Malyovitsa Valley is located in the Rila Mountains of western Bulgaria. It is a U-shaped gorge of clean pink granite, recognized for an abundance of quality climbing routes. At 1,960-meters elevation one finds the climber-friendly Malyovitsa Refuge, a three-storey stone hut built above the river offering hot food, cold beer, and bunk beds. A great diversity of climbing routes ranging from boulder problems to multi-pitch trad climbs can be found within an hour’s walk from the refuge.
The landscape of Malyovitsa Valley, dotted with lakes and punctuated by fantastical granite peaks, makes for excellent climbing scenery. The head of the valley is guarded by the 2,729-meter Malyovitsa Peak, which itself is considered to be the symbol of alpinism in Bulgaria. Although not the tallest in the Rila Mountains (that title belongs to the 2,925-m Musala Peak), it is certainly the most recognizable.
Geologically, the Rila Mountains are made of granite, gneiss, and 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.
This article pertains to my stay in Malyovitsa Refuge with my friends Didi from Bulgaria and Stefano from Italy. The focus of the trip was sport climbing and drinking wine. This was the second of two visits that I made to this great mountain range. Less than one month prior, I came to the Rila Mountains in order to climb the south face of Malyovitsa Peak with my good friend Andrew.
SATURDAY JULY 26th, 2014
At 4:00pm Stefano and I return to Cliff’s farm after a solid day of climbing at Trinity Rocks. Didi is there waiting for us – in fact a bunch of happy people are standing barefoot in the warm summer grass. We pack into Didi’s wagon and wave goodbye to everyone, zooming past sunflower fields in the direction of the Rila Mountains.
In the capital city of Sofia we meet for coffee with Todor, a fellow climber from Veliko Tarnovo. From there we cut straight south for the Rila Mountains. Around 9:00pm we stop at a market to buy a great big bag of spaghetti and tomato sauce and wine. Hopping back in the car, we head further up the road to the 1,750-m trailhead for Malyovitsa Valley, a small collection of cabins at the base of a winter ski hill.
Didi has a friend who runs a pub in the vicinity. We visit him and he feeds us hot grilled cheese and beer for free. Feeling full and happy, Didi and Stefano and I load our backpacks with climbing gear and start south on the trail.
It’s an hour and a half of hiking under headlamp through the evergreen forest to reach Malyovitsa Refuge. Stefano hoofs it way ahead of us with his enormous pack containing our trad gear, commenting, “I think in my bag I have only steel,” in his whimsical Italian accent. A yellow plastic bag hangs from his forearm containing his share of food. He pulls out the jar of tomato sauce, exclaiming, “Didi, what is this! We are in the wilderness!” This sends Didi and I into a laughing fit.
At last we reach the refuge. Typical dirtbag me, I don’t feel like paying money for a bunk bed in the hut so I tiptoe across the lawn to an abandoned door-less tin shack in the adjacent yard. This is where I sleep for the night, with my sleeping bag rolled out on the bare dirt and the cool mountain air infiltrating my little space.
SUNDAY JULY 27th, 2014
From sunrise until 8:00am I lie in my sleeping bag on the dirt and listen to the bustling of all Bulgarian climbers leaving the refuge to head back to the city. When the coast is clear, I peek my head out into the bright overcast morning and survey my surroundings. Meter-deep bushes obscure the bottom half of the shack’s opening from prying eyes. Behind the flimsy little shack is a thicket of fragrant piñon bushes. Blinking my eyes in the morning light, I begin to notice large walls of rock on the walls of the valley.
Looking beyond my shack to the south skyline, I behold the north face of Malyovitsa Peak for the first time. A dark tooth-like pillar with no visible foundation, it broods menacingly over the right shoulder of its subpeak, Little Malyovitsa. My ambitious eyes dance over the featured granite walls, imagining routes to the top.
The clear morning soon erupts into a vicious rainstorm that effectively traps me in the tin shack until finally I decide to bolt across the yard to the refuge. Didi and Stefano are in one of the top-floor rooms. The three of us sit and wait out the storm, discussing our plans and preparing our gear to climb The Doll.
When the rain clears we make coffee and muesli out on the picnic tables. The Doll, our objective for the morning, is the surprisingly close above the refuge. We plan to approach via the talus slope and ascend the tallest part of the wall, a 150-m route at a maximum grade of 5c (5.9).
We approach the wall in twenty minutes via the talus slope. Stefano is to lead the climb, with Didi and I following on separate ropes. The first pitch is a 5.7 slab on quality granite – a great introduction to climbing in Malyovitsa Valley.
On the second pitch we have to pull some 5b (5.8) moves to get around a large pine tree. This pitch is not very well protected, featuring several runouts of five meters or more. The belay ledges are well exposed, and views of the upper Malyovitsa Valley begin to unfold.
The third and final pitch features a 5c (5.9) chimney with extremely loose rock. We tiptoe our way across to the top anchor and look around at the wonderland of granite peaks. The top anchor station is actually below the overhanging summit block, but we still have fantastic views of the Malyovitsa Valley.
We rappel to the valley floor in a span of an hour. During the rappel we had planned to head down to the refuge to cook spaghetti, but had gotten distracted by a tempting sport crag with a multitude of visible bolted routes. Standing about fifty feet tall, it’s only a short five-minute scramble from the feet of The Doll.
After warming up on a 5a (5.7) jug haul, Stefano suggests we try a 6a (5.10a) line on the far right side. It’s a steep pumpy route like a climbing gym but with fantastic exposure of the Rila highland scenery.
It’s now hours since descending The Doll, but we are still in the mood for climbing. Stefano and I trade leads on a short 4-bolt overhang, rated 6a+ but resembling a highball boulder problem in the V3 range.
It’s past 8:00pm when we finally return to the refuge. We cook spaghetti (using that damned jar of tomato sauce) under headlamp and settle comfortably into the picnic table benches, admiring the starry sky above. When we get sleepy we head in to the refuge – no abandoned tin shack for me tonight.
MONDAY JULY 28th, 2014
In the morning Stefano says he is not feeling well and would rather spectate from the refuge. This doesn’t stop me and Didi from climbing. We breakfast on coffee and muesli and then scramble up the talus slope to the base of The Doll. Climbers in the refuge have told us that further left on the face there is an excellent two-pitch 6a+ (5.10b) sport route.
I lead the route, tied in to two ropes so that we may rappel easier. The meandering first pitch calls for creative 5c+ (5.9) moves on dirty ledges.
Didi follows on the first pitch. When she reaches me at the belay station, a sudden hailstorm strikes the valley. Being pelted with bullets of ice, we frantically rig the two ropes for an emergency rappel escape. However, the storm passes just as soon as it had come, and we are able to continue climbing upward.
The first few moves on the second pitch are the 6a+ (5.10b) crux, with memorable exposure and good rock. Past this section, I continue up the steep slab to the anchors. A few long reaches are required on the top section. Didi climbs up to meet me at the top.
From the base of The Doll we walk directly to another small crag at the foot of The Doll in order to do a few single-pitch sport routes. The first is a 5c+ (5.9) slab boasting a hefty overhanging roof.
Next, we have some fun on a unique 5a (5.7) route.
Last to climb is the most aesthetic line at the crag; with a rating of 6a+ (5.10b) it is also the most difficult. It’s right beside the roofed 5c+ (5.9) slab, but with crimpier holds.
Didi and I return to the refuge before dark. This time I pitch my tent a few hundred yards upstream from the refuge and watch nighttime fall on deep dooming Malyovitsa. I join a big happy group of climbers drinking beer in the refuge for a bit, then return to my little camp for a night of rest.
TUESDAY JULY 29th, 2014
It rained heavily overnight, yet I slept soundly in my tent. It’s now 8:00am and the sun has just crept over the rim of the valley. Didi and I embark on an impromptu scramble to the nearest peak. We follow a well-worn trail from the refuge up to a flat terrace, then hop along the granite boulders of a tinkling alpine stream to a higher terrace. From the second terrace I spot a single gully leading up to the peak. With a trace of difficulty we ascend the 3rd-class wash of big loose blocks. Vertical granite walls rise up on either side of us; the sound of rockfall echoes down to the grand valley below.
The gully leads steeply up to an exposed col where the wind whips fiercely. Leaving Didi there, I solo climb a 5th class route to achieve the summit of the 2,400-m mountain. On my ascent I pass two belay stations, which I wish to be able to use on the nervy descent. The top is rather precarious, dropping off as cliffs on all sides and giving a phenomenal 360* view of the High Rila Mountains.
Didi is nervous on the downclimb of the gully, but I guide her down using the wise words of Jack Kerouac: “You can’t fall off a mountain.”
Of course we arrive safely at the refuge just past noon, in time to cook polenta and strong espresso. Together with Stefano we pack our rucksacks, leave the refuge behind, and hike down the trail one hour to the vehicle.