BACKCOUNTRY BEYOND THE EU

MARTIN CHESTER’S guide to cool venues where you can get YOUR backcountry skiing fix without clocking up your 90 days in the Schengen area

It has been a crazy couple of years and most of us have missed our regular ski fix. But as we start planning for the coming winter, there are more reasons than ever to look beyond our regular Euro-faves: perhaps (like me) you find that work is eating up your 90-out-of-180-days’ allowance in the Schengen area, so you’d like to take your annual ski touring holiday elsewhere? And as we grapple to keep up with rising vaccination levels and lowering travel restrictions, there has been no better season to stay nimble and open-minded about your choice of destination.

            Of course, the regular backstops of Japan, Canada and the US provide a refreshing alternative to the Euro-zone; and the Southern Hemisphere has always provided a seasonal austral-antidote to the end of our boreal winter season. But the cost of flying the family, and the not-so-green issues of long-haul flights, may deter more travellers than ever.

            Closer to home, there’s a greater range (pun intended) of mountains in continental Europe than just the main Alpine chain. Snaking out of the Euro-zone, the Alps continue either side of Hungary, with the Dinaric Alps down the Adriatic coast to the Balkans; and the Carpathians curling north to the Black Sea.

            Last season, the first snow fell on the Carpathians in early September, so it seems like a great place to start…

UKRAINE

Bukovel is Ukraine’s premier resort, with 16 lifts and over 60km of pistes. The fact that they boast ‘ubiquitous security personnel’ is a reminder of where we are in the world – and the sense of adventure required!

            The season opens in late November and provides nearly 500m of tree-lined vertical, between Mount Dovga at 1372m and the resort at 900m. Sadly, the lift prices have developed in line with their infrastructure and, while it is cheap as chips to travel and stay there, you are close to the cost of a European resort at €40+ per day.

            If you’re looking for freeride and backcountry touring, then Dragobrat is a much better, cheaper, and more soulful, bet. The peaks are higher, and the terrain is more open and varied, with dedicated freeride areas.

The team at Ture (en.ture.ua) offer a four-day freeride tour nearby, based out of their White Elephant camp, for just €260. They will also arrange transfers from Kyiv, Ivano-Frankivsk or Lviv airports. Why not make it a week and combine the lot? Fly with Wizz Air from Luton to Kyiv (3hr20) from around £120 return.

BIG-UP FOR THE BALKANS

The major targets in our Schengen-dodging quest are the Balkan states. In modern Turkish Balkan means ‘chain of wooded mountains’, so I’m in! It is often easier to think in terms of ranges, rather than countries, and recognise that you can link many of the highlights into a worthwhile multi-state-road-trip. Many of these countries are (quite literally) on the fringe of the EU/EEA, as aspirant members, as we go to print. So you better be quick! Here are a few of the USPs for each:

Bosnia and Herzegovina

It took more than a good ice skating rink to win the 1984 Winter Olympics gig, and it turns out that Sarajevo (ski-sarajevo.com) has everything we need for an epic ski adventure. The skiing is mostly between 1200-2300m offering up to 1000m of vertical between December and March. Stay in the city of Sarajevo itself, for the full cultural experience, with easy (sub-30 minutes) access to some of the best skiing.

            Jahorina (oc-jahorina.com) hosted the women’s alpine events and offers some 1000m of vertical terrain, with an enticing mix of open slopes above great tree skiing. There are some excellent sidecountry options in those trees, as well as freeride runs in the backcountry, and a short skin along the ridge line (or back) opens up many more lines.

            Bjelašnica (bjelasnica.ba) was another Olympic venue, and while it might be the baby brother of the two, it sure packs a punch. With 200 snow days a year, the terrain here is more varied, with steeper options and tree skiing among birches that’ll have you believe you are in Japan.

            For pure ski touring pleasure, head for the Vrela Hut (pdtreskavica.ba/planinarski-dom) or book a week with Mountain Tracks (mountaintracks.co.uk) from £1310 and Slovenian IFMGA Guide Klemen will take excellent care of you, right from Sarajevo airport. Fly with Wizz Air from London Luton to Sarajevo (2hr40) from £190 return. 

Northern Macedonia

The Shar (or Sharr, or Šar) mountains run for 80km along the NW border with Albania and Kosovo. Some of the most rugged terrain in the Balkans, they offer something for everyone. The focal, and most popular, point of access is the resort of Popova Shapka: “We Have Snow” is Popova Shapka’s slogan, and through January to March the resort averages over 30cm of snow on 3.5+ snow days per week. While the lifts are unreliable, the locals won’t be competing for the freshies, so the extensive freeride terrain is likely to be all yours. A six-day ski pass costs just €60, too.

            But Macedonia is the spiritual home of European cat skiing, so the real gems lay beyond the lifts. Popova is the base for Eskimo Freeride (eskimo-freeride.com), whose cats can operate in weather that would close down a heli-drop (with plenty of mellow tree skiing if required) yet they still average 4000m of vertical per day.

            Puritanical ski tourers will want to don skins and explore the entire western border with Albania, taking in peaks like Mt Korab (2751m) down to Baba Mountain or Pelister peak (2601m) in the south. Check out in-country ski safari operations (lift, cat and skin) like Shar Outdoors (sharoutdoors.com) and Pelister Mountain Guides (pelister-guides.com).

            Fly with Wizz Air from Luton to Skopje (3hr05) from £90 return. Popova is about one hour’s drive away.

Popova is the base for Eskimo Freeride

Montenegro

More than 80% of Montenegro is covered in mountains, including the Dinaric Alps. In particular, the ranges of Sinjajevina, Durmitor and Bjelasica fulfil the needs of the adventurous backcountry explorer, with 11 ski resorts easily topped up with skinning. Freeriders, the local cat skiing outfit (freeriders.me), provide uplift to three major areas.

            The Sinjajevina range runs for 40km between Zabljak and the town of Kolašin – a great base for a trip here. The ski resort of Kolašin (1450m) has some amazing sidecountry tree skiing, with birch forests to rival Japan. Above the treeline, you can find more challenging and varied terrain with open slopes, steeper pitches and, with a short skin, some couloirs from the Bjelasica ridge into the Jelovica valley. Like so many Balkan resorts, recent investment has given Kolašin a new high-speed six-man lift, yet a six-day ski pass will still cost less than €100!

            Check out Mountain Tracks’ Montengro Ski Tour (mountaintracks.co.uk/holidays/montenegro-ski-tour). Fly London-Stansted to Podgorica (2hr40) with Ryan Air from £80 return.

Albania

Many of the delights listed under Macedonia can also be accessed and enjoyed from the Albanian side, especially the Accursed Mountains. These enchantingly named peaks are the highest section of the entire Dinaric Alps. They offer unspoilt adventure, some steeper skiing from impressive peaks and stunning views over to Kosovo and Montenegro.

Serbia and Kosovo

The highlight in Serbia must surely be Kopaonik (eng.infokop.net), the biggest and most developed resort in the region. While the terrain is mellow and easy angled for the most part, the well-spaced trees on the upper slopes offer a storm-day paradise, with very little in the way of competition for fresh tracks. As well as the dedicated freeride areas, Kopaonik has one of those resort maps that makes you go “wow – what happens over the back of there?” Just be careful to avoid the protected (wild life conservation) areas! Fly from London to Belgrade with Wizz Air or Air Serbia from £150 return.

            The gem of Kosovo is Brezovica in the south of the country. On the border with Macedonia, it gives access to the shady north side of the Shar mountains and offers over 1600m of varied and skiable terrain. The lifts, if they run, serve just 570m of this but, below the resort, long tree runs take you down to the valley at Štrpce. Like so many balkan adventures, you’ll need the help of a local to arrange a lift back! Dane Freeride operate a snowcat service here  (facebook.com/daneteam). Fly from London to Pristina with Wizz Air direct from £80.

            Given the challenging infrastructure, it is worth considering an organised tour; John Eames (of the Telemark Ski company; telemarkskico.com) offers a Balkans off-piste week for just £1795 (full package, except flights) from Skopje airport, exploring the best of Kosovo and Montenegro combined. British Mountain Guide Jim Blyth can offer a tailormade adventure through Jagged Globe (jagged-globe.co.uk) for up to a fortnight.

More than 80% of Montenegro is covered in mountains

Turkey

The amazing welcome, the outstanding value for money and the hassle-free visa issues make a short break here really worthwhile. Even better news is that they have great mountains and amazing skiing too, with dozen of resorts spread across the country. Uludağ ski centre sits at 1800m in the Yıldız Mountains, or Strandzha range, with a summit of 2543m. Lift passes cost just £14 per day.

            The Taurus mountains, in the south, separate the Mediterranean from the Anatolian Plateau, with a high point of Mt. Demirkazık (3,756m) and you can ski at Saklikent and Tahtali ski resorts.  Saklıkent’s slogan is “Ski in the daytime, sea in the afternoon”! Despite its warm climate it still, somehow, offers around 120 days of quality skiing between mid-December and mid-April. Just don’t come here looking for powder!

             In the north east, Palandoken the resorts of Sarikamis and Palandoken exploit the vast terrain of the Pontic Alps near the Black Sea. With the base of the resort at 2200m and the top at 3176m, Palandoken has a long season – from October to May. Eight chairlifts and a gondola give access to 40km of ski runs and acres of varied off-piste terrain. But the real jewels in the Turkish crown here are the extraordinary uplift options on offer; check out Swiss based company, Turkey Heli-Ski (turkey-heliski.pro) who attract some quality IFMGA Guides, including Sam Anthamatten no less.

The team from Ovit Mountain (ovitmountain.com) offer amazing snowmobile shuttles from their boutique hotel at 2640m in the Kaçkar Mountains. With 30,000 acres of the snowiest terrain in Turkey (with an average of 7.6m snow per year) they can whizz you up to 3340m, for over 1000m of vertical per drop. Fly to Trabzon or Erzerum.

Heliskiing in Turkey

Lebanon

One hour’s drive from the capital of Beirut, Mzaar 2000 is the biggest ski resort in the country, with 25 chairlifts serving 50 pistes and propelling you up to the Dome du Mzaar at 2465m. Local companies can help access the hills away from the lifts by skidoo, as well as organising your lift back from the long valley runs on offer.

            The other main gem, The Cedars (skileb.com), is in the north of the country. The lifts are in a huge alpine basin surrounded by 3000m peaks. A small forest of cedar trees, some more than 3000 years old, are known as the Forest of God’s Cedars: one of the last remaining stands of the country’s national emblem. Whilst the off-piste terrain looks varied and easily accessible, and the season is long, Lebanon is less than 34⁰ North (the same latitude as Morocco). So you are here for the adventure, rather than the powder!

            IFMGA Guides Jim Blyth (wayoffpiste.com) and John Falkiner (falkinerguide@gmail.com) have guided numerous trips in Lebanon over the years.