A Balkan Voyage

I first met Andy Court & Nic van Doesburgh a few years ago at the battered and ramshackle UCT climbing gym in Cape Town, South Africa. The stomping ground for broke ass students.

We shared a common interest in the world of terrifying big wall climbing and weep with laughter at each others dirty humour. In the following years, we kept each other alive and humble on many adventures.  

June 2019. The three of us woke up on the side of a French highway. Just one-hour’s drive from the Nice Cote d’ Azur airport. The result of a two-week dirt bagging road trip through southern France. We gambled our comfort for experience. Our bodies meagre with hunger we ate like peasants. Yet we profited from a high mileage of world class rock climbing in the Verdon and Ceuse. Holding fast, the promised land of drinking yoghurt and sweet pastries was only a plane flight away. We hit the road and in no time flat, we were on our way to Bulgaria.

Tyres skidding on the landing strip, our plane comes to a halt at Sofia International Airport. In unorthodox style the Bulgarian villagers on board clap and cheer as if a biblical affair had taken place. Laughing we cheer along too.

I have family in Sofia, so settling in is much like coming home. We hop off the midday train, up the hill and straight into the best bakery in town. 

Andy announces that his friend Sabrina, a spicy Brazilian girl was due to land in Sofia the following morning. He explains, “Sabrina is a fairly competent climber, naturally strong, with a high threshold for undomesticated dirtbags like ourselves.” Nic and I nod our heads in accord, whilst simultaneously stuffing our mouths with sweet pastries. 

Team Fresh in Vratsa, Bulgaria by Sabrina

At dawn we hit the road, picking up the spicy Brazilian along the way. The gang holds on tight for their lives as I swerve along the potholed highways. Sabrina swaying and jiving to her samba playlist booming through the car speakers. Andy and Nic gaze with awe at the rural scenes of horse drawn carriages and farmers tending their flock, amongst the infinite green overgrowth of the Bulgarian countryside. 

One hour from Sofia, we spot the mighty rock walls of Vratsa. Vratsa is a series of 350-metre-high limestone amphitheaters, framed by steep ridges swooping downwards and splintering into bounteous towering spires. A small town at the foot of the massif shares the same name. 

Bubbling with excitement we hit up the roadside crag “Bezengi” for some warmups. Ticking off single pitch sport climbs including a team onsight of “Road to hell 6c+(23)”. In the late afternoon Andy and Sabrina climb the classic “Bezengi pillar”. Nic and I take on “Medusa 7a+(25)”. Medusa is 70-metres of highly technical slab climbing with powerful long reaches. At least five crux sections with multiple run-outs on hard moves. Nic onsights the crux in fine style. 

The quaint alpine house at the foot of the massif is to be our home for the next few days. Krasimir our local host gives us a warm welcome. Pouring us shots of his homemade Rakia (40% alcoholic beverage). Biting the bullet we express our gratitude. “Nazdrave”  we toast. 

The next day Nic, Andy and I climb the 350-metre central wall. “2nd Congress 6c (22)”, which is considered to be a classic trad test-piece. 

Geared up with WWII issue binoculars, Sabrina and Krasimir observe our advances through the course of the day from the comfort of the alpine house balcony.

Enthralled Sabrina sees us, three small figures making headway up the ocean of limestone. Through narrow corners, wide chimneys, crossing long ledges only to halt at a steep headwall with an obvious thin crack. She holds her breath. Captivated she watches on, as the three figures top out and disappear behind the summit. 

The three of us joyfully surf our way down the massive scree slope, back to the alpine house by sunset. We dine at a local -‘mehana’- (balkan restaurant). Soon our table is a mosaic of colourful Mediterranean cuisine. Tomato salads, stuffed peppers, grilled trout with mushrooms and aubergine. But first we toast with Rakia, “Nazdrave!” 

A slow wake up, set the tone for an easy day. Nic and I sip our coffee on the cinematic balcony. We admire the colossal amphitheaters light up as the sun peeks into the valley. Highlighting the infinite facets which compose a symphony of mountainous glory. 

Peacefully, goat bells chime from the forested foothills. I recite from the guide book, “In 1949 the first ascent in Vratsa took place by K. Dilgirov and N. Shopov climbing ‘the tooth’ via the dogs tooth route.“ We hatch a plan with two teams, two routes & a boogie on top. 

Andy & Sabrina pair up to climb the “dogs tooth 5a (15)” while Nic & I climb “February 6a+ (21)”, both five-star 120m trad routes. It takes a 15-minute approach from the alpine house. 

Ching, chong, cha, I get the first easy pitch. Casually I runout the first 15 meters. Rounding a corner, I am met by a hissing viper curled into a bundle ten centimetres away from my hand. Horrified I yelp in the manner of a frightened swine. Caught off guard Nic jumps up and pulls my ropes tight, dangerously peeling me off the wall. I cling on even tighter as the viper stares sadistically at my juicy fingers. My blood curdling calls for slack are answered. I am free from the horror show that could have been. 

Swinging leads, Nic quests up the pocketed limestone rock face. Unceremoniously rowdy chalga (Bulgarian pop) music surrounds us. 100-meters below, a wedding party commences near the alpine house. 

Meeting Andy and Sabrina on the table-top summit. We all simultaneously breakdown into an outrageously awkward, booty shaking frenzy. Laughing we high five to celebrate the summit of ‘the tooth’. 

We return to loud scenes of drunk villagers mounting table tops, cheerful women line-dancing and kids chasing stray dogs between the crowds. At sunset we observe from the safe confines of our entertaining balcony, the wedding hooligans blast fireworks into the night sky. Drunken calls for praise echo, raising the volume of the chalga madness. The four of us raise our own shots of Rakia and toast, “Nazdrave!” 

My alarm ringing 6:00AM. Andy, Nic and I gear up for a big day. Already warm outside it was set to be a scorcher. After a thirty-minute viper infested jungle approach. The tree canopy overhead opens up to a towering 200 metre vertical rock face, “Hergiani wall”. The infamous Terminator 7a (cough cough 7b+) was our objective for the day.

Nic leading the first pitch, over-gripping the small edges out of fear as his footholds crumble under him. A long dangerous runout. Nic desperately wangles his way with extreme caution through the myriad of broken rock, finding the belay stance. 

Swinging leads, Andy cautiously inches his way up pitch two. Psychologically fighting, as the guide book wants to send him into a death trap. Ignoring the book of lies. Skillfully he deciphers the line of least resistance and finds the stance. 

Now as the midday sun bakes, Andy passes me the rack. Looking up, I see a sheer vertical headwall. With little to no signs of gear placement and a sprinkle of sparsely spread bolts, to add a false sense of security. 

After one hour of athletic and engaging climbing. My body starts shaking under the tension. Nervously I push on a two finger gaston with my left hand. Legs spread into a contorted stem, keeping pressure on shaky rounded footholds. Five meters beyond my last protection with a grisly looking destination below. Delicately I wiggle a small nut into a shallow cleft, it slips right through. 

Harrowingly I howl, swallowing the pain in my swelling feet. Shaking out of control. I reach around my waist for another piece of gear. Sweating I hold even tighter feeding the agonising lactic pump in my left arm. Feverishly I jiggle a micro cam into the shallow fissure, only three lobes bite. I shout “Take!” 

Using A2 techniques I bypass the final few meters to the stance. At 14:00 we were only halfway. Dehydrated and broken we all agree it is time to bail, we were officially terminated. 

Descending back down the scree slope. Andy following behind dislodges a fridge size boulder with my name on it. With pace it obliterates everything in its path and scrapes my pants as I’m surfing down the scree. Frightened I spontaneously climb a tree seconds after it passes. We all laugh hysterically at my delirious attempt to dodge the danger. 

Back at the alpine house we indulge copious amounts of Rakia. “Nazdrave!” we toast.

Early morning, vehicle packed ready to depart north to the extraordinary Prohodna cave. Also known as the “Gods Eyes cave”. An imposing karst formation with two 60-metre high archway entrances, connecting a continuous cave system. The dark cave is naturally lit by two perfectly formed eye holes in the roof centre . The whole cave is bolted with a high volume of long quality sport climbs. 

The Gods Eyes by Nic van Doesburgh

We indulge a plethora of undisturbed climbing with no company. Only the occasional echoes of squealing kids, as the school busses arrive for the mid-week educational tours.  

A ten minute drive from Prohodna cave we settle at the Bulgarian national spelunking guest house. A communist style building constructed on the edge of an exposed swooping cliff face. Relaxing on the exposed balcony enjoying a glorious sunset, we hear demented screams echo from the valley below. A mental asylum nestled in isolation amongst the forested mountain side. Situated on the opposing side of a river down in the valley. With my binoculars we observe the white robed patients hobbling inside the high walled fortress. 

A local Bulgarian at the guesthouse shares a story with us about a paraglider who once landed on the lawns of the asylum. Unbeknownst to him, the paraglider struggled to convince the doctors and security to let him out. As he landed there by mistake and was not supposed to be there. We pour a round of Rakia shots. “Nazdrave!” we toast. 

Another jam packed day at Prohodna cave. Andy’s fitness levels firing, he flashes a series of 7a, 7b & 7b+ routes with ease. Nic and I also tick off our share of hard routes, while Sabrina sends her first 7a. 

Our final day at Prohodna we depart back for Sofia. The next day we spend our rest time exploring the rich culture and cuisine of the beautiful capital city. 

The car packed and ready we hit the road. The Balkan Voyage continues, another 5 days of high dose adventures in Northern Greece.

After nine hours of driving. A long straight road dimly lit by a luminous sunset sky of swirling watercolours leading to a dark silhouette of imposing rock towers. We arrive at the enchanting town of Meteora. We settle at the local campsite. Tantalising our taste buds, with the rich Greek cuisine olives, dolmades, moussaka and ouzo. 

Meteora, Greece. By Andrew Court

Meteora is a small town in Northern Greece surrounded by a cluster of conglomerate rock towers. With only one day to climb, we began our tower bagging onslaught. 

We start with ‘Ypsiloterafels’ one of the highest towers in the valley. Choosing moderately easy routes and using modern speed climbing techniques we fly. While signing the summit book, shouts of praise echo from the neighbouring towers as the tourists lose their heads of our location. Visiting the ancient monastery’s perched on top of a select few towers is the usual tourist attraction. 

In a speedy manner we descend and race to the next tower.

 ‘Spindle’ is the most photogenic and isolated tower of the whole valley. Another book signing on top. One of the best parts of Greek adventure climbing is the logbook on the summit. We stop for a lunch break and siesta under a tree, escaping the afternoon heat. 

At sunset we take on the marvellous ‘dancing egg’ tower, a rarity of rock formation. The summit of this tower is a 15-metre high detached oval-block, which leans awkwardly over the edge. It requires a confident splits manoeuvre to transfer across the gaping chasm between the tower and summit. 

On the summit everything slows down, a peaceful ambience surrounds us. Moonlight illuminates the magical rock valley below us. We sit pensively for a moment, paying our gratitude for the wonderful journey thus far. 

Mount Olympus is on our minds as we pack camp and hit the road for the big mountains. Mytikas on Mount Olympus is the highest peak in Greece at 2917-metres. I was more intrigued by the 300-metre amphitheater of limestone rock alongside Mytikas called Stefani. 

Arriving at the foot of Olympus, cumulous clouds suspend over the high peaks. Just like the mythological stories of the olympic gods, we all felt it was a very special place. After a four-hour uphill slog. In the mist we reach the base of Stefani and settle at the quaint Christos Kakalos refuge. The locals at the hut warmly host us for the night. 

As the morning sun rises burning the cloud curtain, revealing the monumental Stefani amphitheater looming over us. Nic and I pair up to lead the simul climbing endeavour up the classic “comici esher route”, while Andy and Sabrina follow from behind using simul techniques. 

Nick leads the way, he quickly finds out there isn’t much gear or much good rock on the entire route. Now with no room for error, we continue our speedy ascent up the 300-metre ocean of choss. So begins a repetitive harmony, Nic calls “Rock!”, every few minutes. I skip to the left and then I skip to the right, side stepping the rock fragments that whiz past me. Andy and Sabrina following behind have their hands full dealing with twice as much rocketing choss blocks. Everyone was just shouting “Rock!” the whole way up.  

The summit of Mount Olympus is one of the most beautiful summits I’ve ever experienced. 3000-metres high above the mediterranean sea at its feet. With swooping ridges, dramatic rugged landscapes painting a godly scene, a fitting end of a Balkan Voyage.

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