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TOUR | 16.03.2018 | Dennis Forte (photos by Dan Patitucci)

What do you think of when you think of Bulgaria? The answer is not just difficult for me. Sofia, the capital city -- That’s what’s left in my head from my geography classes. Ski touring? Not. That’s what most Europeans and many others would certainly think. But poke around the Internet just a bit and you’ll find out that there are beautiful mountains in Bulgaria, all with an intact structure of huts just like in Europe. That alone was enough information to get myself booked in short order on a flight to the Balkan city. And it was truly worth it. There’s a lot to say at this point.

The flight from Munich to Sofia took just under 90 minutes. So there I was, fully loaded down with gear and waiting for my companions for the next six days. Dan Patitucci, an American with Italian roots, is a well-known mountain sports photographer. He planned the trip in advance. And always at his side is his wife, Janine. The fourth in the bunch was Kim Strom from the United States. She is a gifted trail runner and travels quite a bit with the Patituccis. Once everybody has arrived, our guide Georgy Georgiev, who is the owner of FreeMountains, joined us too. And off we go!

 

We take about two hours to get to Bansko. Bansko? I vaguely recall that the Alpine ski racing circuit stops here each year. I discover I am right. On the way, the highway is lined with a number of billboards from this year’s World Cup race. Bansko itself is suited as the starting point for ski tours in the Pirin Mountains, but not for much more than that. The rather artificial, ugly ski resort like some in the United States, houses hordes of Brits who are looking to have a party-down ski holiday. From a distance you can already hear the beat of the horrid Eurotechno music from the ‘90s -- even at 4 in the afternoon!

 

Our first foray into old town Bansko put us confidently in the mood for the coming days. We were welcomed heartily at every one of the small food stands in the narrow alleys. But one thing was already clear: Vegetables are strangers to the Bulgarian cuisine, just as salt is too. Pork, chicken and lamb in the form of sausages, chopped, or steaks -- that’s what awaited us in the mountain huts, promised Georgy. No problem for me, but for Kim, a strict vegan, indeed an issue. She was already checking her inventory of couscous and oatmeal.

Free touring playground

After a hearty breakfast, we head out by taxi about 30 minutes to Dobrinishte. Our tour is to start from there. Georgy tells us that the winter has seen very little snow. Starting at 1,600 meters (5,249 ft), however, we should find a full blanket of snow, he adds. First, we take the chairlift up. The surrounding mountain landscape strongly resembles the German Alps. Beautiful peaks and up to the treeline covered with mountain pine and gnarled fir trees. Steep hillsides, broad slopes and narrow canyons -- the perfect playground for free tourers.

 

Georgy knows the Pirin Mountains like the back of his hand. At a steady pace, he leads us through the impressive countryside to our first lodging where we are to spend two nights. The Tevno Ezero Hut is on a high plateau on a lakeshore that of course is now frozen. Nightfall arrives quickly and, in the twilight, two steep couloirs, which he has picked out for us, are glowing in the distance.

Snow out of the blue

The ground is already so warm that the snow at 10 in the morning is already starting to turn slushy and sloppy. Cold temperatures at night allow the snow mantle to freeze again. Result? An icy crust. Indeed, we have to do battle with this on the second day, which turns both canyons into less than a pleasure. We call off the day relatively early due to that.

 

Day 3 is planned for a traverse to the Demyanitza Hut. We move through long, flat valleys where the wind seems to just hang. The spring sun burns down on us relentlessly and turns any remaining snow into mush. Similar to the feeling in my head. Arriving at our lodging, we fill up our energy stores with cola and use the rest of the day to capture the idyllic nature at the Demyanitza Hut in photos. During dinner, it starts to snow out of the blue, and we raise our glasses in a toast.

The next morning the Pirin Mountains are shining with a new look. Wintry, with temperatures hovering around 0° Celsius (32° Fahrenheit), and with 30 cm (11.2 inches) of fresh snow. We put on our skins, lay the first tracks up in the fresh snow, and enjoy the day with some super downhills in deep powder. That night we spend in the nearby Vihren Hut. Its namesake is the Pirin’s highest mountain at 2,914 meters (9,560 ft) of the same name. This peak is on our program for the next day, our last.

 

We ski crampon up the icy southwest face of Vihren until we stand at the large summit cross. The slope from the summit lies before us like a minefield dotted with smaller and larger rocks. Before we head out for the last downhill of our trip through the Pirin Mountains, Georgy points in all directions around us. He was showing us the borders of Serbia, Macedonia and Greece, marked by the ridges of various mountains. “One of these countries could be my next destination for a ski traverse.” With that thought in my head, I head down, linking turn after turn until we arrive together again in Bansko.

Ski Touring Bulgaria

Ski Touring in Bulgaria

Ski Touring in Bulgaria