This story originally appeared in the October 2012 (Volume 41, Issue 2) issue of POWDER.
WORDS: Anthony Bonello
PHOTOS: Jordan Manley
The potholed road is a creek. Water rushing in a strong current against us, we’re corralled by snowbanks that parallel the road and rise above our rental car windows, concealing nearly-buried homesteads. Elderly women wearing head scarves and knitted cardigans hunch over shovels, paddling water and chunks of ice from their garden paths. Though this is the only road to the popular ski area Malyovitsa, two hours south of the Bulgarian capital Sofia, locals look at us like no one has been through here in years. The monumental storm that hit Eastern Europe in late January 2012, isolating thousands of small villages like this one, is only now releasing its grip.
Chad Sayers, Forrest Coots, photographer Jordan Manley, and I had converged in Bucharest, Romania, in late February, baited by the prospect of skiing a 100-year storm. The 16 feet of snow, along with temperatures bottoming at negative 22 degrees Fahrenheit for weeks at a time, oppressed a region—from Poland in the north, east to Ukraine, south to Albania, and back west to Italy.
We arrived in the wake of innumerable tales of misery: A family whose propane tank exploded while they tried to keep warm. An avalanche that flattened a house, claiming 10, but sparing a 5-year-old girl. In four weeks, 824 people perished from exposure, the inability to reach medical help, and accidents caused by the threatening conditions, like the falling foot-long icicles we dodged on the streets of Bucharest.
Having landed after the worst of the storm to spiking temperatures, we abandoned the damp fog of Romania and took the overnight train to Sofia on the recommendation of Emanuil Emanuilov, a local skier since 1986. Taking his advice, we made our way to a rustic stone cabin, also called Malyovitsa, located in the heart of the 8,000-foot-high Rila Mountains in southwest Bulgaria and surrounded by a variety of ski-touring options. Emanuilov tells us that’s where the most snow has fallen. They have a six-foot base.
Standing in a granite notch atop a 50-degree ribbon of fresh snow, I find myself face-to-face with the conditions we had feared we missed. Pushing off is literally like diving in. My tips don’t reemerge for over 1,000 feet, swimming under two feet of crystalline chaos. Streaking out the mouth of the chute, the wind recycles face shots from previous turns, blowing them back over me.
Our turns expire at the skin track. The cabin should be visible— it’s not more than a 10-minute hike from here—but with the blizzard raging, we feel far removed from any solace beyond the satisfaction of feeling soft snow in our faces. Two more impressive gullies stacked 100 feet apart and demarcated by rimed, vertical, granite walls stand indignant toward the squall. Skiing solo while the others shoot photos in the next corridor over, I muse that while locals may lament the continued hostile weather, this feels like the most secure thing I could be doing at the moment.
Drunk on exhaustion, we retreat to the cabin to the company of a pack of lethargic dogs and our toeless custodian. Ivan Maslarov, a famed Bulgarian climber, initially pays us little attention as he goes about his chores. He gradually warms up, though, as the snow outside buries the door, and eventually offers a plastic bottle of homebrew vodka. In broken English, Maslarov shares tales of his exploits on the Eiger, Matterhorn, Everest, and in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia. He lost all 10 toes to frostbite throughout the adventures.
“My earliest memory here is the first time I climbed the north face of Malyovitsa Peak in 1975,” he says. “There have been a lot of very hard winters, but this winter was special, because we have had a lot of long periods of cold weather. That is not typical for here.”
The next day, the wind is even more furious, forcing us to retreat to the clanking Malyovitsa ski area one mile back down the valley. Despite treacherous roads, a group on fat skis patronizes the one rolling Poma lift that climbs 1,200 feet to a forested ridge. A second Poma that stretches 150 feet and nearly runs downhill occupies a half dozen beginners.
The tight spruce glades skier’s left of the lift offer thigh-deep turns and face shots as we plow through the wind-packed upper layers like icebreaker boats. Skiers brace against the maelstrom, the wind blowing the Poma track off its original path. The storm will be another blow to the Bulgarian people ill-equipped to handle its effects. For us, it’s exactly why we came.
How to Get There: Flights from most major European hubs to Sofia cost around $300. Be sure your rental car has all-wheel drive and chains, as the two-hour drive to Malyovitsa is rough.
General Info: Lift tickets at Malyovitsa cost $16. The Malyovitsa Hut has over 14 rooms and 80 beds and can be self-catered or catered. The fridge is stocked with beer, and if you ask Ivan Maslarov about his climbing exploits, he may offer you a nip of homemade vodka. Skiing is accessed by a one-hour tour from the hut. Food, beer, and a bed for two nights costs about $26/person.