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.