I guess most of you, or at least some, know how it feels like to get out of bed with the thought that today you want to do something you have never done before. Well, it is actually something that I experience quite often and waking up one morning two weeks ago was no different.
That being said, I decided to trek the notorious and sometimes quite scary Pirin Ridge. This is one of the longest and most challenging routs in Bulgaria – some 18 km long and usually takes about 10 hours to complete. I had attempted it twice before in summer and with almost perfect conditions, but both times something got in the way. So, I figured, let’s try in not so perfect, semi-wintery conditions in April … might actually work this time.
The Pirin Mountains are beautiful, there is no doubt about that and especially so if you enjoy the view of alpine terrain, but they can also be traitorous, particularly in spring when the likelihood of avalanches is pretty high. However, with temperatures in the upper 20’s C already in February, this year is a little different than usual.
So I picked up the phone, called my mom and said, “let’s trek the Pirin Ridge on Thursday.”
Two days later, we woke up early in the morning in Bansko, a popular Bulgarian ski resort town and drove up to Vihren Hut (at 1950 m), some 12 km away from the town center. We arrived there around 8 AM and started our ascent of Mt. Vihren (2914 m high), the highest peak in the Pirin Mountains and second highest in Bulgaria.
As anticipated, most of the snow had melted, but once we reached an elevation of about 2300 m the landscape began to change, so we had to gear up.
The snow cover we encountered was on huge patches and it was slush, so we had to put on the crampons, else it would have been very difficult and tiresome to move.
Having grown up at the foot of the Rila Mountains, also known as the Mountains of Water, where you pass rivers and streams almost every step you take, I have always considered Pirin to be a dry mountain by comparison. The entire massif is composed of marble and granite rocks, which is one of the main reasons for the lack of rivers and lakes at the highest slopes. If you go hiking in summer, make sure you have at least 2 l of water with you.
There was no absence of water this time around, though.
Two hours after we started out our hike from Vihren Hut, we were at the foot of the marmoreal Mt. Vihren, ready to conquer it.
Our approach was from the southern slope of the peak, which is easier and as you can see there was almost no snow left. So once again, we had to take off the crampons.
There was no sign of another human being around, although we did have a couple of encounters with mountain goats from afar …
Half an hour later, Vihren was ours alone, as was the entire mountain it seemed, so it was slefie-time … Yes, I know, it’s annoying but there is no stopping this infectious disease.
And bellow you can get a pretty good idea of what was waiting for us. The traditional summer trail Vihren – Koncheto Ridge – Yavorov Hut takes you some 100-150 m bellow the ridge, on its Southwestern slope and although it’s rather narrow, it is still a very pleasant path with no extreme ascent and descent. Do not be tempted to take it in these conditions, stick to the ridge, which as you can see is mostly cleared out of any snow … if for some reason you don’t take this advice – be very sure you know how to handle an ice axe, and I do speak from experience.
Anyway, after a 20 min break to gather our strength and have a sandwich, we were ready to go on.
You could climb Mt. Vihren also from the Northwest – a very scenic route, but more difficult, taking you through a very steep trail, carved into the rocks, and certainly not recommendable this time of year. That was our way down, though, so again – we had to put on the crampons, an exercise we were to repeat numerous times later on in the day.
I know that it doesn’t look that scary on the picture below, but believe me when I say that it was quite a ride … you descend 300 m in elevation for a very short distance. It is a challenging terrain in summer, and in these conditions with some snow cover along the path, it was no different. You really need to be extremely concentrated and careful with every step you take.
About a fourth of our journey was behind us and already, close to 4 hours had passed.
The rest of the trek was not that different – put on the crampons here, take them off there … time and again.
Btw, bellow you can see what the traditional summer trail looked liked. I think it makes it clear why should not be tempted to take it in these conditions.
And here is the alternative – the path along the ridge. I know it looks a little scary and it takes some nerve to take it, but so long as there are no heavy winds, you will be fine.
Lucky for us, we had picked the perfect day – the sun was shining throughout the entire day and there was almost no wind. It has been quite a while since I had felt such solitude and peace.
So after about another 5 hours of hiking, putting the crampons on and taking them off again, we reached the point where we had to get off the ridge and take the path down to Yavorov Hut. This crossing point of several trails is marked by a big Russian orthodox cross, you can’t miss it.
The end was near – just another 2 hours of descent and losing some 900 m in elevation with no clear path to follow, because most of the blazing poles were either hidden under the snow or gone altogether.
Luckily we had someone waiting for us with a car at Yavorov Hut, where we had dinner. Btw, I can highly recommend the place – it’s cozy and clean and the hosts are very friendly and welcoming.
In retrospect, as I am already tired of writing, I can say the following:
- In these conditions the Pirin Ridge trek was certainly challenging for both me and my partner in crime, mainly because we are not too fond of snow – I personally hate winter. It was nevertheless an extremely satisfying experience.
- It can be done in spring, although most people would try to dissuade you … but when you do your research, be sure to speak with experienced mountain guides or rescuers, who are familiar with the area and can advise you if current conditions are favorable or not, as we did.
- Make sure that you are well equipped – crampons, an ice axe and trekking poles are a must, so is avalanche gear, after all – one never knows.
- Be confident in your physical fitness … it’s a long and challenging walk with very few options to get off the trail and at a certain point on, the only way to go is forward.
- You should definitely know what you’re doing or at least have someone with you, who knows what they’re doing