Rok and Arnaud are both peering through the fragile plexiglass of the helicopter’s canopy and pointing at various slopes that are somehow, way above us – we’re already dizzyingly high and I’m alternating my time between trying to take in all the earth-shatteringly beautiful scenery, and to wonder – has Arnaud seen that 2,000-metre cliff we seem to be awfully close to?
They’re actually working out our best ski route down from the top of one of these towering giants. I don’t want to look up at where they’re discussing, but can’t help myself. I’m trying heliskiing for the first time – and to make things even more exciting, I’m actually in Albania. There are no set ski runs in these mountains – many are first time ever descents.
When I first heard about the heliskiing operation in Albania (Albania – where even IS that? Do they have snow?) I immediately thought of an exotic destination with rolling hills and gentle ski descents to rustic bars filled with bearded locals – this, however, is NOT that.
Granted Rok does have a beard, and being from Slovenia is almost local, but that’s the only part of the idyll I can even remotely claim to be accurate. Albania’s mountains are BIG. And sharp. And pointy.
Named by someone with a terrible handle on what makes good tourism marketing (or maybe they were actually incredibly cunning?) these Albanian Alps are called ‘The Accursed Mountains’. And looking at them, you can see why they may have got their name. Did I tell you they were sharp and pointy?
The Accursed Mountains are a limestone range – once this was all some primeval reef but now walls shoot vertically through dry air up to 2,700 meters – and they are an unbelievably good snow playground. Moist maritime air from the nearby Adriatic dumps record amounts on these mountains – when we visited the snow was meters deep while back in ‘mainstream’ Europe, lift operators could mow the grass on the resort lower slopes.
Fast forward several million years from when this area was under the sea and I’m packed in a helicopter that suddenly seems so small when compared to the unbelievably epic scenery that is all around us - these limestone reefs are very, very big and daunting.
The helicopter is like a delicate metallic dragonfly flitting from one outcrop to another, and the flight between runs is an amazing experience on its own – snow buried summer grazing villages catch our eye and heart stopping flights over ridges that suddenly drop away beneath us are commonplace and keep us all agog, as we try to comprehend the sheer scale of what we’re seeing.
When the helicopter lands (sometimes it simply hovers with the lightest of touches from the tip of its skids for a short time on a ridge) there’s a set routine for us to get out. First, don’t look. I get vertigo (remind me why I thought this might be a good idea?) so it’s important for me not to even guess where our next descent might be or that’s it, I’m staying in the helicopter and assuming the fetal position.
Then one by one, we slide out and duck into that stance made famous by anime or Marvel superheroes – one knee and one fist on the ground in a kind of crouch, holding the equipment down as the helicopter readies to make an impossible soaring dive to where it’s going to meet us, hundreds of feet down in the valley.
When the helicopter leaves, despite the turbine noise the surroundings are relatively calm for a second or two, then as it makes a crowd-pleasing dive spectacularly away, we are suddenly hit by the propwash, and for a few brief seconds we are blasted by a maelstrom of wind and snow. Now I know how Dorothy felt as she left for Oz.
Once Arnaud our Swiss pilot has made his dramatic swooping exit we get time to look at the scenery – and we definitely aren’t in Kansas any more. Snowcapped peaks stretch in regiments into the distance until they fade into the horizon. Photos can’t capture the enormity of nature that surrounds us.
Below us are thick duvets of snow – Rok has already chosen one for us to drift through. To be honest, some of the terrain is way beyond anything I’ve tried before, but the snow, as Rok reassures me, “Is very grippy” so I never actually end up tomahawking down to the valley floor.
When the going is steep, Rok and Mattei make sure that we travel one by one – Rok goes ahead to scout the best route down, Mattei stays behind to make sure that we all get to where we’re going (and to give me a tow on my snowboard if I’m not going fast enough through the flatter sections).
Otherwise we all ski/board together – 50m apart but choosing our own lines through pristine powdered slopes under stunning bluebird skies. Sometimes there are glades, sometimes traverses over harder pack, but the entire adventure is truly beyond comparison.
A morning is four or five descents – sometimes we can see the chopper waiting for us in the valley – a tiny dot in the distance, on other trips we’ll pop out of a powdery bowl and suddenly find Arnaud waiting patiently for us.
Lunch each day is hot soup, rolls and coffee or mint tea at the helicopter in a meadow where we meet the other group of two who have been sharing the helicopter with us – as soon as one group is dropped off, Arnaud will collect the others.
Then the afternoon is usually two more runs – each in a different part of the mountains so we seldom ever see ski trails. This really is the best ski/snowboarding that you could ever imagine. It could be an extreme sport – or it could be how billionaires ski on their own private mountains. The only tracks in the thick snow are the ones we’ve made – and we seldom cross our own previous trails.
Dinners and breakfast are both at the Hotel Margjeka in Valbona – we all eat at the same table guides and guided together.
One night Petra and Rok have arranged local dancers to come and entertain us – or maybe after several shots of the local rocket fuel called raki we’re actually the entertainment as we bumble around in a circle trying to copy the traditional dancers’ footwork.
The hotel is new and functional – rooms are small, but the showers are hot, the beds are comfortable and to be honest, after dinner all we want to do is sleep to get some energy for the next day’s incredible adventures.
There is, however, a downside to this form of skiing. It has totally destroyed regular resorts for me. Each run in Albania was a new adventure – a mix of thrilling ski adventuring or coasting through powder with Rok choosing runs that suit our ski capabilities.
Take your best ever day at your favorite mountain resort and multiply it by 10 – this is better than that.
Heliski Albania is a relatively new operation Rok and Petra are both extreme sport athletes (base jumping, anyone?) and have both guided and taught mountain safety for many years, but they only recently managed to get the permissions and licences to run this business. This feels like somewhere that is going to explode in popularity – which would be great for the economy, but right now it is very undiscovered – and even more special for being so.
It’s an incredibly well run and friendly group – we felt like family (you know, the ones you actually like that don’t cause you to sigh and roll your eyes when you see them) and even on the flight home we’re planning when we’ll be back next year. This was private skiing at its most awesome.
We flew to Pristina in Kosovo on Austrian via Vienna, then Heliski Albania (thanks Petra!) arranged a driver to Valbona (Around 200Euros) . Returning we came back via Tirana (350 Euros) – it’s a longer drive (back through Kosovo) but we got to see the Albanian capital for a day which was well worth a visit.
Albania’s Alps are the southernmost extension of the Dinaric Alps, and are one of the wettest places in Europe – generating huge amounts of snow in winter. Some villages such as Bula regularly get over three meters of precipitation each year (Chamonix, for comparison, gets around 1.2m) During the winter months, 1m or precipitation measures around 10m depth when snow – this is a LOT of white fluff.
Valbona’s national park covers over 8,000 hectares – with plans to expand the area tenfold. Wolves, bears, lynx and chamois all live here - this is wild country.
Each run we did over our five days was on fresh terrain – and we didn’t even make a small dent in what was available.
Heliski Albania provided us with Pieps avalanche airbags and beacons – they also trained us on how to use them. You are required to wear a helmet, and if you’re a skier bring skis that can handle powder.
This review wasn’t paid for – we went as tourists and paid our own way. Heliski Albania didn’t have a clue that I was a journalist.