Author's note: this sequence aims to explore and present some of Bulgaria's highest mountains and some of the best routes to get there. You can expect similar reports from Pirin's demanding summits Vihren and Kutelo and the Koncheto Ridge, as well as Vitosha, and Stara Planina. Anyone who has climbed around Bulgaria (or elsewhere) is welcomed and encouraged to comment and share experience or ideas with us. The climbing team: Miroslava 'Puffcho' Doynova, Yordan Kokenov, and Nick Iliev. And occasionally, some other friends. Cheers.
Like any summit, there are several routes in Rila Mountain a climber might consider, but the most popular one starts from the alpine town of Borovets, 80km from Sofia.
Once you are in the centre of Borovets, 1700m high, you may, of course, cheat and attempt climbing the mountain in the fashion of most tourists. Simply take the gondola which will ferry you up to Yastrebets at 2369m, and from there, it’s a three-and-a-half hour climb at an average pace. By doing so, you can scale the summit, have your refreshments up on top and then descend in time to get the gondola back to Borovets and return to your hotel for the evening and a drink down the pub. This would be how "kashkaval turisti" or "cheese tourists" would do it.
Alternatively, you may want to climb the mountain the proper way. A great way to conquer Rila’s Mt Musala, the highest in Southeastern Europe towering at 2925m, is to scale it straight from Borovets, and then once you are on the summit, proceed east to climb three more summits at the ridge itself, Malka Musala ("small" Musala at 2902m), Deno at 2790m and Shatar at 2495m, and then head north/east towards Zavrachitsa ("Twilight"), a mountain lodge about six hours from the summit, and then head back to Borovets, covering a large perimeter, a tab of about 75km in total. This is an arduous and draining tabbing, however, which cannot be completed in a day, so good physical condition, preparation and common sense are essential.
Never underestimate the mountain, especially if you will be up there several days, and make sure you are properly kitted out for the task. You may end up taking a few extra pounds of equipment in your Bergen but they might well just save your life if things go haywire. Better safe than sorry. Firstly, undertaking a two-day hike in the mountains means that you must prepare for every eventuality – carry food for at least three days. Bring winter clothing even in the summer, sweaters, waterproof jackets, wind stoppers and spare wool socks and boots in case your first pair gets sogged with water – change them at the first opportunity unless you want to end up with trench foot – all that is essential.
A gas canister and a kettle so you can make a hot brew, plus a thermos will be your best friends up there. All this should be stored in your Bergen, while your Bergen itself should be covered with waterproof wrap. If you don’t have one, you can improvise with a one by one metre patch of nylon. Remember – a 25kg Bergen on your back will get you tired after six hours on the march. If it starts raining and your backpack gets soaked, it will reach 40kg. This is something best avoided at all cost.
If you think you can handle all that gear, then a collapsible army-type shovel attached to your Bergen is a miracle as well – if you don’t carry a tent or a sleeping bag, you can always dig yourself a hole in the ground and cover yourself with foliage underneath to provide insulation under and over you for cover. You will be cold and most likely wet, but it’s far better insulation than sleeping in the open, exposed to the elements, and it will help preserve your core temperature. Best, carry a sleeping bag. If you are with friends, then carry a tent as well, amalgamating the weight accordingly.
A couple of bodies huddled up in a tent is always warmer than being on your own. Even in the summer, gloves, a hat and a scarf or a shamagh are essential. In the middle of the night temperatures can slump below zero and the early morning dew can be dangerous.
When you are ready to go and you’ve planned your way up, it’s best to inform the mountain patrol of your intentions and your route as well as your expected time of arrival at your end destination. That way, if something goes wrong and the mountain patrol mounts a rescue operation, they will know approximately where to look for you and not roam about the mountains blind. If your fellow climber gets injured, you may improvise a stretcher by getting two wooden sticks or poles, two inches thick and around two metres in length.
Take two jackets, place them facing each other at the collar, then slide the wooden poles through the sleeves. Securing them with para-cord it will serve as a sound stretcher. Don’t ever leave your mate unless you are certain you can return inside five hours. Mountain Rescue Patrol emergency hotline numbers are 1470 – for Mtel, Vivatel and 02 963 2000 – BTC and all other operators. International EU emergency call: 112
On the move
Starting off at 7am from Borovets, the climb will take you through a thick forest, along the ski slopes leading all the way to the top gondola station at Yastrebets. The tree line is covered predominantly with coniferous species such as European Black Pine, Scots Pine, Macedonian Pine, Spruce, Bulgarian Fir and reaches an approximate altitude of about 2000m. Up to 2400m is the sub-alpine line, dominated by Mountain Pine and Juniper whose size decrease as the altitude rises. The alpine line is situated above 2400m, covered with grass, moss, lichen and windswept grassland and rocks. The climb to Yastrebets will require about three-and-a-half hours tabbing.
To avoid degenerating into fatigue, establish a system of resting for 10 minutes after every 50 minutes of climbing, even if you are not tired at the beginning. Climbing straight for four hours will drain your energy a lot faster. Once at the top station, the towering summit of Musala is directly to your front and left, below it a large valley with an expansive lake, called Ledeno Ezero (Icy Lake) situated just under the mountain. To reach it, follow the path from the lift station that will take you across the four Markudjik ski slopes, an easy, almost horizontal hike of one hour and 45 minutes. If you have reached the lake and the lodge by 12.30pm, having started at 7am in the morning, then you are doing just fine.
From the lake, the path will twist up and rightwards with the slope increasing significantly.
You must negotiate (carefully) an extensive stone-river and scattered boulders. Following the winter marking, upwards, you will reach the col of the mountain, where winds are likely to increase substantially. Once there, over a towering valley, a beautiful blue lake will greet you with its cold waters and rugged peaks around it. Keep traversing along its left bank; the path will remain steep and rugged, reaching Zaslon Everest, or the Everest Shelter, the last outpost of civilisation before the final attack of the summit, 90 minutes away.
Once you pass Everest Shelter, you will start climbing the shoulder of the summit, the ridge, which is steep and covered with boulders. If this ridge proves a little too much for you, the path is secured with a steel cable traversing the winter marking poles along the trail. Continue until, eventually, you see the silhouette of the weather observatory and the nuclear (yes, nuclear research observatory) on top of the summit.
Words cannot describe the view from the highest mountain in the Balkans, but if you catch serene weather and good visibility, you could be forgiven if your jaw drops to the ground. Some say, you can see the Aegean Sea from there and Greece. Personally, I never saw it due to clouds and obstructed visibility. In extreme situations, horrendous winds, rain and fog, and no chance of a safe descent, the man running the observatory could offer you assistance by letting you sleep inside the common area of the station on the floor.
But it’s best to avoid climbing in extreme weather. Rain and wind are not insurmountable; one can easily get down carefully, but never attempt to do so in thick fog. Fog is only temporary, so seek shelter beside or under a boulder, dig in, cover yourself up, eat something, make a hot brew and sit it out. Alternatively, you face the possibility of walking blind, getting lost, or even worse, walking off a cliff.
If you leave the summit by 2.30pm, you can either go back where you came from, or continue east, along the ridge of the mountain. Staring down at the valley about 400m below, your eyes will come across a small lake – the source of Maritsa River, the largest river in Bulgaria, after the Danube. Negotiate the ridge, and you will climb, in succession, Malka Musala, Deno and eventually Irechek, and by 5.30pm you should be facing Musala across the vast gorge across. From there the descent to Zavrachitsa lodge will last roughly three hours, and if you are not completely exhausted, you could attempt doing it – meaning you would have been tabbing for nearly 14 hours, with a 20 plus kg load on your back.
Even in summer when the day is long, reaching the lodge will most likely require a torch for the final 40-minute stretch. Alternatively, descend from Deno following the path to Zavrachitsa until you reach the tree line. Once you are in the forest, you may set up camp and snuggle up in your sleeping bag, brewing some hot tea, and sorting yourself out with food. Remember, Rila is a national park, so if you must make a fire to keep you going through the night, make sure you are no danger to the surrounding forest. Keep the fire small, controllable and away from scrub and trees.
When you reach Zavratchitsa in the early morning, you may want to relax after the massive ordeal of the previous day. You could spend the whole day at the lodge in a beautiful valley, surrounded by tall peaks and cliffs with the valley itself being sliced in half by a river. You will almost certainly experience warm hospitality and superb atmosphere – mountaineers are renowned for generating great banter around the midnight camp-fire, especially if the evening is washed down with a sufficient amount of beverages.
The food is clean and fresh and beer, wine and rakiya are also readily available. Climbing and tabbing through the mountain is great fun, but so is idling about the entire day getting a suntan by the river next to the lodge, having some sausages thrown in the fire and a six-pack of cold beer next to you. You are at 1800m vertical elevation and the scenery is breathtaking. If you get drunk, the serene air will ensure you suffer no hangover in the morning. The lodge offers decent clean rooms, with an external shower and toilet, and will set you back a meagre 12 leva a night.
The descent from the lodge back to Borovets is roughly 15km, through gorgeous valleys, which gradually and gently will give way, finding yourself immersed by a thick pine forest. If you get lost from there as we did, missing the path junction leading to Borovets, don’t despair. The golden rule is, when lost in a mountain – go down. And if you reach a river or a stream, follow it because it will eventually lead you to civilisation. The route to Borovets, which we reckoned could be negotiated inside four hours flat, developed into an eight-hour march, where we eventually reached a line of electric power lines and followed them down the mountain until we came across a rural road.
The first vehicle was promptly stopped and we inquired about our whereabouts. It dawned on us that we were less than two km from Samokov, a town about 10 or so km further down from Borovets.
Basic survival kit
extra rationing of food
extra pair of wool socks (extra 2 pairs)
candle wax drained matches/lighters
fishing hooks and cord
high octane mountain food (chocolate and peanuts)
signal flares (take two)