Co-living-avalon-bansko Online English teachers

Co-living @ Avalon Bansko

In December Avalon will start a new chapter in Bansko!

Covid-19 has totally changed the way we live and work. With less and less office based work, flexible hours and more and more location independent work available we have decided on a change.

Out with traditional old fashioned hospitality and in with a totally new way of living the Bansko dream!

Avalon has been a Home-tel for many of our regular guests for years, our plan is to expand on the Home side of things. We will no be offering our mini apartments and single rooms for rent exclusively on a monthly basis.

Our guests will be able to use the kitchen and living room as their own home!

We will still be doing some weekly events as well as cooking courses, guided ski, bike and hike days.

Our focus is online English teachers and location independent workers who love the mountains.

Co-living-avalon-bansko Online English teachers

Indian food in Bansko

Indian food in Bansko

Indian food in Bansko

Indian food in Bansko.

 

Indian in BanskoThe Hotel Avalon has been offering Indian food in Bansko. for over 10 years now. It’s a slightly strange situation, an English guy cooking Indian food in Bansko but it makes sense I promise. A little bit of history will help.

On leaving school I trained and worked as a British modern chef. Cooking in most of the best restaurants in Bristol and upsetting nearly all of the head chefs. I never lasted long in one place! I’d work 3 months, learn everything I could and then dash off to the Alps to ski all winter or to Asia to wander around the Himalaya, Karakorum and Hindu Kush. My passion for food followed me to Asia. Where sat in wooden shacks in smokey kitchens I’d prize recipes out of everyone I could.15

Mostly we wouldn’t be able to talk in a shared language, there’d be lots of show and tell, spices would have local names, recipes would vary from village to village, but the general idea built up as I wandered through each region. For almost a decade I never really got a chance to cook any of the dishes I was learning. The U.K. was and still is in the throws of the Jamie Oliver food revolution. Cooking was all about “bung in a bit of Basil and slosh a load of olive oil”. I kept learning eating and tasting and writing everything down.

I was sent to Bansko in 2003 to do a job and decided to stay. I tried cooking a bit of “pukker grub” but no one was really interested in what I’d learned in Bristol, so we did a curry night. I thought I’d cook curry the British way and it was a total disaster, people wanted spice. There’s only so much shopska you can eat before you start craving a bit of flavour!

18The adventure started gently, I began by cooking Indian food in Bansko with easy classics from Delhi and Nepal. Then a few Pakistani dishes, aromatic and spicy numbers from up by the Afghan boarder. People loved it! I added some dishes from Goa, then Sri Lanka perfect for the summer. I’ve interpreted some Kashmiri dishes and made them my own ( so popular people now copy them!!) Afghanistan inspired me to make a chicken dish, sour and soapy with lemon and Cardamon and a bucket load of coriander.  Snacks that you would only find in the foot hills of Everest and now served as Indian food in Bansko ! As the years go by we keep changing the menu, this summer I unleashed a couple of new dishes that I thought our guests might like. One a creamy coconut dish packed with chilli from Sri Lanka and the other a mushroom and aubergine “Balti” full of tamarind and rich spices. It appears our guests are willing to be adventurous!

I will keep pushing the boundaries. I have a few dishes with goat that I want to try and a butter “carrai” from Tish Mir that might be too rich for western tummies. I’ve eaten countless versions of bean curries that I’d like our guests to sample. Now we have a tandoor maybe some of the highly spiced Afghan kebabs of offal might come out. Who knows, I keep going back to Asia and every time I get a new recipe or two and every time our guests love it. The adventure that is Indian food in Bansko continues!

We have a huge following of regulars and I’m proud of what we offer, people book months in advance and as a chef that is the most wonderful compliment. I love cooking Asian food and thousands of you love eating what we cook, thank you for your support!

16If you would like to try “Indian food in Bansko” it’s not just Indian ( Punjabi, Kashmiri, Pathan, Chitrali, Nepali, Sri lankan!) please book by Email:- hotelavalonbansko@gmail.com

Our curry nights are every Thursday in the summer season. In the winter every Thursday, most Fridays and some Wednesdays.

We start serving at 7:30 with a selection of Asian street food starters, Papad, samosa, bahji, sukuti, raita, pickles and chutneys.

The main courses are served at 8pm 9 different dishes split pretty much 50/50 between meat and vegan, we adjust the selection according to the season and what’s available. There is also a pretty wide spread of spiciness and heat. About half the meat dishes are cooked in the Tandoor to get that unique flavour as well as our Naan. The Basmatti rice is the best I can find in the U.K.

 

 

 

 

 

The Joy of skiing

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The Joy of Skiing.

20017/18 saw another great winter here in Bansko. Conditions were fantastic the hotel was full and the restaurant is going from strength to strength!

I have noticed a bit of a change this year, it hasn’t come suddenly but has crept up on me. I’m still ski touring and skiing off piste (like a god!), I’m still cooking at the curry nights and the supper club. The cocktails are as splendid as ever. The Awesome Avalon team are getting better and better (if that is possible!! ). No the change isn’t in what we do it is who we are doing it with!

I have noticed that more and more of our guests are starting to have children, the party animals of a few years ago have become loved up couples and those couples are now coming with bigger and bigger and bigger children!

Dylan is now ten and I don’t really know how that happened, one minute I’m a dashing young blade and the next I’m the father of a dashing young blade. The little man who used to need daddy to do anything is now a mini ski god and a fantastic helper behind the bar and in the kitchen.

This winter was all about mountain life with Dylan!

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Skiing with Children

Mountain life is a perfect environment for children, fresh air and exercise are part of the daily routine, eating healthily  and socialising with friendly people are the norm, and Dylan withall the others is loving it ! The real shocker has been seeing the number of humongous children. We’ve been open for nearly 15 years now so those 3 and 4 year olds who came to stay for their first ever ski holiday are now 18 and 19 year old giants!

As skiers and snowboarders we want our children to ski with us. The learning is a fun family adventure, skiing together is a joy, being beaten down a piste by your son or daughter is fantastic. Hot chocolate and picnics in the snow, blazing sunshine in January and the buzz of doing sport together are all brilliant.

6 top tips for enjoying skiing with your children

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#1 Know your child.

I’ve seen 4 year old girls in -20 happy as pigs in poo, I’ve seen 14 year old boys miserable on a sunny day in -5. Know your child. Are they a rufty tufty little bruiser who will keep getting up even after a thousand falls or more of a thinker  who needs to be coaxed and reassured down the hill. Be honest with yourself, just because daddy likes hucking  10 foot cliffs in chest deep pow doesn’t mean Tarquina does.

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#2 The baby is the boss.

You want to ski, that’s why you are here, you love it, you’ve only got a week maybe ten days a year to do it so you fill every day from first lift to last with hell for leather charges down black runs. Now Berti is three it’s time he joined in the fun. 4 hours a day in ski school should do it you’ll get time to ski with the Mrs. If the instructor is firm and Berti would only stop crying like a wimp you should be skiing together as a family by the end of the week!

NOOOOO!!!!! Don’t do it!!!

Let the little beast be the boss. Let your child set the pace. When Dylan was small we used to drive up to Chalin Valog with a sledge and some skis and boots. We would build snow men, have snow ball fights. Play on the sledge. Drink hot chocolate, eat chips and meat balls, make snow angles we would do anything other than ski. It didn’t take long, only a few days of playing in the snow, before he was asking to try on the skis. I would tow him around, he would slide a couple of meters and we would go back to building snow men. He set the pace. He was the one asking for lessons. He wanted me to let him ski …..

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#3 All the Gear All the Time.

The little blighters grow and grow and grow and grow. It’s bad enough buying new shoes every five minutes and then they need equipment. You can rent skis and helmets so there is no problem there but the rest of the kit costs a fortune.

If you want to enjoy skiing with your children that means buying them the right kit. Warm technical jackets and trousers, good quality thermals and gloves, goggles at actually protect their eye. Body armour. YES! Body armour, they will crash and crash badly, a back protector, wrist protectors for boarders, knee protectors the works please!

Being warm and dry, surviving crashes unharmed, being able to see even in the worst weather will make the difference between your child loving and hating skiing. Spend the money, it’s worth it!

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#4 Feed the Beast.

They forget to eat, they forget to tell you they are hungry and then suddenly you are at the top of a red run in full meltdown mode. Tears, tantrums, zero self confidence and they just can’t do it. WTF has happened? The three of you smashed this piste yesterday and now Billy is being a Drama Queen! It’s probably because he’s hungry. Regular snacks, every 45 minutes is best something small something healthy. Regular snacks save the holiday!

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#5 Warm them Up.

One of the great paradoxes of mountaineering is that the first sign of hypothermia is you don’t feel cold. You ask your climbing buddy all the time if they are cold, if the answer is yes then everything is ok. The moment they say no panic! Children are the same but with a lot less internal fat, they get cold and get cold quick.

They don’t notice because they are too busy having fun, but once they are cold they are miserable and once they are miserable so are you. WARM THEM UP! Stop every couple of hours for a 30 minute warm up in a restaurant. Bring extra socks and gloves, a spare layer, a spare jacket if you have space. They are going to fall over a lot and if they get wet they will get cold.

#6 Make it Fun.

Dylan is a better skier than I am. He’s had years of slalom training, hundreds if not thousands of hours smashing gates with the ski team. His weight is forward his knees are bent, edges are well and truly in he can beat me down most slopes in a straight race and beats me every time though gates.

So we mess around on blue runs, he likes it! He likes going over the little jumps on the side of the pistes. He loves getting air (all 6 inches of it!) he likes to play. Yes he can ski powder on 45 degree slopes off piste, but he likes to play, so we play!

If he asks we go off piste, if he asks we go in the jump park, black run? Yes, when he wants. Under the lifts? Yes, when he wants. It’s all about him having fun.  The more your children enjoy skiing the more you will enjoy it.

 

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Summer in the Mountains

Summer in the Mountains

Summer in the Mountains 2017

 

Most people think of Bansko as purely a winter resort. Don’t get me wrong I love the winter months from Christmas to Easter I am one seriously happy bunny. The winter is just 3 or 4  months, for me the other 8 months of the year have their own unique charm. Summer in the Mountains is a really special time for me. The spring rains and the relentless gardening that they cause soon pass and then the 6 months of summer kick in.img_20170724_164004_240

If you red back through my blog you will see that I’ve been pottering, climbing, biking and generally exploring Pirin in the summer for nearly 15 years now. It will come as a bit of a surprise to you to find that I have barely scratched the surface. The main trails I know like the back of my hand. The secondary routes also pretty perfectly. Those unmarked trails  that look like a slight discolouration in the grass? Yup I know pretty much all of them too. The goat paths that always seem to lead to the top are my stomping grounds. Occasionally, more rarely now, the climbing routes get revisited.img_20170724_164843_455

This summer I heard of a new hut built in the south east corner of Pirin. This is an area I knew nothing about and the idea to explore really excited me. The most eastern ridge of Pirin runs almost exactly north to south. We planned to hike the ridge from Bez Bog hut to it’s end and then drop down to the hut.  Dylan is bigger and stronger these days so he came along. There is also now a really cool group of ex pats who love a good potter in the hills so we managed to get together a really nice group for the expedition.img_20170731_165002_354

Leading groups in the mountains is a dark art and I am not good at it. Distances change depending on weather, group size, style of walking, number of breaks, and soooo many other different variables. I normally get it wrong. My best f**k up was what I considered a 7 hour walk becoming a 14 hour walk ! So I was prepared for some issues. I had counted for 6 hours walking to the new hut. It was closer to 9 by the time we had had a picnic, swim, chat or two and sadly for poor Dylan a thousand and one breaks for him to rest!

Children in the mountains are a very un-quantifiable variable. Now the little man is a beast, we walk a lot, he does a load of sport and frankly he is a tough little man. When he is tired you just feed him and he carries on. Unfortunately even this didn’t work and for the last mile I had to carry him. A good lesson for Daddy and after some pasta and sauce a happy child. I would suggest if you are taking children into the hills halve the distance you think they can walk unless you are willing to carry them!img_20170702_193847_830

The second day was a bit of an adventure. New country is always hard to navigate and the endless forests that make up the eastern marches of Pirin are littered with trails and by ways that feel right but are very wrong. After a few hours we met a shepherd who told us we were on the right path if we were going to Greece but way off if we were going to Breznitsa! Herding his flock in front he took us on an hour yomp through the woods and set us on the right road. Again another long long day. Dylan ran out of steam when we got to tarmac so we hitched a lift down to the village.

Pirin is much much bigger than you imagine looking up from Bansko. 15 summers and I think  have covered only 80% of the trails and about the same amount of the peaks. Pirin is an ideal place for a Summer in the Mountains there are plenty of lake walks and easy trails. A project I am working on to bring more tourists to Bansko for a Summer in the Mountains is what I am calling the Davies. It is similar in concept to the Munro’s in Scotland.img_20170702_193757_380

Pirin Davies

If you are looking for a challenge during your Summer in the Mountains why not try bagging all the peaks in Pirin. The Pirin Davies challenge was thought up by my friend and mentor Di Davies, that’s why I’ve named the game after him. There are 89 peaks in Pirin over 2500m. Some are easy like Bez Bog which you could hike in under 3 hours others are epic multi day yomps like the Kamenitsa Begovitsa chain 7 peaks in a day but it takes 3 days in total. We think you could do them all in 10 weeks if you took it slow 6 if you pushed hard. All the peaks are doable without ropes on their traditional routes but some are a little bit hairy with scrambling and traversing steep unstable faces.img_20170702_194026_538

There are plenty of guides who would be willing to help if you need support on some of the trickier routes our friends at Summer Bansko are more than willing to point you in the right direction. The most south easterly and North westerly peaks would probably be best accesses with a tent so you can sleep at the peak and hike back the next day. Both get you 6 peaks in two days so there is some value in sleeping out for sunset and dawn!

I’m almost there with bagging all the peaks only 12 more to go and hopefully by this time next year we will have a lovely little web page with route guides and medals for anyone who bags them all.img_20170706_153142_549

 Annapurna Base Camp

I’m not a mountain guide! I failed my U.K. mountain leader qualification due to a technicality! However I do take people into the hills both summer and winter and some very special people to the Himalaya or Arctic. Guiding is an awesome responsibility that I normally leave to the professionals. The few times I have led groups in Pirin, Nepal, Greenland and off piste in the winter it always reminds me how amazing real professional mountain guides are!20171020_080819

This year I was planning my last trip to the Himalaya and mentioned it to a few of our regulars. Before long we had a group of 6 people interested and last week I came back from trekking with them to Annapurna Base Camp. The trek itself is one of the best in Nepal, at its quickest you can be in and out in 6 days starting from Jungle and passing through every variation of alpine until you get to  Base camp perched on a shelf above a huge glacier! 20171023_081901For me the Himalaya are a home from home the slow transition of landscape travelled though at walking pace, curry three times a day endless cups of tea and cigarettes friendly faces and beautiful places really appeal to me. What strikes me most about these trips is the human element and this trip was extraordinary for that. I had my usual team of Sulu Kumbu Sherpa. With Bihre leading and Sonam looking after the back of the group. This year a new guy came along called Kadgi, he’s been up Everest a few times and was a lovely addition to the team. The group were unbelievable, by far and away the funniest and fun people I have ever had the pleasure to hike with. Every day was full of laughter and banter even some of the harder days did not phase them. I will never forget this year, giggling like children over endless games of Uno teaching Daphne to swear like a navvy in her oh so lovely french accent . Trying to work out the probabilities of Yahtzee ( and failing dismally), the beautiful Chalet accommodation and the  snow at altitude. All in all an amazing trip made all the more amazing for the team.

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Summer in the Mountains

Once again Bansko and Nepal have made my Summer in the Mountains incredible. I’ve clocked god knows how many meters of altitude gain and miles of trail. Days and days of pottering new routes and new summits. As ever the views have been incredible and the experiences awesome. What has really struck me this year is the human contact. In the mountains you are away from the phone the computer and suddenly you are thrown into this old fashioned thing of actually meeting new people and talking to them, listening to them, enjoying their company. I’m not the most sociable of people outside work, as being friendly is my job but his year has been remarkable for the number of truly lovely people I’ve met in the hills.20171023_081901

If you are in Bansko in the summer go up, have a look. There appears to be an ars***le filter on the national park, you’ll only meet lovely people up there!!!

 

 

Summer in the mountains.

Dylan and Daddy in the hills!

 

img_20170731_165002_354This has been our first proper summer in the mountains. I’ve taken Dylan for a few trips each year for the last two years but nothing too crazy. We had an over nighter at Sinanitsa, a scramble with a little bit of rope with Di and a plenty of jollies. I started this summer with my best foot forward and haven’t really looked back.

 

Trekking in Pirin is a really hard game to explain. For each person who goes into our hills it means a totally different thing. If we make a scale of 1 to 5 to rate mountain nut nuts it’ll be a bit easier to understand.img_20170724_164401_150

 

 

Level One:-

Here is the The Man, 175 kilos of serious mountain man. He likes to walk from his car to a BBQ spot in the woods, the 100m stroll builds up an appetite. Gallons of beer will be strategically placed in the stream with a watermelon or two. Planning is essential as keeping beer cold and chilling a 10 kg melon is slow and difficult work. There are hundreds of dedicated BBQ spots. Most people have a favourite and will loyally go back to the same one week after week. The truly dedicate will spent a few years, possibly generations, building a villa but the principal is the same. Benches and tables hewn from whole trees, shade of some sort and a water source provide the supporting roles to the main star which is the fire pit. Pirin BBQ’s are not like your big green egg or Weber.  A U shaped pit of rocks cemented together make the frame. An intricate balancing act gets the grill in place over the roaring flames. Use of a flattish igneous rock as the grill and a roaring fire to heat it makes for an interesting fried/baked/smoked cooking style. This is proper cave man stuff none of your fancy metal grills here please. Just a bloody great rock heated up and slabs of meat slapped on top.img_20170706_153142_560

 

Pork fat, is crisped, peppers roasted, onions fried and maybe some other vegetable might be induced to show up. The real star of the show is the pork. No fancy marinades here, you use your favourite butcher and he’ll knock out a selection of different sausages, meat balls and spiced steaks of different cuts of pork ( neck is a personal favourite). This mountain of artery hardening goodness will be cooked to perfection by The Man and washed down  with gallons of cold beer. A ridiculously huge salad of home grown tomatoes and cucumbers will hint at vitamins. A few hours later in a meat coma under a tree our hero will be snoring happily.img_20170702_194026_538

 

Level 2:-

DFS, Down From Sofia. No one is from Sofia, not really. Sofiantsy are all recent immigrants to the big city. At most a generation ago they were all villagers and more likely only a couple of years ago. So Friday night means half of Sofia gets in the car and heads to the mountains. These guys are earning money so the clothes are nice and the trainers are nicer. They will eat in restaurants and HIKE! They split into two distinct categories. There are the jeans, t shirt and white trainers brigade and the everything from Decathlon brigade. These guys love the mountains! They will be up at the Rila seven lakes one weekend and Vihren the next. Limited in experience and stamina they will still spend most weekends exploring the main tourist routes in Bulgaria, scattering litter along the path all day and tucking into the local beers all night. Fun people who love spending time in the mountains these guys will be mountaineers soon!

 

img_20170706_153142_555Level 3:-

Trekkers , a truly international bunch. These guys can be from anywhere. Sofia, London, Buenos Aires , Paris or Milan. They’ve heard about how wild and hospitable Pirin is and they are here on an adventure. These guys can’t lie on a beach they will spend their whole summer in the mountains. Determined to be happy, super fit and willing to rough it in the hills they tend to respect the mountain more than most and LOVE what Pirin has to offer. Normally in town for a week hiking from hut to hut and then soaking in hot springs on their last day before heading home these easy going guys really get it!

 

Level 4:-img_20170702_193847_830

Summit baggers. Not all of this little group of nutters are interested in summits but they’ve got a goal and they are on a mission to get it. It could be all about climbing every mountain in Bulgaria or the Balkans, maybe its some epic adventure from Sofia to Greece. these guys are on one. Big packs and even bigger muscles, tales of insanely long routes, huge mountains and wild places that are beyond belief !

 

limg_20170724_164843_455evel 5:-

Mountaineers! There aren’t so many of these rare beasts in Bansko but  you can spot a few. Normally on north faces of something ridiculous  tooled up to the max with ropes and metal work. Leaving civilisation hours before dawn winter or summer these nutters will be hanging on by their fingernails to some hair raising  cliff before the rest of us have even had breakfast.

 

So where do I fit into this crowd? I’ve played at being a mountaineer and to be honest I’m lacking in the bucket loads of manliness needed to join them. I’ve played at bagging summits and still do from time to time. Long distance walks and multi day trips are still fun but I’ll only really do that a couple of times a year. Playing at being The Man is also pretty cool once or twice a year. I’m pretty partial to pork products and cold beer. But I think the truth of it is I like the playing most of all. National Park Pirin is , for me, a giant play ground. Now for Dylan as well.img_20170625_144915_068

 

We started our summer in the mountains together with an amazing group of ex pats. A crazily long trip to the wildest corner of Pirin. The south east corner of Pirin is visited by a few locals, hunters, trials bikers and the odd shepherd but otherwise is just a wilderness for the beasties. Last year the National Park built a hut about as far from anywhere as you could imagine so we decided to visit. It’s just a simple little bunk house for 8 people set in a meadow laced with crystal clear streams. A lovely little spot other than the clouds of mosquitoes! Getting there was a little harder than expected. I think it took us close on 16 hours over the two days to get from Bez Bog to Breznitsa and everyone was a little pooped by the end. I only had to carry Dylan for the last kilometre on the first day so he was a bit of a hero really.

 

img_20170724_164004_240I learnt my lesson so our next trip was a lot more child friendly. Bez Bog to Tevno hut and then on the second day Tevno to Damianitsa hut. We swam in lakes we had picnics. I had an afternoon nap and all in all it was a near perfect weekend. Telling bedtime stories under the stars and walking hand in hand through alpine meadows are experiences I hope he will never forget.Our next trip I plan to camp on a peak somewhere, then maybe the week after by a lake. I love this way of spending time in Pirin. Seeing the mountains through a child’s eyes is enlightening and walking at a child’s pace a real pleasure. Soon our summer in the mountains will be over and I will start testing myself against the high peaks and long trails again but for now I’m kind of loving the gentle life!img_20170625_145236_216

Bread and Jam

Bread and JamBread and Jam

Bread and Jam

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I really care about what I eat, it’s really important to me. Great flavours, textures and smells get me going, so much so that some might say I’m a couple of pounds over weight! But when it comes to our guests it matters even more. Not only do I want to offer the best we can but more and more people are caring about what they eat and really appreciate quality food.

Bansko is still trapped in the grip of the seasons. Yes you can by strawberries in Feb. but they are massively overpriced and no one locally would dream of buying them. The local way, the seasonal way is the old fashioned way, when there is a glut of fruit or veg it gets preserved, dried, pickled of fermented! So mid September we got hold of some raspberries, added a little sugar left them overnight and then slowly boiled them up the next day. 240 jars of jam later we serve it for breakfast. Local raspberries and sugar, nothing else, unless you count time and love. Just fruit and sugar and it is lovely.

I’ve been on a course to make bread and this summer I have been practicing, flour, salt and water. A little time and love to get the flour fermenting and with nearly a thousand loaves made in the last 9 months I reckon I have nearly got the perfect loaf! I make 100% whole meal, two types of seeded rye, brown and white loaves.

Bread and Jam, so simple and so often ruined by the supermarkets, are such a treat when home made! I hope you guys enjoy them as much as we do!

 

 

Earthquake

Earthquake

On the 25th of April at 11:56 a 7.8 earthquake struck in the area of Barpak in Nepal. The Nepali Himalaya are packed with small villages clinging like swallows nests to the steep hillsides. Thriving in this tough environment is almost impossible, simple tasks are made brutal by the plunging valleys and soaring peaks. Tiny fields are cut like steps into the hill sides, water is piped from wherever it can be found, basic supplies have to be manhandled for days on foot from civilization up into the hills.

The local people are incredibly poor and live hard simple lives. Homes are simple structures of mud and rock lined with basic wooden frames, a central fireplace, small kitchen and a roof for the animals. There are no luxuries other than warmth, shelter, food and company.

The life of a Nepali mountain family is a hard one. Their diet of rice and lentils, simple. Their medical care, non existent. Their daily round of subsistence farming, brutal. Days are long and physically demanding. I love these people. They are a happy bunch, they laugh easily and are hard to anger. Both their generosity and kindness have touched me deeply over the years and the majesty of their mountains is addictive.

By 12 O’clock on the 25th I was stood in freezing mud in nothing but my socks trousers and t shirt bruised and battered sobbing in the arms of a total stranger. The earthquake struck while I was dozing in front of the fire. I tend to start the day early when I am trekking 7am breakfast normally means I am on the trail by 7:30 and finished by 11am, less chance of sun burn and I finish just in time for a doze and some lunch.  That lazy hour in front of the fire contemplating lunch was brought to a close as the crescendo of the earthquake struck. I have been through a lot of small quakes in Pakistan and the initial few seconds of rumble, rattle and heave didn’t really bother me. The full force of the quake was like nothing I have experienced, it was as if a giant had grabbed our house and was shaking it with all his might to see what was inside. I am unashamed to say I panicked, leapt to my feet and ran for the door, my head hit something, my leg and arm hit something and I landed in the dirt outside the house. The ground just kept shaking and shaking the roar of rock falls, the deep base rumble of the bones of the earth ripping apart was deafening. Screaming people collapsing buildings and splitting rock combined with this otherworldly sensation of everything moving so violently my senses were overloaded.

After the initial quake subsided I tried to take stock, I started to scrabble wildly in the meter deep pile of rubble that was once my lodge. I had to find my boots and some clothes. At 3600m it was cold and wet. The drizzle that had annoyed me all day now terrified me. I was cold and getting wet. Frantically I dug trying to remember where I had left my boots. Quickly I found them and my bag; I put on as much warm clothing as I had and all my waterproofs and felt a little safer. The shouts of other tourists could be heard all along the ridge, The Nepali lodge owners were huddled together higher up, three Czech that were in the lodge with me were off to the left, I felt immensely alone.

Down the path appeared a group of three French girls and their three Sherpa’s. One of the girls asked if I was ok and we hugged, shaking with fear I sobbed and began to take stock. 500m away we could see a group of people, Nepali and tourist milling around a couple of piles of rubble that had once been lodges. Grabbing our stuff we headed over. Purposeless and confused people milled around. One of the lodge owners was trying to pull stuff out of the lodge. Most of the tourists and Nepalese started to pack themselves into a shelter that a local family used while they were herding animals up there. The space was tiny and clearly couldn’t accommodate us all. Together with a couple of Sherpa’s and the lodge owner we started to build a shelter with a big blue tarpaulin this rude shelter began to turn into a kitchen, ropes and poles were found kerosene stoves, pots, pans and benches were brought in.

Still clearly not enough shelter. Three German lads joined the construction team. We started on a second shelter hopefully our room for the night. More poles, rope and a tarp filled with holes. Corrugated iron and some thin foam as flooring. A rude rock wall, bits of wreckage as gable ends time passed fast as we struggled to make ourselves safe. Tents sprang up, tea was made and in dribs and drabs new people stumbled into our camp. Some helped, most didn’t all were clearly shaken.

The rain turned into sleet and a French man and his daughter dirty and clearly exhausted staggered into the camp. They had come from further up the pass, a huge landslide had killed a French man and his porter, his wife and Sherpina were trapped under the rubble. A couple of the younger tourists offered to help but most refused, I tried to persuade some of the guides and porters to form a rescue party, no one was willing to take the risk. Round and round I went begging people to go and help, after about 3 hours 5 of the porters agreed to go, clearly terrified, under equipped and exhausted. We got them jackets, head torches and medical kits. They refused to take any foreigners and ran off into the dusk.

We kept on working making the tent as warm and dry as possible, collecting what we could from the rubble. Digging we found some blankets and solar powered lamps. Food and water barrels appeared pressure cookers and fuel. The kitchen was now fully functioning.

As I pottered around trying to find stuff and building I would stop and sob uncontrollably, after shocks and landslides kept the stress levels high and our nerves on edge. We cuddled up in the tent waiting for news from the rescue party. I had a shawl that barely kept the cold out some people had summer sleeping bags but nobody was warm. The fitful sleep of exhaustion kept washing over me but the knowledge that soon we would have injured people kept snatching me back into wakefulness. A couple of hours after dark with the rain falling hard the rescue party came back, as gently as possible Natalie was rolled soaking wet into our tent. Clearly unconscious, white  and frozen the atmosphere in the tent changed. Isabelle and Olivier swung into action, we stripped off her wet clothes made a mattress of blankets and wrapped her in all the blankets we had, Her hands and feet were as cold as death her face that of a corpse. I assumed we would see her die during the night. Cuddling up to share what warmth we had we started rubbing her hands and feet, talking to her constantly, rubbing and rubbing. Hope beyond hope I prayed. Suddenly she started to moan and shake with  vicious spasms as life returned. Over the next few hours, she came back to us, memories of her husbands death tearing at her heart we spoon fed her hot orange juice and tsampa. At some point the Nepali boys brought the Sherpina in and we started to care for her, the hours passed, rubbing frozen limbs, encouraging words, hot drinks. Food was brought for the nursing team but we couldn’t stop. Eventually late in the night the two patients appeared to stabilize and I wandered over to the cook house to eat. A small bowl of rice and lentils, some banter, lots of cigarettes and I turned in for the night. At some point in the night the rain turned into snow, strangely warmer than the rain, condensation dripping from the inside of the tarp, squeezed between a French guy and a Czech guy I drifted off. Woken by fits of panic, I crawled out of the tent into the snow. 2 inches of fresh snow blanketed the silent camp, the damp cold bit deep, I felt a long way from safety, it had taken me 6 days to get to where I was. The chance of surviving felt daunting. I crawled back into the tent miserable. The old French guy next to me offered some words of praise and encouragement and I fell asleep feeling a little more hopeful.

The cold light of dawn woke me before everyone else, I crawled out packed what I had and lit a cigarette. Slowly people started to appear, the tireless lodge owner started to make tea, a few people had radios on there phones and news began to trickle in. The epicenter had been 40km away from us, the destruction in the hills total. Kathmandu was reported as destroyed, Pokara destroyed, help unlikely.

Debates about escape routes swung back and forth. I was committed to descending by the ridge line back to Kathmandu. Others wanted to risk the steep path down to the valley floor and the hope that the bridges would still be intact. I hooked up with the 3 French girls, their 3 porters, Olivier and Isabelle. We would be a strong team, 9 people, some good mountain experience and 3 locals. Some German lads and a couple of old French guys also decided to take our route. Some of the local lads also chose the ridge line. After a cup of tea the ordeal began.

Within 15 minutes we came to the first landslide, a huge unstable mess of mud, rock and timber. We started to try and find a way across, half of the people following us fled at the first tremor. Eventually we had everyone across. The next landslide we scrambled up and round the top of it. The third turned into a huge endurance scramble up through bamboo and rhododendron forest. Eventually we found the ridge again. The rumble of rockslides and landslides, a constant reminder of the certain death that could get us at any point. We dropped below the snow line. The trail cracked and subsided. Under steep cliffs we quailed at the prospect of rock falls. Across steep faces with bottomless ravines below us we trudged on and down, every step full of fear. The after shocks and landslides felt constant, our chances of survival slim. After 5 hours we arrived at the village where I had slept the previous day. all the lodges were in various states of destruction. Surreally the locals offered us menus tea and food! More cigarettes, veg fried noodles and tea. We set off again.

Nepal

The next few hours just went on and on plodding through the forest, the fear drove us on. Landslides, broken trail, aftershocks. On and on we marched. I hoped and hoped that at Kutumsang we would find something like safety. As we descended to the village where I had stayed 2 days earlier hope played games with my eyes, it looked ok, we would be fine. As we staggered into the village the reality hit. Nothing left, total destruction, every house had collapsed. Just heaps of rubble and people wandering around aimlessly. Two camp sites had been built one big tent and a cluster of trekkers tents. The death toll had been pretty high, people were digging through what had been their homes. The old and injured huddled in the tent. Looking out over the valleys funeral pyres could be seen burning above every village. Kutumsang was well organized, they had split the village into committees, cooking teams, rescue teams, shelter builders, harvesters and a funeral team.

I unleashed my curry cooking skills I joined the catering team. Chopping potatoes and garlic with a gurka knife for Aloo curry, dal and rice. We must have fed 60 people. The lady in charge of the catering team seamed to have verbal diarrhea her constant chattering, occasional shouting and general bustle gave a sense of purpose to our exhausted efforts. The Nepali boys banter and joking kept the mood light but the desperate nature of our situation was always there in the back of our minds. Tired wet and cold I curled up for another fear filled night.

Aftershocks woke me in the morning, an amazing breakfast of porridge, tea, tsampa and rolled rice. Off we stomped, some of the greater group decided to stay there for a day to recover but feeling strong our little group pushed on. By 10am we reached the village where I had stopped a few days earlier, amazingly one house was untouched, they fed us and we tried to ring home to no avail. Onwards and downwards, destruction and funeral pyres greeted us at every village. The human suffering was terrible; people who had lost everything greeted us in little huddles at the center of each village. We marched on and on. I had stopped at Chissopani on the way up from Kathmandu and all day I kept thinking of the rest we would have there. Chisopani is a hill top village just one tough days walk from Kathmandu, the views of the whole Himalaya are spectacular and the proximity to Kathmandu means it used to be a “resort” with 6 big concrete hotels. The climb up the Chisopani was brutal. I was shattered and the steep hill sapped what little strength I had. Sweating like a pig I stumbled into the village, a local lady at the edge of the village greeted me with a look of horror. I couldn’t work out what her problem was but thinking I must look a state I used my phone as a mirror. The face that looked back at me explained a lot. The cut on my head where I had opened the lodge door with my head in my haste had opened up. A mix of sweat, blood and dust covered half my face. Eyes sunken, lips cracked I looked a mess! I took a couple of minutes to improve my appearance and trudged on.

Chisopani was destroyed; the concrete buildings were splatted, collapsing in on themselves crushing all those inside. People either sat in shocked silence or dug through the rubble. A huge digger was delicately trying to clear rubble so rescue teams could get to the victims. Everything stopped when a body was found. Iron bars, pick axes, bare hands, people scrabbled at the rubble to retrieve the limp dust covered bodies.

There was nothing for us in Chisopani. A few bottles of water were thrown at us with contempt by an obviously distraught man. On we marched. The hill above Chisopani went on and on, an endless stone staircase, the afternoon heat burning away what energy we had left.

From Chisopani to Kathmandu is a good days walk. We had already done one and a half days walk that day but with no where to stay we pushed on. The next 4 hours are a blur of exhausted fear and relentless walking. At dusk we arrived right on the edge of Kathmandu. Signal! Finally our phones were working! I rang Vania and my family in the UK. It is almost impossible to describe the sense of relief talking to those you love. 14km from the center we found a sort of summer house in a hotel garden, they fed us, made us tea and we curled up for another cold damp fear filled night.

I woke up to some huge aftershock, tea, Tibetan bread, delicious honey and hope. We managed to get to the bus station at Suderijal, joy there was a bus! The ride into Kathmandu was surreal, total destruction death and suffering side by side with totally sound modern buildings. The poor living in tents all their worldly goods heaped up under a pitiful tarpaulin. Glass fronted office blocks standing arrogantly proud of the rubble. Every temple and old palace flattened. At Boudnath we got a glimpse of the giant Buddhist stupa, unscathed apart from it’s topmost ornaments a solid reminder of the unshakable truths taught by Gotama.

Kathmandu

We stopped close to the French and British embassies. We parted company and agreed to meet later. Stiff, tired, emotionally distraught I arrived in front of the bombproof wall and bulletproof glass of the embassy front gate. I would love to say they welcomed me in, offered me tea and assistance, advice or a caring word. Sadly I can’t. Palmed off and advised to find shelter I wandered off into the center of town. Thousands of tents, terrified people living on the streets, destruction and death, the once bustling city was a giant refugee camp, the old town leveled, palaces shattered. The main tourist center of Thamel, normally an insanely busy throng of tourists, traders and locals was deserted. I found a cafe that had a generator and plugged in  my phone and ate some food. From the waiters and some travelers I got advice on where to stay, what was and what wasn’t working, where there was mobile signal, how best to get out and where was safe. Directions to my airlines head office and to where most of the foreigners were camping. I set off cowering beneath the tall buildings in the narrow streets, dreading the next aftershock.

Qatar air! Qatar f-ing air, I love you. A short fast moving queue, a caring and pleasant team. “Are you ok sir” “Don’t worry we’ll look after you” “Wherever you need to go we’ll get you there” “Of course there will be no charge for changing your flight” 3 hours later, still shaken I was on a plane flying to safety.

It hit me in Doha, I was sat there in a sterile androgynous international airport, standard international shops selling standard international tat, travelers wandering around thinking about their holiday or business and me, alone again, safe again, I broke down; sobbing like a baby I cried and cried.

 

Ride the Lightning

Ride the lightningRide the Lightning, guilty as charged, but damn it, it ain’t right, there is someone else controlling me. Death in the air. Metallica are not really my thing but the lyrics are epic!

The snow has arrived and my God has it arrived. Relentless snowfall for days has covered all the trees in the back country. Shoots that were stuffed with thickets of dwarf pine are now filled to the runnels with snow. Faces that were a rocky craggy mess two weeks ago are now rolling pillows of fresh tempting snow. The bowl in the middle of the resort has gone from impenetrable forest to powder playground.

20141231_112545But, and there is always a But in the game of adventure sports, this winter has been a winter like no other. I’m no expert in snow pack analysis but one of the blogers I follow puts it really well McNab Snowboarding .  So the strangest winter in my 20 years of playing in the hills, hot and sunny, rain, wind, hail, sleet, frost, Brutal Brutal cold, more rain more wind and interspersed in all this two or three massive dumps. If you dig through the snow pack the layers are like a Victoria sponge, soft fluffy layers of cake split with sticky dense layers of gak (technical term!)

20141231_112608So what does this mean? Well it means no one has skied the north face of Todorka yet, and I think The Promised Land (West face of Todorka) has been left untouched as well. Fear has crept into the minds of the free riders, we all know that underfoot there is one if not two cracks in the snow pack, we all know that screaming white death is just a foolish move away. But, that relentless But, that drive that pushes you on, that But plays games with your judgement, it convinces you that this slope, this face at this time, is fine.

The avalanche cannons  have done their work on Palashitsa above the top of the gondola, they have done their work on the gullies that drop west from the top chair lift. You can see the layers in what is left behind, 10cm of wind blow crust over 40cm od less windblown slab, over another smooth block of base. It looks so obvious when you see it deconstructed like this, of course the gullies are going to slip, of course there will be loads of rock hard ice debris at the bottom.  But look at that line!!! Clear fresh smooth snow stretching off untouched into the trees, it’s light a fluffy down there it feels like riding velvet, and maybe if you are gentle, touch it only with the softest of turns, ride it fast with one eye always on the exit, be the ninja always ready to respond to whatever surprises arise you’ll be the guy who is ok. Bunderitsa 3 07 02 2015

So now the free ride community splits. Those that lead and those that follow, teams that used to play together all the time in perfect conditions crystallise into nuggets of trust. Who do you really really trust right now, who’s judgement are you going to trust with your life? For me it’s easy I have ridden with Tom for 20 years, we know each other like no other. His drive balanced by my analysis. We ride safe, this ridge line, that section of trees, now into this gully, whoops lets leave that one alone. Just two people watching out for each other, he stops I ride past, I stop he rides on. Sketchy section? We talk it through, Tom goes first, light and fast I follow on to pick up the pieces! Laughter, adrenaline, bellowing joy as we charge off through the trees.

For others it is not so easy, who do you trust? Really really trust, Andy from Oxo will always have a crowd, his judgement is sound, Black George, some of the Mountain Rescue boys, some of the Ulen instructors? Who do you really trust, who really trust you! Around a mutual trust, little groups forming like salt crystals, a recognition of expertise, a recognition of so many intangible factors that combine to create an illusion of safety.

All the bar chat, chest thumping and egotistical strutting are just compensation for this hard cold truth. In this guy I trust my life and he trusts his to me. I respect his judgement and he mine. When it all goes south he will dig me out and I will dig for him. It’s a tight bond that’s more than anything normal life can give you.

Strangely Bulgaria breaks the big international rule for this silly sport. A back country skier or boarder is normally a man, 20 to 40 years old and testosterone fuelled his brain firmly embedded in his pants. He’ll probably talk like he has hit his head too many times and his rollies will smell weird! Not in the land of the Bulgar, the girls here rock, they ride as hard as any bloke, better technique and better judgement, popping whatever jumps are in the way, these are not the prissy snowbunnies of North America or the big bottomed chalet girls of the Alps, these girls put most of the boys to shame!

Enough crap talk, we survived, the snow pack will change, the bruises will heal the muscles will recover and tomorrow we’ll do it all again!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Skiing above Bansko

Skiing above Bansko

Vihren and Kutelo

Vihren and Kutelo

The Mountain on the right is the one that interests me at the moment. At 2908m and with a pointy top she is a proper mountain, towering above Bansko town and ski area. The idea of skiing above Bansko has grown and grown on me this winter. To be wooshing down untouched faces with the town and ski area down below me in the distance. Removed from all the trappings of lifts and pistes but still being able to see them, it appeals!

Vihren with his broad rugged shoulders and square top is a truly manly peak.  Winter mountaineering on his north face is a daunting and dangers task. His whole presence says come on if you think you are hard enough! Kutelo (that’s her name) is only 6m shorter than Vihren. Kutelo, right next door and only a few hundreds of meters away. Kutelo is a totally different proposition, she is a curvaceous beast, long sinuous ridge lines, voluptuous rolling sides, her come hither faces, distinctly feminine in their allure, whispering, come on baby you know you want to.

Unsurprisingly it is Kutelo that has caught my attention. The hike up from Bunderitsa polyana (top of the gondola) follows the old deserted ski lift on cherno mogila. After a while you break left and start up the broad shoulder that eventually becomes the easterly ridge line to the summit. The north east face is the line I plan to descend. From below it looks near vertical but I have been assured that from above it is a more manageable 40 degrees. 40 degrees of wide open untracked snow, 1000m of pristine face plunging towards the tree line, it should make an epic run!

So I started training two weeks ago and I’m thinking 1 more week of training and I will be ready.

Watch this space…..

Well the week of training has passed and the route is becoming clearer and clearer. I have found the way up through the woods from the top of the gondola to Academica and from Academica up to the ridge in the forest. The next step is to find the way through the last bit of forest but as the trees start to thin out up there it should be easier!

Tales  of wolves and bears are being batted around but I think it is mostly just to scare me rather than there being any truth in it! Either way I now have my pen knife close at hand.

The initial time of 1 or two weeks looks like it will be more like 3 or 4 but slowly slowly I will get there! The Altitude difference between Bansko and the top is nearly 2000m so I allowing 7 hours for the ascent. I imagine the descent will be closer to 45 minutes than the 4 hours it takes in the summer. A friend did point out that it might be interesting trying to ski down with legs that have just done 7 hours of up. Jelly legs and skiing??? Probably not the best combo!

When it comes to the final attempt for the top I am planning to try and get back from the summit by mid day so I’ll probably have to do the first few hours in the dark when the snow is at its safest, head torch it is then!

Watch this space…..

 

Ski Touring in National Park Pirin, Bansko, Bulgaria

Ski Touring in Pirin

Ski Touring in Pirin

Ski Touring in Pirin is a strange mix of wild, remote, untouched nature and glitzy modern ski resort.

Yesterday I went out for my first tour of the winter, just a short 2 hour walk along the cliff top above Damianitsa valley. A thin crust of snow gliding under my skis, blazing sunshine filtering through the trees and silence. That magical silence of a forest bound in winter. A silence of everyone sleeping away the winter months. A communal breath held while we are crushed under the pressure of short cold days and even colder long long nights.

A few of the forest beasts had been around as their tracks littered the trail that was as much a road for them as a track for me. Rabbits, deer, boar maybe a trace of man… But then, at that moment, I was  alone just the sleeping forest and I.

Ski Touring is a strange pastime, a mixture of brutal physical exercise and transcendental peace. There is a Zen like place where your body works at a tempo that can be maintained for ever, your brain is all but shut down just a small fraction of it keeping track of direction and place and you arms and legs just swing and slide, swing and slide swing and slide, eating up the meters in a wonderfully efficient symbiosis of man and kit.

vihrenroadwinter Most people head off into the hills in ski touring groups in the winter,  the danger and remoteness of a winter bound environment is daunting. A sprained ankle or twisted knee can suddenly turn a nice little stroll into a life and death nightmare. Having a group to share the work of cutting the trail, friends to offer moral support and the camaraderie of an adventure shared all add to a jovial time.

Fortunately yesterday I was within close range of civilisation so forgetting simple things like water, food and other survival basics didn’t matter much, O.K. I was pretty hungry and thirsty by the time I got home but nothing fatal. I’ll re-pack the bag before I go out again! I normally take at least a litre of water and loads of raw almonds. These two can keep me going for days and weigh nothing! There will be my Opinel  , a lighter and some matches  in the back pack next time. On the kit front I am still on my Rossignol B3’s a great all mountain ski just as good going up as down, they will charge through powder, crud and ice with abandon. O.K. they are a bit all purpose so not “The Best” at any one thing and my god they are old (2006) but we get on and they do their job well.

skiing in bansko

skiing in bansko

I’ve fitted them with some Marker Baron bindings which are super heavy duty. They can take the beating of being thrown in and out of cars, clipping trees and rocks on the downhill as much as being clouted against trees and rocks on the up hill. The only downside is their weight. By touring standards their 2600g is properly in the heavy weight category! Especially if you compare them with some of the less than 400g modern stuff. When it comes to  Ski Touring skins I have fully embraced the modern trend of cut to fit skins. Colltex offers some great skins mine have a ridiculously cool snake ski pattern on them! Their grip on the snow is incredible offering access to much steeper  slopes the my old thin 1990’s specials! My big investment this year has been in a new pair of boots. Light and sturdy they ski like a dream. If you put them in walk mode they are more comfortable than my hiking boots. Yup you heard it here first, ski boots that feel like shoes!!! CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFO

Vihren and Kutelo

Vihren and Kutelo

The plan for this winter is to get fit enough to get to the top of Todorka from the Secret chair. So if you see a huffing and puffing fool slogging his way up the piste stop and say hi! I will probably be in need of a rest.