Bear paw prints, epic lines and the wilderness of the sar mountains all add up to one epic adventure
Every summer, a few of us from Atomic UK sit down over a beer and ponder how we can take some of our UK customers on an unforgettable experience while also putting the latest Atomic kit through its paces. It is essential that the trip is a reflection of the upcoming products; in 2018, for example, we travelled to the notorious downhill race piste at Kitzbühel to launch the, at the time, brand new Redster piste range.
Last season it was backcountry and touring kit we were keen to test, including the Backland ski range and Hawx Prime XTD boot, along with the Shift 10 binding. After many hours of discussion, flight searching and research into January snow depths, we decided that Lynx Freeride in Kosovo was to be our next destination.
Lynx Freeride is cat skiing operation, founded by Croatian snowboarder Sebastian Fleiss and legend of Kosovan skiing Hamdi ‘Hamda’ Hisari. Straight away from the first email, Seb understood that behind every Atomic testing trip is an adventure – and boy what an unforgettable adventure did they have planned.
January came around and four members of Atomic staff and nine customers from across the UK – along with our 32 pairs of brand new test skis and 10 pairs of boots – set off on a mammoth flight across Europe, via Zurich, to Pristina in Kosovo. We had no idea what was awaiting us in the Balkan state.
We arrived at the small and almost deserted Pristina airport, and was met by Seb and his fleet of Nissan Patrols. We jumped in and began our journey into the Šar mountain range.
Everyone had a mix of excitement and nervousness of not knowing what awaited us in Brezovica. As we pulled off the motorway and started heading up into the mountains the roads got increasingly smaller and the feeling of remoteness was ever highlighted by the sporadic housing and the feeling of going back in time.
We were hustled straight into what would become our local (and only!) restaurant, the wonderfully named Restaurant Gold that served us a never-ending amount of hearty, warm food – perfectly cooked meat and vegetables with feta cheese, olives and warm homemade bread – along with carafes of local wine and beer.
Then it was back to our accommodation, which consisted a whole apartment building only five minutes up the road from the restaurant and 20 minutes from the resort. Time for bed – we had skiing to do tomorrow.
THE CRAZY CAT DRIVER
We woke to sunshine and were ready to tackle whatever Kosovo could throw at us.
We got kitted up and set off with our guides, Seb, Hamda and Dani, on the drive up to the small resort of Brezovica, the convoy led by Seb who had acquired a former UN Land Rover Defender, painted white and fully kitted out in the back for soldiers.
Arriving at the resort – which has nine lifts and almost 16km of pistes – was like travelling back several decades: ski rental consisted of straight 90s skis and it was not unusual to find bullet casings on the ground. But the locals were thrilled to have us there – no doubt, we were the main attraction in town that week.
Our cat arrived and the man driving (we weren’t sure of his name, but will refer to him as the Chain Smoking Crazy Cat Driver) loaded us up and off we went – churning up the powder as he smashed up a goat track at the edge of the resort.
It was all going well until we hit a rather precarious part of the track that had a big snow drift on the right-hand side and a 40-foot drop on the left.
Needless to say, the whole crew were more happy to jump out and stand a fair few paces away from the cat as the Chain Smoking Crazy Cat Driver tried churning his way through the impossible goat track before even he admitted defeat and turned back.
We changed course, and decided to head out on a big traverse into fresh, windblown powder. This was what we were after – super-light, upper-mountain snow.
The adventure became even more adventurous when we needed to navigate our way down, over, and sometimes in, a river that led back to the resort. A great way of checking the new Shift 10 release mechanism!
The Chain Smoking Crazy Cat Driver then decided to give us a view for our picnic lunch, so with everyone back on board, he went full throttle through waist-deep powder straight up the peak next to Brezovica. And he kept going, determined as ever, avoiding nothing and churning through everything until we finally reached the top peak where he stopped and, of course, placed out a wonderful traditional Balkan picnic on the tracks of the piste machine!
As the light was fading into a wonderful golden orange light, we skied down through small fir trees and soft, powder while our friendly cat driver drove next to us all the way down to our vehicles in the resort car park.
CAT UP, POW DOWN, AND REPEAT
Day two and we were as excited as ever to get back out into this epic area of outstanding beauty and wilderness.
We took the cat up on the opposite side of the mountain to the previous day, and after a quick 20-minute hike we were suddenly in North Macedonia, from where we could see the whole Šar
Range and three countries: Kosovo, North Macedonia and Albania.
Having taken in the views, we dropped in one by one from the sunshine into a cold, shaded face, which was covered with glorious, thigh-deep powder. The run continued into upper mountain trees at over 2000m; an unusual sight anywhere, but especially in Europe.
We kept sessioning that face until the afternoon when most of the group had decided that a beer back at Lynx Freeride was calling them. However, there’s always time for one more run (especially when you have your own cat!), so a small group of us headed up in the fading golden-hour light to grab an incredible last run down through the magical Kosovan powder straight to the bar to enjoy a beer with our guides.
The importance of the testing trips with Atomic is that we want to put the skis through different situations, so on day three it was time to grab the lightest Backland skis and boots, some skins, and get touring.
We drove to Prevalla, a village at 1500m. Skis and skins donned, we set off through the woodland for our four-hour skin up into the mountains, stopping for lunch at 2100m, and then, for those who continued, topping off at 2650m, again at the North Macedonian border.
At that point our, for the most part, relaxed guide Hamda came into his own and used his local knowledge to safely get us down the steep and exposed terrain, which then led into a mammoth ski back to the vehicles through open Arctic landscape, into tight woodland and then finally into vast powder farmland fields. What a day.
GHOST LIFTS AND GALES
Throughout the week a couple of us had been eyeing up a gully that started at the peak of Brezovica, but the lift that serviced it was disused and beyond repair.
In fact, the lift had been built for the Sarajevo Olympics in 1984 as the backup run for the Downhill. However, due to it being built slightly too long, it went into North Macedonia and therefore caused a political uproar; as a result it has only ever run for two days since 1984.
A couple of us, along with one of our guides, Hamda, took the 40-minute hike from the cat track and headed up towards 2200m, while enjoying the incredible views of the valleys of North Macedonia. Reaching the top, we surveyed the ski lift: totally unused and untouched for over 30 years it had an eery, ghostlike feel to it – plus it was blowing a gale up there!
Nonetheless, there was a gully to be skied and we were going to do it. Dropping in we were met by a horrible scraping sound of ice, and for a split second we questioned if it had all been worth it. The second turn answered our question. It was waist-deep, incredible powder – the lightest of the trip.
Fresh pow led to shrubbery and small trees for some awesome, super-fun playful skiing and the perfect way to end an incredible, wild trip.
It was a trip that ticked every box when it came to adventure and each day had stories that were wilder than the next; bear paw prints found outside our accommodation, epic lines accessed by Chain Smoking Crazy Cat Driver, the wilderness of the Šar Mountains, all topped off by the incredible people of Kosovo who were the most hospitable we’ve ever come across. We came for an adventure, and we found it.
Atomic flew from Edinburgh to Pristina, via Zurich, with Austrian Airlines (austrian.com).
Lynx Freeride (lynxfreeride.com) offers a seven-night package from €1600, including full-board accommodation at Grand Gjeravica hotel, six days of cat skiing, two guides per group, transfers on and off the mountain, and avalanche equipment hire, plus airport transfers (for groups bigger than six).
WORDS AND PHOTOS TORD NILSON AND FINLAY MICKEL