Thursday, 26 February 2015

2 Vallée Blanches - Classique & Petit Envers

We had another (much needed) top up of snow earlier this week so I was keen to get out and ski some of it. As has been the case all winter, the avalanche risk remains both high and unpredictable so I wasn't keen to push the boat out. 

The Vallée Blanche looked a good option for views and decent skiing so we opted for that. It turned out to be a good shout and we had 2 really nice runs; firstly down the Classique and then Petit Envers in the afternoon.

Skiing in this scenery never gets old.

Heading down the Midi arete for the second lap.

Some nice powder on the Petit Envers.

Sunset over the Drus.

The best view in Chamonix - sunset from the James Bond track after a great day.

I'm working today but it looks stunning outside, I bet there's some good skiing getting done out there! One word of caution however - nobody really knows where the danger is this winter so careful route choice is still required. I shouldn't really be surprised any more but it never ceases to amaze me the risks people will take to get some fresh snow - when I was going up the Midi I could see some tracks in places that wild horses couldn't drag me to right now! 

I certainly don't feel experienced or knowledgeable enough to tell anyone what to do or where to go, I just think that when nobody really has a clue what is safe and what isn't, you need to pick your lines with a bit more caution than normal. There's plenty of good, safe skiing out there and plenty of winters left for all of us so my advice is to go and mince something mellow and leave the steep stuff for later in the season (when the spring warmth may hopefully stabilise things) or for next year. 

Monday, 23 February 2015


After a long dry spell, we got some new snow on Saturday afternoon/evening so it seemed rude not to go and check out conditions. Italy looked to have got more snow than Chamonix so Courmayeur seemed a good choice.

We found some decent snow but couldn't face that queue for the top lift, meaning we probably missed the best of the conditions but such is life. Hard to grumble when it's weissbier and pizzas all round at lunchtime.

The weather is a bit funny again now but Wednesday could be a good day, let's see how things pan out.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Skiing in Kosovo and Macedonia - Brezovica, Popova Sapka & Mavrovo

I normally avoid long blog posts but I'm trying something new this time! It's mainly photos so stick with me, I'll try not to blabber...

Chamonix got some much needed snow a few weeks back but the high avalanche risk and February crowds meant that leaving the powder behind and going away wasn't too disappointing for Sharon and me. We booked this trip to Eastern Europe back in summer with no information other than the names of some ski areas so adventure was pretty much guaranteed. We weren't sure what we'd find in terms of skiing but with 10 days to play with, a hire car booked and plenty of interesting things to see and do it seemed like we'd struggle not to enjoy ourselves. In the end we decided to book our accommodation in advance too which meant that, for better or worse, we'd have a schedule but wouldn't risk being stuck with nowhere to stay.

We started out by flying into Pristina and heading up to the tiny Kosovan resort of Brezovica (pronounced Brezo-veecha, which would have been useful to know when explaining in a mixture of English, French and German where we were going to the hire car guy). First impressions were that the skiing was pretty limited, mainly because we went up the first chairlift in awful visibility and skied the first run in pea soup, inching our way down and trying not to ski off any drops. However, things really picked up as the vis cleared slightly and we ended up finding some amazing powder in amongst the trees and even some beautiful open bowls near the top of the resort. The mist came back but by then we'd sussed it out and had a great time.

Top station at Brezovica. Plenty of people (quite wisely given the average standard of the skiers) got off the lift, took one look at the conditions and went straight back down.

Great powder in the trees.

FINALLY someone invented a way to open a bottle without an opener. This made my day.


Sharon in the bowls of Brezovica.

The Brezovica nightlife took a big hit when one of the 4 bars burnt down on our first day. The whole place stank of burning plastic for the rest of the day.

The great thing about skiing in Brezovica is that there is virtually no competition for tracks as the general standard of skiing is absolutely dire. I can't claim to know much about ski technique but we only saw one person skiing parallel the whole time we were there! The undoubted highlight was the guy who skied across the slope in a racing tuck, flopped onto the ground, rolled over like a turtle on his back in order to spin his skis around and then skied back across the slope the other way before repeating the process. He seemed to be having fun though. 

Overall, the skiing we did was fantastic, although this was mainly because we got powder - if there was no fresh snow then the "piste" skiing is very limited. On the rare occasions that the vis lifted enough for us to see further afield, the touring possibilities looked endless as well. The whole experience of Brezovica is fun too, with people sledging out of control all over the place, toothless drunks manning the lifts and a general feeling that chaos rules. 
Very fun, very Eastern Europe; we loved it. 

An abandoned, one man chairlift. Given how slow the lifts were, it would be a long, lonely ride!

Me in the back bowls. Who needs Japan?!

Last run of the day.

Me in the powder. That's our hotel behind me. 

A quick solo evening skin led me to this. This is the "before" shot.

After. Loving it.

Brezovica in all its glory.

They didn't get any lifts open on our last day in Brezovica and it snowed as hard as I've ever seen anywhere.

Sharon got arty while we figured out what to do with the day.

In the end we bailed, although the snowmobile carrying our bags only just got out.

We'll be back.

The drive from Kosovo into Macedonia was stunning and after a couple of days in the white room, it was nice to see some views. One thing to bear in mind is that the driving times that Google Maps and our sat nav gave are far shorter than the journeys take in reality because everyone seems to drive incredibly slowly. On open roads, we'd often encounter people pootling along at 45kph and although it was initially irritating, we soon got into the vibe that nobody is any hurry in this part of the World and we quite enjoyed cruising along slowly. 

We drove into Macedonia and encountered our first road tolls; luckily they were hardly punitive.

We had considered stopping in the town of Tetovo just to have a look around but first impressions weren't great. 

Once across the border we made for Popova Sapka, the so called "Freeride Capital of Macedonia". The views when we arrived were stunning but unfortunately the skiing on our first day didn't quite match them. The terrain is really open and had got blasted by the wind, meaning that the good pockets of snow were few and far between. This was doubly disappointing seeing as we'd left the best part of a metre of fresh powder in Brezovica but such is life. Despite the poor conditions, we had a fun first day blasting around the pistes.

Beautiful sagging snow formations in Popova Sapka.

The name of the resort definitely works best in English!

Eastern Europe is CHEAP. All the food in this photo, plus 2 drinks, was €10.

Sharon negotiating the ticket checking system, which consisted of a massive bloke who visually checked your ticket. Considerably more intimidating than a ticket machine! 

Believe it or not, some of the ski patrol were actually armed at Popova Sapka. I considered asking them whether they'd ever drawn their guns, let alone shot anyone, but thought better of it and concentrated on not breaking any rules.

Watching the Macedonian army learning to ski was irresistibly comical.

After a ropey start, Popova Sapka delivered big time on day 2. Having caught the highest chairlift we booted over to a peak and suddenly saw mile after mile of untracked powder below us. It turns out that the catskiing operation in the Popova area uses this terrain and I can see why people pay to ski it. Without the luxury of a piste basher to carry us around, we skied whatever looked good and then skinned out, greatly aided I have to admit, by the huge tracks that the cat had ploughed in the fresh snow. To say that the snow was good was an understatement - it was incredible. Inevitably when skinning for your turns, we didn't ski as much as we'd have liked but what we did do was amazing. 

Sharon heading for another perfect powder pitch...

...and then paying for it. Skinning in scenery like this didn't feel like much of a chore.

We spotted some of the catskiing clients skiing across the valley from us. I think this shot says it all.


Me hoovering up some gentle powder.

Heading for one last pitch.


About to ski down to town and a well earned beer.

Day 3 in Popova also delivered and we skied in the same area we had done on day 2. We even managed to hitch a lift with one of the catskiing groups for one run, which was a big bonus. All in all, a great 3 days and a big thumbs up for Popova's terrain. If the lift accessed stuff was in good condition the resort would be mind blowing. As it was, the skiing we did was still fantastic, we just had to work for it (with the exception of our brief trip in the cat!)

Sharon adding her signature to mine.

Our taxi approaches!

There really is some huge terrain behind Popova.

Sharon dwarfed by the terrain.

The snow on our cat run wasn't quite as good as it looked but when you get a lift to a run like this, you can't grumble.

Next on our tour was Mavrovo, an hour south of Popova. We had a great day there, beginning with a morning zooming around the lift system and then a short but very scenic ski tour.

Me loving the view of Mavrovo lake.

My first time on a one man chair. I quite liked it actually.

Sharon finding some nice lift served powder.

 Our tour didn't yield much skiing, but what we did get was good.

Me still loving the view but too tired for any arm waving.

 We were due to have a few more days in Mavrovo but, much as we'd enjoyed it, we didn't think it was as good as the other areas we'd been to. Seeing as we had to go back past Brezovica in order to get back to Pristina, we changed our plans and decided to head back for another couple of days where we'd started the trip.

The drive up back up to Brezovica was utterly chaotic, to the extent that we gave up short of the resort, drove back down and passed the afternoon going for a walk and drinking coffee. That's me in the red trying to make sense of it all.
My advice would be to avoid Brezovica at weekends!

More road chaos.

Despite our travel issues, it was great to be back in Brezovica and to have the final ski day of the trip in our favourite place we'd been.

So that's what the view from Brezovica looks like.

Brezovica is definitely the only place I've skied where sledgers outnumber skiers by about 20:1.

Sharon hoovering up the last of the powder.

An amazing view for our last day of skiing.

With a free morning on the last day of the trip we had a potter around Pristina. The city is frankly pretty run down but there is some interesting stuff to see and it's worth a couple of hours wandering about.

The idea of a parking space is somewhat loose in Pristina.

Tourist info was quiet!

I'm pretty sure that my favourite author, Christopher Hitchens, would not approve of the "dignitaries" that Kosovo names its landmarks after.

Pristina University.

The evocative "New Born" monument is well worth seeing. (Click on the photo to see it full size.)

Overall, our trip was a roaring success. If you're after a combination of brilliant skiing and an interesting cultural trip, Kosovo and Macedonia are well worth a look. The skiing is well worth the journey but the highlight for us was undoubtedly the people we met. Without exception, every Kosovan and Macedonian was incredibly friendly and they generally seem to be an exceptionally welcoming bunch of people. One guy who heard us speaking English in Pristina insisted on showing us around the sights and seemed genuinely disappointed that we had to leave and fly home! I suspect if we were still in Kosovo we'd be at his place drinking tea and meeting all his mates.

The added bonus to visiting the area is that it is much cheaper than most other ski trips - we spent about €900 per head from walking out of the house in Les Houches to walking back in, and we definitely did not scrimp. We stayed in nice hotels, never cooked a single meal and ate out at nice restaurants every evening. The €900 includes all our accommodation and food, plus flights, hire car, lift passes; the lot. If you didn't really mind where you stayed provided it was warm and dry, you could reduce the cost even further because accommodation was comfortably the most expensive part of the trip. Food is amazingly cheap - virtually any main meal in a decent restaurant cost less than €5 - and a lift pass is roughly €15 per day in every resort. Go and check it out!

It looks as if winter has taken its leave of Chamonix recently but there is heavy snow forecast for the weekend so let's see whether it materialises. For now, I'm catching up on work but if that snow does arrive, I suspect I'll be out enjoying it come Sunday...