Montenegro – Zla Kolata

Zla Kolata (8,314) – Highest Mountain in Montenegro

Eric Gilbertson

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On Zla Kolata looking north to Maja kolata

Leg 6: Campsite near Musala, Bulgaria to Zla Kolata, Montenegro
320 miles
October 21-26, 2014

October 21

I awoke from my campsite on in the forest on the side of Musala looking forward to my first rest day in the last 3 weeks. I had started my bicycle tour in Cluj-Napoca Romania on October 1, and had had nonstop action since then biking between and climbing the highpoints of Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Serbia, and Bulgaria. It was about time I took a rest day to do some errands like wash my clothes, take a shower, check email, buy flights for next month, and eat lots of food.

The town of Samokov was less than 10 miles away from my campsite, all downhill miles, and the town was big enough to likely have a cheap hotel and perhaps an internet café. Undoubtedly it would also have restaurants I could utilize. Bike touring takes a lot of energy – I usually ate about 10,000 calories a day on the road, and could certainly put down more than that on a rest day.

I packed up my tent and sleeping bag in my panniers and carefully descended the steep dirt road from my campsite. The road changed to pavement in the little ski town of Borovets, and I continued coasting downhill all the way to Samokov. In town I found a visitor’s center and talked with a lady inside about hotels and restaurants in the area. Two other travelers from the UK were also interested in staying in town, and we agreed to meet up for dinner later that evening.

“Enjoy the sunshine today, because tomorrow is supposed to be our first snow of the season,” the visitor center lady said. “The mountains might even get 15cm!”

I was excited to hear about snow, but then I realized that could cause me a huge delay biking. There was a good chance I could be stuck in Samokov until the roads got plowed, which might be a while. Unfortunately my schedule was kind of tight. I needed to meet a friend (Nadine) in Macedonia on October 30, and also needed to climb the Montenegro and Kosovo highpoints in the meantime. I was already cutting it close at my current pace, and a rest day plus bad weather day would make that even more difficult.

So I decided to save my rest day to coincide with a snowy/rainy day, and take advantage of the good weather while it lasted. I was feeling strong, so immediately headed out of town biking west on route 62. With a smooth road, light tailwind, and sunny skies I made fast progress. I biked through Dupnica, Nevestino, and Kyustendil before reaching the Macedonia border at Gyueshovo. Of all my border crossings on the bike tour, this was the first one where I wasn’t quickly waved through. This time the agent actually asked me to open up my bike panniers to be inspected.

Entering Macedonia

Entering Macedonia

I told him there was just food and smelly camping gear inside, but opened it nonetheless. He took one look, then said ok. Perhaps it was more like he took one whiff, and then said ok to wave me through. It was nearing sunset when I crossed into Macedonia, and I should have camped in the woods right next to the border, but there was a long downhill stretch in front of me and I wanted to put on some extra miles. At the bottom of the valley I entered civilization, right when it started getting dark. At this point it was very difficult to find a stealth campsite. I stopped and looked at a few, but they were either within sight of a house, or not flat. Finally just outside Konopitsa I saw a wooded area and darted in before anyone could see. I pitched my tent on a small sloping hillside between some bushes and went to bed.

October 22

It started raining that night around 2am and never let up. In the morning I ate breakfast in the tent, packed up as much as possible while still in the tent, then quickly packed up the tent and threw on the panniers. I knew I would get soaked in the rain, but I would warm up when I started biking, and perhaps the rain would eventually stop.

After two hours, though, the rain hadn’t stopped, and the temperature had dipped to just above freezing. The hillsides above me were getting blanketed with snow, and I was getting dangerously cold. If any day were to be a rest day it ought to be today, I thought. I stopped underneath a tree that provided a little bit of shelter, and put on all my layers underneath my jacket, then put on my mittens and waterproof shells. When biking in the cold my hands are what get the coldest. They’re not moving, but gripping cold metal and experiencing the brunt of the wind. The mittens helped, but I started shivering pretty badly nevertheless.

I passed a small gas station in Stratsin that had a hotel on the upper level, but decided to hold out for something better. My ideal rest day would have internet access and access to lots of food, and that place appeared to have neither.

The Etno Celo resort

The Etno Celo resort

Luckily there was a long hill afterwards, which gave me a chance to warm up a little. Shortly afterwards I passed a small village, and a huge billboard on the side of the road advertised “Etno Celo”, with a picture of what looked like a hotel/resort, and a restaurant. I instinctively turned where the arrow pointed, but was pretty skeptical. All I could see over there were a few small houses and farm fields. Why would there be this resort place there?

I kept following signs until I arrived at the resort. It was a very large complex tucked into the village, with woods and walking trails around the outside and a fancy restaurant on the first floor. Perhaps people from Skopje come here on the weekends. It wasn’t too crowded today, though, on a rainy Thursday. Luckily they had a room, had wifi, and had a restaurant downstairs. Breakfast was included, for $16. It’s pretty nice being in Eastern Europe where everything is so cheap. That would have been at least $100 in the US.

A luxurious hotel room

A luxurious hotel room

I quickly paid, locked up my bike, and brought all my wet gear inside. I was still shivering, and immediately jumped in a hot shower. I’m usually a 3-minute-shower kind of person, but this time I took full advantage of the situation and stayed in for a full 20 minutes.

I finally stopped shivering when I got out, and started drying out my gear and washing my clothes in the sink. I had put on 31 miles that morning, but today would officially count as my rest day. I used my phone to access the wifi, and tried to look into flights for November. I was hoping to finish off all the European countries except Russia on this trip, and needed to hit Portugal, Spain, and Cypress in November, possibly joining Matthew if he could come over from Boston. The internet was extremely slow though, and my old 2008-model phone had trouble pulling up websites. I usually just used the phone for texts and email, and this was pushing its limits.

I texted Matthew what my situation was, and he agreed to figure out flight logistics and then I could pay him back later. With the advantage of fast internet and two computer monitors back in Boston, Matthew quickly optimized the logistics so I could hit the Portugal and Morocco highpoints, then meet Matthew in the Canary Islands for the Spain highpoint, then fly to Cyprus and back to Greece. There’s no way I could have gotten all those flights figured out on my own.

With logistics settled and my clothes drying, I wandered down to the restaurant for some dinner. The waiter was pretty surprised when I ordered a full salad a full large pizza just for myself, but I assured him it would be no problem. For some reason in Macedonia they put olives with the seeds inside on the pizza, which makes it kind of difficult to eat. I still managed to polish off the whole thing, though, and went to bed soon afterwards.

October 23

Frosty morning

Frosty morning

In the morning I had a big omelet for breakfast before starting my bike ride again. Now it was cold, with frost on the ground at my elevation and snow covering the mountaintops in the distance in front of me. I stopped at a gas station in Kumanovo to pick up some snack food, then turned north on R1104 into Serbia. To actually cross the border I had to briefly bike the interstate-like road A1, but luckily there were huge shoulders.

I easily passed into Serbia, and soon turned west heading toward Presevo and Kosovo. A passing motorist outside Presevo stopped and rolled down the window.

“Kosovo?” he asked.

“Yes, Kosovo,” I replied, pointing up toward the mountains. The Kosovo border was in the mountains just outside Presevo.

“No. Kosovo problem,” he replied. “Lots of snow,” he continued, making a sign with his hands like snow falling from the sky.

“I’ll be ok, thank you,” I replied.

“No. Kosovo problem,” he said again. I assured him I would be careful, thanked him for being concerned, and then waved goodbye.

Entering Kosovo

Entering Kosovo

Outside of Presevo the road started winding steeply up into the hills. I passed a few huge garbage dumps in the hills, with numerous dogs pilfering through the rubbage. They snarled angrily at me as I passed by, but luckily didn’t give chase. They were more concerned with the food scraps in the dumps.

Gradually snow started appearing on the sides of the road, but luckily it had been plowed. I soon rounded a corner and found myself at the Kosovo border, just as it started to rain. The agents were very surprised I was from America, that I was solo, and that I was on a bicycle.

“Why isn’t your girlfriend with you?” one agent asked.

“She’s in school,” I replied. “I’ll see her in a few weeks back in America.”

“Oh ok,” he replied. “That is good. Welcome to Kosovo.”

With that I was in a new country. Sort of. Kosovo isn’t technically a member state of the United Nations, but over half of the UN members recognize it as an independent country, and it is expected to soon become a member. So I provisionally count it as a country.

The light rain turned to a light snow as I crested a pass, then back to rain as I dropped to the next valley. I stopped in the small town of Pasjan to try to find some food, and came upon a corner store. I loaded up a small basket with bread, meat, cheese, and pasta and brought it to the front to pay. The woman wrote down the amount on a piece of paper and I handed her a handful of Serbian Dinars. She shook her head no.

“Euros, Euros,” she said. I felt silly. Serbia and Kosovo are not the best of friends since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, so I shouldn’t have expected Kosovo to accept Serbian Dinars. I went through my wallet showing them every other currency I had (Ukrainian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Romanian), but they shook their heads no. Then I showed them my US dollars and they smiled and nodded yes, they could accept those. The US has actually invested a lot of money into rebuilding Kosovo since the fighting the in 1990s, and the two countries are very friendly.

The woman didn’t know what the conversion was, though. Unfortunately we didn’t speak a common language to figure it out, but one person in the store called up a friend on the phone and figured out the right conversion. I handed over my US dollars, and the woman carefully gave me the exact change in euros.

With plenty of food now I continued biking, through Gjilan and then northwest all the way to the capital of Pristina. It was starting to get close to sunset now, and I was pretty nervous I might get stuck in town in the dark, far from any stealth camping. Traffic was crazy during Friday evening rush hour, but I somehow managed to find my way through all the busy streets and pop out on E851 heading west. It looked like I could probably push hard and get out of town by sunset, but then my rear tire started feeling a little splashy. I must have run over some debris and now had a flat tire. This was pretty common on the rough roads in Eastern Europe, but I really didn’t want it to happen now.

I pulled off to the side, flipped over the bike, and started trying to patch it. It just happened that I was outside a mechanic shop, and the owner, Tommy, offered that I could use his air compressor to pump it up. He even brought me some tea while I was working. I asked him if there was any good camping around, but he said no, I’d just have to find a hotel. He also said this road was really dangerous at night and I shouldn’t be biking on it.

I really didn’t want to stay in a hotel again, but by the time I fixed up the bike it was totally dark. Huge semi trucks were zipping by on the road, and I was kind of worried they’d have trouble seeing me. There happened to be a hotel just across the road, though, so I gave in and resigned to stay in a hotel again.

This one was $25, but also had a restaurant included. I again ate a huge pizza, took another shower, and resolved this would be the last hotel of the trip for me.

October 24

The next morning I biked out of town in the pouring rain, and of course found an excellent stealth camping place within the next 5 miles. Oh well. I continued west, through Komoran and Kijeve, then stopped around 11am at a gas station near Zajm to take a rest and pick up some snacks. There happened to be a restaurant attached, and I poked my head inside to see what they had. When I sat down a waiter

Ominous mountains ahead of me

Ominous mountains ahead of me

came over and asked, “What would you like?”

“Um, I’m pretty hungry,” I replied. “What do you have?”

“How about an American breakfast?” he said. “It has eggs and bread and cheese.”

“Sure, that sounds great,” I replied.

He soon came back with a huge plate full of scrambled eggs, ham, cucumbers, and tomatoes. He also brought out two full loaves of bread. I think he could tell I was really hungry. I’m not sure the cucumbers and tomatoes made it qualify as an American breakfast, but I didn’t complain. Maybe it was an American-sized breakfast. The whole thing was only $3.

With a very full stomach I biked through Peja, then turned north. I had briefly debated crossing the Cakor pass, a shortcut into Montenegro that could save me 30 miles. My map showed a road crossing there, but there was no border crossing symbol. At the hotel in Macedonia I had looked it up on my phone and seen the road still existed but had been closed off at the border since the fighting in the 1990s. There were reports of bikers sneaking across, but I was worried the road would certainly be unplowed, and with possibly up to a meter of fresh snow there the 30 miles in savings wouldn’t help if I had to carry my bike for much of it.

Snowy biking conditions

Snowy biking conditions

So I aimed for the Montenegro crossing at Rosaje. The road quickly climbed very steeply out of Peja, switchbacking up a dozen times until I came to a leaving-Kosovo checkpoint. They stamped my passport, and I continued climbing steeply. Soon after the checkpoint the road began being covered with snow, with only a few narrow tire tracks reaching down to pavement. At one point a large semi came lumbering up the road, and I pulled off to let him pass. The road had been plowed at one time here, but the plow had only made one pass so the snow drifts on the side effectively made it a one-lane road.

As I neared the pass I was biking through fresh powder on top of compacted snow, but as long as I maintained momentum I could continue biking. At the pass the visibility dropped to only 50ft as wind picked up and it started snowing hard. I was lucky I hadn’t tried the Cakor Pass, which was higher elevation and definitely not plowed.

A short drop after the pass I crossed through the entering-Montenegro border, and the guards congratulated me for biking through the tough conditions. The road was even snowier in Montenegro, and just below the border I came upon two semi trucks parked in the middle of the road. Apparently it was too slippery for them to make it any higher!

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Trucks struggling in the snow on the Montenegro side of the border

I carefully descended and it soon got warm enough that at least the snow on the road was melting, even though there were one or two feet off to the side in the woods. At Rosaje I continued following what looked like the only major road, weaving through amazing canyons with 100ft drops on the side. A few times I even passed through small tunnels, since the canyon was too steep to cut out a road.

By sunset I found an excellent forest on the side of the road and pitched my tent on a flat patch of snow. This was the first time I’d camped on snow on the trip, but certainly wouldn’t be the last.

October 25

I continued down the road in the morning, and was a little confused that I was descending so much. After 10 miles I was really confused when I got to a border crossing. A big sign on the other side said Serbia. How could this be?, I thought. I pulled out my gps and realized that I should have made a turn

Scenic canyons near Bac

Scenic canyons near Bac

west in Rosaje, but I had just continued east. I didn’t remember any turnoff, and there wasn’t even a sign saying I was in Rosaje, so I had just thought I wasn’t to the town yet. But, in fact, with all the downhill I was making much more progress than I realized and had now made it all the way to the Serbian border near Bac!

I turned around, angry for my mistake but knowing know the only solution was to start heading in the right direction. I’d only lost 20 miles total, so not that big of a deal. I biked back through the canyon to Rosaje, and now saw the turn I had missed. In town I stopped in a bakery to warm up and ate plenty of pastries. They didn’t have hot chocolate but I really wanted something warm, so I actually ordered a cup of coffee. I really don’t like coffee, but I put so much milk and sugar in it that it kind of tasted like hot chocolate.

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The trailhead at Vusanje

The land was all covered in snow around Rosaje, but after I biked up and over another pass and dropped down to Berane the ground was completely snow free. I stopped in town at a grocery store to pick up some food, then continued on M9 southwest up the valley. I knew I would be returning to Kosovo this way after climbing the Montenegro highpoint, so kept my eye out for good campsites.

I passed through Andrijevica, Murino, and Plav, then whipped out my directions for the highpoint. In Gusinje I turned up a small dead-end road toward the village of

A pleasant campsite

A pleasant campsite

Vusanje. On the way I got another flat tire, but quickly repaired it and made it to the trailhead in Vusanje by 4pm. The trail to Zla Kolata here actually started out as a dirt road, so I pushed my bike up as far as I thought I could reasonably bike down on the return, then stashed it in the woods. I continued on foot with my yellow backpack full of all my overnight camping and hiking gear.

I had come prepared with a GPS track of the route, and easily followed the trail to the end of the dirt road at some sheep fields, then up into the trees on a small trail. The trail soon became covered in snow, and as darkness set in I pitched my tent on a small level area above an abandoned farmers hut.

October 26

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Above the clouds

In the morning I left my tent pitched with sleeping bag inside, and proceed up the trail. It would have been pretty hard to follow the trail in the foot of fresh snow without my GPS track. Occasionally I encountered a red and white marking on a rock, but they were not frequent enough to navigate by. Visibility was pretty bad and it was snowing lightly. I soon popped above treeline, scrambling over rocks and snow. As I got higher I eventually popped above the clouds. Mountains were sticking up all around me like islands. The huge north face of Maja Kolata loomed impressively in front of me.

I navigated to the right of the huge face, dropping back into a valley and regaining the trail after momentarily losing it. Not surprisingly, there was nobody else hiking back here, even though it was a weekend (Sunday). The snow got deeper, and I unfortunately had opted to not bring gaitors on my bike tour. However, with my long pants draping over my boots very little snow got inside.

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Nearing the pass

As I reached the valley beneath the face of Zla Kolata, the red and white markings indicated I should turn up and start ascending to the col in between Zla Kolata and Maja Kolata. This looked quite difficult. A small glacier on the north face of Zla Kolata covered much of the slope beneath the col, and the remainder looked to me like icy cliffs. I did have microspikes, and I put them on at this point.

I kept roughly following the markings on boulders through the deeper and deeper snow, and the trail picked a careful route along icy ledges through the cliff bands that I hadn’t seen from below. I was very grateful for the extra traction of the microspikes, and before long made it to the col.

On Maja Kolata

On Maja Kolata

There’s actually a little bit of uncertainty on which mountain is the true highpoint of Montenegro, with Maja Kolata and Zla Kolata being within an few meters of height of each other and each is a contender for the highest point. The prudent choice is to climb them both.

I started with Maja Kolata, scaling the south ridge, past a few dicey sections, to finally reach the large cairn on the summit just before the north face cliff drops off. The view was spectacular. Undercast filled the valleys in all directions, with only rocky, cliffy, snowy mountains poking out. I thought it looked not unlike the Himalayas, especially since the undercast hid how tall the mountains truly were.

On Zla Kolata looking North to Maja Kolata

On Zla Kolata looking North to Maja Kolata

I descended the ridge, then scrambled up the eastern face to the summit of Zla Kolata, perched right on the Albanian border. A rock on the summit had Zla Kolata painted in red to avoid any confusion. It was hard to tell which one was actually higher, so it’s definitely a good idea to just do both.

The descent was pretty easy now that I could just follow my tracks through the snow. I dropped back down into the clouds, and reached my tent by midday. I still had plenty of daylight left, though, so I packed up my tent and sleeping bag and hiked back down to my bike. Hopefully I could bike far enough today to get back on schedule to climb Djeravica, the Kosovo highpoint on Tuesday, and meet up with Nadine in Macedonia on Wednesday as planned.

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