Malyovitsa Peak is a 2,729-meter (8,953-foot) mountain in the highlands of western Bulgaria. It accentuates the western half of the Rila Mountains, which are the tallest chain on the Balkan Peninsula (2,925-m at Musala Peak) and the highest landmass between the Alps and the Caucasus. Although Malyovitsa is not the loftiest member of the range, it’s north face is considered to be the symbol of Bulgarian mountaineering.
Geologically, the Rila Mountains are made of clean pink granite, banded gneiss, and highly micaceous schist. The range was uplifted during the Paleozoic, and deeply sculpted by the glaciers of the Pleistocene. Evidence of this glaciation is clearly seen in the plethora of cirques, tarns, horns, arêtes, and U-shaped valleys throughout the range.
Some kilometers northwest of Malyovitsa Peak lie the Seven Lakes of Rila, a popular hiking area accessed either by chairlift or by dicey 4×4 travel. This was where Andrew and I began and ended our ascent of Malyovitsa Peak. This would be the first of two visits that I would make to this great mountain range. Less than one month later, I returned to Malyovitsa Valley to do some sport climbing with Didi and Stefano.
MONDAY JULY 7th, 2014
At 8:00am in Sofia, Andrew and I eat some waffles and pack our mountainclimbing things. We check out of Hostel Mostel and walk 25 minutes to the bus station. We catch a 10:00am bus to Dupnitsa, a gorgeous little town on a river below the ominous-looking Rila massif. No English speakers in the town; we buy bread and grapefruit and carrots at a market and hail a taxi up to Panichiste for 18 Leva ($12).
Along this half-hour drive we are treated to stunning views into a deep canyon. The driver drops us at a little Orthodox monastery some 5-km below the bottom chairlift station, meaning we’ve got a hell of a hike through the heavenly pine forest ahead of us. At first we attempt to hitchhike, but to no luck.
Hoisting our packs, we start up the zigzagging road. We pass interesting outcrops of igneous and metamorphic rock. The sound of logging chainsaws fills the air. Luckily, after only 2-km of the walk, we are picked up by an old Mitsubishi 4×4. The seats are all full but they let Andrew and I crouch in the backseat. It becomes a rather comical scene, with the two of us bouncing around to the amusement of the other passengers. This vehicle carries all the way up a very rough dirt road to the top of the chairlift.
At the top station of the chairlift there is a large (but not particularly fancy) hotel. Walking beyond the hotel, we find ourselves in a magical kingdom of rockbound cirque lakes and green meadows. For a moment we take a moment to smell the wildflowers and feel the wind.
We strike up the east flank of Suhia Chal and begin to contour at 2,300-m elevation. There are many deeply-eroded paths made by humans and animals alike. The southeast side of Suhia Chal boasts a tempting array of bare cliffs and pillars. Scrambling out onto the most exposed ledges, we gain our first full view of the High Rila Mountains and the valley containing the Seven Lakes of Rila.
The two of us descend to the 2,216-m shore of Trilistnika (“Trefoil”) Lake. We are enchanted by the rich teal colour and the near-continuous wall of granite cliffs. From there we leave the shore and follow a trail over a broad grassy mound to Babreka (“Kidney”) Lake at 2,282-m. The teal colour of the water seems even more saturated, and the mottled grey cliffs soar noticeably higher. In fact, the shores of Babreka Lake are the steepest of all the Lakes of Rila.
Andrew and I trace the eastern shore of Babreka Lake before starting a steep climb to Razdela Peak. There is a thick blanket of snow heaped onto of the ridge above us. Atop the snowpack we can barely see the silhouettes of hangneck horses on the skyline.
The trail to Razdela Peak switchbacks up to a plateau before spreading out to a double-track trail. Turning around, we see the fantastical 2,465-m horn of Haramiyata Peak lording over the Seven Lakes of Rila basin.
The trail is good and the scenery outstanding. Leaving the lower basins behind us, we ascend more switchbacks into an increasingly alpine environment. Sharp flakes of micaceous schist and banded gneiss adorn the trail, displaying textbook examples of mesoscopic deformation structures. Patches of resilient grass protrude from the well-watered ground. Above us are the imposing grey cliffs of Razdela Peak (2,500-m) – our immediate objective.
The two of us pass several other hiking groups on this section of the trail. Most visitors to the Seven Lakes of Rila include in their itineraries an ascent of Razdela Peak, for the purpose of gaining a bird’s eye view of the basin. We meet only Bulgarians (no tourists), passing families, couples, and even an elementary school group.
Climbing along the trail to 2,440-m, we reach the north shore of Okoto (“Eye”) Lake, which sits in a perfectly round bowl. At an astonishing depth of 37.5 meters (123 feet), it is the deepest cirque lake in all of Bulgaria. Thin sheets of snow cling to the shore. The dark cliffs are reflected perfectly in the mirror-like surface of the teal-coloured lake.
A short 2nd-class scramble along a windswept ridge of sharp metamorphic plates brings us to the 2,500-m summit of Razdela Peak. We lunch on candied chickpeas and watch the clouds swirl around us. Our feet dangle off the edge of a great cliff, with the Seven Lakes of Rila spread below us in postcard fashion.
Not long after arriving at the summit of Razdela Peak, a thick cloud rolls in. We put on our rain gear and head south towards the main east-west trending ridge. We descend briefly and then climb to to a 2,535-m spur where the highest of the Seven Lakes of Rila is found. It is named Salzata (“Tear”) Lake due to its remarkably clear waters, which are said to be the tears of the heavens.
The main 2,600-m ridge is covered in residual snow from the harsh winter. It’s the perfect consistency for snowballs, so we relax a few moments and play around. Using our trekking sticks (branches that we found in the forest) we whack a few snow golf balls off the dramatic escarpment.
The other side of the ridge is not so steep, and is actually a broad grassy slope leading down to a vast drainage basin. The valley is purely green and empty save for tiny dots of horses grazing on butterfat grass betwixt the meandering streams. Huge mountains flank the valley; we feel that anywhere is a good place to venture next.
We follow the flat-topped ridge of moorland grass into a thick creamy fog. Can’t even see fifty yards ahead of us; nothing but incredible silence save for the rhythmic squishing of our boots into the moist ground.
Suddenly the neighing sound of horses, but we can’t see anything but fog. As if in a lucid dream, the spooky outlines begin to materialize as we walk slowly forward. There are at least twenty horses crowded around a National Park sign, and they show no signs of having ownership. The sight of anxious horses rearing up and aggressively (playfully? I don’t know) bucking at each other chills me to the bone. Giving a wide berth, Andrew and I walk around the herd and leave the eery sound of neighing behind in the fog.
We begin a diagonal descent into the wide drainage basin. Halfway down, we pause to admire a mesoscopic fault. The two of us are crouched over a metamorphic outcrop for so long that we don’t even notice the fog lifting. Eventually, we both look up and behold the miraculous scene. First, in the distant lower reaches of the basin, parallel sunbeams pierce the clouds in heavely beams, one after the other.
It all unfolds so gracefully, with the divine sunpatch migrating smoothly up the valley to our position on the mountainside. The whole time Andrew and I are just sitting crosslegged in total rapture. We don’t even say a word to each other but simply appreciate the beauty of this event. When the sun hits my face, I smile and stand up slowly. The two of us are in a psychedelic dreamland, bathed in wonderful silence. I focus my mind on the purest of thoughts and exude love for all sentient beings, even the Ghost Horses. In the distance, thunder rolls.
Slowly we continue walking southward, feeling stoned and dreamy. Without speaking, we give mental acknowledgement to the beauty of the scene: serene mountainsides covered in lush grass and beautiful boulders of sparkly schist. We scramble up to Damga Peak (2,669-m) and discover another deep valley filled with countless glacial tarns.
So in this spot, in a small wildflower-filled swale just below the 2,669-m peak of Damga, we pitch our tent. From this position we have a 360* view of both alpine valleys. With camp set up, the next thing to do is obtain potable water. For this we must descend a couple hundred meters to the bottom of the basin where a small ribbon creek flows. Down by the stream there are huge chunks of residual snowpack. We notice deer grazing on the mountainside above us and therefore apply iodine tablets quite liberally to the water.
Waterbottles filled, Andrew and I continue west to the broad grassy summit of Varla Peak (2,593-m). We find comfortable seats in the grass, tie in to a hearty loaf of bread, and watch the amazing sunset. The sky turns soft hues of creamsicle pink, accentuating the rocky 2,668-m summit of Golyam Kalin to the west. As the sun dips low to the horizon line, it slips behind a thin layer of clouds. In miraculous fashion, it transforms to a glowing red orb and makes a dramatic exit from the alpine scene.
We tramp back across the valley to our little orange tent on the saddle, taking an alternate route for the purpose of exploring some interesting metamorphic outcrops. Andrew does not have a sleeping bag but rather a thick blanket that he bought in Turkey. Thankfully it’s a clear, warm night with minimal wind.
TUESDAY JULY 8th, 2014
We awake in a pristine highland morning, sun glinting off dew-covered wildflowers and causing a blinding shimmer on the lakes of Urdina Valley. In contrast to the rugged, glaciated Urdina Valley, the valley to the north is a massive ramp of lush green meadows. The 2,668-m peaks of Golyam Kalin look crystal-clear under the bluebell sky. We slice a juicy grapefruit for breakfast, wash it down with cups of cold instant coffee, and start southeast along the 2,600-m ridge.
Not long after leaving camp, we reach the 2,661-m promontory of Dodov Vrah Peak, adorned with a plaque written in Bulgarian script. For the first time we see the terrifying cliffs of Malyovitsa – immediately we set it as our objective for the day.
We turn east to work along the knife-edge ridge in the direction of Malyovitsa. This ridge, called Zlite Pototsi on the map, forms a serious watershed between two river systems. The amazing glacial valley of the Urdina River drains to the north, while to the south the forested flanks of Zlite Pototsi slope down to the Rilska Valley. In the bottom of this deep V-shaped valley sits the Rila Monastery, the largest and most significant of Bulgaria’s monasteries.
Occasionally we encounter signs, but they are written in Bulgarian and therefore have no meaning to us. We are simply following the exposed ridge of Zlite Pototsi east to the omnipresent platform of Malyovitsa. Along the way we encounter geologic oddities, such as suitcase-sized blocks of pure quartz.
The western cliffs of Malyovitsa present themselves as 1,000-ft walls of pink granite. In the hanging valley to our left, we spy a herd of grazing horses. Then we notice, a few hundred yards from the horse herd, a cluster of deer. The symbiosis of these two species – whether intentional or not – is beautiful to see. The image defines Wild Bulgaria.
Coming around to the south flank of the mountain, it takes on a broad, rounded form. Still, the final 200-m ascent is brutally steep and has us winded by the time we reach the 2,729-m summit. The two of us rest on top of Malyovitsa Peak, hanging our feet off the great northern cliffs while overlooking the deep U-shaped Malyovitsa Valley.
I scramble along a vertiginous ridge and climb a 4th-class line up to the tip of a jagged spire. I sit meditating, taking in the vast mountain scene that stretches from the highest peaks down to the fertile lowlands. Besides Andrew, the only sign of human presence in my immediate surroundings is the tiny stone climber’s refuge in the bottom of Malyovitsa Valley. Everything else is rock and grass and water.
Our goal now is to make it back to the top chairlift station by 4:00pm. However, the hour is noon and we are at our furthest point from the trailhead. Feeling like confident mountaineers, we pick a spot on the opposing ridge where we figure the chairlift might roughly lie behind. We run down a scree slope into a glacial cirque and begin crossing a vast meadow. The grasses are accented by sharp metamorphic outcrops and a superabundance of colourful wildflowers. Alongside a quaint babbling brook the flowers grow in purple, pink, yellow and blue. At this brook we fill our bottles and feel grateful to be in such a heavenly place.
We ascend a small ridge and then descend into a crater-like cirque that contains the most picturesque lake, deep teal and teeming with small fish, fenced in by shiny schist boulders.
From this lake, a waterfall tumbles from the brink and into a deeper, larger lake. This one is like the big brother of the upper lake, flanked by huge vertical cliffs.
Up another small ridge and then down into a wide valley bursting with wildflowers of all the most wonderful colours. The two of us, totally awestruck by the scenery, navigate a wet bog, heading straight towards the dauntingly steep walls of Damga Peak. At some point we cross another tiny brook, which flows towards a cliff and then leaps to the proper Malyovitsa Valley below. Right at the edge of the escarpment is situated a little shepherd’s hut.
Andrew and I continue towards the ominous peak of Damga, walking in the shadow of its sheer 1,000-ft cliffs. Getting our feet wet, we circumnavigate a gorgeous emerald lake with red muddy shores. Malyovitsa stands tough against a front of dark-grey clouds.
Around 2:00pm we discover a wash that leads up the to the 2,580-m saddle between Damga Peak and Zeleni Kamak Peak, a steep gully of teetering schist boulders – the easiest visible line of approach. This would come to be called Blister Mountain for us. When at last we gain the grassy summit, Andrew sits down to patch his tattered feet. Behind us we are able to survey the upper reaches of Urdina Valley.
No sooner does Andrew have his blisters repaired than he trips and slices open his knee. He takes time to repair that too, and then the two of us push down into the valley. We are feeling the effect of the extensive off-trail travel that we have done so far in these mountains, but we have to keep pushing forth to our destination. The landmark glacial horn of Haramiyata Peak (2,465-m) lies between us and the next valley.
The two of us split the gap between two of the lower Rila Lakes, enthralled by the landscape of smooth granite walls and shimmering green lakes. The evidence of glacial activity can be easily seen in every direction. A prime example is the horrifying 2,465-m spire of Haramiyata Peak, which stood above the level of the glaciers during the Pleistocene ice ages.
We jog along on a direct cross-country path and make it to the hotel by 4:15pm. We pay 10 Leva to ride the chairlift down. So there we go on separate chairs (because of our big rucksacks), floating over a sea of pine and jupiter, turning to wave goodbye at the magnificent Rila Mountains.