When I first heard about heli-skiing in Albania (Albania – where is it? Does it snow?) I immediately thought of an exotic destination with rolling hills and gentle ski slopes to country bars full of bearded locals – this, however, is not this.
Granted Rok does have a beard, and being a Slovenian I’m almost a local, but that’s the only part of the idyll that I can even claim is accurate. Albania’s mountains are great. and sharp. and pointy.
Named by someone who has a terrible handle on what makes good tourism marketing (or maybe they were actually incredibly crafty?) these Albanian Alps are called the ‘Cursed Mountains’. And by looking at them, you can see why they got their name. Did I tell you they were sharp and pointed?
The Cursed Mountains are a limestone ridge – formerly some primitive coral reefs but now the walls shoot vertically through the dry air up to 2,700m – and are an incredibly good snow playground. Moist sea air from the nearby dumps of the Adriatic Sea hits record amounts on these mountains – when we visited the snow was meters deep. Back in ‘mainstream’ Europe, lift operators can mow the lawn on the resort’s lower slopes.
Fast forward several million years to when this area was under the sea and I’m crammed into a helicopter that suddenly seems so small when compared to the incredible, epic scenery that surrounds us – these limestone reefs are so big and intimidating.
The helicopter is like a delicate metallic dragonfly gliding from one bump to the next, and flying between runs is an amazing experience on its own – snow-buried summer grazing villages catch our eye and our heart. What we see is awesome.
When the helicopter descends (sometimes simply hovering with the lightest touch of the tip as it glides briefly over the hills) there is a set routine for us to get out. First, don’t look. I get dizzy (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 stay in the helicopter and take a fetal position.
Then, one by one, we slide back out and flop into that stance made famous by comic or Marvel superheroes—one knee and one fist on the ground in a kind of crouch, keeping the equipment down as the helicopter prepares to do an impossible high dive. Where you will meet us hundreds of feet down in the valley.
When the helicopter leaves, despite the noise of the turbines, the surroundings are relatively quiet for a second or two, then as it makes a spectacularly crowd-satisfying dive away, we are suddenly hit by a propwash, and for a few brief seconds we are blasted off. A gust of wind and snow. Now I know how Dorothy felt when she left for Oz.
Once our Swiss pilot Arno makes his sudden departure, we get time to look at the scenery — and we’re definitely not in Kansas anymore. Snow-capped peaks stretch in regiments into the distance until they fade into the horizon. Pictures cannot capture the enormity of nature that surrounds us.
Below are thick duvets of snow – and Rok actually picked one for us to drift through. To be honest, some of the terrain is far from anything I’ve tried before, but the snow, Rock reassures me, “is so sad” so I never end up wandering to the valley floor.
When the going gets too steep, Rok and Matteo make sure we go one at a time – Rok steps forward to figure out the best way down, Matteo stays behind to make sure we all get where we’re going (and gives me a tow on my snowboard if I don’t move fast enough across flat sections).
Otherwise we all ski/board together – 50m apart but picking our own lines through immaculate powder slopes under stunning bluebird skies. Sometimes there are panes of glass, sometimes you skip a more solid package, but the whole adventure really can’t be compared.
The morning is four or five descents – sometimes we can see the chopper waiting for us in the valley – a small point in the distance, on other trips we’ll get out of the powder bowl and suddenly find Arno patiently waiting for us.
Lunch each day was hot soup and a roll and coffee or mint tea at the chopper in a meadow where we would meet the other group of two who were sharing the chopper with us – once one group had been dropped off, Arno would collect the others.
Then in the afternoon there are usually two more runs – each in a different part of the mountains so we rarely see ski runs. This really is the best ski/snowboard you could ever imagine. It could be an extreme sport – or it could be how billionaires ski their own mountains. The only tracks in the thick snow are our own – and we seldom cross our former ones.
Dinner and breakfast are both at Hotel Margjeka in Valbona – we all eat at the same table guides and guide together.
One night Petra and Rock arranged for local dancers to come and entertain us – or maybe after a few shots of the local rocket fuel called raki we are actually entertained as we stumble around in a circle trying to copy the movement of the traditional dancers.
The hotel is new and functional – the rooms are small, but the showers are hot, the beds are comfortable and to be honest, all we want to do after dinner is sleep in to get some energy for the next day’s amazing adventures.
However, there is a downside to this form of skating. It totally ruined normal resorts for me. Every race in Albania was a new adventure – a mix of thrilling ski adventures or blasting through the powder with choice of rock trails to suit our skiing abilities.
Take your best day at your favorite mountain resort and multiply it by 10—and that’s even better.
Heliski Albania is a relatively new operation, Rok and Petra are both extreme sports athletes (base jumping, anyone?) and have mentored and taught mountain safety for many years, but only recently were able to obtain the permissions and licenses to run this business. This looks like somewhere that’s going to explode in popularity – which would be great for the economy, but right now it’s very undiscovered – and even more special for being so.
It’s an incredibly well-run and friendly bunch – we felt like family (you know, the ones you really love don’t make you sigh and roll your eyes when you see them) and even on the trip home we’re planning when we’ll be back next year. This was private skiing at its most amazing.
We traveled to Pristina in Kosovo on the Austria via Vienna and then Heliski Albania (thanks Petra!) arranged a driver to Valbona (about €200). On return we came back via Tirana (€350) – it’s a longer trip (via Kosovo) but we were able to see the Albanian capital for one day which was well worth the trip.
The Albanian Alps are the southernmost stretch of the Dinaric Alps, and are some of the wettest places in Europe – generating massive amounts of snow in winter. Some villages like Pula regularly get more than three meters of rain each year (Chamonix, by comparison, gets about 1.2m) during the winter months, 1m or precipitation measures about 10m when it snows – that’s a lot of fluff the White.
Valbona National Park covers more than 8,000 hectares – with plans to expand the area tenfold. Wolves, bears, lynxes and chamois live here – this is a wild country.
Every tour we did over our 5 days was on new ground – and we didn’t even make a small dent in what was available.
Heliski Albania provided us with airbags and Pieps avalanche beacons – they also trained us on how to use them. You are required to wear a helmet, and if you are a skier bring sleds that can handle the powder.
This review was not paid for – we went as tourists and paid our own way. Heliski Albania had no proof that I was a journalist.