Winter camping in Montenegro
In December 2021 I set out to walk (a modified version of) the Peaks of the Balkans trail. This 200 kilometer long distance hiking trails cuts its way through the Accursed Mountains through Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro. With snow heights greatly exceeding my expectations and unable to hike a loop, I set out to do some winter camping in Albania and Montenegro. This itinerary for that matter is not like the previous ones I have written. I plan on reattempting the loop next year, after which I will write a full itinerary with all practical information.
The Balkans has some of the most pure and untouched nature I have seen, partially because of the fact these countries have been closed of from the rest of the world for many years. Compared to the Alps or Pyrenees these mountains are basically untouched and undeveloped. There are no refuges in the mountains, and tourism has barely got off the ground here. There is no mountain culture, no outdoor stores and very limited information is available about the conditions, especially in winter. Exactly this is what draws me to these mountains.
Map and GPX file
About the area
\\ December 20 | Day 2: Hidden Valley
I set out early and drove the last 15 minutes to the town of Vusanje at the end of the road. I must admit I was a little nervous with the extreme cold in the forecast. When I woke up it was extremely foggy, but when I'd parked my car on a snow pullout in Vusanje, the clouds started breaking open.
From Vusanje it's a couple hours hiking towards the Albanian border to get to the valley. On my initially planned route for the Peaks of the Balkans, I had planned taking the same route but fork off half way up to a lake in the Accursed Mountains and camp there. But this lake is at 1800m and in these conditions inaccessible. So I'd set my sights on another lake 600m lower: Lake Liqeni i Gjeshtarës (or Ropojansko jezero), or at least a lake in the summer, half of the year it is dried up.
The trail first follows a dirt road. Completely unplowed I saw some vague 4x4 tracks. A few kilometers in, these snowtracks, and with it all the signs of civilization completely disappeared. There was no wind, just perfect silence. The road winds through forests and meadows a few hundred meters up to the highest point just before the lake. The last part the trail is steep and through some thick forest. The young trees were all bend over by the snow, with a solid pack of snow on top. For sure not the safest trail.
At 1pm I got the highest point where I could peak into the valley ahead. The lakebed is in a bowl 50 meters deep (the lake doesn't have an outlet) about a kilometer long and 300 meters wide. The lakebed is flat and was covered in a perfect blanket of snow. At the far end the valley, across the border with Albania, the terrain rises quickly towards the mountain pass Qafa e Pejes (1702m) to Theth, where I'd spent the week prior. Both sides of the valley the foothills are covered in pine forest with granite peaks towered 1200 meters above the valley floor. These snow covered almost vertical peaks looked even more daunting with the snow and the peaks hidden in clouds.
I made my way down into the valley. The sun peaking through the clouds ever now and then created these dancing patterns of light on the vast snowfield. On the first section of the lake I could hear the spikes of my snowshoes grabbing the ice. Apperently the lake hadn't completely dried up when the freeze started. But quickly the ice turned into a tick pack of snow.
My first priority: find a campsite. With a northern wind I headed up the valley walls and started looking for a slightly sheltered campsite at the forest edge. The terrain was for sure a lot steeper than I'd inticipated. Prior to heading out I'd checked Google Earth for possible camp sites. I knew there was flat terrain between the trees at the far western end of the valley, but that would mean no sunlight. About halfway in the valley I found a quite decent spot on the hillside. In summer this would've been way to steep to camp on, but I guess that's one of the advantages of winter camping.
Using my snowshoes I spend the next half an hour flattening a spot for my tent. This was the first moment realizing I missed an essential piece of gear for winter camping: a shovel. I had only camped in 20cm deep snow before, where just compacting the snow is sufficient to pitch my tent, but this must have been a 90cm deep pack of fresh snow. Pitching my tent also wasn't easy. My 3-season tent is not made to be set up in snow this deep. The buckles that attach my rainfly to the inner tent froze up in the snow, and the short metal pegs were useless. I latter problem was quickly solved with some sticks. All in all it took me trice as long to pitch my tent compared to usual.
Next up: a fire. With the shortest day of the year tomorrow, the sun already set behind the mountain at 2:30pm. So making a fire was a must to fight the cold, melt snow for drinking and cooking. I dug a 1.5m deep hole in the snow with my snow shoes (again no shovel ...). Making a fire on snow is possible, but most of the heat then goes to melting the snow underneath, plus the fire will sink in and die by the lack of oxygen being able to get to it. For firewood I looked for upstanding dead wood, preferably an unbroken top. Anything on the ground or horizontally in the air collects water, accelering the decomposition of the wood and making it unflammable. Luckily there were plenty of dead trees around. But here I missed by second piece of essential gear: a handsaw. I scavenged the area for dead wood I could break off by hand and made a fire. That as well took a while: non of the wood was really dried out.
But with the essentials of shelter and fire in place, I could finally relax a little. The night is long, but with a fire quite enjoyable. The sound of the crackling pine wood, the taste of Wudy sausages (the only sausage in the grocery store I deemed was intended for human consumption) grilled on a stick over the fire, and the perfect silence everywhere else.
Late at night I walked to the middle of the lakebed. The light of the full moon lit the snow and mountain so well that I did not need a flashlight. I just stood there for a while in silence looking at this magical place. I felt the stinging -15°C cold on my face and without any wind or sound it was so perfectly quite. I have been to many quite places, but this felt quiter than anything I'd ever experienced before. Probably the snow and cold added to that feeling as well as knowing there is no one around within a several hours walk.
\\ December 21 Day 3: Alone. Silence. Cold.
The night was cold, but I really was not. Just before bedtime I filled up my Nalgene bottle with boiling water which I took with me in my sleeping bag. Besides having an active source of heat during the night, it is also great to have some drinkable water in the morning (although the taste of smoke and the pieces of ash and pine needles is not something I can recommend as a first drink in the morning). The bottle stayed hot for the first part of the night, but the second and coldest part of the night not so much anymore. I noticed my sleeping pad was not sufficient for the cold, as I just felt the heat escaping from underneath me. This was confrimed with a piece of iced up snow under my tent in the morning. I already had my doubts my sleeping system would be warm enough, as most people would bring a winter pad and extra foam pad in these conditions. But I enjoy the process of figuring out what works best for me. Bringing 3 pads would for sure have been warm enough, but then I never know if 2 pads is enough, or even 1.
I had put my hiking boots next to me in the tent, in the hope they would not freeze solid overnight. But I guess at -15°C outside, it is close to that inside my 3-season tent. Putting on frozen boots is not easy; the material is solid and doesn't give way when you squeeze your foot in. It also didn't help I needed to pee so badly. I ended up limping to the nearest tree with just my toes inside the shoes, and heels sticking out.
I had not really anything planned for today, and I was not even sure if I would stay 2 nights, or hike out today. But with camp all set up, I was quite relaxed en really enjoyed the silence and lack of cellphone service. So, to keep the fire burning all day and one more night, I needed a lot of firewood. Without a saw, I spend the next hour snowshoeing along the forest edge and breaking of dead lower branches of the pine trees. These I then broke into smaller pieces, until I had a meter tall pile of firewood, that should last be the next 20 hours. The bigger pieces I put around the fire like an oven to dry out. That worked pretty well.
It was not till 11:30am before the sun peaked over the tall mountains. I was lucky to be on the north side of the valley; as some parts do not get any sunlight in the winter months. With the sun out, it was quite pleasing being out there. I made myself a good poor-over coffee, took off a few layers and just set in the sun.
Just 3 hours later the sun already set behind the mountains to the north, and it took the warmth with it as the temperature dropped immediately. I set out to explore the valley a little bit. I walked to the Albanian border, several hundred meters from my tent. On the border there is a concrete pole, that is it. Higher up towards the border there are supposedly several bunkers, some of the 200,000 that were build on the Albanian border during the comunistic regime. Crossing the border in the mountains is legal without paperwork as long as you do not stay overnight. I hiked to the far end of the valley through patches of forest till it got a lot steeper. Without a clear goal and getting cold, I circled back. Higher up towards the mountain pass there are some pretty (frozen) lakes and views, but with this amount of snow that would be more than a little exploration of the valley. I hope to be back here some day without snow, and the Peaks of the Balkans trail over the mountain pass.
At 5pm it was completly dark already. Besides some birds in the morning, and the occosianal airplane high up, I had not heard any other noise I did not make myself all day. That is a strange feeling. I set near the fire all night, but I felt a lot colder than last night. Not sure if it was colder, or that the hike here yesterday kept my blood pumping through the night. I attempted to read a little near the fire, but although that sounds great in my head, in reality that never works. I prefer just staring at the fire, thinking and taking it all in.
\\ December 22+23 | Day 4+5: Time to go home
What a cold night! Definitely didn't feel as warm as the night before, even though I was wearning more clothes. I was glad to see the first daylight at 7am in the morning to get up. With this cold I decided to pack up and head out of the valley. Getting firewood, making a fire and starting the morning would take several hours, and I did not really feel like doing that. My feet were frozen all morning while I packed up my tent and headed out. I assumed that they would warm up pretty quickly as soon as I headed out, but it actually took a few hours to finally fully warm up again.
As I hiked out over the frozen lakebed I had one last look at the magestic mountains surrounding me. These 2 days had been the toughest conditions I had ever camped in. I cherish these moments of learning and pushing my own limits and comfort zone. I was not comfortable at all heading out, and nervous for sure. I doubted my plans, but still decided to head out and try, and the rewards never dissappoint: the unique location, staggering nature, the silence and the experienced gained looking back at it afterwards.
Back in town I had a coffee at a restaurant and could finally wash my hands. I had small wound all over my hands; they were swollen, dirty, completely dried out, and just bending my fingers hurt. The cold in combination with grabbing branches all the time had took its toll on my hands.
That afternoon I drove back to Albania and over the same mountain pass I come over several days ago. This time without help: I bushfixed my broken snow chain with the pulling rope. In Tamarë valley I had booked a night at a small guesthouse named Sofra Kelmendit, which was probably my favorite stay in the Balkans. Amazing views, good food and a really comfortable room. The latter was not so hard after the suffering from the last 2 nights.
Full pack list: https://lighterpack.com/r/gjc3jp