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Bulgarian Ski Resorts: Flap over flippers

Source: Morag Reavley, The Telegraph
Published Date: 30 Nov 2005

Morag Reavley turns her back on the crowded pistes in Bulgaria to try snowshoeing, but finds it's no stroll in the park.

I am halfway up the side of a snow-smothered Bulgarian mountain 4,600ft higher than Ben Nevis with a pair of plastic flippers strapped to my feet.

Snowflakes fall softly from a sky as pale as lead and the icy air stings. The temperature is 20F and sinking, and there's another three hours before we reach the refuge.

Snowshoeing is definitely not a stroll in the park, which may come as news to winter sports aficionados. Lacking the adrenalin surge of downhill skiing or the daredevil virtuosity of snowboarding, hiking over the starch-white landscape rates low in the pecking order of snowy activities, a last resort for when the slopes are off-limits.

True, no special skills are required: if you can walk, you can snowshoe. And the equipment itself is simple - a pair of oval-shaped paddles with metal spikes, buckled over ordinary waterproof walking boots.

Gone are the thong-strung, hunter-gatherer "tennis rackets" of yore - modern snowshoes are light, ergonomic and multi-coloured. Spreading the hiker's weight across a larger area, they supposedly allow you to float over the powdery surface.

But that's easier said than done. The first problem is the snow. Three feet deep, there's way too much of it, and it seems to be the wrong kind. Taking my first steps on this fickle, friable stuff, I lurch like a Friday-night drunk.

Stepping on my own shoes as I try to turn around, I topple over into a snow drift before we have walked a third of a mile. I am not floating but flailing.

The second snag is our orientation: upwards. Most winter sports use snow's slipperiness for rapid descents. Snowshoeing requires hikers to ascend icy mountains I would struggle to climb under ordinary conditions.

Snow soon sorts out the hikers from the ramblers. A slothful 30-something, I quickly fall to the back of the group, while the eldest member of our party - not a day under 70 - forges ahead.

Two mountain rangers, Krasi Ivanov and Vasco Todev, flank us front and rear. All straining sinews and bionic legs, they know the area inside out, even when every path and landmark is hidden below billowing white. We make our way off piste in shuffling single file like Inuit line-dancers through the forested slopes of the Rila National Park, where the mountains rise to 9,600ft - the highest in the Balkans.

We've been promised great views, except that it's snowing too thickly to see them. What we can see, though, is staggering: a pristine, crystalline wonderland with the foamiest, downiest snow I've ever seen.

It oozes from pine branches like tallow and transforms stumps and bushes into ghostly statues, while frozen rills of water glint like fragments of glass. These are things you don't notice hurtling down a red run at 30 miles an hour. Such perfection doesn't come without pain. As we trek on towards the upper reaches of Maliovitsa, one of the highest peaks in the Rila range, the path gets ever steeper. I bend double over my ski sticks in the effort to haul myself up the icy slope, lungs ready to explode, face vermilion as my padded jacket.

Just when I'm ready to lie down in the snow and whimper my goodbyes, a concrete mountain hut appears like an ice-mirage. Thank goodness - it's no illusion, and neither is the herb tea that Krasi and Vasco hand out in plastic cups.

Ten miles and seven hours after setting out, it's a relief to return home. Our base is the Divite Petle Hotel near the medieval village of Govedartsi, 25 miles from the ski resort of Borovets. A former holiday centre for Communist officials, its concrete eaves are strung with icicles as sharp as butchers' knives. My room is basic, but it feels like luxury to my quivering limbs.

The aprs-shoe is low-key but hearty. Meals, served at trestles alongside noisy Bulgarian school groups, are perfect for refuelling fatigued trekkers.

There's salad made with tangy goats' cheese, deep-fried peppers stuffed with rice, and nut-studded baklava. It's all eaten with a slug of rakia - Bulgarian plum brandy - and a glass of Melnik, the full-bodied red wine that Churchill bought by the crate.

No discos or wine bars here for late-night revelling, but it doesn't matter - we're all too exhausted even to swing a ping-pong bat.

Next day my joints are as tight as rusty hinges, the temperature is even lower, and the flakes continue to fall. It's tempting to curl up by a radiator with a book, but I stoically lace up my boots for our hike.

It's hard to say exactly where we are, though - our bus drops us off by the roadside in an almost total white-out, the ground hypnotically white, the sky like bone.

Facing into a huge, pathless field, our guide Vasco breaks into snow that reaches up to his thighs. A gentle giant, he scoops out a trail with his legs like a human snow-plough. As he tilts his head to read the landscape, he looks like primeval man divining our route with only his sense of smell. I am disappointed to discover later that he has a mobile GPS in his hand.

Aching legs aside, I'm starting to savour the bleak, monochrome beauty of the wilderness.

The only creature we encounter is a huge, loping animal, half dog, half wolf; the only sound is the muffled crunch and scrape of our shoes.

Even the walking feels less arduous, more heroic - I start to imagine myself as Shackleton trudging through the Antarctic. My technique improves, too. I pick up a few crafty tips, like hanging back to let speedier members of our group compact the snow before I follow.

After lunch in a timbered ski hut with a roaring fire and a pot of bean soup on the stove, Krasi gathers us together. "Let's take the fast route down," he says, pointing down a sheer ski run.

Slipping and sliding like clowns running on ball-bearings, we tumble down the slope. But falling over on this sherbety surface is fun. We are children again, sliding on our bottoms and shrieking with laughter. How often do skiers remember to do that?

Safely down, we trudge into Govedartsi, past ancient wattle-and-daub barns and locals with donkey-drawn carts. In a bar decorated with wooden masks and a cow-bell chandelier, we knock back flasks of mulled wine and feel ridiculously pleased with ourselves.

By the morning of our final hike, I am finally getting it. No longer red and rasping, I get into my stride early. I even manage to stay upright. The sun appears, the sky opens porcelain blue above us, Rila's jagged peaks stab heavenwards, a shower of ice crystals rains like glitter, like a child's snowstorm shaker. It's absolutely perfect.

Heading back to Sofia, we pass the ski slopes, congested with noisy ski-schoolers and exhibitionist slope-hogs, Bulgarian pop music blaring out from the cafs and huts.

It could hardly be farther from the secret, silent world in which we have been walking - and I know which I prefer. Snowshoe shuffle Tramping across the snow is hard on the legs but hiking provides the chance to explore a secret, silent world far from the noisy and congested ski slopes near Sofia.