Cat-skiing Macedonia: Snowboarding the Balkans: Part 2
Pictures by Sam Baldwin and Ben Capewell
Published January 2011
Danny peers through the blind and lets out a cheer: "Bluuuue Birrrrd!"
I stir from my bunk. If you're going to wake me up early, then I suppose this is the kind of news I prefer to hear.
He's right. The Macedonian sky is ski-brochure blue, the fresh snow sparkling like an 80s' glitter ball. It couldn't be a better day to sample Eskimo Freeride's cat-skiing operation.
We're a couple of days into our Balkan snowboarding adventure, a road trip that will see our team of eight, journey almost 2000km around the former Yugoslavia, and things are looking good. After a warm up day of snowboarding Popova Shapka ski area we're now ready for the really good stuff.
We scramble the troops. A breakfast of bread, ham and cheese is wolfed down at our base, Hotel Granit, then we pile into the minibus and point the bonnet towards Hotel Bora - Eskimo Freeride's base of operations - at the top of Popova Shapka town.
Our three new Croatian friends with whom we drank rakija into the early hours last night have decided to cash in on the perfect weather too, so eleven of us squeeze into the van to make what should be just a five minute drive.
It ends up taking a little longer. The van gets stuck in the snow and even with eleven of us pushing, it ain't going nowhere. The snow-chains come out, but it takes us another thirty minutes to travel the last few hundred meters.
Hotel Bora, like most of the other hotels in Popova Shapka, is old-school Soviet style. All four of the staff are smoking; two are watching the other two play chess. They are engrossed in the game, and pay no attention to us. The decor is a little tired and worn, but the manager is friendly, the rooms clean and the showers hot.
The Eskimo Freeride Team
We meet Nena (a Croat), Ruben (a Norwegian) and Dooley (a Macedonian), our guides and driver for the day. We strap on avalanche transceivers, pack our shovels, sign our lives away via disclaimers, and load into the cat. For most of us, it's our first time cat skiing, and everyone is pumped.
Excited chatter in English, Croatian and Macedonian fills the cabin as we rumble over deep snow, heading for a ridge line, high above Popova town, offering views of the rounded mountains below.
As we near the top, we overtake a back-country hiker, snowboard strapped to his back. I almost feel guilty. He must have risen before sunrise and been hiking for hours to earn his turns, and now a bunch of Brits are going to beat him to the untracked powder fields. But hey, the Shar Planina Mountains are vast, and there's plenty of powder to go round.
Nena, whose face is hidden behind an impressive beard, seems reserved at first and it's Ruben, the young Norwegian who does the all talking. It's Eskimo's third season of operation he tells us, and, as the only cat skiing operation in Europe, business is pretty good.
"We're completely booked for the rest of the winter" he explains.
We rumble onwards, enjoying the views out over the crisp Shar Planina range. Finally, after twenty minutes we reach a high ridge and unload. The wind is strong and whips fine crystals up and away to distant lands even more exotic.
"Over there is Albania, and over there, Kosovo" says Nena, pointing just a couple of peaks over. Indeed, we're so close to Kosovo that we later get a "Welcome to Kosovo Telephone Network" message on our mobile phones.
"You can see the Adriatic Sea from here on very clear days" he adds.
We strap in, zip up and baton down. Then tentatively edge towards a steepish slope. Nena - on skis and dressed in a bright yellow jacket - drops over the edge and carves off to test the snow for safety. We hang back and wait for his call on Ruben's walkie talkie. But as the Norwegian waits, he fumbles, and - boom! - off goes the little black box, tumbling down the slope. Ruben launches after it and manages to grab it just before it disappears over a craggy precipice forever.
Nena reaches the bottom safely, leaving a single set of clean tracks, and gives us the OK. This is it. We're about to sample Macedonian cat-snowboarding for the first time ever. A year ago, I probably couldn't have found Macedonia on the map. Danny still can't. But now we're off, one by one, dropping over a small cornice, then surfing over fine, deep crystals, lit by the sun, framed by blue sky, throwing up curtains, whooping, and smiling.
We regroup at the bottom, but there's no time for sitting around. Nena leads us onwards into a tree-lined gully, which forms a natural half-pipe that snakes down the mountain and eventually spits us out, back at the cat.
Dooley the driver is waiting patiently. A cigarette droops from his mouth as he sits in the sun.
"Good snow?" he asks.
"Very good!" I reply.
His big belly rumbles with laughter as he swings himself back into the driver's seat, and fires up the engine.
We trundle back up to the ridge for round two, but this time, drop over the other side. The first face of the mountain is steep, open and smooth. The snow surface varies; crusty where the sun has hit it, powdery where the shadow still lies.
Nena brings up the rear, travelling at light speed as he blazes a trail to the bottom of the face. He stops in a split second, spraying a wave of powder into the ether, then shouts:
"We go! Everyone!"
We blast off down the lower part of the mountain, all together this time.
It's a little part of Macedonia that will remain with me for life. It's the most perfect set of trees I've ever ridden. Even though there are thirteen of us, there's no need to cross tracks. We fan out into the pines, sweeping through the trees, gliding through gaps, dodging rocks, bouncing over cushions and surfing duvets of soft, Macedonian powder.
The sun is shining, the weather is sweet, and the snow is absolutely perfect. Nothing could improve this ride.
It's one of those "this is IT!" moments. THIS is why we do it. THIS is why we travel to remote ranges in search of snow to strap planks to our feet and hurl ourselves from high ridges.
Everyone is ecstatic as we reassemble back at the cat. When it comes to the mountains of the world, we've been around. And this is right up there with the powder snowboarding in Kashmir, Canada and Japan .
"It doesn't get much better than this" says Danny.
We're all in agreement. The planets have aligned to create one of those rare optimum days: warm sun, blue sky, perfect pitch and oodles of smoky, puff powder.
For the next few hours we gorge on this Macedonian treat. We ride through the trees, regroup, rumble back up in the cat, and repeat. Around midday, we stop for lunch by a ruined stone building. It may once have housed animals, or even a family; now it's just a collection of stone, and snow-covered timbers.
Lunch is served on the cat's caterpillar track. The pickled mushrooms, salami, cheese, tuna and chocolate hit the spot, as we refill our tanks under a Balkan sun. Then it's back up once more.
Unfortunately, the day is not without causalities. As we close the door to the cat, ready to head up for another lap, somebody asks:
"Err guys...where's Ben?"
We fall silent. A quick head count reveals we've lost one of the team. Ben, SnowSphere photographer and webmaster, is somewhere back in the forest. We pile out, calling and searching.
"Bennnnnnnnn! BENNNNNN! BENITO!"
Ten minutes later, we're beginning to worry. There's a lot of terrain to cover and a lot of trees to hide in. We keep searching. Keep shouting. But hear nothing. It's only day two of our Balkan snowboarding adventure, and we're already one man down.
But before we have to call out mountain rescue (which are probably non-existent here anyway) a helmet appears through the distant trunks. It's attached to a limping body. Slowly, Ben shuffles into view, dragging his snowboard behind him. There's a sizeable patch of blood on his butt and he gets out his cheek to reveal a nasty puncture wound.
"I dropped into a dry gully and ass-planted right onto a big, pointy, rock" he explains.
"It f**king hurts."
Ben's day of cat-boarding is over. In fact, he is pretty much out of action for the rest of the trip, and there is more hardship in store, as he will find out later down the line.
"Action" Jackson, one of three Scots on the team, is the second casualty of the day. Following the fearless Norwegian into a jump, he unfortunately doesn't mimic Ruben's perfect landing and does some serious damage to his knee. Now we're two men down. The sun is sinking, thighs are burning and it's time to call it day. But it's a day no one will ever forget.
Same again tomorrow?
How things can change in one short day. The following morning I draw back the curtain. The bluebird has flown the nest. The wind is raging and a blizzard is in full effect. Yesterday, the view from our hotel window was of far away mountains - today, we can barely see the car park.
As we drink coffee and eat a breakfast of bread rolls and salami, Ruben suggests we head up in the cat to see if we can rise above the storm. We load up and head off. The cat's tracks from yesterday are gone and the beefy PistenBully machine struggles over the newly arrived snow.
Wind screams all around us and whirling snow crystals sneak through gaps in the cat's windows. We reach yesterday's ridge, but one look outside confirms it's a no go; visibility is down to just a few meters. We chug back down to the hotel to wait out the storm.
It turns out to be long wait.
"When a storm like this comes, it can last for two or three days" says Nena.
Ruben, keen to make some use of the day, instructs Dooley, our jolly cat-driver, to build a quarter-pipe. After reversing into a set of tables and benches destroying them in the process, much to Nena's annoyance, a crude jump is created. Ruben hurls himself off it, displaying his repertoire of Terje Håkonsen-esk flips. But soon, the storm becomes so intense, even this has to be abandoned.
Retreating to the hotel bar, we play out the day with card games, Macedonian TV and lots of dark coffee. The forty eight year old Nena finally opens up and tells us a little of his life. In summer he's a sky dive instructor and he BASE jumps for fun, having leaped from buildings all over the world including the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.
At the mercy of the weather, it's clear that our Macedonian cat-boarding experience is over. But no one feels short changed. Yesterday's delights were worth ten days of cabin fever.
Talk turns to the ski potential of neighbouring country Albania, which currently has no ski lifts at all.
"It has the mountains, but not the infrastructure" says Nena, who explored Albania's backcountry mountains the previous winter.
"Maybe in five years we will see Albania's first ski resort."
Maybe we'll see you there Nena.
Coming soon: Snowboarding Serbia:Kopaonik Ski Resort - the team find thatched slope-side cafes with roaring fires, tree powder from Narnia and a bout of food poisoning puts the entire Balkan snowboard adventure into jeopardy.
How We Did It
- We went with Eskimo Freeride who offer cat-skiing, accommodation at Hotel Bora, and guiding from around 200 Euros per day.
- We flew from London Heathrow to Belgrade with JAT - we found our flights using Skyscanner to see when was cheapest to fly. You can also fly to Skopje (the Macedonian capital).
- We hired our van in Belgrade with Smiles Rent-a-car - who we'd recommend highly.
Snowboarding Macedonia: Skiing the Balkans Part 1
Snowboarding and road tripping Slovenia
Slovak Attack: snowboarding Jasna Slovakia