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.