Knowing absolutely nothing about Bulgaria made it the logical place to go. A few clicks on Google’s search results revealed it had good looking mountains, huts, multi-day tour options, ski culture, and best of all, it’s cheap and a short plane ride into a new world.
Once we made our decision it was time to figure out exactly what to do, which proved tough as there isn’t so much information out there. Thankfully, through the Explore-Share network we found FreeMountains as the guide service offering custom backcountry trips. There, we met owner and mountain guide Georgy Georgiev who suggested a classic itinerary with four nights in the Pirin Mountains backcountry huts. We’d start and finish from Bulgaria’s premier ski town, Bansko.
Before this trip, our only real experience in Balkan countries was climbing in Croatia, and a Skiing Magazine assignment in Kosovo. The Balkans feel like a place in transition, somewhere between old and modern, east and west. First impressions are that it is all a bit rough around the edges. But once you engage the people, or dive into the place, you quickly realize that beneath some hardened shells there is a lot of character.
As our group of four; Janine, myself, Dennis and Kim, sped away from the capitol city of Sofia’s airport to blaring Thievery Corporation, our driver Ivan pointed out all the mountain groups surrounding Sofia. In all directions were low, rounded mountains covered in snow, while in the foreground was the typical European winter landscape of leafless trees and fields left waiting for spring. Through it all we pedal to the metal’d it, pitching and yawing, towards our destination of Bansko.
Like most all ski towns, Bansko is a thing of contrasts. There are the locals going about their business in what remains of the old town, but mostly there is ugliness. Ugly hotels, ugly tourist strips, and touts luring you into restaurants you’d rather avoid. In Bansko, there was all this, and hanging above it one of the longest ski runs I have ever seen.
Our first exploration of the streets of Bansko revealed that our friend Kim, a vegan, was going to have a rough time with Bulgarian cuisine. Bulgarians it seems, like their meat. But as soon as we spied the offerings, Dennis and I made short work of a Serbian pita filled with wonderfully spiced grilled pork. Meanwhile, Kim was calculating just how much couscous and oatmeal she brought along. Later, dinner at our hotel was a repeat with meat, meat and more meat as options. Georgy informed us that in the huts, the menu would consistently be steak, meatballs, or a local sausage deliciously loaded with caraway seeds.
The next morning we set out by taxi for Dobrinishte, another nearby ski town and our starting point. There, we took a lift into the ski resort before setting out for the Tevno Ezero Hut. Georgy kept reminding us of how the winter of 2017 was a disaster, there had been little snow. This became immediately more apparent once we started skinning through shrubbery. But as we gained elevation things got better, although ski lines we spotted and asked about usually had a, “not this year”, as an answer.
For Janine and I, the Pirin Mountains were like being in California’s Sierra Nevada. The rounded granite peaks contained the same ski terrain as the Sierra, and the compact snow turning to afternoon corn was classic Eastern Sierra, although in May. The one major difference being that we were headed for a wardened hut. The Tevno Ezero is an A-frame cabin on the shore of a summer lake. In winter it is serviced on weekends or when a guide like Georgy brings a group. We actually beat the warden to the hut and waited outside in light snowfall for his arrival. Once he arrived, we gathered around the dining room’s propane heaters as the warden disappeared into the dark kitchen to prepare the evening’s meat.
From the hut there are two distinct ski lines, both couloirs, and both from small summits. Georgy agreed that they were for us but no guarantee what sort of snow, or how much, we’d find. The next day we skinned to the couloirs in a mix of just the right amount of crust and bulletproof wind board to get us up. Inside the couloirs we boot packed to ridges and all new views of distant Pirin summits. The range feels vast and given more snow, a skiers playground of small, but worthy objectives. It’s clearly a place to ski.
Our day would end relatively early as high temps turned our snow into something like creamed corn. Back at the hut, our attention turned back to the menu of 1. Steak. 2. Meatballs. Or 3. Sausage. Kim ordered boiling water.
The next morning we set out in high temps for the Demyanitza Hut. From Tevno Ezero, we rolled along until finally accessing a low col from which we’d quickly drop into a forested, and increasingly snow free canyon. Once at the hut we realized our ski day was over. To get back into ski terrain would require a long trudge in slush and slop. Instead, we again focused on the menu. But so too, a cat. The warden of the Demyanitza had only just arrived that day, and inside the hut was his cat, waiting. For how long it waited we were never quite sure. To say he was happy with the attention we gave him is a gross understatement. Everything we did at the hut was in the company of a cat.
Finally, that evening it started to snow. Each of our mornings had felt like May, but our third day dawned cold and white. The cat was sad to see us set out into the snow covered forest. After an hour uphill we reached a high plateau with one last ski crampon climb to a summit. There, we finally spotted our final objective, Vihren Mountain, the Pirin’s highest at 2914 meters. While not a particularly beautiful mountain, it does have a certain presence and attraction for skiers thanks to a size-able, and steep, southwest face. But Vihren was for our next day, we were bound for the Vihren Hut.
Later that night, after a dinner of the usual in the company of a large TV broadcasting 80’s music videos, in came Georgy and the hut keepers with a large chocolate birthday cake, complete with explosive flare. It was Kim’s birthday and Georgy had miraculously come up with a decorated cake. The hut keepers, who until this point had given us fairly blank looks, now smiled, laughed with us, and revealed a softer side. In many ways, this is Bulgaria. What you hope to see is there, but it’s going to come on Bulgaria’s terms and not on continual display like we’re used to.
Early the next morning we found ourselves ski cramponing up Vihren. When we first arrived beneath the long summit slope, we thought we’d be carrying our skis and perhaps even walking down. But as we got on the face, passages of enough snow appeared to get us through, and we knew that given some warming time, we could be skiing corn lanes through the minefield of rocks. Once on the summit, Georgy pointed out the borders of Serbia, Macedonia and Greece, all very close, and all lined with different mountain groups. Finally we saw Bansko, our next, and last destination, deep and far below. We had some skiing to do.
We managed to get in the best skiing of the trip thanks to Georgy knowing how to best link up all the many possibilities to get back to the Vihren Hut. Back at the hut, the day was getting downright hot so we packed up, ate the rest of Kim’s cake, and set off for Bansko. 30 minutes later we found ourselves merging peaceful backcountry with frenetic ski piste. Our descent connected us with Bansko’s runs, there we’d trade the silent emptiness of the Pirin Mountains for Euro thumping techno and sprawling apres ski crowds. And that impossibly massive ski piste we’d spotted from town was where we found ourselves. Down we crept on an angle barely steep enough to glide, for an impossible five kilometers. Much of this was in the company of enough cartwheeling, sun burnt British carnage that it seemed we’d stumbled into a battle scene from Game of Thrones.
Later that evening, over a dinner of sausages, what remained of the couscous, and Bulgarian beers, we celebrated a great trip. Like my previous experience in Crete, where I’d also learned to appreciate the “touring” part of “ski touring”, Bulgaria was about far more than skiing. A week before, none of us knew a thing about Bulgaria. But now we’d spent time in their mountains in the warm company of Georgy, seeing bits and pieces of what makes Bulgaria Bulgaria. We liked what we saw, but better, we enjoyed what we felt.
By Dan Patitucci
A huge thanks to Georgy Georgiev and FreeMountain for so professionally, and joyfully, guiding us through the Pirin Mountains. For anyone wishing to experience Bulgaria, Georgy, or his girlfriend and guiding partner Milena, are who you need to show you the way. In Sofia, do not miss the SunMoon restaurant for a very different, and meat free, Bulgarian menu. And finally, thanks to Dynafit for supporting another great trip. This trip was shot as an editorial feature, we’ll share the final story once published.