Death in the Afternoon

extreme skiing in Bansko

extreme skiing in Bansko

I’m no pro skier, I’m not sponsored by any manufacturer or filmed on a daily basis as part of one of those tantalizingly extreme films where everyone is skiing in chest deep powder on some remote face in Alaska. I’m just a guy who loves to ride the back country. If it’s un-pisted then that’s just fine with me.  I have never really grown out of the pleasure of being in the mountains with a friend on some fresh snow away from the crowds. The peace of the forest, the wild open desolation of big mountains combined with that heart pumping, adrenaline quickening thrill of charging off down the hill. It’s an intoxicating combination that has had me hooked for the past 18 years.

I think everyone who has watched an extreme skiing video can empathize with the excitement. The thump of helicopter blades as a group of tanned people step out on to the top of some remote mountain.  The shock of fear as the mountain starts to slip the rush of relief as the guy shoots out of the avalanche. Awe as he pulls off a back flip over the impossibly huge cliff, lands it and skis off. This is the stuff million dollar movies are made of!

The reality of backcountry skiing is a little less glamorous. Most of us stink! Never having enough time to wash your ski wear after a sweaty day on the hill lends a locker room aroma to most freeriders.  The chopper dropping you off is the stuff of fantasy. Shitting your self all the way up a ridge in knee deep snow, sweating like crazy, puffing like a steam train is the way most of us get to the start of a run. Hoarding all our money so that we can ski the whole season means our gear is old and spending most days each winter out in all weathers soon ruins the flush of youth.

The money shots in most extreme skiing videos normally involve some sort of slip or avalanche. Nothing can beat the lone skier bopping down an impossibly steep slope as clouds of fresh snow tumble around him.  Again the reality is much less glamorous.  Ripping down a slope in the trees because you are sure it will be safer than open faces, you pop round a corner into a clearing triggering a couple of hundered tons of snow to start slipping down the hill. No one is there to watch and suddenly a perfect day turns into a lottery of life and death. Sat on a summit looking down at a pristine face you try and judge the risk, friends have said it should be safe, you have a good poke around in the snow pack and it appears o.k.  . Yesterday the other side of the mountain was safe but today two turns in and the whole bloody lot starts moving.  A super inviting untracked slope covered in deep deep fresh snow just begs you to carve some lines in it.  So throwing caution to the wind just to be the first person down it you charge off. …

Every day in the back country entails an element of risk, a bad fall, turn or landing in the middle of nowhere can soon escalate into a nightmare. Clipping a tree or rock can easily break something whether it is equipment or bones and getting back to civilization even when you are only 1 or 2 kms from the resort can become a Herculean task in deep snow. Weather can change rapidly in the mountains and once the cloud has come down and the snow is falling areas that you were sure you knew like the back of your hand can become alien.

Avalanche risk is a hugely complicated science. The basic formulas are simple, weight of snow verses angle of slope and friction between layers equals movement or stability. However types of snowflake, the effects of wind, sun, humidity and temperature shifts all add to the mix to make predicting when and where avalanches will fall a dark art. Faces that were totally safe at 10am can be lethal at 1pm an east face can ski like a dream and then the west face of the same mountain can be a disaster waiting to happen. Add to this incredibly complicated mix the fact that what freeriders want to ski is deep fresh snow and you start to get regular deaths on the mountain.  Avalanches do not need to be huge to kill. A tiny avalanche of 20 tons of snow can smash a rider into a tree with the force of a bus traveling at 50kmh.  A light dusty slip on a big face can be enough to de-stabalise a rider so he falls over a cliff. Suffocation under 20cm of snow is common.

Statistics claim that a skier or snowboarder buried under an avalanche has a high chance of survival if he or she is dug out within 15mins, if they were buried alive.  There are many tools available to the freerider to enhance his chances of survival.  Air bag systems like in a car can be worn on the back to help the victim float, avalung systems to help you breathe whilst buried, radio transceivers to help rescue services find you, probes and shovels to dig your friends out and of course helmets and body armour to protect you from impacts. All this kit has its place but is worthless if you were crushed or ripped apart in the avalanche before it buried you.

There you are, your best friend is buried under the snow alive and well somewhere under 200m2 of avalanche debris. You have skied down to the settlement area of the avalanche. Your radio transceiver is working and all your friends have the right equipment. Depending on the equipment you have to either methodically plot a grid pattern to find your buried friend or home in on his signal. 200m2, every second counts, you’re running around over boulders of snow heart racing, mind totally freaked out trying to concentrate on this gadget that is the only link to your mate and his survival. Eventually you find the spot where the signal is strongest and start prodding around with your probe, is that him, or just a lump of ice? You start digging. This isn’t the fluffy powder that fell on the hill, this is now compacted slurry dense as cement, you have got to dig out as much as 1 ton to free up your friend and every second counts. 15minutes is not long and invariably not long enough.

Freeriding is inherently risky, when things go wrong they can go fatally wrong. We ignore the warnings, ride areas that have taken lives and still go back for more. The risks are as obvious. The consequences dire.

The reasons behind freeriding are clear to those who do it. Pleasure, thrill, excitement are all part of it but so much more than this is that it is there for the taking. To ski a sweet line that will be gone in a day. To feel that moment where it all works, perfect snow, a perfect line.  Extreme skiing is one of a few moments in our lives when we are totally in control. Totally alive.  The moment you slip off a ridge, turn into a gully drop into a big face there is no one else to blame, you made that choice. The rush is all yours, the sweetness of the snow the epic turns, all yours.  You own that moment and in that moment you are truly free. Free to have the time of your life, free from all the safety nets of the modern world, free from all the crap. Just you and the hill. Freedom has no safety nets, no one to blame. You make a choice and hope to fuck you made a good one because if you got it wrong, really wrong, you’re dead .

Freeriding is no chummy club where we’re all in it together. If we are kind those that do die are branded as unfortunate or unlucky, if not the dead are branded as fools who didn’t have a clue. All whitewashed over with pat comments of “he died doing what he loved”

That bit of mountain is mine! If you bail out, side slip, show fear, dither or fail to turn expect abuse.  The testosterone, dominating mother nature, or convincing yourself you have dominated her, the buzz of surviving is what it is all about. The thrill of rolling the dice, and winning. When the odds were so high. Pushing the limits of your body, mind and the sport. The serenity of the experience the almost meditative quality of the focused moment. Mix all that up and you might get close.

Koncheto ridge

Koncheto thanks to

Koncheto thanks to

02/09/2013 A return to Koncheto it has been nearly a year since I was last on koncheto. For those of you who don’t know this ridge it is the saddle to the right of what looks like the highest mountain in Pirin when you look up from the village. I am not quite sure how butKoncheto has become a bit of a “must do” thing for budding hikers. Yes it is very high (about 2700m or 2800m) yes it has a cable to hold onto and yes there is a bit of a plummet down to Banski Suhodol on the north side of the ridge. But really Koncheto itself is only a small part of what is a truly spectacular bit of mountain. Last time I was up there we were a very big group of mixed abilities and frankly my mind was so focused on getting everyone off the hill in one piece that I forgot to really enjoy myself! So Yesterday I decided to go back up there and have a bit of a play on my own. As it turned out a new guest had just arrived in the hotel who is a bit of a mountain man so he agreed to join in. The route I normally take up both Vihren and Kutelo starts from behind the Bunderitsa hut, a lovely trail that rises steeply out of old pine forest into alpine meadows and then into high alpine sedge and scree slopes. the 1100m climb to the top of Kutelo took about 2 hours of hard walking but it is worth allowing 4 hours so you can enjoy the views and have a brunch at the foot of the north face of Vihren. last year to save the effort of starting the ridge from the top of Kutelo we traversed from the col between Kutelo and Vihren onto Koncheto. This year with no team to worry about we pushed on the extra 200 vertical meters to Kutelo, unfortunately the top was covered with cloud but occasionally we got a little peek through into the valleys below. The first 200m from the top of Kutelo down towards Koncheto itself is just as exposed as the main ridge with many thousand feet of vertical cliff plunging down from the edge. The ridge is wide enough so not too scary but exhilarating. It is well worth starting the walk from the top of Kutelo to enjoy the extra bit of ridge. It also means you don’t have to access Koncheto itself from the normal mid point which involves a much harder traverse across smooth limestoney marble.

With the wind and cloud it was really quite cold as we muddled our way along, the cable is a great help and makes things a lot easier, allowing the novice climber to get a feel of proper exposure above the huge depth of Banski Suhodol. The more faint hearted can stay away from the edge on the south side of the ridge using the cable as a banister and enjoy the view from the safety of a nice wide clear path. Banski Suhodol is an area I am yet to explore much but tales of bottomless caves and huge limestone caverns abound, One day I will have to go and have a proper look!

I left my guest on the west side of Koncheto as he wanted to carry on to Yavarov and then the golf course and back to Bansko that way! ( a little too hard core for me) and I shot off back to the Bunderitsa car park for some lunch. The walk down on my own was lovely, quiet and beautiful for most of the descent. About an hour out from lunch I started to hear faint voices rising up on the breeze ahead of me. I couldn’t make out the language but the tone of the conversation was truly international. ” I never wanted to come up this bloody mountain in the first place” ” I’ll never make it home in one piece” “just leave me here”…. A very unhappy girlfriend and a very harangued boyfriend trying to make it off the hill. I am pretty sure, from the dark scowl on the boyfriends face, that the relationship was broken beyond repair! With a chirpy Dobra Den I trotted past and left them to their domestic. Lunch in the Bunderitsa car park has turned into a splendid Sunday tradition, loads of locals drinking and making merry, cheap food and loads of mingling between tables lends an atmosphere closer to a working mans club than a sketchy BBQ in a car park. A group of my friends from Belitsa and Sofia joined me, I had a beer with the mountain rescue boys who had just come off the hill having finished an operation. Another table was full with the recently returned heros of the Eiger… all in all a great sense of camaraderie prevailed! Even if you are not planning to head off into the hills loaded up with ice axes and ropes this is a lovely spot to have a wander around, look at the oldest pine tree in Bulgaria and have a lazy lunch.

A different sort of training

Tevno lake hut in Pirin Mountain

11/08/2013 A different sort of training, I have just come back from 2 lovely days in the hills with a friend from Sofia, he is a very busy political bee up there and  juggling work and a growing family with what are turning out to be “interesting times” in Sofia has meant we haven’t seen him in our hills for nearly a year now. We started out on Friday afternoon by getting the Dobrinishtay chair lift up to Bez Bog hut, I had assumed that a late start would mean we would be able to fly along the 6 hour trail to Tevno hut in the cool of the afternoon. Fly we did, getting to the hut in under 4 hours but the still, windless heat in the circus below Kralev Dvor was hellish. Being ginger I am not exactly designed to deal with sun and heat but practice and preparation means I don’t normally suffer. Friday was an exception, I arrived in Tevno feeling a little dry and a little warm.

Tevno is a happy place for me, the hut sits on the side of a lake at 2500m surrounded by little peaks and overshadowed by the impressive north face of Kamenitsa . The hut itself is a very basic affair run by three very friendly if overworked locals. All the food is brought up from Bansko by donkey and cooked over a small wood fired stove by Valia. Do not expect much but after a long days march into the middle of the park, homemade soup with salad and meat balls all served with a smile and a cold beer is better than anything a 3* Michelin chef could ever rustle up! The hut itself is a little too warm, claustrophobic, ripe and sardine-esque for me so I take a bivvy bag and sleep out in the meadows. It makes for a pretty bumpy bed but the stars make up for the mattress!

The route down from Tevno was new to me so every corner brought a surprise and every ridge a new horizon. It’s a real pleasure to explore new bits of Pirin as there are always surprises. We saw some truly splendid lakes that are hidden in folds of the landscape a few wild deer/goats and a lot of cattle. The whole mountain grazing thing is either an ancient habit renewed in recent years or a totally new thing. Either way I am not 100% sure about how good this is for the park as the cattle are pretty brutal on what is a very delicate eco system. The one joy in having all these beasties wandering around is that occasionally you come round a corner and bump into a splendid example of a prime beef. All good if you are used to cattle and their stroppy ways. The fun really starts when townies get their first face to face experience of a ton of testosterone filled beef!

The trek really isn’t that hard and for a first taster of high Pirin it is a great route, take 8 hours for the first day (it is only really 4 or 5 hours of walking) and stop after ever climb for a long break and you will barely notice  the distance. The second day is probably 6 and a half hours of proper walking but if you start early in the morning and finish late in the afternoon you will not really notice the effort involved. The trail is mainly flatish with some steep descents over rocks but nothing too hard. The joy of the hut being a little crowded and hot is that you’ll wake up early so you’ll have lots of time!

Due to my trekking partner being a bit of an expert on Bulgarian politics we spent a lot of time in lively debate about BG and I got some training in the inner workings of this fascinating land!


On a totally different tip Di and I went into the west end of Pirin last Sunday. WOW what a cool area, untouched, near as dam it, we found a ridge as exciting as Koncheto a whole forest of mountain ash where an avalanche had obviously knocked back all the other trees. There is a fantastic view down into Baiovi Dupki which is an almost inaccessible hanging valley near Yavarov hut. In some ways I find it tragic that the average visitor to Bansko will never get a chance to see these places. Then I look at the damage cause by the hoards that march up and down Vihren every day in the summer and maybe it is a good thing that the park authorities do not maintain trails into these more wild areas.


avalanche thanks to for the image

avalanche thanks to for the image

10/3/2012 first real avalanche of the season this week, a small 25m wide and 200m long number. Spring is definately here changing the snow pack and bringing wet heavy snow. The new snow skis well and Tom and I have been having a great time in it but the fact that it has fallen on a crusty wind blown surface means that instability will be a huge problem over the enxt few days. The pistes are skiing amazingly well and slowly slowly the lift queues are dieing down. March seems to have become a second holiday month with loads of apartment owners and regulars in town for 4 or 5 day mini breaks. It’s great to see so many faces about town that have been coming here for years! Still snowing now and more on the way, looks like 2011/2012 is goning to go down in history as an amazing year!

20/03/2012 Some pretty special firsts for The Polak, Joanna and I yesterday. Skiing the NE face of Todorka (the one you can see from the Plato lift). Joanna started what looked like a small spring avalanche on her second turn. After about 10m it knocked her off her feet and started to accelerate picking up more snow and power as it went. After 100m the whole F-ing lot went over a 12m cliff with Joanna on top, we lost sight of her for maximum 2 seconds but it felt longer. After the cliff it spat Joanna out and carried on for another 100m. Other than a graze on her knee and some stress Joanna was o.k. The Polak and I had a pretty good run down after her, finding some good lines here and there but to be honest the fun was some what taken out of the whole affair! So a first run for the Polak and I and Joanna’s first avalanche

Our little community

FCO Bansko

FCO Bansko

17/08/2012 A word on community

 We are a small community here in Bansko. If you stretch the numbers a bit we could be a total of 50 people living here permanently.  Ex-pats and their families dot most of the villages in our region. Our children go to the local schools, we use the local doctors and get married in the local churches or town halls. Our community stretches from Pirin to Rila, down to Simitli and the Rhodopi. We all have Bulgarian friends, local people we want to share our successes with, celebrate with and generally be there when the times are good. Like it or not we are part of the Bulgarian community, we stand out admittedly but still we are living here and part of it.

Things are different from the U.K, some things worse some things better but nearly everything is different. But that does not mean we have to change, just as we would in a community in the U.K. we need to look out for each other. If you see something wrong tell someone, if you don’t trust the local police or town hall, tell the embassy, send a letter to the local prosecutor. Tell people, anyone!  We are part of the community whether we like it or not. Turning a blind eye to crooks or criminals just because we are from the U.K. is not acceptable.  The next victim could be you.

The language barrier can be hard, the Bulgarian way is not always easy for us to understand. Some institutions are almost impossible to work out but there are people here to help. John Sutton and I are in Bansko all year round. The local police can always find a translator. The British Embassy in Sofia has a small but professional team, and the FCO is on call 24/7 in an emergency. Don’t be afraid to use all these services but please don’t just bury your head in the sand and think “it’s not my problem, I am not from round here.”

As I said earlier we are from round here our children are at the local school, my doctor lives in the village. I have never been more local to anywhere in my life. But this means we have to be a part of the community, take part in the community. Petty crime, assault – sexual or otherwise, burglaries and corruption are not just things that happens in Bulgaria they are crimes here just as much as they are anywhere else and as such must be reported. These problems will not go away if ignored but only if they are addressed through the proper channels. 

Pink Tomatoes

Bansko pink tomato

28/08/2013 Pink tomatoes, the seasons turn,the odd shower of rain has cooled Bansko, the days are getting noticeably shorter and the  blackberries with their contrary nature begin their lethargic charge towards autumn. Of all the “important” crops in our life the blackberries are the least stressful, at one and the same time they are one of the most bountiful crops in our garden but never give more than a kilo of fruit a day. To put the blackberry harvest into perspective our sweet cherries all ripen within a week of each other, the frantic scramble to get as many cherries in as possible normally involves friends and staff being called in, ladders borrowed, production lines set up and all in all a very hectic few days. God forbid it rains and the whole crop is lost!

The blackberries on the other hand refuse to be ruffled by the mighty forces of the cosmos, it is as if the say “winter so what! We have time, take it easy, there’s enough to go around so stop making a fuss!” 3 or 4 weeks ago I picked our first blackberries sweet and juicy I ate almost as many as I collected, 2 kilos went into the freezer and a few days later there was no sign I had taken any fruit off the bushes. And so the inexorable harvest continues. We graze the bushes filling bags every few days, the freezer fills but the bushes themselves never look as if they have been touched. Those bombproof little red fruit still cover the bushes and every time I go out into the garden there are another couple of bags of ripe black fruit to be picked.

Other than my idyl with the blackberry which I am happy to revel in, the start of the blackberry harvest is an important signpost in our year. There is another crop that is starting to pick up speed and unlike my sweet spikey friend this harvest is frantic rush. Bulgarian pink tomatoes would never make it past the man from del monte, ugly gnarly things, invariably topped with a yellow and green patch and black spots, their sides bulge like a fat girl in lycra. I tried to find some images of them on google to share their looks but as ever all the pictures are of the select 1% of pretty ones, but even the internets obsession with food porn couldn’t stop a couple of more normal looking toms getting through !

Unlike a tomato in the U.K. with its perfect plump (but definitely not fat) shape, uniform colour and slightly artificial aroma from being still attached to the vine the Bulgarian pink tomato is not even red! It stinks with an overpowering punchy smell (no poncy aromas here). A case warm from the sun put on the kitchen table will fill the house with a strong forest like smell. once you start to peel, de-seed and boil the resulting puree the smell is irresistible. The flesh is dense with little or no water around the seeds, the kaleidoscopic seed chambers inside look more like a walnut than the uniform layer we are used to in the U.K. Lunches now turn into a tomato fest, red onion and tomato salad, tomatoes with salt, we eat them like apples. The one thing I’ve noticed is we don’t really add much to them.

As most Brits do, I watch cooking programs on t.v. and I am beginning to find the celebrity chef obsession with adding stuff to food slightly weird. Vinaigrette!!! WTF are your ingredients really so bland you need to add this stuff. The words and actions just do not add up. O.K. they talk about seasonal this and seasonal local that so what the F*** are they adding things to the raw ingredient for. A really seasonal ripe smelly tomato just needs a bit of salt to draw out the juices and then five minutes later (if you really really need it) some olive oil. The vinaigrette is the juices from the fruit, spoon some of that onto a slice of toast (o.k. call it crostini if it turns you on) and boom you have an epic meal. O.K. if you really really must, you can slice some red onions, there are enough of the things around at the moment anyway! Cucumbers, even though not in the same league of punchy flavour deserve the same respect. When picked ripe served warm from the sun, just peeled and salted what more could they need and what more could you want?

 03/09/2013 Bellinis @ Harry’s? There is something special about a perfectly ripe peach, the soft fuzzy skin is like a babies back, the smell so sexy and when it is a white peach the flesh and flavour are to die for. The season is so short and they don’t really travel well so the juicy little beauty I just had for breakfast could easily be the one and only perfect white peach I will eat this year!

13/12/2011 lovely local dinner the other night, cooked at home without much thought we had a whole grain spagetti with meat balls. it was not until I was pottering around the garden afterwards that I realised that nearly the whole dish was made from our own or friends produce. The bottled tomatoes and passata were from Douglas and Tash’s garden bottled by Vania, the onions and garlic from Yana’s mum’s garden, olive oil from some of our Greek regulars and the meatballs were from a wild boar shot in belitsa by Yana’s Dad. Only the spagetti was bought in. For me this has become so normal that I had forgotten how rare it is in the U.K. to get home made stuff. Lucky is not the word!

Bansko pink tomato