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.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Boulder problems and topo for Valbona Pass, Albania

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

This June, my husband Divesh and I went to climb what appear to be previously-unclimbed boulder problems up near Valbona Pass, in Albania.  I had seen the boulders a year earlier during a run and had played around on them in my running shoes enough to know that it was worth coming back with climbing shoes!  For a start, the area is gorgeous:

The crag consists of about 20 to 30 boulders spread out in a meadow, roughly a kilometer below Valbona Pass, on the Valbona side of the pass.  It was difficult to take a photo of the crag as a whole because the boulders are fairly spread out, but this is one of the main sections of the crag, with Divesh in the center of the photo for scale:

What the climbing's like:

The rock is limestone, which makes the crag interesting because you don't often get free-standing limestone boulders.  The boulders all tended to have a couple of slabby sides with easy to very easy problems, and then an overhanging side with (much) harder problems.

For the most part, the rock quality is extremely good, especially considering the boulders were unclimbed and are at the top of a mountain pass.  The slabs and vertical problems needed very little, if any, cleaning.  On slabs, the rock was generally 100% solid.  Vertical problems generally had one or two snappy holds on them.  The overhanging problems tended to have several loose and/or dirty holds that needed cleaning before climbing.  In comparison to most unclimbed rock, however, the amount of cleaning even on the overhanging problems was minimal.

There are two downsides to the crag, though.  First, the boulders tend to be either very lowball or very highball.  There was enough in between to keep us busy for a week, but we would have started to run low on options after that.  Because of airline luggage fees, we only had one small mat with us, which made the highballs unappealing; if we had had more/bigger mats, we probably would have had another week's worth of climbing to try.

The second downside is the grade spread.  We found absolutely loads of easy problems, in the Font 4 to Font 5+ range.  Don't get me wrong, those easy problems were almost all fantastic climbing, but they also weren't projects to work on.  After the easy problems, there were relatively few moderate problems, and then there was a fair bit of scope for very hard (7C and up?) problems.  Again, there were just enough moderates to keep us going for a week, but after that it would have become slim pickings.  (For reference, I climb 6C at my best and Divesh climbs 7A+)

I made a *very* rudimentary topo of the crag using an aerial shot from Google Earth:

This was the max that Google Maps would let me zoom in, so there are several boulders that we climbed on that are missing from the topo.  But, the 8 boulders on the topo are the primary ones we established problems on.

We didn't do any earth-shattering climbs that would demand a detailed description.  This is a general idea of what we climbed:

1.  Kuzhinier boulder:

A.  On the face directly in front of you as you come up the path from Valbona, a Font 5+ going up the bulge on the righthand side of the boulder, about 3 feet from the arete.  The crux is the first two moves, then excellent climbing to the top, with a slightly worrying topout onto a slab.  See photo:

B.  Another Font 5+ going up the twin cracks on the arete, just to the right of problem A.

The downclimb for the Kuzhinier boulder is on the west corner of the boulder, past a small hole.

There is scope for an enormous amount of new problems on this boulder, including easy, moderate, and hard problems!

2.  Franxhollë boulder:

We didn't climb any problems on this boulder because it got a bit high for our little mat, but I've marked it on the topo as it looked like it should have some good moderates on the north and west sides.

3.  Unnamed boulder just south of the Franxhollë boulder:

A.  On the northeast arete, an excellent Font 5 jug haul going up the scoop in the arete, traversing slightly right along the break:

B.  About ten feet to the right of problem A, a 6A to 6A+ mantle problem, also very nice climbing.

4.  Shqip boulder:

This boulder is a minute or two across the hillside (south) of the other boulders.

A.  Shqip Prow, 6C.  Rising traverse up the prow, from the prow's left side as you're facing it, and top out at highest point of prow:

B.  Font 5 up the groove to the right of Shqip Prow:

There would be a nice moderate problem up and over the right side of the prow.

5.  Triangle boulder:

When looking downhill (east) from the Franxhollë boulder, you'll see an obvious boulder with a huge triangle-shaped sloping hold.  The boulder is fairly short but the Font 4+ problem going straight up from the triangle (not using the other triangle hold on the arete or any of the other holds on the arete) is my favorite problem of the whole crag:

(I'm actually covering up the triangle hold in the photo)

6.  Secret boulder:

This boulder may be hard to find, but it was worth it.  It stays shaded when the rest of the crag is in the sun, and it had three nice problems, with scope for another quality 6Cish problem.

To find the boulder, look for the very tall boulder with trees growing out of the top (the Tall Trees boulder).  The Secret boulder is immediately downhill from the Tall Trees boulder, almost touching the Tall Trees boulder.  The visible side of the Secret boulder is a large slab, but on the other side is a short overhanging face with three problems:

A.  Font 6A?  Sit start on the left (as you face the overhanging side of the boulder) arete.  Rising traverse to the prow in the middle of the boulder, then top out.

B.  Font 5, directly up the prow.

C.  Font 5+, up the groove to the right of the prow:

The prow is just out of shot on the left side of this photo.  Starting in the groove and traversing the lip left to the prow, on the slopey lip where Divesh's head is in the above photo, would make an excellent problem, 6Cish or maybe a bit harder?

7.  Tall Trees boulder:

The very large boulder with trees growing out of the top.  There are two boulders big enough to have trees growing out of them but this was the bigger of the two.  We didn't climb anything on this, but with enough pads, there would be some nice hard problems here:

8.  The Egg:

The somewhat egg-shaped boulder in the southern of the two scree gullies running through the crag.

A. There are so many possible starting holds that it's difficult to describe the problem that Divesh did (I managed the crux once but without the first move!).  Essentially, the most difficult route up to the small ledge halfway up the boulder.  We jumped down from the ledge; the rock above was loose:

Getting here:

The easiest travel option is to fly into Pristina in Kosovo, then rent a car and drive the approximately 3 hours to Valbona.  Valbona has several places to stay; we stayed in the Hotel Margjeka and it was very nice (not to mention cheap!!).

It is definitely a hike from Valbona to the crag!  It's about 5km but all uphill, and when you're down in the valley, the sun can make the walk-in uncomfortably hot.  Fortunately the temperature difference between the valley and the crag is huge, and it was never very hot at the crag.  I wore my down jacket for a fair bit of the time when I wasn't climbing, and this was in June!

To get to the crag from Valbona, you take the paved road (there is only one paved road...) west out of Valbona.  In about 2 miles, the road ends in front of the Fusha e Gjes hotel.  Park there and follow the path marked with red and white stripes up the scree road.  This is technically a road, though nothing other than a Jeep/heavy duty 4x4 would get up it.  The "road" goes to a small village called Rragam.  Continue to follow the red and white markings and signs for Theth, which is the town on the other side of Valbona Pass.  Rragam has two tiny little outdoor cafes, and I would recommend making use of at least one of them to rest before the big uphill!  When you leave Rragam there are two trails, one going to the waterfall (ujevara), which you don't want to take, and one that is marked with red and white stripes, which you do want to take.  The trail steepens and about 2km later ends up at another small outdoor cafe, the Simoni cafe, which is also a fine place for a rest.  It also has a stream where you can get water.  From the Simoni cafe you continue to follow the red and white striped markings for about half a km, after which you'll emerge in a field of boulders.  The large boulder directly in front of you, with the red and white striped marking on it, is the Kuzhinier boulder.

If you have a GPS, you can follow this description in reverse from the Fusha e Gjes hotel to just before Valbona Pass to find the boulders.

Valbona has restaurants but food is not exactly plentiful.  Restaurants don't necessarily serve even half the food that's on the menu, and a lot of the cuisine revolves around tomatoes, cucumbers, bread, cheese, and milk.  There are no stores in Valbona that sell food, other than bars that sell basic snacks like potato chips and nuts.  Bring crag food with you from home.

In short, considering the fairly involved travel and the long walk-in, this isn't likely to make a good destination crag.  What it is perfect for, however, is a trip that's about seeing a beautiful place as much as it is about climbing.  Or, a trip to snag some of those very hard but very good lines we had no chance at!

View from the top of Valbona Pass