The summer season has started in here in Pirin. The rainy days of spring have passed and the blazing heat of a Balkan summer is starting to bake the lush green fields a shade of Brown. High up in the hills patches of snow are holding out against the 30 degree heat but soon even those snow fields hidden on north faces and deep in the high alpine valleys will start to melt.
For me at the hotel the summer is a great time. We are fully booked with mountain bikers for 11 weeks of the summer, but as they come to visit Pirin for only 4 nights a week that gives me 3 nights a week to get into the hills. For the last 8 years I have been trying to climb all the mountains in Pirin. It’s a pretty contentious point what is a mountain. Should it be every peak with a name? in which case dozens of huge peaks wouldn’t be counted. Should it be any peak over a certain height? In which case how high? What constitutes a peak? Two peaks separated by a 200m deep ravine but only 50m apart are on or two peaks. Two peaks seperated by a 500m wide slope that is only 10m deep at it’s deepest point, one mountain or two. I would love to say that Di and I have a deeply thought out complex formula for answering these questions but we don’t.
For the Game of Pirin Mountains what constitutes a peak is what we’ve decided is a peak. There are some basic rules, it has to be over 2500m it has to look like a mountain, if it has a name that’s a winner, if not but still is high enough and mountainy enough that’s also a winner. Some ridges I reckon to be 4 peaks some others only one it really depends on how it feels on the ground.
With this highly technical system in place we’ve counted 87 mountains in Pirin. Slowly but surely we have be climbing them all, I’ve got 19 left! It sounds like we have been a bit slow about it climbing only 11 hills a year but the reality is somewhat harder than you might think. Some peaks are easy in easy out. You nip off the trail potter up to the top and boom peak is bagged. Others are a little tougher. Gredaro for example is possible in a day but is better in two and perfect in 3. It took me 4 attempts! The 6 or 7 peaks above Ribno lake took nearly a dozen trips! In some ways this is most of the fun. Pottering around Pirin trying out new routes, getting lost, finding you way home and then trying again.
Pirin in so many ways is unique. The national park covers a hugely varied terrain. Low altitude pine, beech and rowan forests give way to dwarf pine and alpine meadows. The jagged peaks can hold some snow most of the year, the bone dry jagged cast limestone of west Pirin is the exact opposite of the lake filled granite of the east.
The area around Vihren, packed with tourists for most of the year is a world away from the terrifying emptiness of the western reaches. I’ve yet to find a mountain rage that at one and the same time you are so remote from civilisation with no trace of man and at the same time you can be back in a village drinking cold beer no more than 10 hours later. The birds and beasties , the views and the landscapes you can find elsewhere. Combine the natural bounty together with a truly awesome sense of untouched wilderness and the security of civilisation close by Pirin really is unique.
I’ve had a couple of days in the hills already this summer and both have been a huge success. The first was to a peak called Tipits. It’s just a little bit off the beaten track between Vihren hut and Tevno Hut and an easy scramble up a dwarf pine covered ridge. I set off early in the morning to avoid the heat and what with no distractions or company I gobbled up the miles in no time. It wasn’t until I was most of the way home that I realised I’d been marching for a good 4 hours with little or no pause for rest.
The sun and a lack of water made the last few miles hard work. But as ever once I got back to restaurant at the Bunderitsa car park Lazar and his team were ready to ease the pain with cold beer and an amazing lunch. It’s these little oasis that really make Pirin such a special place to hike. Valia at Tevno, Bai Slavi at Bez Bog, Lazar at Bunderitsa and even the team at Yavarov all come together to melt away the hardships of mountaineering wash away!
Yesterday I was up at Koteshki Chal. Just west of Vihren and Kutelo this area is a totally different kettle of fish. Steep climbs, knife edge ridges, snow and barren rock this section of Pirin is dryer, more barren and more Alpine than anywhere else in Bulgaria. The two ridges, Koncheto and Koteshki and both shockingly narrow with huge drops on both sides. They are definitely scary and even with a lot of practice they get the heart racing. This time I had some company, a friend who bought out here 10 years ago, but a very strong hiker.
We flew up the hill in the cool of early morning but again by 2pm the temperatures were in the 30’s. I’d taken a lot more water and covered myself in a crazily strong sun cream but even so I was parched by the time we got back to Vihren. There was a good crowd in the Vihren car park, lots of trail runners in town for a race and a few mountaineers drinking beer in the shade. Bulgaria has a lovely community of mountain people so we washed away the dust of a long day with a few cold beers!
I’ve only got another 19 hills to climb until I’ve bagged all 87 of the peaks. One more close to the ski area and then the last 18 are all over by Dobrinishtay. I spent this morning in the National park office chatting the the director about a new hut they have built in the far east of Pirin. It’s a good solid stone built structure next to a lake in about as remote a location as you could wish for. God willing I’ll spend a few days there this week and cross a few more peaks off my list!