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Vitosha freestyle.

Each season we read of skiers or snowboarders who sadly perish while drifting away from designated slopes in search of that elusive extra thrill. More often than not, they are experienced professionals. There were half a dozen such fatalities this year in Bansko alone, and although I understand their motivation, I will never endorse it, at least not publicly. Yet there are ways to enjoy the mountain and skiing without having to limit yourself to the same slope and pay a ridiculous fee that does not match the service provided.



Maybe it's just an unfortunate twist of circumstances, or simply bad luck, but in most cases over the past two years when I went to Vitosha, I ended up paying 35 leva for the all-inclusive day pass only to be told that due to poor weather conditions, or otherwise, most facilities were closed apart from the lower Lale. So in the end you are left with no alternative but to ski there all day long and, let's face it, Laleto is a decent run but it's short and tedious. Once you get bored of it--and you inevitably do after a couple of hours--you are left with no alternative but to continue skiing there until you reach mind-boggling stupor.

There are ways of beating the system, saving money, and having a cracker--if you have a little adventurous spirit and are willing to experiment. Most importantly, I assure anyone reading this that as far as avalanches are concerned, the route is 100 per cent safe. There are still five or so weeks of skiing left on the books and, weather permitting, you may attempt it. The plan is simple: get to Cherni Vruh--Vitosha's tallest summit at 2290m--and once at the top, ski down until you reach civilisation, a journey that may take a full day. There are several such routes and the safest and most popular one will be outlined here.

Reach Aleko ski complex with the 66 bus from Hladilnika borough in Sofia that costs four leva, or the Simenovo gondola which will set you back a tenner. Once up on the mountain, you may take a single ticket with the Romanski chair lift (a service unavailable last year) and scale Cherni Vruh, requiring a 30-minute climb. Better yet, if you fancy a true workout, attempt scaling it from Aleko up through the Stenata slope (the Wall) for about two-and-a-half hours with full kit, bergen and skis on your back. Reaching the weather observatory station up on the top will provide you with a breathtaking view of Rila Mountains and Stara Planina as well as the murk that is Sofia below.

Although refreshments--coffee, tea and warm food--are available at the summit, you are going to ski through half of the mountain later on, so take a thermos with tea, food for a full day, water, spare shirts and socks (you will sweat bullets on the way up). When ready to leave, stick to the winter markings (four metre poles painted in yellow and black) leading to the plateau. The aforementioned should be negotiated inside an hour--a bit of downhill and then a bit of cross country. The slope is gentle, the scenery is breathtaking, there is zero possibility of you launching an avalanche--even if you attempted it--and the experience is cathartic. You will then reach a derelict and abandoned ski complex called Konyarnika.

Konyarnika is on the border between the Alpine zone and the treeline. Thereafter you ski on a three-metre wide alley sloping gently through the thick pine forest until you reach Vetrovala 45 minutes further down. It is mostly downhill but there are the odd 100-metre fl at sections where a bit of pushing will be necessary. In two-and-a-half hours (at regular pace) you should have reached the Vetrovala complex where a pit stop is well advised. In good winter, you should be able to follow the forest paths and ski down to Zlatnite Mostove, then proceed to Knyajevo either from Malinazha (the junction is just over the Zlatnite branching left from the main road on the way to Momina Skala) or take the ski road from Elenite and head down via Byalata Voda. This full trip is great but only possible if there is enough snow--a 10-plus cm cover in Sofia is a good sign that it's feasible.

Apart from doing something different, it is also about pure maths. Regardless how good a skier you think you are, you cannot ski on Laleto more than 16 times from 9.30am until 4pm. The 15-minute journey with the chair lift after every descent and the the long queue means that for every 20 minutes of waiting, you ski for just two minutes. If you can ski down Laleto three times in an hour, that means you have actually skied for six minutes. In a full day, you end up skiing about 50 minutes and for that you pay 35 leva. Alternatively, for the price of four leva, you may climb the mountain for two hours and then ski for four hours continuously all the way to Kniajevo. Common sense is essential, however. Don't attempt this on your own if it's your first time. Take a local with you and avoid doing it in bad weather or fog. In the case of the latter, you may end up getting lost and descend the wrong side of the mountain and end up in Pernik. Then you'd really wish you'd been hit by an avalanche.
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Title Annotation:venue
Author:Iliev, Nick
Publication:The Sofia Echo (Sofia, Bulgaria)
Geographic Code:4EXBU
Date:Mar 5, 2010
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