Words: Peter Peyper | Photos: Reuben Storbeck
When you hear people talk about skiing, scenes of idyllic, snow-covered villages in the Alps, kids building snowmen and happy families carving their way down crowded, hard-packed pistes come to mind. Your friends tell you how a good overnight snowfall makes the post Après ski blues feel a little more manageable, but after a few turns in the tracked out powder you think to yourself, is this as good as it gets?
If this is how you feel after a day's skiing then you should consider hitting some backcountry powder, and that is exactly what we did. I got a group of good friends together, all in need of some deep powder therapy, and decided to embark on a five-day long deep powder mission to the little-known Republic of Macedonia, in Southeast Europe, with Eskimo Freeride Tours, one of Europe's only cat skiing operators. Cat skiing takes you deep into the powder-filled mountains, far away from the crowded slopes and long lift queues, to untouched virgin snow using a modified snow groomer to reach those peaks you normally only see on postcards.
A few connecting flights later and we finally reached the country's capital, Skopje. We stayed in the small, but cozy three-star Bora Hotel and had our first taste of Macedonia’s food, wine and culture. Despite the language barrier, the taxi driver and our guide were very welcoming and helpful. The hotel staff were also really friendly and breakfasts consisted of many cups of cheap (but good) coffee and a more-than-average continental feast. After settling in, all 14 powder hunters jumped into the snow cat in search of some untracked deep powder.
The runs on offer varied, with a combination of steep descents down icy slopes running into wide open spaces and tree runs covering 3000-4000m of vertical elevation through knee to waist and sometimes shoulder deep powder. You wouldn’t often find this kind of powder at your average ski resort and the technicality differs from one run to the next. Tip: Make sure you take everything you need because there are no ski shops in the area, so if you forget your gloves you might need to buy a piece of goat fur from one of the locals. The Eskimo Tours team will be able to help out with wax and small repairs, but you should give your equipment a good once over before you embark on this life-changing snow experience.
Our first day started off with slightly overcast weather, medium gradients and intermediate to difficult tree runs in metre deep powder, with the occasional drop offs. Runs were only one to two kilometres in length, but we covered around 3000m elevation throughout the day. After a full and exhilarating day in the deep backcountry and with the sun starting to set, we headed back for the final run to the hotel. Later, we shared our experiences over a few of Macedonia's best brew, Skopsko (Skopskop), before meeting up later for dinner and a few more local bruskies.
We returned to the same place, but there were no tracks in sight and only beautiful clear skies. This meant we could explore more of the area and enjoy longer, varied runs. After each run we would meet at the pickup point and practise a few jumps over a kicker we had built that morning. Fortunately for us every jump had a soft landing in fresh powder. Some 12 awesome runs later we returned to Bora for a little Macedonian-style Après-ski, consisting of light snacks and a few beers before dinner. For this culinary experience we chose a local spot, Snow Patrol, which offers an all-you-can-eat buffet of tasty Macedonian cuisine, local wines and good times. It had been another great day, but our weary bodies reminded us that it was time for a well deserved rest.
We set off towards some steeper peaks and started the day with a run down a icy 60-degree slope that luckily flattened out to something a bit more manageable through the trees and wide open bowls. After this gnarly run, our guide, Neno, suggested that we should rather tackle something a bit more mellow. He found us a nice bowl that we sessioned for a few hours before returning to the steeper slopes for another run. We broke for lunch at undoubtedly the world's highest al fresco restaurant, and using the cat's tracks as a table we dined overlooking a thousand valleys. The fog was starting to creep in and with visibility decreasing we decided to hit one last couloir, an off-piste trail, as part of our final decent. Cautioned by Neno, we descended one by one down the icy, steep couloir, from one safe zone to the next until we were all together. From there it was a long traverse around the mountain in less than two metres of visibility. Safety is a top priority for the Eskimo Tours team and as such they were taking no chances. Regular safety stops and beacon tests were just some of the safety precautions taken to get us all back down safely. Relieved that it had all gone smoothly, we made our way back to the hotel and took some time out to unwind. What a day it had been and what better way to end it than a big group dinner at Da House with the Eskimo Tours crew and our fellow powder hunters from Denmark, New Zealand, England and Croatia. Da House is a small and cozy owner-run backpacker establishment that has an authentic ski lodge feel to it, and they also lay on a pretty good six-course feast.
Last night's party had gone on until the early hours of the morning and we weren't feeling so chipper when Neno came to collect us. Luckily for us, he convinced us that the best hangover cure is a deep powder shred on a blue bird day. So after only a few hours sleeps and four machiatos, we made our way to a new area and the best riding we had all week. After six runs, the time had come for us to pack up and start our four-hour journey back to Thessaloniki, to catch our flight back home.
The power hunters definitely give this deep powder destination the thumbs up, but take note that cat and heli skiing is only for experienced skiers and snowboarders, and should be done with reputable operators. Always ski with an experienced guide and make sure you have all the necessary safety equipment.
* Flights to Skopje: R6000 - R8000 via Istanbul
* 5 day Freeride package - €280 per day and includes accommodation in a 3-star hotel, breakfast, lunch, dinner and the first drink, a guide and avalanche beacons.