Snowboarding Bansko Bulgaria; An Eastern Promise Unfulfilled?
Words by Dave Horlock
Pictures by Rob Evans and Dan Westlake
Published March 2007
Bansko, Bulgaria has been hailed as the next big thing when it comes to skiing and snowboarding. The winter sports media has shouted loud about the large ski area, the extensive freeride possibilities and the low prices that undercut anything in Western Europe. However, does snowboarding in Bansko really live up to the hype? Dave Horlock reports...
I had been to Bulgaria once before, back when I first started snowboarding in '99. It certainly had a slightly different atmosphere to all the other European resorts that I have visited, both before and since. As well as this different feel, the people were friendly and the prices were cheap, so in the back of my mind I had never ruled out heading back. The only trouble was that the resort I had visited then (Borovets) was and still is fairly small. I didn't think it would keep me entertained for a week of riding now. If you are in the same position as me, you certainly do not want to 'waste' one of your precious weeks away in the mountains!
When I began hearing the name of Bansko appearing in magazines, brochures and various other forms of media, I started taking notice. This was the first time I had seen a 'new' ski resort appear and one aspect really grabbed my attention; freeriding. In fact more than just freeriding, 'heliboarding' was the magic word. I knew for a fact that snowboarding heli-drops in Bulgaria were possible, as our instructor in Borovets had offered us some chopper time just all those years ago. Perhaps a bit optimistic for people in their first/second week on snow, but a nice thought anyway Mario!
Anyhow, with my mind a whirl with the possibilities of relatively cheap epic powder rides, the trip was booked and I began scouring the internet trying to find out how to get a heli booked. I came across two leads. One was, the seven times Bulgarian freeride champion, who was clearly going to know his stuff! As was the second; Ash Newnes, a BASI Instructor trainer, who had moved to Bansko from the UK domes this winter. Both had similar responses: "wait until the season starts, and we'll look into the details".
Months passed and with winter just round the corner it started to become clear that things would not be as simple as I had initially hoped. Firstly, the heli operators had apparently hiked their prices. With the Bansko economy booming from massive investment, this was perhaps not surprising but we were told that prices would be similar to those in Western Europe or North America. Not what I had hoped for, but still I was eager for my first heli-experience.
Then the real choker came, or rather did not come. As you will likely be aware, the 2006/7 winter has not been the best season for snow in Europe and Bulgaria was no different. While the white stuff did fall in December, it was little compared to the two metres or so that had been reported the previous year. At this point I had resigned myself to some off-piste guiding as a substitute but still had hopes that a heli trip might be possible.
Come early January, with the trip now a month away, temperatures began to rise in resort, hiting 7C at times! The webcams were starting to show a dismal picture; the slopes were brown not white. Then in the week before we headed off a number of events happened; firstly I heard back from our potential guide, who said he was concerned about the lack of snow but would let me know if the off-piste hiking would be worth it; secondly (on a more positive note) it dumped about a foot of snow; thirdly this new snow caused an avalanche which sent someone to hospital with a badly broken leg; fourthly terrorism hit Bansko. More on the that later.
Arriving in Bulgaria's capital Sofia, my first impressions were that it had become slightly more westernised in the eight years since my previous visit. Passport checks in the 20th century had more than a touch of Eastern Bloc flavour, but now the officials were little different from those you might encounter in France or Italy. We arrived at night but from what I saw (and my view did not change any in the daylight of departure day) you could have been arriving in any one of a number of European cities. Only the Cyrillic script marked the land as slightly more off the beaten track.
The hotel far surpassed anything I had stayed in before. British pounds go a long way here and with beers no more than 3 Bulgaria Lev (£1) and a pizza 9 BLG (£3) it makes a pleasant change to France, where you'd be lucky to get change from a fiver when buying a pint of beer. We found the majority of the locals friendly and while there was a certain seedy element, this was not overly in your face.
Those handing out flyers for the various strip joints seemed to be targeting groups of guys rather than all a sundry; Bansko hasn't become 'Prague on ice', quite yet, so is still family friendly. 'Culturally different' rather than intimidating is also how I would describe the way that the gondola station boasts a sign that states 'premises protected by armed guard' and the Amnesia nightclub has a 'no handguns' door policy. Something to be aware of rather than scared of I think. It was 'interesting' when one of my friends who was being invited in for free drinks at another nightspot, asked; "can I take handguns in?" the reply was "Oh yes, handguns are fine, just no assault rifles"!
Now back to that bomb scare. Just two days before we were flying out reports appeared on the internet, indicating that an environmental group was claiming a bomb had been planted near the piste, with the aim of avalanching a slope. Looking at the webcams at the time it was clear that the pistes were deserted and no lifts were running. The reasoning behind this bomb threat was that Bansko is seeking to expand and open up new pistes; clearing trees in the process and destroying habitat.
When we arrived in the resort the official story behind the closure was 'technical issues'. This was clearly a nonsense. Firstly while the gondola is the only lift up to the slopes, when it has been closed (due to high winds, as it was the week before we arrived) it is possible to get a taxi up to the slopes and ride the surface lifts or whatever else is open. No evidence of this the day of the bomb scare. Secondly as Ash told us, why, if it were technical issues, were the army deployed to prevent anyone from hiking up? The episode reminded me of Cold War propaganda stories; blatant lies, but keep spouting them and some of the populace will believe. Regardless, the episode was all cleared by the time we made it to the resort.
So what did I make of the slopes of this eastern powder paradise? Well in one word; disappointed. Granted the snow was not the best when we were there but there did not seem to be much in the way of easily accessible off-piste. I freely admit I am no hardened back-country rider but whereas resorts like Risoul, Sauze D'Oulx, Serre Chevalier and Courchevel all gave me a good indication of where to head for some freeride snowboarding fun I did not see that in Bansko. Granted we had the usual play in piste side semi-powder, (when some snow dropped mid week) and the Alberta Tomba run was one of the few black runs I have had real fun on with a snowboard but I was after more than that. Maybe my expectations were too high?
There were other pluses but other negatives too. I had the misfortune of needing to visit the medical centre after my girlfriend damaged her knee. This was something I had concerns about before leaving (the medical centre not my girlfriend!). As it turns out they were completely misguided, the service was spot on; better than the British NHS which we visited upon our return!
The lift system was certainly up to date, the gondola and the chairs were all relatively new and top notch. However without another way up the hill, the gondola queues will be ever increasing with years to come. The amount of development going on in Bansko is simply massive and the mountain will not cope with that number of skiers and snowboarders on the slopes. Large parts of the town resemble a building site, which is exactly what they are.
There are plans to add two new lifts a year, these will be needed if the resort is to expand. Whether this comes to pass or not is another matter though. As already mentioned, the amount of private investment in Bansko over recent years has been phenomenal but will the funding needed to build new lifts be forthcoming? How serious are the environmentalists in their efforts to prevent further expansion? Are the necessary skills and infrastructure in place to build and keep this lifts running in suitable locations?
This last point manifests itself in a number of ways: firstly on the piste map you'll see there is a chair built off to one side of the main area, evidence of an attempt to open up more of the mountain. When we met up with the guys from Method Snow School, Al told us that you would never see it running. Why? Well, the lift had been built on a slope that regularly avalanches and it was simply not safe to use. So some better piste planning is needed, which goes for the existing pistes too.
The runs clearly had not seen much attention; maybe it had been written off as a bad year, but the sight of stones in areas where the snow was not shallow and small conifers growing on some slopes did not inspire confidence. Neither did the lack of yellow and black hazard poles next to the odd ditch just to the side of a run, or the way that the ski 'safety' netting seemed to start at head height on many runs.
Secondly on one morning all the lifts suddenly stopped running. It took us a moment to realise that the music from the mountain restaurant was also silent. There had been a brown out. For an hour or so the lifts with people on ran through emergency petrol backup, until everyone was off and the electric returned. Funnily enough I had also experienced a power outage in Borovets in '99. Whether this is common or not I could not say for sure but clearly it is not unheard of in Bulgaria.
Thirdly, the top lifts suffer from high winds. On numerous occasions they were closed for this very problem and not without good reason. The top was heavily wind blasted and had a Scottish appearance (not knocking Scotland here but as we all know the British resorts have to struggle as best they can with adverse weather) which could be a potential problem in having regular access to new slopes further a field.
I am not in a position to say how easily these issues may be overcome. I hope for the sake of those who have bought property over there, or set up a business like the Method guys, that the dream can be realised, otherwise there is the danger that Bansko is a ski resort bubble waiting to burst. I would return but only because it is so cheap. Assuming prices stay low you could have a week away here for a fraction of the cost of a snowboarding trip to France, especially if you look into the DIY holiday route. No doubt (as anywhere) the resort would be transformed with a healthy layer of powder as well! For the moment though, for me snowboarding in Bansko Bulgaria is an eastern promise, unfulfilled.