Thursday, July 9, 2015

Bouldering in Valbonë, Albania

Bouldering near Valbona Pass / Ngjitjes në shkëmbinj në qafa e Valbones

June 2014:  Maria and I hike the long, steep hill out of Okol to Valbona pass in northeastern Albania.  We take in the spectacular views from the top, then start down the other side towards Rragam.  About 10 minutes later, we spot...boulders. Lots of boulders. Perfect limestone boulders with clean rock and flat landings.

July 2014:  Extensive Googling, no sign of established problems on the boulders.  For non-climbers:  this basically means that the hardest routes up the boulders have likely never been climbed.

June 2015:  Divesh and I head back to Valbona pass, this time armed with climbing shoes and a mat...

This post is about our trip in general; more specific information for climbers about the bouldering is here.

We opted to fly into Pristina, Kosovo and make the three-hour drive to Valbona village. There were a few harrowing moments but overall it was an easy drive; there's even a brand-new road replacing the previous semi-driveable dirt road between Bajram Curri and Valbona.  We were a little nervous about how the border crossing guards would react to an Indian citizen, an American citizen, and a rental car, but we had no problems (at least on the way in.  On the way back, we had to stop for a bit while, we assume, they checked the Interpol database...).

Valbona is a village and tourist destination, but it's no hub of services or activity.  Don't expect to be able to buy groceries there, or really anything else from a store. There are, however, several guesthouses and hotels, along with a few restaurants.  Our home for the week was the very nice Hotel Margjeka, about a mile or two up the valley from Valbona.  The view from the hotel is a good introduction to why I couldn't wait to come back to this place:

The hotel was also home to one of the most insanely comfortable beds I've ever slept in.  With the bed plus the large amount of walking we did evey day, I got some of the best sleep I've had in years on this trip.  It normally takes me about 2 hours to fall asleep; in Albania it was 5 minutes max.

From the hotel it's "only" a 5k walk to the boulders. Sadly that 5k involves walking nearly all the way up Valbona pass.  We generally did it in about an hour and a half, though the brutality of the walk-in is tempered by the fact that there are no less than three little cafes on the way up.  Still, each day at the crag started off with a rest under a boulder.

There is no shortage of fantastic scenery on the walk:

This is actually above the crag, at the top of the pass

About a kilometer below the top of the pass, you get to the crag, which basically looks like this:

It was really hard to get an overall shot of the crag just because of the way the boulders were spread out across the hillside, but the photo above shows some of the main boulders.  Divesh is the figure in the middle of the photo, for scale.

And, the bouldering!  Climbers, see here for a mini topo and information about the problems we climbed.  A couple of representative photos of the climbing:

We had four solid days of bouldering (plus one day of walking in to the crag only to get rained out when we were five minutes away...), enough that I felt pretty strong by the end of the trip.  It was exciting having a blank slate of a crag for putting up new routes; I think I've only ever done one new boulder problem before and suddenly here I was, faced with loads of them.  Most of what we did ended up being low-grade stuff, in part because that's what the majority of the problems were, in part because we only had one small mat so falling off from high up wasn't a great option, and in part because it's hard to decide on a new problem, clean it, work on it, and actually top it out in just a few days.  But things worked out pretty much perfectly, as on our last day, Divesh climbed his project and I climbed mine.

This trip was very different from the trip I had with Maria last year--this year, we had a definite schedule, stayed in a hotel the entire time, and basically saw only one small area.  We met fewer new people than last year, and the trip overall was less adventurous.  But this wasn't a bad thing.  We still met a few new people, and I got to practice my Albanian a reasonable amount (though I never did make it to learning the past tense.  The only verb I can say in the past tense is the verb "to be", so "it was" became my all-purpose expression to talk about anything in the past!)  And even better, we got to see a friend who I met last year, Nexhdet, and also meet his friend Islam, aka the Dalai Lama (a very entertaining Dalai Lama):

Nexhdet is a good cook and cooked us a fantastic campfire dinner!  We were generally always hungry after dinners at our hotel, so having a delicious, huge meal cooked for us was a big deal.

We also ran into my 80ish-year-old shepherd friend from last year, who seemed to be living a fantastic life involving taking the sheep up the hill in the morning, and then visiting friends, drinking coffee, and relaxing in the high meadows in the afternoon.

In the middle of the trip, we went on a half-day trip to Gjakove, in Kosovo, with Nexhdet and Islam.  Gjakove was an interesting little city with a great medieval town center, full of well-preserved buildings from the 16th century:

Crazy bridge, but still standing

We had lunch at this very beautiful old restaurant
On our last full day, we went for a run towards Doberdol, on the route that Maria and I took last year on our Peaks of the Balkans run.  It turned out that 21 miles was a bit much after doing that mammoth walk-in to the boulders every day.  We lurched our way back to the car and collapsed into bed extra early that night.  But, the run was enough for Divesh to start some murmurings about how he'd like to come back and do the whole Peaks of the Balkans trail sometime... Return date TBD but definitely in the cards.


  1. OK, I got the answer now:) Wow on the views! You know, growing up where I did, Albania was never a good place to visit, and somehow I never learned it has mountains and such beauty. I missed out on great stuff! Gosh, there is so much to do on this Earth, how to make it all happen before we go?? Thanks for opening my eyes!

    1. I know, it's scary how little time there is, isn't it. I was thinking recently of how if I only do two big races a year, that's not very many races over the course of the number of years of running I have left! And same with trips; one trip a year isn't a lot of time to see many places.

  2. Ditto on this post. So much pretty.