Friday, 11 August 2017

Does big hill walking count as training for a long ultra race in the Pyrenees?

Actually I think I know the answer is "No, not really" but I am trying to reassure myself that it will all be OK on the day.  We had planned to walk the Peaks of the Balkans trail which is 192km with about 10,000m of climb. The official map has daily descriptions and profiles on the reverse and splits the walk into ten stages. Sounds impressive until I noted that my race in the Pyrenees would be 220km and with over 13,000m of climb. Eek. In the end we modified the PoB route in a couple of places and included a number of peaks so our trip probably exceeded the race total in km and m - but it did take 15 days of walking.  I say we as the trip was Bob, friend Dick and me.  Dick has been to Albania before and I am always keen to visit new places, especially mountains.
Arapit- our first view and our last peak
We arrived in Tirane late at night and a few hours apart so we met up at breakfast. It was hot and sunny which I love. We sorted transport (an unlicensed taxi) to Skhoder where we had a hotel booked.
I liked Skhoder better than Tirane
A lazy day changing some money into Lek, buying gas for the stove and generally looking around, drinking beer, eating ice cream etc. The next morning our unlicensed taxi did not appear (we had obviously driven too hard a bargain) so we walked into town and started again. We soon had a similar deal and in a back street climbed into an ancient Merc. As we headed to Thethi the roads changed from dual carriageway to tarmac road but with  massively broken edges. We stopped in a village and bought a huge water melon for later.
Temps in the high 30s
Heading up into the mountains the road had been improved and the tarmac extended. Sadly the car by then was over heating badly. With donations of water from other vehicles we made it to the top and started on the gravel road descent. I tried to ignore the fact that the car was still over heating as I admired my first views of the amazing mountains. Half way down we spotted a path on a hairpin that would allow us to hike to the bottom and join our trail. We hoped it might also mean the 'taxi' could stop at the next bend, get water from the cafe and make it back over the top.
It was late morning now so we decided to eat as much of the water melon as we could for lunch. We had all opted to travel light and a water melon would not be easy or fun to carry. I was actually using my mountain marathon 24L pack. I thought I had been quite ruthless with my kit but would take even less in future and not bother with the long trousers and extra T shirt I travelled in. Nor would I take the towel- a flannel would do. I had shorts x2, T shirts x2, knickers x3, socks x3, thin fleece, primaloft jacket, cag, over trousers, flip flops, bivy bag, silk liner, hat, titanium kettle/pot, mug, head torch, phone and charger, camera, tiny first aid kit and wash kit, dehydrated meals x2 and a fair selection of cereal bars, nuts and fruit along with two water bottles. Without water it was well under 7kg.
Travel light- small MM pack
So, back the water melon. OK, I admit the blame. I placed it on the ground next to my sack and it rolled off quickly gathering speed. I did catch it but not before it hit the track and burst open. It solved the problem of whether we could cut it open and the odd speck of gravel or dust wasn't too bad.

Our first day walk was hot and the guys were suffering but the views were amazing

and the route had a combination of gravel tracks, open beech woods, meadows, narrow mountain paths,

rocky sections, a rocky dry river bed and a short section on tarmac at the end.

This day also set the scene for finding accommodation- ask and you never know. We approached a bar decorated in fairy lights. It was full and wasn't quite what we had in mind but it was now dark. They were full (thankfully) but a local guy drinking there soon has us in his vehicle and whisked us off down the road, over the dry river and to his guest house. For 13 euros we had a room with comfy beds, electric, a shower and breakfast. For a small extra we had beer and a lift along the tarmac road in the morning.
Day 2 saw us head away from the 'touristy' area and a long gravel road to Cerem. Local kids are tasked with spotting trekkers and trying to get them to stop for refreshments and accommodation before others in the village. We had turkish coffee in Cerem - the first of many. The path then climbed up through woods and pastures.
Paying for coffee, tea and Raki after being invited into their home
On one high pasture we were asked to stop for herb tea, coffee and Raki in a shepherds hut. After this the path was a bit vague in places but we made it to the edge of Doberdol

 where we were met by Lisa, a very self possessed 12 year old who insisted we should stay at her family guest house as it was the cheapest and the best.

It was also the closest.

A great find- our room for three was great, and the simple solar shower and toilet fine. What really made it great was the food and welcome. Coffee and biscuits on arrival, a huge three course meal that evening and a wonderful breakfast of bread, jam, cheese, eggs, curds and whey and a huge pot of tea. In fact tea or coffee when ever we wanted it.
Breakfast in the sun
All this with a smile and from a tiny cabin with no electric. We soon decided to add in a peak and have two nights here.
Looking back to Doberdol
There was lots of rebuilding on this summer pasture and some of the homes looked as if they would be able to cope year round unlike the shepherds huts that are only used for a few summer months between the snows.

 Our walk to Gjerivica was superb. We initially missed the small side path to the correct col but got to include a nameless peak of 2425m on the way. Once through the col the path contoured round a huge bowl before climbing through a rocky col and then heading up to the top.

The glacial scenery was superb and we could see south for miles into Kosovo.

The summit had the Albanian flag- the locals here feel they are all Albanian people regardless of the political boundaries. The scorching hot day led to thunderstorms and strong winds over night. By 8am the rain had stopped and we emerged to another great breakfast before heading off up the steep valley side. I was keen to take in the peak on the border of all three countries - Trekufiri 2365m so dropped my sack and had a little jog there and back before we continued north to Roshkodol Pass.

 We almost missed the sign leading down the valley to Roshkodol itself and had the only really  torrential rain of the trip for a short while here. Our map was helpful but needed more detail and the description on the reverse has several errors around here (E not W etc) and this issue continued through this corner of Kosovo.
Interesting hair cuts- we saw some with diamonds and all sorts
With a whole village missing from our map we got confused and had just started to consider a night in a small hut when a shepherd pointed the way for us. Again on the edge of the village we were greeted by  a small child keen to take us home.

This time a small alpine chalet with a roaring aga type stove. Kosovo is marginally more affluent that Albania and the prices reflected this but at 25 Euros for coffee and baked potato on arrival, a big evening meal, treats of yogurt, whey drink, curds and a big breakfast it was still good value.
We learnt an important lesson the next morning. Having asked the way to Rogova Camp we had not considered that they would get there by driving and so that was the way they described. This route was then confirmed by a van driver who offered us a lift. Eventually the penny dropped and we had to retrace our steps. Ah well. We found the path although as it was tiny and nothing like the mule track it is not surprising we had missed it. Here we should have perhaps made a detour to Guri i Kuq 2522m as the path down to Rogova camp was steep, muddy and over grown. Then in a pasture and area of logging we lost the path altogether. We opted for the most likely looking track which then ran out. A couple of comedy hours followed as we headed down through beech woods with steep slopes. Fortunately the deep leaf litter helped with grip and we used a plastic water pipe in the hope it would led to civilisation. It was also a handy abseil aid a couple of times. As a nav aid it worked fine until the final deep river where it crossed about 3 metres above our heads. Still it did lead to the road and we emerged in roughly the right place unlike our Belgian friends who even with a gps lost the path and took the logging road north. A coffee in the sun dried us off and we set off on the climb to Reke e Alleges. This section was not great with tarmac and then gravel road and less interesting mountains but was made worth while by the guesthouse Ariu run by Mustafa family. As the only guests we had the 6 person room and hot shower to ourselves. The evening meal outdid those so far - chicken thighs in sticky tomato rice, peppers baked in cheese, Baruk (cheese and spinach pastry) with beer to start and a very smooth Raki to finish. For breakfast we found a new delight of fried puff bread along with huge mounds of homemade butter, cheese and jam.

This northern loop of the trail was for me the least interesting walking and has less spectacular mountains.

We found plenty of billberries and raspberries today and soon emerged on a high pasture. The path to Pepaj was fine  but somehow we missed a turn to Drelaj and after a long descent on forest roads emerged on new tarmac.

 It was easily put right and had only added a tiny distance before we rejoined our trail and arrived in Dugaive for lunch. This was a huge undulating meadow with scattered houses and most seemed to be holiday homes not shepherds. The path to Kucishte back in the Rogova valley was lovely.
Somewhere in there is yesterdays daring descent on the pipe
Sadly the route up the other side to Liqenat was on a zig zag tarmac road for several km. I think if I return I would miss the northern loop and hitch along the Rogova valley or even do the Guri i Kuq peak and go straight to Liqenat. Again though at the end of the day we fell on our feet. The hotel and chalets looked up market and expensive (although we later found out they were quite a reasonable price) so we set off in search of a more typical guest house. Unlike in Albania kids did not arrive to drag us in. Eventually we spotted a lady sitting on her door step. She spoke no English but we mimed that we  wanted a bed and food. The house was still being built so the toilet was a wooden box up the hill and a hose pipe outside for water.
Our hosts
Her farmer husband appeared and we were treated to coffee and chocolates. At this point it became clear we were guests, not paying guests. Amazing that those with so little can be so generous. We ate with the couple- a huge communal pan of Burak with pickled peppers.
and their son
Later their son arrived home. He was a waiter at the hotel earning a euro an hour and aspiring to so much more. With him as translator we had a great evening chatting. The next morning after a huge breakfast and being given a packed lunch we said our goodbyes. They did not want payment but we insisted.

Heading south we arrived back in the mountains, first past glacial lakes and then onto the Kosovan/Montenegro border. Here we modified the PoB route as dropping to to Babino Polje appeared to give us a forest walk the next day without much interest.
Need to go back and do this horseshoe
 Instead we opted for path 544 along the ridge. It started fine but soon became daring- I suspect 544 is the total number ever to walk it! By late afternoon we were struggling to find a water source that we trusted enough to bivy near. We dropped to close to Katun Bogic and found a grassy hollow but sadly we lost the sun early and the mountain ridge blocked the morning sun. It was a chilly first bivy night. The stars were amazing, shooting stars included.

We were soon up in the sunshine the next morning and on an easy contouring slowly climbing track. Our hopes of getting up Veliki Krs  were changed as once we reached the col the way became unclear and looked tricky. None of us fancied major effort in the heat only to have to turn back so we turned instead to Hridski Krs that was only 16m lower and after a steep but easy walk gave us perfect views.

 A drop to the lake Hridsko Jezero over a very boulder choked path allowed us to regain the PoB trail again. A short section of easy track brought us to a brand new hikers hut and then a path onto the ridge that would drop us towards Plav. This was easy downhill walking in pleasant scenery. We met up with the Belgians again and swapped stories. The official at the national park / border post briefly questioned us but didn't seem to want to see any paper work. Chatting we missed the path and ended up on the gravel road in Korita. It was very hot and as the road turned to tarmac we hitched to the outskirts of the town. Arriving on a Saturday wasn't ideal and the woman in tourist info was no help. We stopped in a bar/restaurant for a drink and asked there.
They were full but he phoned around and then drove us to a hotel the other side of the lake. It was a bit remote but we were pleased to get a room and shower. I soon started to think of this hotel as Fawlty Towers. Montenegro likes to think it is better and more affluent than its neighbours but it could learn plenty from them. Superficially the hotel was fine but on closer inspection bits were unfinished and uncared for. It took a while to get a beer and one waiter kept avoiding us - perhaps fearful of having to speak English.
Fawlty Towers - a great starter
We did have a lovely evening meal but could not have chips as there were no potatoes? and no coffee as there was no water? Later we could get no hot water in the shower and when we tried to pay by credit card we were told no even though we had been told yes when we arrived. We planned a day or rest next- washing, lazing, exploring and restocking our food supplies. The hotel would not call a taxi but we caught one as he dropped off a fisherman. Plav was full of returning migrants, many from Canada, and their families who had been born abroad but who return every summer for a month to sit in cafes, swim in the lake and socialise showing off their new wealth.
An added extra
We were lucky as there was a festival of local foods and then an Albanian band and parade in national costume. Bit strange as we were now in Montenegro but everyone seemed happy.
We agreed on a taxi or hitch up the first section of route as it was road. After bread and cheese in the sun we hitched into town and then found a young taxi driver prepared to take us up the tarmac and then gravel road and so save an hours boring walking. Our block of hard cheese had melted to a sloppy mess and never resoldified so we resorted to dunking bread as in fondue. After a couple of hours on forest tracks and paths were emerged into meadows. The katun which PoB said would have food had burned down after lightning so we pushed on up an incredibly steep path to Bajrack and then a lovely grassy ridge to Vrh Bora.
Beautiful mountains in all directions
We dropped our sacks for the peak of Maje e Fazlis and then quickly found a fantastic water source and a flat grassy area for our bivy. Lots of cold water to refresh and an evening of lying in the sun.
A much warmer bivy
The next day was hot and sunny. We stashed our packs and climbed up to the Kolatta peaks.
Up through a series of hidden valleys
Wonderful scenery,

easy walking,

 amazing views down into the Valbonne valley and the huge mountains beyond.

Podi e Kollata would be the highest peak in Monenegro if in fact it was not just over the border in Albania.

On the way down we stopped by the big cave still full of snow and allowed the draught to act as air conditioning for a while.

The rest of the walk was downhill to Vusanje. This time a mobile phone had alerted a guest house owner to our arrival and we were escorted down the track and to a terrace for a beer. Another blow out meal was followed by a good nights sleep. Breakfast was a massive salami omelet plus the usual bread, cheese, jam etc. We had asked if we could buy bread but were slightly taken aback to be presented with two huge loaves, a whole stick of salami, 5 enormous tomatoes and a great plastic tub full of cheese. We set off for Zastan via the blue eye well fuelled. Again we made a stash of our gear and carried on towards Maja Roshit.

On a high col we lost the path. Bob was hot and knackered to lay in the shade. Dick and I went exploring. I made it to the far and high col and even onto the mini peak but decided time was too short to explore further and make it to the summit. Arriving back at Zastan we selected our spot to bivy and Bob realised he had left his primaloft in Vusanje.

The best option seemed for me to wake early run down and power walk back up. I would be quicker on my own. A nice 14km warm up start to the day.
Once I was back we continued our trek to Liqenet Jezerces and up to the mini glacier.

 Now the scenery was truly stunning again. This SW corner of the whole route is definitely my favourite.

Dick was shocked at how much the glacier had shrunk but at least there was still the vital water source for the day and our overnight stop.
Spot the walkers for scale!
The walk to the peak looks quite short on the map but it starts with limestone slabs, then a huge boulder field and then smaller paths across scree.

 From the col it then turns towards the mountain itself and becomes steep, rocky and with some scree. We met a Czech couple coming down declaring that it was too dangerous.
Our toughest peak
It was tricky and in a couple of places I was not comfortable or happy but we made it to the top. 2694m.

Again fantastic views with layer after layer of mountains into the distance. The descent was better than I had feared and although Dick slipped and grazed his hand we had no real troubles. We were back at the spring and our sacks by 6pm. Our first gas canister finally ran out and then disaster struck. The next one refused to fit and leaked all the gas. The second looked like doing the same but with some paper engineering and patience we saved 3/4 and it burnt OK. Phew. Our bivy was warmer than expected and although I struggled to get comfy the stars and full moon made up for waking several times. It had been a long day, for me especially.
We woke to bivies bathed in sunshine.

Today's walk was easier with just one small col and then mostly contouring or down to Stanet e Pejes. It was super hot but we found a mass of raspberries yet again before reaching the water source and then the shepherds in the old army barracks. Our stash of gear seemed rather public here but it was good to leave the weight and to proceed to Arapit unencumbered.

It is a short distance on the map but includes two cols before the path turns to the mountain itself. After 90 mins Dick decided he was knackered and also that his shoes really were on their last legs. He had been to the summit before so sat in the shade.

We climbed over the most wonderful slabs of sloping limestone with amazing karst features. It was hot but stunning.

The final ridge was airy with a huge drop to Thethi and the west.
Runfurther Buffs get everywhere
Not huge at 2217m but a truly beautiful mountain.

Seen from Thethi it has an 800m sheer rock wall.

We made excellent time on the return trip almost running down the huge slabs of rock.

That evening was our last wild bivy.
Shame I missed the sheep mobbing Dick
The shepherd tried to warn us about the sheep and dogs but we didn't really understand. The dogs kept coming to check on us but never got closer than 2m. Disconcerting at 2am but no problem really. The comedy was at about 5.30am when the sheep decided to investigate. I woke and sat up to find four sheep face to face with me and Dick was mobbed by sheep. Bob was laughing so much he failed to take photos of this.
It gave us an early start on the last day which was perhaps good in the cool. A series of concrete bunkers reminded us of the recent wars and then after the lakes and the second col it was downhill all the way to Thethi.

Another roasting day saw us celebrate with coffee and beer once we reached the valley and then a slow amble to Thethi itself with cherries to pick along the way.

The village had seen even more new building than other places but we picked a quite traditional looking guest house. Our room was in the old farmhouse and the restaurant was a tasteful new build.

More beer and a snack of bread etc did for lunch. I then went exploring but the guys decided it was far too hot. I found a huge abandoned cherry orchard, a spot by the icy river to bathe my feet and generally explored the older parts near the church and farms.

Another great evening meal - except perhaps for the traditional corn bread which they hate as a reminder of communism. We were then joined by a party of young guys from Kosovo and their army leader. They were amazed at our route and walk with peaks. I was presented with a Kosovan Army poncho bivy and gave in return my Runfurther Buff and a spork. They were very taken with our light weight gear as their bed rolls were almost the size of my sack.
The next day was travelling to Shkroder and then Tirane before a final touristy day in the city.

It has not yet really developed for tourism but I was impressed at the seemingly happy coexistence of the Muslims and catholics.

Would I go back? Yes. I am glad we got the chance to visit before too much change though  and I would suggest those considering the PoB trail modify it as we did and more. The side trips to peaks were fantastic and I am sure there is more to explore. The people were very warm, friendly and welcoming. I took a couple of hundred photos so selecting some was not an easy task.
Whether or not it will prove enough training for me this weekend at the Long Tour of Bradwell and more importantly at the GRP in a fortnight remains to be seen.

Day 1 Okoli near Thethi to Vallbonne.
Day 2 start of non tarmac road 10km E of Vabonne to Doberdol
Day 3 Doberdol - return trip to Gjeravica 2656m highest in Kosovo
Day 4 Doberdol to Milishevc
Day 5 Milishevc to Reke e Allages
Day 6 Reke e Alleges to Liqenat
Day 7 Liqenat to Katun Bogic (not Babino Polje)
Day 8 Katun Bogic to Veliki Krs2374m, Hridski Krs 2358m and then rejoined PoB to Plav
Day 9 Rest day in Plav
Day 10 Zavrs to Maja e Fazlis 2149m via Vrh Bora 2106m (wild camp)
Day 11 Kollata e Keqe 2534m and Podi e Kollates 2556m and down to Vusanje
Day 12 Vusanje to Zastan and then return trip to Maja Roshit 2525m
Day 13 Zastan to mini glacier above Liqenet e Jezerces, then Maja Jezerca 2694m and back to glacier
Day 14 Glacier to Stanet e Pejes and then Arapit 2217m and back to Stanet e Pejes.
Day 15 Stanet e Peyes to Thethi