We decided to take the Gondola up to Yastrebets and explore the Markudjik slopes. Over breakfast I squinted at my phone checking various maps. How would we get to the Gondola? It wasn’t really clear. But the piste map had a route marked as “ski slope connection”. We could reach it by skiing from the nearby chairlift. Why walk, in ski-boots, when we could ski there? It was a no brainer, in my estimation at least, though my ski-buddy would later claim her opinion had been ignored. Pah!
The six-man chairlift is close to the ski depot, but the journey is treacherous nonetheless. One must take care not to make eye contact with the hawkers outside the many eateries and under no circumstances should one speak to said fellows unless willing to hear the entire menu in three languages. Then one must avoid the temptation to buy hand-knitted socks from the matrons guarding their wares beside the path. With that done all that is left to face is ten metres of polished ice ending in a short frozen slope. Much easier than walking to the Gondola, which for all we knew was reached via an assault course.
So, we were whisked up the chairlift, skied off with only minor mishap, turned past the bitch (with her five pups), avoided the snowboarders who had chosen to lie down in groups wherever the path narrowed and along the gentle Martinovi-Baraki One. I picked up the necessary speed to carry me along the flat section leading to the Rotata and looked for the Ski slope connection. And there it was. And a sign. “To Gondola”. Even better, a caterpillar of pre-teens in yellow ski-school gilets had been led that way. So it couldn’t be too arduous.
Well. By the time I reached the Gondola the thought echoing in my mind was the Car Rental Desk scene from Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I tried to fit my own experience into its framework. I would have preferred not to have shuffled my way along a ski connection where other people were happily skiing in the opposite direction or had to relinquish what momentum I had built up to avoid toboggans crossing my path. And I would have preferred not to ski through lumps of mud mixed with snow, churned up by a JCB and then frozen solid or crossing a busy fucking road before shuffling uphill through more churned and frozen mud. And I would have preferred not to have skied the final section on a surface more suited to ice hockey than skiing while dodging more toboggans. But was done. We wouldn’t do it again. Apparently someone had not wanted to do it in the first place.
The gondola itself was reached by climbing a set a steps, but that’s to be expected. What I did not expect was a gondola designed for Hobbits. Or a fellow rider who thought bringing his board into the cramped gondola was a good idea. But it is a 5km ride so by the time we reached the top I had calmed down. After all it could only get better.
The views were excellent, the snow just right and the slopes begging to be skied. I adjusted my boots, clicked on the skis and set off down to the Markudjik slopes, and down M1. A Goldilocks run. Not too easy, not too hard. Then I waited my turn for the drag lift.
Drag lifts are easy enough to use. Shuffle up to the start, grab the pole as it passes, and put the button between your legs. Keep your skis straight, stay upright, and keep in the tracks until you reach the top. If you’re a cool dude you might let your arms hang at your side, ski on one leg, or grab a selfie to share with your mates.
Markudjik One’s lift rises 900m and its quoted speed is 3 m/s. It is a little steep in places but nothing that looked particularly worrying. I’m not one of those cool dudes who rides lifts backwards or does yoga on the drag-lift. But I still approached the lift with a certain nonchalance, my thoughts on the next downhill ski. The ascent, as far as I was concerned, already done.
I shuffled up to the lift, took hold of the pole and was jerked out of my nonchalance. Before I had a chance to straighten my skis, I shot forward as if fired from a trebuchet. I got the button positioned but almost lost my footing as my skis diverged. But the drag soon slowed and I got myself sorted out. I breathed a sigh relief and took a look around letting my hand fall from the pole. The lift’s evil spirit noticed. Warp speed was enabled again and I found myself weaving from side to side on the mini-moguls that had replaced the even tracks beneath my feet. I thought I might be pulled over and hung on with both hands as I fought to control my balance.
I had just got into the rhythm of the lift when the drag’s vector shifted from horizontal to near vertical. My thighs gripped hard as the button fought to escape. I wished the button had been larger as I felt myself being lifted off the snow. Then there was more ferocious acceleration, but horizontal, thankfully. I looked ahead hoping the end might be near. But there was no end in sight.
I began to wonder what to do if I fell off. Or when I fell off. There was no nearby piste, only the tops of conifers sticking through rough snow. I would have to ski back down the steep narrow path of the drag lift, and, avoid the passengers it was throwing about. I decided to be positive and not consider failure. If I could just hang on for another couple of minutes.
Then came the first steep section. It approached at break neck speed then I was suddenly slowed as if the the lift was going into reverse. I thought my skis would slip backwards under me. But I managed to hold on for the ever so slow ascent. And I was ready for the next steep section.
Soon the end was in sight. Just a few metres to go. Then it was all over. I cast away the pole, skied off the drag, and waited. When my companion joined me I wondered if the experience had been the same for both of us. I forced a smile and with all the composure I could muster admitted “that wasn’t pleasant”. She thought so too. We agreed it should be a once in a lifetime experience.
After the next descent I skied on past the unpleasant M1 drag-lift, and past the sign “M2A, M2B, and M3 are not suitable for beginners”, heading for M2’s chairlift. I planned to take it, ski along to M1, down that and across to the chairlift again. And repeat until lunch.
From the chair lift there were great views of M2’s slopes. M2A is a black run and looked it. M2B is a red run, but with its wide gentle slope looked more like a blue run. I assumed it to be an “easy reds” that could just as easily have been a “slightly tricky blue”. It called to me like a Siren. And I answered its call.
Half an hour later, shaken and perturbed, I rode the same chair-lift, looking across at M2B and trying to fathom how I could have so misjudged its slope. I saw, as I had before, its gentle slope but now I noticed the trees beside it. A forest of trees all growing at an angle. But I had stood on that slope (and lain upon it) and could swear the trees were vertical. I looked up to the horizon and the penny dropped. A mountain ridge hid the true horizon. A false horizon had fooled my senses. Suddenly I saw its true nature.
Did I enjoy those wide empty gentle slopes? Obviously, the answer is no. But standing at the top of Markudjik 2B I still saw before me a wide gentle slope. I turned my skis down the slope and suddenly my perception shifted.
In my mind there might be a room. Its door is marked “Spatial awareness – authorised entry only”. In that room, at that time, stood a rather haughty chap. The type accustomed to being heard and having his opinions count. His badge read in gold lettering “VP” (Visual Perception). His posture was self-assured as I stood atop M2B. But as I turned my skis downhill, the door to that room from its hinges and in strode an older, much ignored fellow. His faded badge read Vestibulo-Somatogravic Perception. He struck Visual Perception a hard blow, knocking him from his feet. Then stepping over his prone adversary he took control, slamming a fist on a red warning button, and announcing “This slope is bloody steep”.
Bloody steep? Yes, but the piste was wide and for the most part empty. I could take my time and zig-zag down. But on one zag, about a third of the way down, I picked up just a little too much speed. The decelerating turn uphill came just a little too late and in the enforced sharp turn my skis collided. The uphill ski loosened and I came to a stop. No problem, take a breath, click my boot back in and carry on.
But that boot refused to click back in. After a great many attempts it was clear an alternative plan was needed. I could take off both skis and walk down to try again where it was less steep. No, it was too steep to walk down safely. I poked the snow beside the piste. It was too soft and deep. Perhaps, I could take off both skis, sit down and slide? No, it would be too difficult to hold two skis and two poles while sliding down. Drift down on the remaining ski then? I tried it and fell over. So the choice was made. I slid down twenty metres on my side, using the attached ski for speed control and the other, like a rudder, for positioning. It seemed to take forever. A further attempt at getting the ski on failed. One or two people skied past. None offering to help.
I aimed for a short section where the gradient eased and there my ski clicked on easily. I looked back up the slope at the flattened snow I had left behind. I wish now I had taken a photo but it just didn’t cross my mind at the time. Instead I took a breath, turned down the hill, and skied down the rest of the slope.
Another once in a lifetime experience.
Just to add to the strangeness of the day. As I paused a little further down the slope I saw what I thought was a pine cone coming up the slope and crossing my path. When it was much closer I saw it wasn’t a pine cone but a small creature. Later Googling suggested it might be a European Snow Vole.
I had planned to have Tripe Soup for lunch since it seemed to be a traditional Bulgarian dish on all menus, but by the time we stopped for lunch it was sold out and I had to make do with chicken soup. But rest assured I tried the tripe soup before the week was out.
Another once in a lifetime experience.