Albanian Adventure

Kat Robertshaw •

In March, I went on an exploratory mission to heliski in the Prokletije (Accursed) Mountains of Northern Albania. I've been fortunate to heliski before but that certainly didn’t mean I knew what to expect. We had been planning a trip to Albania for some time but our plans to check it out and add it to the Elemental Adventure portfolio were thwarted by covid for two years so this would be our first trip to the 'The Land of the Eagles'.

I was excited to discover what these mysterious and relatively closed off mountains had in store for us. Equally intriguing was the prospect of tagging along on the annual ‘Waiting’ crew heliskiing trip – a group who have travelled the globe on some of EA’s more adventurous trips over the past 10 years. The group consisted of three French ski instructors, a Dutch snowboarding trio and James, the founder of EA. The day before the trip I received a ‘goodie box’ full of presents branded with the ‘Waiting’ logo – a combination of wings, mountains, skis and love heart tattoo style – which made me wonder what I had got myself into it!

The author Kat... in her element • Photo: Elemental Adventure

Arriving on an overcast day in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, we embarked on a three-hour journey across the border to the Valbona Valley National Park passing through restored war towns and along stretches of the turquoise river. The mountains were being shy that day; only glimpses were caught of the rugged and wild terrain that the valley had to offer. But that was enough to raise my anticipation at uncovering what skiing secrets this special valley was holding…

The Skiing

In spite of the sinister name, Albania is blessed to have this mountain range. With 1,500 square kilometres of untouched and largely un-skied terrain, Albania is a hidden gem for skiers and snowboarders with a sense of adventure. These descents are steep with plenty of couloirs to be tackled. Indeed, legend has it, it was the Devil himself who created these mountains; so the aggressive terrain wasn't exactly a surprise! I was ecstatic about skiing some more challenging pitches. My last heliskiing trip had been to Canada where a typically more complicated winter snowpack leads to skiing more moderate terrain. Our guides and pilot even had us soaring over borders, dropping in and shredding steep lines down into Montenegro. All completely alone with no sightings of other people, let alone skiers. It was a magnificent feeling having this unique skiing utopia to ourselves.

A skiing utopia you don't have to share • Photo: Elemental Adventure

Our visit in early March was the last week of a fairly short, six-week season and the most challenging week of the winter in terms of weather. This resulted in quite a lot of waiting around. Funnily enough the ‘Waiting Team’ were well-versed in this, having had many years of heliskiing experience and I soon learnt the meaning behind the team name! I also learnt what a difference it makes having your first runs right on the doorstep. The Heliski Albania team, led by co-owner and lead guide Rok Zalokor and pilot Dethlef Gensel, were exceptional at getting us up in even the smallest of weather windows. One minute we were sipping cups of çaj mali [1] and eating slices of baklava [2], and the next we were high above with powder billowing over our heads. With the influence of the Adriatic Sea playing a strong part, the snowpack in Albania is actually a maritime one, more similar to coastal Alaska than to the mountains of Europe. With this comes certain advantages – namely LOTS of snow, fewer avalanche problems and the opportunities to ski steeper terrain safely.

The 'Waiting' Crew • Photo: Elemental Adventure

The Operation

We were made to feel very welcome by the Heliski Albania team and after the week it felt like we were old friends, already planning our next visit. The operation offers small group skiing; our group of 8 sat together with the team, sharing platters of delicious traditional Balkan food at dinner time and playing competitive games of Uno fueled by rakia [3] each evening which is now a must have for my ski trips going forward.

Albanian Culture

This adventure was a completely new experience, I had never visited somewhere with such hospitality, warmth and friendliness. I was lucky enough to experience this over the whole week and one evening the group were invited to a traditional Albanian evening at the base where a local dance troupe and drummer performed. The ‘Waiting Team found it impossible not to join in, trading our ski legs for questionable dancing ones, with one unnamed Frenchman having a face-off with the drummer and losing his hearing in the process! The fun atmosphere was infectious and the evening was complimented with incredible food, huge dishes of traditional dishes of flija [4] and qofte [5], and of course rakia.

Rich with cultural interest and a long history, I found it interesting learning about a new part of the world and hearing about the progress and development of Albania in recent years. It was eye-opening learning about the burrneshas, Albanian women who live as men to escape the domination of the patriarchal system and to acquire the same freedoms of them. As the new honorary member of the ‘Waiting Team’ who welcomed me with open arms, this struck a chord. We also went to the city of Gjakova on a ‘down day’, sampling more delicious Balkan treats and visiting historic sights, effectively combining culture and skiing on a memorable trip of the season.

The Verdict

Founders Rok Zalokar and Petra Brajnik spotted the potential of Valbona five years ago, launching Heliski Albania in January 2019. Wild and exotic, Albania offers a real 'no-frills’ ski adventure. You will find an efficiently run operation with a great family feel, epic terrain, much of it currently undiscovered, opportunities to ski super-steep (if you want) , high snowfall, good hospitality and a fresh cultural experience. If you’re looking to spread your wings and visit the Albanian wilderness, find further details here.

[1] Albanian mountain tea.

[2] Layered pastry dessert with chopped nuts and honey.

[3] Balkan spirit.

[4] Thin pancake dish cooked on charcoal.

[5] Albanian meatballs.

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