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.

Rock climbing in Bansko

Rock climbing in Bansko

Rock climbing at Peshteritay

Rock climbing at Peshteritay

 

After our little adventure on the north face of Vihren I decided that the time had come to learn to rock climb. There are some things in life that are best learnt in the heat of the moment. Climbing with all its reliance on knots and technique and fatal consequences is not one of them.

I love Alpine style mountaineering and Trad climbing lightweight climbs on unknown routes leaving no trace that you were ever there. The independence of having everything you need on your back  the freedom that comes from being able to look after yourself no matter what. A rope, a stove, some gear and a good waterproof sleeping bag is nearly all you need in life. Add to that someone you trust and can get on with no matter what and life clarifies into a simple chain of pre ordained events and their responses. I have spent many happy years of my life riding this clear chain of thought and to be honest I love it. Questions answer themselves, life’s great mystery condenses  into a kind of enlightened clarity.

All good in principle but the lesson from Kuloara is that there are some technical skills needed as well. So last weekend we went off to Peshteritay to hone some skills. Peshteritay is a cave just outside Bansko next to the ski road, in the winter you’ll pass it on your way back from a days skiing. There is a little restaurant there that offers some great local food and hospitality at properly local prices.

Rock climbing in Bansko is a pretty hairy game, as most of the big mountain rock is cast limestone. If you imagine concrete that has not been mixed properly you will have a good idea of what this rubbish is. At Peshteritay there is some lovely rock, stable and with lots of great big holds. Mountain rescue and some local enthusiasts have fixed bolts onto the rock here so it is safe and easy to attach protection. Vania, Dylan, the nannies and I have been practising here for a month now. Vania and Dylan are now very very good, I am still struggling to master hauling so much weight around but hey we are having fun! If you want to go and try it out I really recommend George and his tear at INTERSPORT

climbing centre walltopia sofia

climbing centre walltopia sofia

As the family have taken so well to Rock climbing in Bansko we recently spent a weekend in Sofia at some indoor climbing walls. Bulgaria is the world leader when it comes to indoor climbing thanks to a company called WALLTOPIA we went to one of their newest ventures called boulderland.  A truely amazing experience, Vania it turns out is a natural rock climber, at moments she was hanging upside down efortlessly moving over the walls like a gecko. I on the other hand am still struggling to move the 110kg!

 

 

Bansko Sour Cherry Cosmopolitan

Summer fruit in Bansko

Bansko Sour Cherry, image thanks to www.tremendus-fruit.com

Bansko Sour cherry ideal for a Cosmopolitan.

You can’t rush things especially if it involves alcohol or food. The joy of our cocktail nights here at the Avalon is that they involve both. In my garden we have a young, healthy and very fecund sour cherry tree  we harvest the  fruit in July and turn it into a syrup for our Cosmopolitans in the winter. Each year we normally make around a hundred small bottles of concentrated syrup that we then dilute like Ribena at home or use neat in our Cosmos at the hotel. The Avalon Cosmopolitan uses this juice/syrup instead of cranberry juice to create one of the best cocktails I have ever tasted.

This year my life has been a little hectic with politics, cycling and trips back and forth around Europe so we called in some friends to help us bring in the harvest. In the end we really didn’t need all 6 of them as this summer has been really wet and a lot of the fruit rotted on the tree before it ripened. What we did get is now bubbling away in the kitchen, ready to be bottled and stored for the next 6 months until it gets unleashed on our guests in the winter.

Sour cherries make a great cordial.   The sour flavour of the fruit works brilliantly with vodka and triple sec and makes what I think is the perfect Cosmopolitan . 

Recipe:-

40ml Good quality export strength Vodka, I recommend Stolichnya Crystal but Savoy works!

40ml Triple sec, please don’t substitute Grand Marnier as it is too sweet you want a good quality dry orange liquor .

20ml lemon juice.

60ml sour cherry syrup.

Shaken with as much ice as you can get in the cocktail mixer and the lemon peel if you feel like it. Serve straight up in a frozen coupe or at least chill the coupe by filling it with ice and leaving it to chill while you make the drink .  Shake until frost appears on the outside of the shaker, drink and make merry!

 

Get Lost.

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Ask Vania she knows better than anyone, I am a stubborn donkey. Especially when I am right (or think I am right) I will never back down. Now in normal work/home life the downside of this is pretty harmless if a little annoying for Vania. In politics, and unfortunately I seem to be spending more and more of my time playing that stupid game, the downside is just a weariness akin to that of Sisyphus .   In exploration you end up with days like yesterday.

I use the word exploration in its broadest sense. I’m not out there in the jungle looking for lost tribes hidden valleys or lands never tainted by the foot of man. Don’t imagine Amundsen, even though that is how I see myself,  just a more successful British version. Imagine instead a fat-ish, sweaty lycra clad version, blond and bronzed (ginger and sunburned) potting around the foothills of Pirin, Rila and the Rhodopes trying to find interesting routes for mountain biking.

None of the areas I wander are “untouched by foot of man” mostly they are dirt tracks or foot paths. Unused or rarely used most of them are either hunters paths or tracks used by fishermen to get to good marks. The trouble is they all look so inviting. so there I am on the river bank a good few miles from anywhere on a rarely used dirt track that peters out into the river. But over there I can see a good foot path. Bike on shoulder off I trot to see where it goes. And it goes and it goes. And slowly but surely it becomes more of a trace of a path than a real path  and then just a sort of a hint of a path than anything else, but that’s got to be because of the rocks, and I am sure it will be clear after them, and then when the river is lower I’m sure it must carry on lower down…. Before you know it I have been lugging the bike for a good hour scrambling over loose rock in the middle of nowhere to no avail. Give up NEVER! So the stubborn donkey has to lug his bike back over the rocks and through the bushes for another hour of sweaty graft to get back to where he started and try and find another way out!

Fisherman’s marks are the bane of the trail hunters life as a fisherman is a lazy bugger. He’ll drive as far as he can and then walk some way along the bank to fish and then walk back and forward all day making a really clear path that looks well used, but the path goes nowhere, just up and down the bank never straying too far from the car.

So yesterday was another classic trail hunting day what should have been a gentle hour and a half, turned into 3 and a half hours of sweaty slog. I found the trail I was looking for and also found some lovely fishing marks but the amount of claret lost and graft expended really didn’t bear any resemblance to the benefit generated for the mountain bike community. But I’m a donkey so lost or not I keep on keeping on!  Rila

Fat.

Spandex

 

Winter is turning into Spring, the little buds of blossom are peaking out of their winter shells and here and there Daffodils and primroses are adding a lovely little dash of colour to the bleakness of the winter landscape.

Added to these natural shocks of colour the bikers have also started appearing to brighten up the start of the year. Unfortunately 6 months of woolly jumpers and winter warming grub have filled out those Spandex outfits. I never thought lycra could shrink in the wash but mine has definitely got a little tight across the shoulders .

So the mission is afoot, I’m planning 1000 km of cycling and at least a dozen days of ski mountaineering between now and the 8th of May. Diet? Porridge, cabbage and carrots. If I am not devastatingly sexy by May I’ll be amazed!