Scrambling Vitosha’s challenging furrows

One need not be a technically advanced mountain climber kitted out with 15kg of kit, nor does one need to venture all the way to Rila’s Malyovitsa complex or Pirin Mountain, in order to experience some proper adrenalin. And there is no need to risk life and limb in the process either. Hiking is always great fun, be it in the summer or winter, but some climbing/scramble is even more rewarding.  Granted, Malyovitsa is the cradle of Bulgarian rock climbing and mountaineering, much like the Eiger north face would be to anyone living anywhere near the Alps, but to assault the likes of the Zliya Zub (Evil Fang), the 450m wall Dvuglav (Two Headed) or Iglata (The Needle), one must be a climber with a highly advanced technical proficiency as the aforementioned are designated as a grade UIAA V+.

I was never much into rock-climbing, as spending several hours suspended from a rock face like a spider is not my idea of a quality time up on the mountain. I would much rather cover some decent distance in the summer, interspersed with a good rock scramble, and in winter, engage in some crampons and ice-axe action, whenever possible.

Thankfully, here on Vitosha Mountain, there are several places where one can do just that, providing both a cheaper alternative, and a very convenient alternative, especially if you are pressed for time.

A good day out, including some brilliant sight-seeing around the Bistrishko Branishte Reserve, and a hike under the north face of Golyam Rezen (2277m) and then to Golyam Koupen (1930m) can be launched from the Aleko complex at 1800m, which happens to be the main ski complex on Vitosha mountain, and the communication nerve-centre linking most of the lifts, drags and the gondola spanning from Simeonovo borough, south Sofia.

Heading south-east, along the marked trail towards the Bistrinsko Branishte, you will pass under the Romanski lift, and then cross the Laleto slope until eventually reaching the branishte, or reserve.

The path is picturesque, beautiful and easy to negotiate by anyone of reasonable fitness, as the slope is all but negligible, and 30min into the hike, you will find yourself under the imposing north face of the Golyam Rezen and the observatories which are built on its summit.

Once there, you can either proceed along the trail towards the Golyam Koupen and the adjacent Fizkultournika lodge, or turn right and challenge yourself by mounting a direct assault on the Rezena, by selecting one if its reknowned “furrows”. There are several of them, with a varying degree of steepness, some of them exceeding 60 degrees.

Each furrow is flanked on either side by massive rocks, boulders and Moreni, each one of them representing a great opportunity for a rewarding spell of scrambling. In the summer, the climb will be accomplished with nothing more than a careful four-point-contact advance, although there are some spots with vertical cliffs which would require superior technical skill and climbing equipment. Those are prominent and visible from afar, and easily avoidable. But for those seeking something really extreme, then, the Rezena can offer plenty of that as well.

The fourth furrow, nicknamed “the Boulevard” and the third furrow are ideal for such a scramble, each one of them demanding no more than 45 min of effort to scale and reach the summit. This can be done at a reasonable climbing pace, without rushing or risking injury.

The aforementioned furrows, during the winter, are also ideal for some crampon and iceaxe practice, while you have your snowboard or skis strapped to your backpack.

Once on the summit, you swap the iceaxe and crampons for the skis, and head down back the furrow, but be advised and make sure you check the snow conditions first, to avoid launching an avalanche, which is relative easy if the snow cover is abundant.

One way to check for any potential danger is by using your iceaxe to cut a metre-by-metre-by-metre cube into the snow, and see if the snow is layered. If there are layers, and a weak layer is positioned precariously over a more solid layer, and if by hitting the top layer of the cube with the palm of your hand, the top layer starts shifting, then there is a good reason to assume that you probably will start an avalanche, so best avoid skiing down the furrows altogether.

If you attempt the Rezena climb in the summer via the north face, it is advisable that you descend via the tourist route from Cherni Vruh, dead west, or hike to the Maluk Rezen, dead to the south, both of which can be accessed inside 30 minutes or less.

Then again, should you decide to skip the Golyam Rezen altogether, proceed through the Bistrinsko Branishte, and head for the Golyam Koupen. From Aleko the summit will be reached in about 1.45 hours, while passing through some of the most scenic and beautiful parts of the reserve in the high parts of the mountain, hiking past the Bistrishka River and some spectacular stone rivers along the way.

The Golyam Koupen is a gorgeous little summit, which is accessible best either through the south face or the east face, representing a massive scramble up the stone rivers.  It is great fun, it is slightly challenging, and for some, it might transpire as a good adrenaline rush, while scaling the massive boulders, but most of all, it is not dangerous, and it is not necessary to have any climbing gear.

Naturally, caution and good sense are essential, since some of the rocks are loose and therefore unstable. One wrong move could lead to a slip, a fall and even a twisted or broken limp, so proceed with caution.

Once the summit is scaled, however, the view of the mountain, the valleys below and the city of Sofia are more than rewarding. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to experience  something other than “cheese tourism” and the routine and bordering on sheer stupor:  gondola – Cherni Vruh – gondola – Sofia.

From the top of Golyam Koupen, either take the route back to Aleko, or pass the Fizkoultournik lodge (not recommended to anyone as a place to actually visit, let alone spend a night there) and proceed down the marked path all the way to Zheleznitsa village, which is 2.5 hours away. Once in Zheleznitsa, bus No: 88 will take you back to Hladilnika in Sofia.

Welcome back to the filth. Best option then is, to head home, have a shower, then go down the pub and have a few pints with the lads, to ease the shock of the ugly urban reality and share some of the magic that is just next door.

(Photo of Golyam Rezen by Nick Iliev)