This February, TGR finally made good on nearly a decade of planning to explore Europe's wildest mountains: the Albanian Alps.
These days, the hunt for untracked lines has taken TGR all across the world. While Alaska may have been the last frontier for skiing a decade or two ago, the search for a truly wild experience has forced skiers elsewhere. Roughly ten years ago, TGR co-founder and Far Out director Steve Jones found himself in the mountains of Croatia with a local snowboarder and explorer named Seb Fleiss. The two had never met before, but Jones sensed something about Fleiss, and over the years a friendship blossomed, leading to several TGR trips to Eastern Europe. However, Fleiss kept bringing up the idea of skiing in Albania, but things never seemed to line up.
“I got really turned onto Eastern Europe, and within that time, we went to places like Romania, Croatia, and Poland, but Seb just kept brining up these zones in Albania,” recalls Jones. The team continuously ran into issues: the zone was hard to get to, it was impossible to charter a heli, there was no real spot to base out of, and most of all, the local government posed a bureaucratic nightmare.
Finally, after nearly five years of trying, TGR finally sent a team of athletes to the Valbonë Valley of Albania this past February. The team included Austrian Fabian Lentsch, who was highly experienced exploring these parts of the world, and big mountain veterans Nick McNutt and Angel and Johnny Collinson. The team found exactly what they wanted, including Alaska-style features, absolutely zero mountain development, and even wild animals running around, an anomaly for Europe.
A few weeks before driving into their zone, Jones called up Lentsch to ask for any beta he had on the area. Lentsch was willing to spend a few days on a recon flight, and hopped aboard a prop plane to fly over the Prokletije, better known as the Albanian Alps. What he found were huge peaks that seemed perfect for the intended mission covered in huge couloirs and big spine faces. The snowpack resembled that of Alaska, thanks to the fact that the mountains were 80-100 miles from the Adriatic Sea. However, the biggest obstacle seemed to be the lack of runouts.
In Alaska, most big-mountain lines end with a gently sloping runout that skiers can safely straightline out of, necessary for outrunning slough, avalanches, or even just to scrub the insane speeds they can reach. “Our Albanian lines certainly lacked those runouts,” says Jones, “they typically ended in either steep rollovers or just in super-tight trees that were hard to navigate.”
Once there, the crew started exploring. Of course, it being Eastern Europe, the two chartered helicopters showed up late. “We really had no idea why they were late,” says Jones, “the pilots were flying up the valley and got turned around for reasons we couldn’t understand, so we started using our touring gear.”
The team was able to skin straight from their lodging, which Jones says, “I would call more of a castle almost,” and access amazing tree skiing. It dumped profusely while they waited nearly two weeks for the helicopters to show up and fly, and they enjoyed some powder runs low in some of Europe’s wildest mountains. Occasionally, they would get glimpses of the massive peaks above them, like the 8,839-foot Maja Jezercë, which is home to the southernmost glaciers in Europe.
With a weather window finally open nearly two weeks after they got there, the athletes got to work. Conditions had warmed up, so the snow down low proved hard to ski, but up high, things were epic. The maritime snow was sticking to features it shouldn’t have been sticking to, and the team got to ski their dream lines after playing the waiting game.
Check out more from the Albanian Alps in TGR's upcoming ski and snowboard film: Far Out, Presented by REI.
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