Bansko, Bulgaria – Bansko, Bulgaria… Skiing is not the first thing to
spring in the mind upon hearing these names. Yet, the truth is that hidden in
Bulgaria there are several little skiing paradises for the adventurous skier
I was treated to the experience of a skiing trip to Bansko
Ski Resort, located in Bulgaria in the Perin mountains, part of the Rhodope
mountain range that forms a natural border between Bulgaria and Greece. The
highest peak, Vichren, stands at 9,558 feet and is the second highest peak on
the Balkan Peninsula, after Mt. Olympus in Greece which is only 12 feet higher.
Several other nearby peaks range from 8300 feet to more than 9000 feet.
In the heart of these mountains, the Bansko Ski Resort has established itself
as one of the main ski centers not only in Bulgaria, but also in Southern Europe.
The town of Bansko itself, about three hours driving to the south of the Bulgarian
capital of Sofia, is built at an altitude of 3060 feet. From Bansko, a scary,
winding narrow road leads to the base of the resort, at 5280 feet, set in the
middle of heavily forested slopes. There are not many trails, but the few that
are there are long, and exciting. The lift-served terrain reaches 8910 feet,
and it is possible to ski top-to-bottom in one run, giving you a very respectable
3630 feet of vertical to play with.
As can be seen on the trail map, the upper parts of some trails are above
tree line, and are thus exposed to extreme weather conditions. The several high
peaks (including Vichren itself) sourrounding the resort provide many snowfields,
chutes, bowls, and a spectacular background due to their ruggedness. There was
plenty of snow, with bases ranging from 50 cm to more than 2 meters (that was
first week of January, 1998). Still, they were saying that the snow was below
normal for the time of the year. But for someone as hungry for skiing as I was,
it certainly was more than enough.
Despite the vertical, there were only two major lifts operating. A triple chair
that ran from the base at 5280 to 8440 feet, and a button lift that started
at 6980 feet and ended up at the top at 8910 feet. There was another triple
on an opposite slope, right below Vichren itself (not directly connected) that
was not yet operational as that slope was far more exposed to high winds and
thus had less snow. In order to ski all the available vertical you had to go
up the triple, traverse to the trail served by the button lift, ski that trail,
then get the button lift up and then you could ski straight to the base of the
triple. Additionally, there were a couple of tow ropes serving beginner runs.
What was most amazing was the level of the trails. Bulgaria follows the European
marking system, which is green for beginners, blue for intermediates, red for
advanced, and black for experts only (green circle, blue square, black diamond,
and double-black diamond in the US, respectively). Obviously the standard by
which Bulgarians rate their trails is above the rest of the world. I did ski
black trails at Val D’ Isere in France, but some of the red trails in Bulgaria
were far harder. Not many bumps, but where they formed they were bumps that
would send National at Stowe hiding. And another very interesting thing: The
trails are not rated for their most difficult part, but rather they are rated
differentially at each change of pitch. Thus, the trail served by the button
lift started as “green”, then became “blue”, then had a steep bumpy part that
was classed as “red” (but which was more difficult than the black “O” at Val),
then it mellowed into a green. More or less similar were the two trails served
by the triple, while the trail from the top of the Button lift to the top of
the triple was a hard blue one. The pitches at points were amazing. At one red
section of the longest trail the pitch touched 40 degrees, possibly the steepest
I ever skied myself, and due to the overall conditions one of the scariest runs.
It was steep, quite narrow, and convoluted into trees, with some very weird
bumps (very long and thin?!) forming, and with occasional baby pines (or whatever
trees they were) sticking their tops out of the snow!
The runs were groomed nightly, and the groomers made a pretty good job. But
some bumps were always forming by the afternoon, and even if you didn’t feel
like skiing bumps, you still had to go through them if you didn’t want to spend
the night up there in the company of lynx, bears, and wolves! The quality of
the snow was certainly good. Despite the mostly sunny days, it remained packed
powder throughout my stay there, with very occasional ice patches. The high
elevations involved made it certain that the temps remained constantly below
freezing above the base. Only the last day were the temps above freezing even
at altitude, resulting in excellent corn snow.
The most serious weather related problem was wind – above 8000 feet
the gales were howling, and even on sunny days visibility in blowing powder
would drop to zero, while windchills were extremely low. Supposedly February
and March are months with one snowstorm followed by another, and the locals
insist that the best month to visit was April, with somewhat higher temperatures,
much deeper snow, and less wind.
Now the important news: the area of Bansko offers a lot of variety in out-of-bounds
skiing. The possibilities visible from the trails of the resort have to be seen
to be believed. The mountains are like sharks teeth, and there is bowl after
bowl, chute after chute, ridge after ridge to be explored. I stood forever looking,
thinking of the possibilities thus offered, but unfortunately I was there at
the wrong time of the year. Backcountry skiing in the Bansko area starts normally
after mid-February, extending through May. The big snows usually arrive in February
and March, and March and April are considered to be the best months for powder
skiing in the vast areas present. Extreme skiing has a huge following in Bansko,
kind of amazing considering that most of these people have never heard of Warren
Miller, or use skis of 20 or more years ago, let alone the fact that the vast
majority don’t speak a single English word!.
Despite the communication problems, I was able to understand that they actively
promote their extreme skiing possibilities, and even the manager of the ski
school of the resort tried to persuade us to return in March for a week of extreme
skiing. But he did not really need to try: I wish that I had more time, and
I would have no second thoughts! Damn, why do we have to work? The “Salomon
Ski School” is a very dependable source of local information, because it is
stuffed by young enthusiastic extreme skiers (I’ve seen them skiing!) who are
also excellent guides for out-of-bounds powder adventures. Also, they all know
a few basic English words, and the school/guide center is sponsored by Salomon.
The only problem is that the avalanche danger is quite high – backcountry skiers
that go off-piste there should be very well-prepared for the avalanche
danger -remember, Bulgaria is not the Alps, the US, or Canada. Although people
are helpful and friendly, the technology available to them is out of date, and
the search and rescue services seemed understaffed. If someone decides, though
to go there, then he or she should try to explore the several chutes and bowls
sourrounding the Vichren and Kyreno (or whatever the right name is!) peaks –
they really looked incredible.
In addition to skiing, the Bansko area offers the possibility for several
other exciting activities. Rock and ice climbing have a huge following
there, and as a rock climber myself I could readily see why (I do plan
to eventually return for rock climbing as well as for skiing). Whitewater
kayaking also appears to be very popular, and hiking in the summer should
be very exciting for interpid hikers.
So, what is the conclusion? Bulgaria is certainly value for money, especially
for Europeans. The relatively high cost of travel from the USA or Canada
means that the trip might cost too much for rather restricted in-bounds
skiing. But, if the exploration and skiing of several superb chutes and
bowls in deep powder is the target, the extremely low cost of life that
Bulgaria offers coupled with a huge range of extreme skiing and snowboarding
possibilities might well make it worthwhile. After all, if someone is planning
a trip to Europe, he or she could easily spend a very expensive week at
the Alps in some glitz resort, and then for the price of another one or
two nights in western European resorts they could go for a week to Bansko
for fabulous extreme skiing. And, if you go, take with you your old issues
of Powder, etc. – if you give them to your guides it’s a guaranteed way
of getting the first tracks in the best bowls! If you can go, give it a
shot – I don’t think you will be disappointed!!
Nuts and Bolts
traveller has to be aware that for someone used to the western lifestyle, going
into Bulgaria may come as a shock. Despite Glasnost (or whatever it’s called)
these countries still suffer from the influence of Communism. Barely anybody
speaks a word of English. Poverty rules. Most cars seemed about to break down.
The average salary is about $50 a month. Of course prices in everything are
amazingly low (though very expensive for Bulgarians). I took $400 for 10 days,
and despite frantic efforts I was unable to spend more than $150! Despite these
problems, people there are extremely helpful and friendly. Unfortunately most
of them don’t speak English at all, which makes communication a problem. But
the extremely low cost of living there coupled with the excellent skiing more
than compensate for the negative aspects.
And perhaps the life situation in Bulgaria acts as an excellent reality
check for us used to the crazy “Western” sort of life. Realize also that
skiing in Bulgaria is not restricted to Bansko. There are at least two
more well known resorts, Borovets and another, and all three are quite
popular with British, Russian, and Greek skiers, in addition to the few
locals (although prices appear very low to us, they seem impossible for
Bulgarians!). But the local skiers are the ones to hang out with. I was
certainly impressed by the skiing talent of some of them, whether on groomed
runs or in the bumps (I did see much better bump skiing in the bumps of
Bansko than at Val, and at times it seemed as if it was in par with American
bump skiing). And they seemed to be very knowledgeable and excited about
powder and backcountry skiing, so they are the ones to ask!
How to Get There
can reach Bansko either by flying into Sofia airport and driving for about three
hours to the south, or by flying into Thessaloniki (Salonica) in Greece, and
driving three hours to the north. In either case the scenery is amazing, though
the roads leave a lot to be desired. Bulgarians drive very fast and it can be
scary. Balkan, their national airline is acceptable, but only barely. They certainly
cannot compare to airlines like Delta or Swissair or British airways – if you
can fly a western airline it might be better to do so. In my case the two hour
trip on Balkan from Cyprus to Sofia will be remembered for a long time. But
Balkan may well be the cheapest way to fly to Bulgaria from the US.