous ski missions, we headed up-valley to where our maps, relics of the Yugoslav army, indicated there was a trail leading through the densely forested lower elevations. Although no such trail ever appeared, we were able to navigate the forest into an open bowl, which transitioned to the upper alpine region we had drooled over from below just a few hours before - truly the stuff ski mountaineering dreams are made of! From this vantage point, we could also scope the valley better – about 10 miles long and with about 5000’ of relief on all sides, the upper elevations held plenty of classic ski mountaineering lines, but most were insanely exposed over cliffed out sections for much of the interesting ski terrain, with the most obvious access routes including the use of large avalanche paths . . . hmmm, this could be an interesting week! But, as it was, we were perched for great skiing so those concerns would be for another day. The group split up and a small group of us headed up toward an enticing couloir. Only the apron was visible from below, but the hidden line continued to unfold in front of us as we climbed, finally topping out at a rock band above a truly classic alpine gem. The exposure was intense, as were the first few steep turns. Although we’d dug a pit and assessed conditions on the way up, we were still in truly wild and rugged unskied terrain, a couple thousand feet above a primitive village which is 5 hours drive away from the most realistic hope at modern medicine. In other words, this was definitely a place to play it on the safe side and maintain elevated caution. But, this remoteness also gave our run the added buzz that comes from exploring in such a raw area, a true feeling of aliveness. I dropped in first and nervously executed my jump turns out of the steep cruxy top of the couloir, followed soon after by my friend Adam U, a ski buddy from my Mt. Baker past, as we leap frogged down the couloir and out the rocky exit. The others followed and then headed to check out a pencil-thin couloir, while I headed up to nearby col to see what I could see. Fascinated by “looking over the other side” as a way of life I was excited to get the lay of the land for our remaining time here. Happily, the col unveiled a lifetime of ski opportunities, including a very doable approach to the largest peak in the area. As I re-joined the group, we were all jazzed to return to this area and set up base camp, exploring and shredding every corner we could see.

Alas, Valbona had different plans and the next day dawned cloudy with a big storm forecast to move in, sending us off in search of some tree skiing. Although logging is now outlawed in the Valbona valley in an effort to preserve its resources, a recent past of timber sales offered us the convenience of logging roads as a means to get out of the lowlands. We found our way up one such road to a dramatic col, dropping off the other side into perfectly gladed tree skiing before the forest closed out into a low-snow obstacle course of downed trees, rocks, moss, and just enough snow to survive our way back down to the road. With laughs at the absurdity of it all, we popped out amongst the sheep and farmhouses of Valbona, thankful for another safe day of ski exploring.

The United Nations of Shred - Valbona storm days

As the storm rolled in and we waited for snow to accumulate on the melt-freeze surface we arrived to, we explored local culture instead, including a local school which had been destroyed in flood but was reasonably intact with a lesson on the blackboard and a huge map of Albania left in a room full of desks. On this day, our group also grew to include Lea and Lorenzo, a German couple living in Austria and the two with whom I would partner for most of the rest of my trip. Now that we were a group of 12, backcountry travelling en-masse didn’t seem like such a great idea!
As the snow continued to fall, we remained hungry for adventure and a small group of us took off for the village of Qukui. About an hour’s hike out of Valbona (from which the children literally do walk an hour through the snow to get to school!), we had heard the village was super quaint and interesting and that there was a high potential of good tree skiing to be found. So, we took off from our lodge and developed skills in the sport of fence-hopping as we made our way across farms and over to the access road to Qukui. Eventually we arrived in a small valley with two farmhouses and made our way over toward the one where people milled about outside. We were welcomed by an amazing family who invited us in. We spent the next 2 hours chatting in international hand signs; our combo of English, German, French, and Spanish was no substitute for Albanian, but we muddled our way through sharing the basics of our origins, ages, and the other basic life info while enjoying Turkish coffees with bread and cheese, overwhelmed by the family’s hospitality. Eventually it was time to ski, so off we went, with a surprise greeting outside by the two boys on their own skis, quite literally shaped pieces of wood with little rubber stirrups to put their shoes through. Off we went up the backyard hill. We walked with ease on our modern gear as the two boys, 13 year old Fatlium and 9 year old Florian, struggled as they used built-up snow on the base of their skis for traction – actually finding some value in the iced-up bases we seek to avoid. When it was time to descend, they used their wood poles to beat the snow off and then poled their way back to the house . . . super cute and definitely a cultural moment that was a highlight for us! Meanwhile, back in the ski exploration, we were able to find an open slope just across the valley and enjoyed a wonderful powder run in the perfectly-spaced trees, ending our day with smiles ear to ear from the experience we’d had.
As the storm raged on, we traded locale’s the next day by exploring where the rest of our group had gone the day before – another logging road across the valley from our hotel that led to more perfect tree skiing . . . we returned here multiple times throughout the week, ultimately finding perfect blower pow as the storm continued. As an Alaskan deprived of good tree skiing exploring with Lea and Lorenzo who ski the Alps and are oftentimes deprived of super deep powder skiing, we all fell in love with this zone. The perfectly spaced trees at the base of dramatic rock walls looming above created the perfect backdrop for face shots in deep powder – storm skiing doesn’t get much better!
On our final full day in Valbona, Lea, Lorenzo, and I decided to return to Qukui for another dose of culture and the hopes of new and different tree skiing to explore. We decided to start from “downtown” Valbona and left the car at the local bar, a one-room gathering spot for the men in town to watch TV, smoke, drink coffee, and enjoy some Raki, the local alcohol. Having made friends with Izzy the bartender, we were sent off with smiles and a hug for our day of adventuring, with promises to watch the car in our absence. Back across the farmland, and up the road, our goal was to bypass social obligations of the farmhouse so as to focus on skiing, stopping there on our return for a quick hello at the end of the day. The boys would have it otherwise, however, and at the first sight of us they ran inside and geared up for skiing, waiving us over to their house such that they could join us. Suffice it to say, it was awesome. This time, they came much further and were a joy to tour with, again working double what we were, but continually concerned for our fatigue, smiles ear-to-ear as they led us up the road. When we got to a fork and decided to go left toward the upper valley, it was clear we were leaving their approved areas, and they quickly went into descent mode and headed home. We continued to venture on, running into their father out hunting with the dogs about 10 minutes later. He showed us his Russian shotgun and described the local area (again in international hand signs), pointing out the col that forms the border with Montenegro and providing our inspiration for the day – living in a huge country, the idea of skiing across an international border was too enticing to pass up! So, off we went through the thick lower forest, eventually arriving in the alpine and navigating funky conditions in the upper bowl to arrive at the super windy border col. Lea and Lorenzo, living in the Alps and skiing across borders for coffee, were not quite as thrilled with this event as I was, and did not find it necessary to battle the conditions to the other side but were kind enough to indulge me in my little international adventure. The vistas were amazing as another lifetime of terrain peaked out of the clouds below and our conversations were around how this place could really use a hut system so that a skier could legitimately access the overwhelming amount of terrain. Our run down was everything you’d hope for in an alpine descent – weird snow in the exposed upper bowl, transitioning to nice pow in the trees as we managed to find a more open route to descend and were greeted again with spunky tree skiing with plenty of features to hop off of and fun tree lines to enjoy!
We couldn’t resist visiting our new friends in the farmhouse and were once again warmly greeted, this time with mountain tea made from herbs gathered in the local area during the summer. We left them with what disposable items we had (like ski wax!) as a thank-you and then headed back to the bar and our car. We were warmly greeted back at the bar by Izzy and our new friends and once again offered mountain tea as a group of about 10 guys inspected my ski boots with awe and we had yet another hilarious cultural exchange.
Forever interested in culture, Lea and I decided to finish off our day by going down valley to meet Catherine, a New Yorker who’d come to Valbona on vacation and fallen in love with Alfred Selimaj. She returned shortly thereafter to the USA to sell everything and move permanently to Albania, now running Hotel Rilinja with Alfred and administering a UN grant they’ve received to develop sustainable tourism in Valbona, again in support of preserving traditional lifestlyes. We ended up chatting for about 4 hours about Albanian history, our own life experiences, and the impact that one’s culture has on their path. Between Lea, growing up in Germany where national pride in the post-Nazi era was awkward at best; Alfred, whose family were the first to receive a land grant from the Ottoman Empire in the Valbona valley over 400 years ago; and Katherine/me with an American culture that focuses more on freedom and limitless future than on staying rooted to a familial past our conversation was truly fascinating. Alfred and Catherine also shared perspective that much of the warmth we’d experienced from the locals comes from a deep love of culture and country which manifests itself as a deep appreciation for those who come to experience it, coupled with gratitude for the nations which have helped preserve it.. Today, Albania is statistsically 70-80% Muslim, but religion is not a huge part of Albanian culture – the number one belief in Albania is simply being Albanian. Ottomans, although Muslim, did not undertake a big conversion campaign, rather charging Christians higher taxes, thus benefitting one way or another. Christians were able to hold government postions and rank in society, so there was no real drive to convert, although some did. Religion was officially outlawed in 1967 under the communist government, allowed to be openly observed in the early 90’s with the onset of democracy. So, today weddings may or may not happen in a church, religion may or may not guide family life, but their Albanian identity unites ethnic Albanians from the countries they inhabit (more than half live in Albania and Kosovo with substantial populations in neighboring Montenegro, Macedonia, and Greece). “Being Albanian" defines their culture more than any other belief or value set. We also learned random facts about Valbona: the stream is home to a species of trout not found anywhere else, the town used to be in a different location but was completely destroyed by floods and relocated, until a few months ago the only cell phone service was in one spot in a tree and all the townspeople hung their phones their and stood under the tree to hold a conversation.
I always have a hard time leaving incredible places, especially when I haven’t had a chance to explore them thoroughly and experience them in good weather. So, on our last morning I decided to head out on a solo mission to make peace with leaving the people and the mountains I had begun to fall in love with. I left at 7am before anyone at the hotel was awake and the valley was quiet, opting for the nearby trees we’d been skiing all week due to the foggy/cloudy skies. Across the valley and onto the skin track I went, where our trail had been imprinted with tracks from some of the 400 wolves estimated to live in the valley. As I ascended through the forest, quietly appreciating the summer shepards cabins and the poetic trees, I climbed out of the fog and into bright sunshine I hadn’t seen for a week. Across a meadow below a dramatic rock buttress I ascended to our highest skin track. With plenty of time, sunny skies, and a mellow path above, I decided to keep climbing until I had a compelling reason to turn around. My journey took me up to a bench where I imagine a beautiful alpine lake forms in the summertime, and then around a small knob into a dramatic bowl with high cliff walls that made me feel insignificant amongst the grandeur of the amphitheater I was in. I continued up through a little couloir and a short steep bootpack through one final slope to the col I’d had my eyes on for awhile. From a mini-mountain between two giant peaks, I was able to see over the other side at another lifetime of world-class ski mountaineering. From my perch, I saw signs of natural slab avalanches from the recent storm, wind-affected slopes, and enough exposure to make any skier a little dizzy in contemplating the realities of exploring the terrain. To the west, I was able to see that there was a route that went up a peak that seemed to close out from below, and to the east, a sneaker route emerged to the top of the peak that looked unskiable from the hotel. I began to realize the access was actually much better than it had appeared from the valley below, and to appreciate the perspective I’d gained in our week of exploration. Taking in the grandeur, infinite possibility, and extreme object hazard included in exploring these peaks (I really don’t think I’ve ever seen so much secondary exposure in any other ski terrain I’ve explored!), I was able to make peace with leaving. All I had to do was make it safely down my route, and then could depart with the satisfaction of our group of 12 safely exploring and skiing in a place that had previously seen minimal ski activity, an accomplishment in and of itself given the conditions and remoteness. I told myself I’d organize another trip, now having as much expertise as any other skier, acknowledging that the first trip to any new area is always one of reconnaissance, and that I’d for sure be back. And with that thought, I ripped my skins, took one more glace around the astounding panorama in front of me, and dropped into my run. A few fun turns in the upper bowl, transitioning to steep jump turns in the mini-couloir, a traverse across the dramatic amphitheatre, to some utterly delicious powder turns all the way to tree line. There is something so surreal and wonderful about solo backcountry skiing – the consistency of skiing top-to-bottom without anyone else to watch, the quiet air pierced by the sounds made by skis disrupting the perfect snow, the feeling of aliveness that comes from knowing its all up to you. That morning was definitely perfect, and I’ll forever treasure it.

The United Nations of Shred descends on Kosovo . . .

So, it's not everyday that a friend you haven't seen in years invites you on a trip with people you don't know to a country you had never considered visiting . . . but such was the case when my friend Adam U invited me to join an international crew made up of mostly French, but with 2 Germans, 2 Swiss, and an Albanian to ski in Albania and Kosovo. Since the trip met my criteria for being totally random and interesting and the only thing Adam could conclusively say was "guaranteed adventure," I decided I should probably give it a go . . .

So, on Feb 17, 2011 I found myself landing in Pristina, Kosovo on their 3rd anniversary of independence . . . wow, now there's a concept! I had studied the Balkan conflict in high school but had honestly forgotten most of what I'd learned in the interim and admittedly hadn't paid much attention to how the situation had developed since then . . .

Adam entering Kosovo

We opted to head straight to Brezovica, a ski area built as a backup for 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, and only about 1.5 hrs away from town, but first stopped in downtown to have a drink and a quick snack . . . Driving down Bill Clinton Blvd, I learned that people in Kosovo were super pro-US due to our support of the 1999 NATO bombings that ultimately turned the tide on the Serbians performing an ethnic cleansing of Albanians (Kosovo is 90% Albanina, 10% Serbian) out of the country, both by force and by forced adoption of Serbian language/religion/customs, etc. In current times, it was a little uncomfortable to be in a country that is so pro-US after spending so much time travelling lately with a sense of guilt for the role our country has played on the international scene, but I have to admit it was nice as well . . .

So, we arrived in Brezovica and headed up to the Albanian bar, where we celebrated independence with Peja beer and gypsy music . . . it was a pretty mellow, but fun evening!

Adam and I . . .

A happy ex-soldier from the Kosovo Liberation Army, as commemorated by the medal around his neck . . .
The gypsy band

The next morning saw high winds and the ski area on hold, so we decided to take off for Albania, but not until after some strolling and a nice lunch! It was nice to have a good night's sleep and a mellow day to start the trip on, thus mitigating some of the jet lag!

Total fashion envy . . .

Brezovica was historically a Serbian area, in part due to the village at the base of the mountain being Serbian, but today it's enjoyed by Serbians and Albanians and serves to many we spoke to as an example of how economic co-depedence (Serbian business owners need Kosovo's Albanians to support the ski area, especially since international travelers have not really come back, and many Serbians don't feel safe traveling in Kosovo) is the necessary integration to create a peaceful future.

An Albanian and Serb working rental huts at the base of the ski area, pointing out (in international communication signs of course) their friendship

And so, off to Albania we went for a week of ski touring in the Valbona valley . . .