FROM MOUNTAIN TO VALLEY

Image:FROM MOUNTAIN TO VALLEY
20. Mar, 2018 Written by: Rok Rozman
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We visited mountains to meet the rivers. It might sound a bit strange, but it is the mountains where the rivers start their path. It is mountains that stop the clouds as they travel from the sea to the mainland, squeezing moisture from them. It is the mountains that act as highways for melting snow, turning this cycle towards the sea where it will start over again. Immersing yourself into this world of simple, gravity fed descent, is what brings peace and freedom to every open-hearted guest who ventures into these enchanted mountain playgrounds.

Spending time on the roof of a region makes you realize how small we are. The wind and the silence. The vast panorama that is offered from the vantage of a mountain peak. The little things you notice as you slow down and travel skyward on a set of skis. Open eyes together with the effort of climbing up provides the perfect atmosphere for thinking about the bigger picture. It is not always about the snow conditions and the height of the peak; it is about the vibe, the company and the joy of moments in the mountains.

 

DINARIC ALPS

Europe’s Dinaric Alps stretch in parallel lines from Greece to Slovenia, spanning Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia, and Croatia. They are a special mountain range, too often forgotten in the shade of the more famous ‘real’ Alps. The deep limestone that forms this range has been slowly eroded by water, forming sharp escarpments, steep gorges and deep canyons. From snow-capped peaks to canyons of roaring whitewater, the Dinaric Alps are still wild and undiscovered. In some parts the snow covered mountain faces are gradual and mellow and in others super steep and harsh, but all areas share a deep feeling of mystery. It was among these peaks where European civilization emerged and with each ridge traversed, it’s clean natural history humbly precedes human history. Here, there are no famous peaks that get printed on postcards, no super crowded passes or eminent ski resorts, no super obvious pin points. But there is still the wild and untamed mountain spirit present, which you can’t find in over-explored Alps. These ridges and valleys have soul. And this soul can be felt in every interaction with the mountain’s inhabitant. It is these inhabitants, the people and the wildlife, that carry this mountain soul and who are more than willing to share it with inquisitive, wide-eyed visitors. So throw the plan - and caution - to the wind and just follow your nose. This is the approach that gets you to most special experiences in the mountain playgrounds of the world, but especially here in the Balkans.

 

BALKAN RIVERS TOUR

For us, that meant diving into a month-long tour of the Balkan Peninsula to save last pristine rivers of the old continent. The Balkan Rivers Tour was born from a simple, honest idea, that by showing people the beauty, ecological richness and tourism potential of rivers threatened by hydroelectric development, we can give them a voice and help keep wild water, wild. Having a wish to see a bigger picture for ourselves, the second year of the Balkan Rivers Tour saw us on a quest to find hidden valleys where you can ski tour, fly fish and kayak in a single day. To our surprise, we found that Balkans have more hidden high in the mountains and low in the valleys than we anticipated.

By adding skiing to this river conservation movement, we experienced the true source of the rivers we sought to paddle, thus showing the whole picture and how each ecosystem, season and even sport, are connected. At the core, the tour is about water. And it is water that shaped this mountain range. The sedimentary origin of the limestone that makes up the Dinaric Alps is formed by the seas and lakes that once covered the area. Water has had a such a great effect on shaping these mountains, crevices, fissures and channels which each help funnel water to the rivers, that it is sometimes hard to imagine.

 

PINDUS AND SMOLIKAS - MOUNTAINS IN GREECE

We disembarked the ferry in Igoumenitsa, Greece and took a road northwest that provided amazing views of the still snow-covered mountains. It didn’t take us long to find a road up towards the snow, where jaw-dropping views of the infinite options on skis opened up in front of us. Even though we were down south in mid-April we found amazing snow conditions in Greece, combined with lush green and flowering valleys bellow us. The Pindus Mountains provided special, late spring turns packed with vistas of sea, the smells of flowering plants, sights of soaring birds of prey and inquisitive mountain goats checking on us from sharp ridges above. There is something special in skiing down the mountain in warm spring day when you exchange your ski boots for flip-flops – or better – kayaking boots.

Intrigued by the Greek slopes we followed the snowmelt to some of the most scenic European rivers; the Arachtos, Voidomatis and Aoos rivers. Gradually moving north, we were told by locals that we might find some deep snow remains in Smolikas Mountain range, which turned out to be great advice as we got to ski amongst thousand-year-old years old pine trees, gnarled and twisted by the elements, growing on ridges peaking above these mystic rivers. Touring in a t-shirt is a spring treat, and one that feels extra sweet after the cold wind of winter.

But mountains aren’t reserved just for the skier. If you have the fitness to get up the mountain, any medium can get you down. Enjoying the sunshine, the friends and the turns from a different, lower perspective of a sled or ‘scoop’ can open up a whole new mountain ‘sport’. Ski touring can be a place of deep solitude or a place of social interactions and humor. Being on the mountain with friends is the journey and simultaneously, the reward. Simplicity in its finest …

 

VALBONA VALLEY IN ALBANIA

Venturing into Albania wild mountains and valleys contrasted greatly against the garbagestrewn roadsides and crumbling infrastructure of a country struggling to get on its feet. We saw firsthand the far-reaching impact humans have on these wild environments, even high in these seemingly untouched ranges. Broken glass mixed amongst the rocks near the peak, or old shacks and cabins, long-since abandoned reminds us of the effects of humans on these ecosystems. Taking in the day fully, we started with fly fishing in the early morning light, followed by ski touring the high alpine and finishing the day padding the world-class Valbona River. Amongst the sharp peaks of Valbona Valley National Park we sought the last breath of winter, working hard for turns but discovering a valley with so much ski touring potential. We were also exposed to a story of greed and corruption where construction of hydroelectric development has commenced within the National Park, despite the strong resistance of locals, conservation NGOs, and tourism businesses. We all have a connection and responsibly to protect our playgrounds, and by incorporating more sports, including the entire outdoor community in the protection of rivers and wilderness, we hope that sustainable tourism can show decision makers that these wild places are worth more wild and untouched than dammed and diverted.

 

DURMITOR MOUNTAINS IN MONTENEGRO

Driving north through Kosovo into Montenegro, we were greeted by a foot of fresh snow in the middle of the night, where our van had to choose its line down the switch-backed mountain pass. This late in the season, most have packed their skis, waiting until next year for fresh powder days and faceshots. But when you head into the mountains without expectation, just with friends and skis, late-season turns can be the best of the season. Getting a ride as high as the four-wheel drive would take us, a couple local skiers were happy to help up reach some peaks and explore wild Montenegro.

Powder lines were found and the wind-swept sections of the Durmitor Mountains (along with mountain goats and birds found there) created a mystical feel. This is an area that has a number of ski hills, but the backcountry potential is what will have us coming back for more exploration next season. Kind locals, great food, seemingly endless, snowy mountain ranges and ample rakia made Montenegro a place that was hard to leave, but one that will be revisited. Paddling the Morača, the river that these mountains feeds, we descended from source to sea, creating an opportunity to physically and emotionally experience the path that water takes; from its frozen state in the mountains to its liquid state in the river. We could see all that the river feeds on its way to the sea, and feel the energy that it creates. Energy that is essential to the ecosystems it passes, and energy that can be used for adventure sports recreation and tourism, fueling fun and not unsustainable hydro power that threatens this river.

 

BALKAN LOVE

We found snow in the mountains and followed it down to where streams became rivers an eventually where river became the sea. Seeing and truly feeling the connection of these systems was a spiritual experience. After a month-long voyage along the spine of the Balkans, we all came to same conclusion; this is a region where pristine nature and human relations still exist. We found that even though we are guests in these zones, we feel at home in every moment. The hospitality of this region is incomparable and if there is a place in Europe where people still live hand-in-hand with wilderness then this is here. And it is up the rest of the world if we are to keep this pristine combination alive. We are the ones that can help decide whether we will help put these precious valleys in concrete or keep them like they are and show them to the world trough sustainable tourism. There are not always win-win circumstances available, but this one certainly is: go to the Balkans. Ski the Dinaric Alps. Have the time of your life in mountains and bars and support the local people and at the same time, pristine wilderness. Despite the many countries that share these mountains, we are all one nation paying respect to the area that feeds us and provides much more than just physical satisfaction. Don’t mind if the snow is a bit more grainy in late April, if you get to see the bigger picture this is just one small piece in a colorful puzzle we call living life for real.

This is a region where pristine nature and human relations still exist.

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