In the heart of the Albanian mountains
Today, we follow in the steps of Timy Theaux, Arthur Bertrand and their friends in their Balkan adventure. A one of a kind trip, seeking new untamed slopes to ski, discovering the Albanian mountains and also meeting the locals. A sporty, contemplative and human journey.
Our trip starts with an arrival at dusk and just enough light to see the mountains. As we move through the Valbona valley, located in the north-east of Albania, on the Montenegro border, in the north, and Kosovo in the east, we are stunned. The mountains are massive and majestic: big and steep slopes, big peaks and magnificent lines go down directly in this valley. It is time to drop our bags in this isolated farm in the bottom of the valley, before the village of Rrogam. My feelings are split between the beauty of this massif under the stars and the austerity of this farm at the bottom of the Albanian mountains. The owner warms up the atmosphere with a big dinner (or rather a banquet as there is so much food on the table). He explains us that the valley becomes more and more touristic in summer since many foreigners come to do treks but, in winter, the place is empty, only inhabited by the locals and their animals.
The next day, we leave for the south side of the valley with hopes of reaching one of the peaks facing us. We have no idea of what the place has to offer. Our eyes, the evening before, made us foresee the strong potential of the area but also its mountaineering-like side. The conditions are spring-like and the weather is going to get worse. The approach walk, even if it is done on skis, is rather long. After a few kilometers on the flat valley, we follow on a forest path, the only way out through this very dense birch forest. 2h30 and only 300m of elevation gain later, we finally get out of the woods. We then have a better view of the mountain and our ambitions. We head towards a narrow corridor that we had spotted since our departure. More than 1000 m of elevtion gain, we take off the skins to climb, skis on our backs, straight into the couloir. The slope is steep, about 45º, but our feet sink well, no need for crampons or ice axe.
We took off 5 hours earlier and the weather is getting worse and worse. It is time to go back down to the valley for lunch and ski the 1500 m we climbed. But the couloir will leave us some surprises. The snow has very little grip. It is smooth, steep and bowl-shaped. Despite the strong taste for steep slopes of some of us, the skiing is far from easy. We don't take any risks and we go down in a few jumpy turns interspersed with long skids where we have trouble slowing down. The rescue services are far away, the first doctor is at the entrance of the valley and, here, nobody skis or would be able to do a rescue on skis. Arthur, our photographer, is an excellent skier but he is embarrassed by a problem on his binding. As a precaution, he will descend the whole couloir with crampons and ice axe for an hour. The end of the run is done under the rain on gentler slopes. After a feast and a little rest at the farm, we set off again on skis towards our next village. The mountains of Valbona do not have any refuge or hut in altitude, we will stay again at a local's house. 200 m of elevation gain under the rain and a few kilometers further, we discover, at the foot of a valley, a very small hamlet where the sheep are sheltered under a roof which is used as a stable.
Welcome to Kukaj, a hamlet of 3 houses and 2 families. Flori, on his bike, seems surprised to see us arrive in his village and goes to look for his father, Tahir, with whom we are supposed to stay for several days. Apparently, he was not aware of our arrival and he is a bit disoriented, just like us. The situation becomes crazy. We have a lot of trouble to communicate since we have no common language. Tahir only speaks Albanian and the only words we speak are "hello", "goodbye" and "thank you". While waiting for more explanations from his intermediary and for everything to be solved, he spontaneously offers us hospitality by the stove. We are then brought back in our grandparents' era but in a deep and very rural Albania. Tahir, his wife, Lindita, and their son, Flori, live in semi autarky in winter. Their hamlet, located at 1150 m of altitude, is under snow until April, and the first village, Valbona, is several kilometers below. They live with their animals: cows, horses, chickens… and they move only by necessity with the horses, when the conditions allow it, otherwise on foot. Flori, on the other hand, goes to school in the village of Valbona and goes back and forth every day. From the few encounters with tourists like us in winter, he has learned to ski or, at least, to move around on skis. Some people have sent him equipment so that he can practice and get down to school more easily. The return journey is made, in any case, on foot, skis on the shoulder. Life in this remote and snowy region seems, to us, over-equipped westerners, difficult, even complicated. Yet Tahir's family exudes joy and simplicity. Sharing their daily life is easy, sincere and lively, despite the language barrier. Tahir, with his imposing stature, has a pleasant and joyful nature. Just don't tease him with the local drink, raki, and dare not to finish your glass. If you do so, it's an extra round for everyone.
Kukaj's geographical situation allows us, on the first day of good weather, to hike on the northern slopes of the valley towards Montenegro and to make a loop with gentle slopes around the border. A blazing sun warms up very quickly our 1000 m climb. We have to reach quickly the north faces which fall on the Montenegro side. The view from the pass on the summits and the couloir we rode a few days before is grandiose. In this high valley of Montenegro, the mountains are as beautiful as their Albanian neighbors, all as steep and wild. After a few powdery but illegal turns since we have no authorization to pass, we go back up to the second pass to ski back down to Albania. The snow sticks a lot in the south face that brings us back to Tahir. It's time to enjoy the end of the afternoon in the sun, among the animals. The viewpoint from the border allowed us to plan the next days and to observe more closely all the magnificent couloirs at the bottom of the Kukaj valley as well as the access to the second highest summit of Albania, Mount Jezerces.
But the bad weather conditions prevented us from following our plan. Mount Jezerces will be the conquest of a future trip in the area. In the meantime, we skied on the lower part of this summit and on the famous couloirs at the bottom of Kukaj. This is probably the most beautiful spot we have seen in the area. A labyrinth of very aesthetic and steep couloirs (but not all of them are linked). The rain having turned into snow, it is under a radiant sun and a big smile on our faces that we begin the last part of our trip. The « playground » is marvelous but the snow conditions are surprising and put us in quite new situations. A form of crystals that we did not know and sections of icy slopes on exposed areas incite us to be very careful and to revise our ambitions downwards. However, we are not disappointed and we devour with the greatest pleasure every moment that this beautiful mountain and these powdery sprays in the middle of the Kukaj couloirs give us.
This trip has been marked by the discovery of a new relief with great potential and by the generosity of a local population in a country where everything is to be done
The kind of trip that leaves its mark on skiers and travelers like us.