Thursday, May 30, 2013

Isn't this exciting?

It is Saturday morning and after a hard hike the day before, my dad and I are taking our time eating breakfast and packing up our campsite on Mali Korabi, the highest mountain in Albania.  For the past three days we have seen lots of cows, sheep, donkeys, horses and the young men that tend to these animals, but no one else, so we are surprised to see a line of hikers with backpacks walking towards our campsite.

When they approached we talked to them for a few minutes and discovered that they were part of the same Polish hiking/climbing club that marked the trails.  We told them about our adventures the day before.  Based on out difficulty crossing the streams, they decided to try out the red/white longer trail up.  We said "shehemi me vone" (see you later) and they continued up the trail and we continued to pack up. 

A few hours later, we were hanging out in the village when the group arrived.  They made it farther up the mountain, but at some point they lost the trail and also didn't make it all the way to the summit.  They had to take one of their party back to Peshkopi but the rest of the crowd was staying for the night, meaning that they had space in their car for my dad, me and out gigantic backpacks.  So we piled into their van and headed down the (really nice!) road. 

And then . . . a few miles down the road there is a bridge . . . the bridge is a bit narrow and coming off of the bridge our back tire clipped the side of the bridge and made a loud noise.  Not good . . .

Then the real adventure started- Do we have a spare tire? Yes, ok good start! Do we have a jack? Yes, still going ok.  Does it have all it's pieces? Apparently not. Fail. Do we have a tire iron? Yes. Can we actually get the bolts off? No again.  After stopping a few passing motorists to ask for help, we found a jack that had all of its parts, but could still not get the bolts off.  What to do, what to do? After a bit of back and forth, we decided that we needed better tools, and we might be able to find them down the road a bit.  My dad, two of the Polish girls and I caught a ride with one of the passing good Samaritans and the driver of our van drove very, very, very slowly about 2km down the road.  We found a road crew that had some more tools and when the van arrived (avash, avash- slowly, slowly) we were able to get the tire changed (how many Polish climbers and Albanian motorists does it take to change a tire?).  I took pictures . . .  I wanted to be useful :).

About an hour after we stopped we were on our way again with a spare tire.  By the time we got to Peshkopi all of the tire shops and garages were closed so even though they had planned to go back to the mountain, the Polish crew ended up spending the night in town.  Two things we remembered today- Albanians will always stop and try to help when you are stranded on the side of the road and even when the roads get better, driving in Albania is always an adventure.  

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Hajde Korab, heren e dyte or What a difference three years makes

Right after my COS (close of service) from Peace Corps, I went with my father, three other volunteers and two kids from Peshkopi to climb Mali Korabi, the highest mountain in Albania and Macedonia. We had a great time, but there were some issues. On the Albanian side, the trail was not marked and when we asked for advice from the people in the village (Radomire), we were basically told to "go up" which is all well and good, except for the fact that there are easy and hard ways up mountains and this mountain has several peaks. We ended up on the hard way and on the wrong peak. Not a big problem, but kind of annoying. In fact, we didn't have time to continue even though we thought we could see the top because we had to get back down the mountain in time for our ride back to town. It took nearly four hours to get to or from Peshkopi, so leaving on time was important.

And now here we are three years later. I am here again with my dad, although it is just the two of us this time. The first big change: the road has been completely done and the time is cut in half. The second change, a Polish climbing club has marked the route up the mountain. Now when you ask in the village how to get up the mountain, they say "go up, and follow the painted trail marks."
Two marked trails!
A cow visits our camp
 There are two marked routes up the mountain. One (marked with red and yellow), is shorter and goes the the West Ridge. The second is longer and goes to the East Face (marked with red and white). We arrived in the village in early afternoon and wanted to find a place to camp on or near the route. We chose to start following the shorter route. After about an hour of walking with ALL of our gear (camping and climbing equipment weighing probably over 100 pounds between us) we found a nice flat spot to camp near a rushing mountain stream. It soon became clear that this route followed the rushing mountain stream up for at least a little ways and that the path crossed the stream a few times. Our campsite was near one of the numerous shepherd huts (stone houses) built at intervals up the mountain and we soon met several local residents. The cows and sheep tended not to bother us and we were lucky to not meet any dogs without their owners. Despite what we had been warned by nearly everyone we told of our adventure, the weather was quite nice and it did not get very cold, even at night.

On Thursday we decided to see if we could find some rocks to climb. As I've mentioned, one of the main reasons my Dad wanted to go back to Albania was that I did not allow him to bring climbing gear the last time he came and he saw lots of good rocks to climb. Of course, getting to those rocks turned out to be a major challenge. There was a group of good limestone rocks that we could get to pretty easily, but the base of most of these faces was a steep scree slope that was not safe to approach. We found one face that had a good approach and also a way to scramble up the side so my dad decided to try to set some anchors at the top. Unfortunately, when he got to the top of the rock, he found that the ground was uneven and had a lot of scrubby brush and trees that made walking around difficult. Therefore, he could only anchor from certain points . . . and the faces that were below these points were not accessible from the bottom! After about an hour of this, it had started to rain a bit and we basically gave up and returned to our camp. At least we tried . . .

The next morning, we decided to try to make the summit. We followed the red and yellow trail as it followed the river. We crossed over once with some difficulty and then had a good two-three hours of
My Dad and me on Mali Korabi
fairly easy hiking as the trail headed up. Around 2 in the afternoon, we came again to a place where the trail indicated that we cross the stream (for what I think was probably the last time). It was clear that we were not going to be able to cross the stream- it was flowing very heavy with snow melt and we did not see any safe place to cross. The place indicated by the trail markers was not very wide, but the water rushing below made a jump very dangerous and while I MIGHT have been able to do it, there was not way that my dad could. So we had a few choices: above the crossing was a rocky area with large patches of snow. We could have continued for a while on this side of the stream up the rocks and snow and see if there was a place farther up to cross or even if we could find the head waters and go around. After a while walking this way, we decided that crossing the melting snow was becoming dangerous and we took our second choice: turn back.

The peak (maybe next time . . . )
Both my dad and I were of course disappointed to fail to reach the summit for a second time, but I don't think that either of us regret our choice to turn back. When we had to recross the stream to get back to the campsite later in the afternoon, both of us struggled to get across safely and my dad took a stumble that could have ended very badly had he not anchored himself with his ice axe. In any event, he got a bit wet and banged his leg, but didn't get washed away. We learned that like in Lura, April/May may be too early, because the melting snow made this track almost impossible. But we also learned how easy it is now to get to the mountain, how much the village has improved for visitors (there is a hotel now) and that at least for now, no one minds if you camp in the middle of a cow pasture. Based on these facts I do not think it is impossible to think that this will be my last time on this mountain. Who knows, maybe third time is a charm . . .

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The seven (four) (frozen) lakes of Lura

One of thee places in Albania that I always wanted to get to but had never had the chance to visit was Lura National Park. This park is in the Diber (Peshkopi) region, and is supposed to be one of the most beautiful parts of the country, but is very remote. I had heard that the road up was really bad and also that some of the park had been damaged by illegal logging and fires in recent years. Over the two years I lived in Peshkopi, I was always kept my ears open for chances to go to Lura and asked people I knew every once in a while how to get there. Pretty much I was told that you needed to have a 4-wheel drive car. For this trip, my dad and I talked about trying to get up there, but in fact, I didn't think we would have much chance unless we rented a car in Tirana. Renting a 4x4 is not impossible, just expensive and we eventually decided we didn't want to spend the money. When we got to Peshkopi I started asking around about how to get to both Lura and to Korab, our other planned destination. I hadn't heard much yet, when on our first full day in town we had lunch with my good friend Ermal (pastor of the church and also all around great guy) and Sarah, an American living in town and working with the church. When I told him that we were planning on going up to Korab on Sunday and (a bit jokingly) did he want to come with us? He responded that he would love to, but he had made plans to go somewhere else on Monday . . . Yep, you guessed it, Lura. It turns out that Sarah's parents were coming for a visit and that they all, along with the American family that Sarah is living with here were all going up to Lura together in two 4x4s.
Our whole group in Fushe Lura

Two things: first, wow there are a lot of Americans in Peshkopi now; second, did they have space for two more? The two turned out to be three when Joe decided he would join us as well. So we had 13 total: 11 Americans and 2 Albanians squeezed into two 4x4s holding 6-7 each on the worst road I've ever been on, and that's saying a lot. Luckily, the road did not twist and turn too much, it just had the worst surface I've ever been on. My perception may have been colored a bit by my location: in the way back seat in one of the cars bouncing around with Joe and our knees up to our chests. After four hours (for 50km) we finally arrived in the village of Fushe Lura (Lura field) located in the valley below the park. We had a quick lunch and then headed the mountain. If it is even possible, the road got worse. We went from a pitted and rocky dirt path to just rocks. At a certain point, we decided that the cars could not go any farther without damage so we got out and walked. As we went higher, the road was increasingly a river of melted snow and we took off our shoes to walk across several rushing streams. Even higher, we found the unmelted snow. At this point some of our party decided to turn around and some of us pressed on. Luckily, it was actually pretty warm and so other
A little snow can't stop us!
than having wet feet, we were not too cold. After about an hour of walking on the snow, we finally arrived at the first set of lakes. The
lakes were beautiful and frozen. Unfortunately they weren't frozen enough to walk out on (we tested by throwing some rocks, they went right through the soft ice). Knowing that the sun was going down and that we didn't want to walk down in the dark, we quickly took some pictures and headed down. We were only able to see four of the seven lakes as the other three were probably another hour (at least) walking through the snow and our wet feet would not have handled that well.
Me and my dad at Liqeni i madhe (the big lake)

Things learned on this trip: when they say the road is bad, believe them (whoever they are . . . ), April is too early to go to Lura, Lura
will not be a major tourist destination until the road is fixed . . . or helicopter travel becomes common in Albania.