New Routing In Macedoniaby Ed Southwood Nov/2013
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The internet isn't all pictures of cats and fights on forums. It's a place for collaboration, sharing knowledge and starting adventures. A video on UKC sparked an interest in me. Pictures of boulderers climbing on strange shaped golden granite in an exotic country looked good, but the tors in the background got me more excited. It looked like a super Dartmoor. Were there trad routes on the tors?
A trawling of the web yielded nothing. The best I could do was look on google earth at the location and see some rocks. So I took a punt and emailed the film maker. A day later, to my surprise, he replied. His email included pictures of trad climbing. It looked ace, what's more he put me in touch with a local activist, Igor, keen to encourage the traditional ethic in the area.
Getting interest in a trip to Macedonia tested my powers of persuasion. Unlike Sport climbing in Spain I couldn't offer good weather, cheap villas, convenient flights, higher cars and guide books full of routes. I couldn't even offer a single route description. My only bargaining chips were: some pictures of rocky landscapes from the internet, Igor, the chance of new routing and the potential for adventure.
A few people showed some interest but with four weeks holiday a year they were after more certainly than I could offer. But finally, I played my ace, and got a mate drunk (Matt) and we booked flights. The trip became one of my most memorable thanks to the generosity and hospitality of Igor, his wife Vesna, and the other locals we met. Macedonia is unlike anywhere else I’ve visited and below are some highlights:
…Dropped off at the the base of an ugly concrete apartment building identical to its neighbors, the legacy of the communist history of the country, I can't help but think I'm in a spy movie. Walking underground I find the car rental office. A small room one desk with a lady sat behind it. With movie script timing the phone rings the lady picks it up. She says a few words and looks at me. "It's for you" She says. Now I'm starting to get a little freaked out, this is meant to be real life not a film. The voice on the other end of the phone is Igor's friend he has arranged the car and we are to pick it up in 15mins.
One night Igor makes me feel like a rock star. He has arranged for me to do a talk about climbing in the UK to some local climbers. They are the model audience; they laugh at my jokes, show interest in my pictures and even want more stories at the end. My ego was massaged.
Hanging out with the climbers after the talk someone shows me a youtube video of a top roped climb. He flips me the finger. He's not being rude it's just a convenient 3D model of the feature the climb is on. "It has never been lead." He said. There is no Crag X secrecy here, the locals are just pleased to have other people to enjoy the rock and climb it with a traditional ethic. The next day after some wondering around on a hillside looking for the finger, and a few falls (one involving a comedy taped closed quickdraw) I stood on top of the rock having done the first onsight ground up ascent. A memorable experience.
Matt makes his way up the slab, placing his feet carefully between the mossy patches. One, two, three, four, five tugs on the cam he just place. He clips the quickdraw in and then give it another five tugs. The crack looks like it should accept good gear. Is it not as bomber as it looks? Then, as he clips the rope and gives the piece another final five tugs. It turns out that this is the first route Matt has done with a full rack of cams. He has made the leap to trad from sport in the last three months and he has been serving his trad apprenticeship just like most new climbers - with one set of nuts and a few hexes. The good old days without the dilemma of choosing what gear to take. You just took everything and hoped you wouldn't run out. A wave of guilt breaks over me, was it fool hardy to encourage Matt up the harder of the lines available? But I know Matt can climb and as an engineer he has an eye for gear that works. I watch Matt select the brass nuts from his harness and fiddle in some protection. Then, with the clam resignation of a condemned man sets off running it out up the slab. "Doing the runout above the dodgy nut was a highlight for me." Matt later commented, and his new route Slim Jim, HVS 5a is a impressive achievement considering his best onsight at home was VS.
"Down and dirty" is a phrase my wife uses to describe establishments that are unpretentious and used by normal people. One free table and steady stream of people with take away orders lures us to one 'down and dirty' place on one of Prilep's side streets. We order barbecued meat, bread and beer because that is all they serve. Nestled in between crates of beer we take our seats and await our food. In seconds we become centre of attention, we are the first tourists ever to have entered the place. Matt is invited into the kitchen to take photos of the chief at work and I am kissed and hugged by everyone in the room. Another round of beer is requested even though the first is not finished and we have a drive to do before sleeping. One man, Rambo, hands me his phone and I'm passed around at the other end in order to speak to his whole family. Making excuses we leave for a bit of peace and quiet. It is a little overwhelming being a celebrity. The bill is about £1.50 each.
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Exhausted, lying on the top of the tor I relished being safe. If there had been a route description I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have climbed the route. That would have been a pity because it turned out to be the trips highlight. An innocuous crack line right at the top of the crag, what looks like an easy romp that could be done in trainers turns out to be otherwise. It is a widening crack line whose access is guarded by a deep slopey break and roof both invisible from the floor. The crack takes hand jams under the roof, closes through the roof and then reopens with a dissappointing flare, but there is space for one perfect hand jam (or a gold cam) to get established at the bottom of the crack (a lovely example of the magic 5.11+ grade). Passing through the roof I could feel the rock breaking beneath my hands whilst I placed gear. With Speilberg timing I saw the hold fall to the floor as I plugged in the next jam. The crack then passes with much huffing and puffing quickly through fist jamming into the dark underworld of offwidth. After 5 metres of number 5 friend action it widens to require a number 6 (unfortunately I don't have a number 6). Luckily there are some nubbins on the face and the angle is the right side of vertical but still it is a width that strikes fear in to crack mortals. Midway through this final runout vanity strikes me. Nobody has taken a picture of me on the route. I set off with our camera in my pocket, so I get a knee lock and take a mid route self portrait to document the ascent.
Sharing the only bed in the apartment together we sum up the trip. We wonder if anyone will climb out routes or even if someone had climbed them before us. But does it make a difference if the routes had been done before? Is it your ego seeking glory? For me what matters is the style which we approached the routes. We climbed things we liked the look of and chose challenges where success was not guaranteed. Perhaps the fact the rocks weren't graded helped. There is no anxiety from failing on a grade you have already 'conquered' before or from trying something 'too hard' for yourself. We had freedom to choose without baggage. Don't get me wrong, I love climbing grades. You can measure your progress, easily pick challenges of a certain level and have an endless topic for conversation. But, every once in a while it's nice to leave the guide book at home and follow your nose. It might not be the most efficient use of time but your probably going to have an exciting time. So, next you go climbing why not leave the guide book at home.
Related Video: Bouldering in Macedonia
When do I go? Spring or autumn. Things get a little hot and sweaty in the summer. The winters are cold.
Who flies where? Whizair run cheap flights from Stanstead to Skopje (the capital of Macedonia). From there hire a car. It's about a 2 hour drive to Prilep. The roads are good, there are tolls but they are inexpensive.
Where do I stay?Wild camping is tolerated around the rocks but be discrete and careful about human waste and rubbish. Beds are also available in monasteries, see below.
What's the scoff like? Eating out is good and inexpensive. The Macedonians do very good kebab (Kebapchinja), chips and beer (Pivo). Perfect for Brits abroad.
Where can I buy gear and food? It is very hard to get climbing equipment in Macedonia so come well prepared. A liquid fuel stove is a good idea but you can cheaply pick up small gas stoves whist you are there. There are super markets in Prilep.
What else is there apart from the climbing? Take half a day to wonder around the old Skopje. It's cobbled streets are a contrast to the Soviet high rise buildings that make up most of the rest of the city.
The walking is very good in Macedonia. There are monasteries in the hills that take in walkers for the night. You can stay in them for free but is normal to leave some sort of donation. They vary in size from one room to large places that could sleep at least 80. I was unsure about staying in a Monastery but you are under no religious obligation when you stay there. The places are just happy to offer a bed for a night, it is a really nice experience
Ed Southwood is an active climber based in Somerset, who, as a Maths teacher has inspired numerous young students to take their first steps into the world of climbing, including a certain UKC Assistant Editor.
Ed has climbed all over the world, in many world class climbing areas such as; Squamish, Yosemite, Mt. Arapiles and extensively throughout the UK.
To supplement his teaching so that he can go on climbing trips, Ed also makes 'T-RAD' Climbing T-shirts. To buy one go to t-rad.co.uk.
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