In the war-torn Balkan States, an annual backcountry ski fest seeks to reconnect its people through a shared love for exploration in the mountains.
BY SCOTT YORKO
There’s an old, rickety farm tractor weaving circles under a gray sky on the tarmac of Montenegro’s Podgorica Airport. It’s decorated with multicolor swirls and flames and some googly eyes spray-painted around the headlights, and it appears to be lost, perhaps missing from a nearby parade. Then I see the wagon train full of suitcases trailing behind it and realize this is the international airport’s official luggage transportation vehicle. I’m tickled by the novelty until I look a little closer and realize that my ski bag is not on it.
Irma, the airport Lost and Found attendant with a wide, gap-toothed smile and a ridgeline of eyebrows under dark, curly hair, fills out some paperwork for my lost “sledding devices” and hands it to me before getting up from her tiny desk in baggage claim to walk out for lunch. “Do you think it will arrive in the next few days?” I ask. “I’m heading pretty far out into the mountains.”
“Yes,” she says with an even wider smile beneath a devious eyebrow dip. “This is Montenegro.”
I nod and pretend to know what she means by that, deciding to take it as reassurance.
The drive out of the capital city to the dreary outskirts is not a scenic one at first. Regional roads pass billboards advertising cured meats. Some blocky, dirt-stained buildings are only a bit higher than adjacent trash mounds. Then the newly built highway, barely three years old, traces the frosty blue Ciena River, its bankside trees also littered with wet trash, into the belly of the Accursed Mountains. Dark, granite rock faces plastered with snow shoot up to the sky, encasing the road in a vertical walled canyon. After passing some medieval castle-like buildings made of stone, the range opens up to prominent 6,500-foot peaks in expansive terrain that looks more and more like a skier’s paradise, although most of it has never been skied.
Two hours later, the town of Plav awaits at the foothills of the 8,300-foot Bogićevica mountain area. This is the meeting point for the fourth annual Ski Tour Fest of the Balkans, when skiers and splitboarders from nine different countries come together and descend upon the mountainous, war-torn region of southeastern Europe in an effort to build a ski touring community from scratch while patching over somewhat fresh political wounds. Small cars are parked in a gravel lot next to a guesthouse, and people in brightly colored Gore-Tex outerwear contrast the gloomy clouds overhead as they stand around chatting and smoking. One of them is Gigo, a bald, 34-year-old professor of philosophy, environmental activist, and the festival’s Montenegrin founder and ringleader who’s loosely directing folks.
“The history of the area is very complicated, but there was always war between the East and the South with a lot of impact from the Ottoman Empire’s conflict with Western Europe, so we’re at the border and all the wars happened here on our territory with people often having to fight their own neighbors,” Gigo told me on the phone weeks earlier. “Our family’s history is always connected with war in every previous generation, and that’s all people know this area for…We want to connect them instead with beautiful mountains and skiing. It’s our mission.”
Gigo sees the untapped skiing potential of this region as an attraction that can break through old cultural barriers and bridge gaps across borders with neighboring countrymen, finding common ground with their fellow Balkan skiers, while also laying the foundations for future development of these remote areas that can cater to ski touring visitors. Over the last two decades since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and Montenegro’s independence in 2006, people have been hearing promises of foreign consortiums coming to the Balkan States to develop large-scale ski resorts that will bring prosperity and heal the wounds of the war-torn countries. But thanks to widespread corruption, political inefficiency and social disengagement, it has yet to come to fruition, leaving some of the best skiing in Europe outside of the Alps untouched—until now. But first we have to make it up the road.
Rain threatens to dampen the mood at the opening bonfire, as well as at breakfast the next morning. It’s the worst snow season Europe has had in 20 years, but the vibe holds steady. “Yugoslavia was like one family that got broken up and we’re here trying to get back together,” says one tall Slovenian named Ziga.
“I’m so hype to see you new people here this year!” says a Bosnian snowboarder named Timur who’s mostly never not rolling up a smoke.
Irma the airport employee’s promise has proven empty, and without my bag I’m less psyched to ski in the rain in my jeans, the cotton t-shirt and underwear I’ve been wearing for four days, a trenchcoat I found in a closet, wool mittens knitted by a Slovenian grandmother, and borrowed skis. But people show up, beacons beeping, ready to ski, not taking this time in the mountains for granted, and the conga line of 30 starts up the valley in a drizzle, some wearing trash bags. These people are used to making do in less than perfect conditions, be they political, economic, social or snow. It feels silly not to join.
“We had the best snow I’ve ever skied in my life last year,” says a slender guy named Boris, a lifelong ski racer. “Those two-story houses over there were completely buried,” he points out as we pass a grouping of shepherd huts on our way toward Three Border Mountain, where you can stand at the intersection of Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo and ski through all three countries in an afternoon. Hundreds of thousands of bunkers exist in these hills from the wars, especially where we’re standing at such a strategic military location. Controlling the mountains meant controlling more entry points into one’s country and others. The same terrain that made this such a coveted war zone is also what makes it so appealing to skiers—long, north-facing ridges with relentless fall lines catching weather systems and funneling their snow into the valley.
The entire party shares two small morsels of skin wax to fend off wet globs from forming underfoot, passing them up and down the skin track, before gaining the windy ridge with no visibility and quickly retreating down on a mix of windboard and wet, heavy mank. “At Ski Fest, you have to start off with struggles so you appreciate every little good thing that comes along,” says Boris, aware of this statement’s cultural relevance.
Back at the Maslo restaurant, a stonewalled family residence that the government has commandeered several times during wars, the owner, Almir, is throwing a party for locals with money from the Ski Tour Fest to establish a positive association with winter ski tourism. Meat is on the grill, balloons line the doorway, and old-time music plays with accordion sounds and operatic ballads from every Balkan nation. Men sit and smoke while several generations of women hold hands and dance, then sit and smoke.
“The message here is that we can all live together,” says Katrina, a local woman starting an art gallery down in Plav. “We have a broken-up family all coming back together and if the politicians don’t put their fingers inside, it’s going to be the healthiest family in the world.”
It’s rare for political corruption to not enter the conversation. “We had to pay [read: bribe] the local government to clean the roads just for this week,” Almir says. “And yet they want to build a highway and tunnel through this valley to Kosovo so some politician can use the project to take money from the people and buy votes with temporary jobs and never finish the project. We don’t want traffic and garbage. We want people who will come and stay for a few days and enjoy the nature, stay in guesthouses and eat our local food … Now when we want to organize something like this Ski Tour Fest, the people will trust us more than the local government. Three years ago, no one even came here in the winter.”
That night, outside the restaurant window, sleety raindrops become bigger and lighter as they try and try to turn to snow.
Every winter should be white!” sings Almir at breakfast on the third ski morning, ecstatic over the 2 inches of fresh powder that’s fallen overnight and bonded to the old snow. Folks hustle out the door and lap slushy spring turns off the summit of Dog Peak. Even the local legend, Esad, a devout Muslim lone-wolf and shepherd with several peaks in the valley named after his family, comes out to rip some turns.
Balkan voices are classically low, flat, and monotone, but today they’re punctuated with shrieks of “Hopa!” and “Woooo!”—the international sound of stoke. “Pamet U Glavu y Pun Gas!” they yell while straightlining patches of sticky snow. “Smart in the head and full gas!” It turns out these folks can really shred, arcing confident turns without wasting a single one.
The spring ski party is on and people are hugging each other at the bottom of runs. “It’s much more wild in the Balkans,” says Iva, a tiny blond Slovenian anthropologist. “You can get much closer to people here where they tell us ‘You are our brothers.’ We don’t hear that in Western Europe … There’s this feeling that we should get back together.”
One can’t deny the sense that they’re not just here to ski but to start a movement while everyone talks about “spreading the word” and getting out of this cultural rut of which they’ve grown tired. But change is slow and motivating the rest of the country to do anything different is an uphill battle, which is why sentences often end with “but this is Montenegro…” Each time I hear this, it reminds me that it’s day four and my ski bag still hasn’t showed up from the airport. One younger guy offers me some of his underwear and explains these words a little more, how it may sound like an assurance but it really means “I can say yes without any idea if it’s true or will ever happen at all.” I try to accept that this is just my customary sacrifice to the trip, paying my dues with a common hardship to better appreciate the sweetness of fresh snow and fresh base layers whenever they finally arrive. It helps, but I still scoff when we skin by a trail sign with a hopeful sticker that reads “#ProgresIsHere.”
With such little winter tourism infrastructure in the region for mountain transportation, food, shelter and guiding, from a logistical standpoint, you pretty much need to attend Ski Tour Fest to be able to ski here. That also means that first descents are waiting to be nabbed with countless aspects still untouched by skis. On the fifth day in Bogićevica, my friend Tyler from Colorado and I recruit a young Slovenian for a pre-dawn mission to climb and ski a prominent double fall line couloir with snow painted across the cliff band of a 8,310-foot mountain called Krš Bogićevica, a face at which we’ve been staring all week. After a few hours of sunrise skinning up a road past some boarded up cabins, followed by an hour and a half bootpack, we were putting our mark on a virgin 45-degree run with exposed pow turns up high and heavy pillow drops through the forest down low. The rewarding mission and snow conditions, along with my gear that miraculously showed up the evening before, redeems my stoke in this place.
Back down in the town of Plav, Muslim prayer sounds at 3 p.m. near the place where our driver ran over a chicken. Several people from the group are gathered in a field reading different countries’ border rules on their ministry websites. The Slovenians can’t go straight to our next destination in Kosovo from Montenegro because they won’t be able to go home through Serbia, which still doesn’t recognize neighboring Kosovo as a country because of their ongoing conflicts.
Things feel less rosy back in civilization, where police and soldiers ask for three or four different identification documents every time they pull us over for bogus reasons. Compared to staying in a rustic mountain cabin, the hotel in Brezovica, Kosovo, feels weirdly vintage. It looks like a cinder block on its side with a creepy dungeon bathroom and old, suited waiters who appear to have been there since the hotel was built. Kids on a school trip clunk through the echoing hallways in rental boots to go hike the bunny slope since only one of the seven lifts at the resort still works. I’m struck by the irony of a sign outside of an apres bar that reads “Are You Ready For Progress?”
The whole 32-person Ski Tour Fest group gathers the next morning at 9 a.m. at the base of the mountain, ready to make use of the almost strictly uphill-use policy. Gigo announces that there will be three groups going out: Extreme, Less Extreme, and Tired. With that, everyone just stays in the same group and skis as a single unit. They’ve spent enough years divided. It’s a 2,637-foot climb to the summit of the resort which has no grooming or visible ski patrol. What is visible is a vast park of diverse terrain with cliffs and couloirs in every direction, steep, wide-open pitches, well-spaced tree runs and giant, snow catching gullies that could be a distant cousin of Alta with denser snow. The top 1,300 feet even skis through the neighboring country of Macedonia.
We skin by a stagnant one-seater lift with heavy icicles dripping from each chair. “I used to ride that 25 years ago,” says a blue-eyed Serbian named Uros. There’s no telling how long it’s been since the bullwheel last spun.
Lapping untouched runs on an empty resort with new friends is a treat, though the question of whether skiing is making a comeback—or a start—remains unanswered. There are more than a few reasons to explain why there are probably not more than 100 backcountry skiers in all of the Balkans, despite so much terrain, and why it’s taking time to get off the ground.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is motivation. It’s hard to get traction on any idea in a place where people have spent decades with empty promisers blowing smoke up their ass. But change in a small country has to start small, and Gigo has seen small Balkan villages band together to stop big, corrupt corporations from going through with senseless road and dam projects that don’t ever benefit the local people. “It’s enough to find at least 50 not corrupted, not brainwashed people to make real change,” he says. He’s seen this with the NGO that he started, Nature Lovers Montenegro, which has raised money from the EU to help save rivers from development projects and convert old Soviet railways into bike trails. “People need to see that there’s economic opportunity in working with what they already have in the land, not relying on what some big company promises they’ll do.”
And among economic promise, perhaps other opportunities, as well.
“This kind of event brings life into local communities, especially in winter,” says Boris, the ski racer. “There’s so much room to grow a positive thing here, to build the ski community without waiting on these big resorts that will never come. At this scale, if just one local person from Plav sees the ski fest this year and gets into the sport, it’s a success.”
On the 10th and final day of the festival, we make our way back toward Montenegro and Albania but stop for a day of cat skiing in Western Kosovo outside the small town of Peja. The snowcat looks like a hot dog stand mounted on a piste groomer, but everyone files into the box and ascends the steep ridge to 8,200 feet. The Serbians in the group had to cover their country’s flag on their license plates with stickers and stash their cars at a secure place in town since they wouldn’t be safe bringing them through the military checkpoint we pass through in the mountains. It’s Gigo’s first time in this area of the country since Montenegrans couldn’t go there until their war ended in 2006 and his head is on a swivel. “It’s exciting to find all these new places so close to home,” he says.
“We need more guides in Kosovo,” says Bardhosh, the snowcat company owner and operator. “More groups are starting to come and we have to turn them away.”
We’re treated to another playground of features: cliffs, trees, mini golf zones, chutes. One jagged peak looks familiar and I soon learn that we’re just on the other side of the ridge from Bogićevica, where the festival began. The guides are staring back down into the valley, already making plans to turn the festival into a hut-to-hut touring trip next year with a several- day linkup hosted by local families in their cabins along the way. It’s never been done before, but anything is possible here. Afterall, this is Montenegro. This is the Balkans.
Scott Yorko is a Colorado-based freelance journalist who prefers skiing in jeans by choice rather than by luggage-losing necessity.