We knew this would be a good story as we suffered through…unless it ended badly.
Chris and Anita live in a beautiful place: Prespa Greece. Rich in biodiversity, nesting grounds for storks, pelicans, grey geese, home to endless plants and wildlife.
So when I came to visit we decided to go somewhere else: Macedonia
Death by hiking. Pellester shredded my feet.
Chris and I headed over to Macedonia to hike Mount Pellester, Anita was too wise to join us. Pellester borders Albania, Greece and Macedonia. Chris had done it a few years ago but had not been able to summit because of weather. Days have been clear and hot here so off we went.
We arrived at this great little place in Divolo. Pieter is a retired Dutch football player (European football not American) and now an inn keeper and great cook. We had a good dinner and retired. As we doed off, Chris grumbled about the lumpy post-communist mattress. I replied, “Really? It is so much less lumpy than my Albanian mattress I think it pretty good.”
After an early breakfast we headed off. Our plan was to hike up the exposed side of the mountain in the morning before the sun was at full force. We would lunch at a mountain refuge, summit and then head down the other side. We told Pieter our plans and he insisted we should start from the other direction, theat it would be too hot to hike up the exposed part. We dismissed his warning, a pattern we would repeat all too often in the coming hours.
We drove off, parked our car at the trail head and started up. Hot and then hotter but eventually we got to the refuge. We were a bit behind schedule but not too concerned as the day was hot. We rested, ate and hydrated and then our quiet refuge was invaded by six jeeps full of Dutch tourists. Seeing dozens of happy Nordic faces was disconcerting. We chatted with them longer than planned and headed back on the trail at 1:30. The mountain guide warned us against taking some left or right, we were never sure and again dismissed advice.
Eventually we summited but at 5 pm not at 3 as we had hoped. AS we rested at the summit a bare footed boy came over and in perfect English explained that we were resting on a memorial to his grandfather who was the first Macedonian to summit Mount Everest. I am still not sure which part of the previous sentence I find more surprising.
Our young guide led us to the descent trail. His father came out from the summit station to explain that the road would be easier as the trail was all rocks. Again, we dismissed advice, shucks how bad can a few rocks be? The trail is designated an educational trail though its actual name is The Rocky Trail. So we set off about 5:30 with three hours of daylight left.
The Rocky trail is not in fact rocky, it is boulder. Big crusty boulders that require scrambling, ropes holds and curse words. Occasionally a hiking trail may require circumventing a boulder or two but this was 1.5 miles of bouldering. WE could not quite believe it so we stayed close to the trail markers, red circles with white lines. Ninety minutes later we entered woods, sure that this would be the end of the boulders. No such luck. Now there were just trees between some of the boulders.
Finally we got out of the boulder field and found ourselves hiking endless forested switchbacks as the light faded to dusk. Ambient lighting is usually sufficient to hike at night unless the forest is too deep. Yup, you guessed it, we got into deep forest. And then we lost the trail. And then wefound it again.
Then we came to a T intersection that baffled us. We continued to follow the markers. We heard bad europop music and figured civilization was near. We lost the trail. More music. We found the trail. We came to a river of rocks 100 yards wide. And lost the trail again.
I sat down as Chris search for trail markers. As I waited I dozed off. When he returned 20 minutes later, he had not found the trail. So I called it. We could not safely hike across boulders in the dark and we did not know which way to go anyway. We were done for the day. I had found a sort of flat area about the size of a twin bed and we settled down for the night. Brown bears are alive and well in this area. We had no way to hang food so the plan was to sleep on the rocks, hoping that we would hear any approaching critters and could throw our food at them before they got too close. Not a great plan, but a plan.
We were quite comfortable for about 30 minutes and then reality settled in. We were tired hungry and cold. We had warm jackets and a reflective blanket but rocks are unforgiving. At one point, I said, “Makes you kinda miss that lumpy ole post-communist mattress doesn’t it?” I would sleep on one side until the pain was too great and then roll to the other. Chris did the same thing as hips, legs and feet started to tighten and cramp. Eventually down broke. We had wildlife visits at all which was a bit sad. We didn’t even have rodents eat our nuts. No rodents anywhere, was a bit sad about this.
We got up with the sun simply because it was a relief to not be lying on rocks. Standing on my feet was not much better but at least it was different. We headed back across the rock river and found the trail marker in the woods. We headed back the way we had come. After an hour we came to the T intersection and found where we had made our mistake. Another hour of hiking brought us to the trailhead which happened to end at a hotel and restaurant. We sat down for breakfast so excited to get food we forgot how nasty we were. Half way through breakfast we each, sheepishly, went off to wash our hands and clean up a bit.
End of Part I (be very glad I resisted posting pictures of my feet)