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Europe’s Best-Kept Climbing Secret Is Now On the Map

10 years after the inaugural, and still only, bouldering gym opened, local climbers can now tackle the real thing in Valbona Valley. But hydropower plants and unregulated commercial development may muddy it all.

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The joke goes like this: When Leon Diependaele returned to Albania with six crash pads, he tripled the number in the country.

That was in April of 2021. A few weeks later, Elion Çikopano, Enis Shehu and Irida Nallbani, leading Albanian developers, along with Diependaele, a Dutch climber living in Tirana, established the first boulder field in the country. That’s how things happen in one of Europe’s youngest democracies: fast.

But as Albania grapples with rapid infrastructure growth and lax conservation laws, will rock climbing be a force for protection or part of the problem?

Attendees from the Seventh Albanian Climbing Festival at the Athena sector, one of the main clusters of boulders. The area is only a few minutes walk from some of the guesthouses in the area. Photo courtesy of Elion Çikopano

Decades in the Dark

Albania is one of Europe’s best-kept climbing secrets. The country on the Adriatic Sea has the raw materials of a world-class climbing destination on par with its neighbors, Italy and Greece. Mountainous terrain covers 70 percent of the territory, making it one of the rockiest on the continent. It is also one of the least developed. For 40 years the country was locked behind a closed-border dictatorship under Prime Minister Enver Halil Hoxha, a paranoid, hard-line Stalinist. 

Up until the 1960s, Albania had close ties to East Germany and the USSR, which is how members of the Albanian Mountaineering Federation learned the big wall aid techniques needed to scale the massive limestone peaks in the Theth and Valbona Valleys in the north of the country. In 1961, Hoxha denounced Nikita Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, severing ties with his closest allies and closing the country off from the world.

Climbing waned. The soaring cliffs remained little used. And tens of thousands of boulder-like bunkers sprang up. 

Thirty Years After the Fall of Communism Climbing is Making a Comeback 

Elion Çikopano is 35, slight and sinewy, with an insatiable appetite for action—he speaks six languages, has a law degree, and his microbrewery has produced what is likely the initial IPA in the country. When the first (and still only) climbing gym was getting off the ground in 2011, Çikopano was a natural hire to help grow the community from scratch. 

He was also one of the few people who knew how to climb.

“Five years ago, one could have counted nearly every rock-climbing-Albanian on two hands,” said Jeff Domko in an article from 2011. Domko co-founded Rock Tirana while working for a developmental NGO in Albania and Kosovo, and eventually sold the gym to Çikopano

Irida Nallbani climbing Atlantis (5), boulder #16 in the guidebook, a beginner friendly block with bulbous features. Photo courtesy of Elion Çikopano

To this day, climbing is still so new that the closest word for “rock climber” is alpinist kacavarje, which roughly translates to “climber alpinist.” However, it is easier to find a partner now; there are around 50 climbers in the city, many who spend weekends on the striped limestone and snaking tufas at Brar, just outside the capital.

Route development has been punctuated by rapid bursts. When I spoke with Çikopano in September, there were about 80 established routes across six areas in the country, from seaside cragging to hard and steep limestone that rivals Turkey or Italy. Now there are over 140.

There is potential for thousands of additional lines, though, and the quality has been noticed by some of the world’s best. 

 

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“Tirana as a city is surrounded by beautiful mountains packed with perfect tufa limestone,” shares Adam Ondra in an instagram post from his climbing trip in 2018, when he bolted the hardest line in Albania. “So far, only two areas of Brar and Bovilla have been bolted… but potential of each area going into hundreds of routes,” he wrote. Nearly a year later, in December of 2019, Seb Bouin made the first ascent of The Dream (Ondra’s last name means “dream” in Albanian), suggesting a grade of 9b (5.15b).

Bouin was effusive: “50 meter perfection on some of the most amazing tufas I’ve ever climbed on.”

Much of the bolting has been done by Çikopano and visiting climbers, such as Diependaele, who primarily learned about the country through the Albanian Climbing Festival, a yearly event that Çikopano, of course, organizes. In October, the seventh addition took place in Valbona Valley.

The Promise and Presage of Valbona

Valbona Valley National Park is a 4.5-hour drive north from Tirana at the tail end of the Dinaric Alps, near the border with Montenegro and Kosovo. The “Chamonix of Albania” is a glaciated alpine landscape loaded with limestone massifs, the longest recorded horizontal cave in the country, and Mt. Arapit, which has one the tallest rock faces in the Balkan peninsula (an 800-meter south wall).

Valbona (Valbonë) is the southernmost terminus of the Dinaric Alps, which start in Slovenia. The deep valley is littered with boulders and surrounded by steep limestone faces. Photo courtesy of Elion Çikopano

Until 2021, little had been developed outside a few big wall climbs, shorter trad lines, and the occasional boulder. That changed last May when Çikopano, Shehu Nallbani, and Diependaele began a tour du développement, whipping up 101 problems, from 3 to 8a (V-easy to V11), in about 10 days (all compiled in a free online guidebook). While temperatures reached 100-plus degrees in the capital, a continuous draft in the valley, which sits 1,000 meters above sea level, kept temps ideal for cleaning, sending and plotting.

Across the country, the pandemic forced larger economic development projects to cease operation, which opened up funding for local efforts, such as the boulder initiative. Çikopano received a “Support to Economic Diversification of Rural Areas in Southeast Europe (SEDRA)” grant from the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), a German Ministry of Development project program.

A few weeks later, the climbers invited youth from the community of Bajram Curri, Scout groups, and guesthouse owners to climb and learn more about the potential of bouldering. 

The towns around Valbona are some of the most impoverished in Europe with a nearly 70% unemployment rate. But the area is blessed with natural possibilities. Çikopano has witnessed guesthouse owners in Valbona—many of whom have lived in the mountains for generations—expand their business because of the growth in hiking (the area is most known for the Valbona-Theth route, a 17.5-kilometer (11-mile) trek through the heart of the mountains), and he envisions something similar for climbing. 

Wolfgang Schüssler, a German climber who has developed trad routes and a few boulders in Valbona, and is an anti-dam activist with The Organization to Conserve the Albanian Alps (TOKA), notes the importance of tourism in the area. “For many villagers, tourism is becoming their main income,” he says. “Long-term, they are realizing that they have a big asset in natural resources, and they are seeing the importance of protecting it.” 

Çikopano hopes to prove that climbing, and the outdoors, can be a sustainable economic driver in a country where nature is more often exploited than preserved. 

Potential be Dammed

It is rare that so much untouched territory opens to outdoor sports. 

Unfortunately, illegal hydropower dam projects threaten many of these same areas by targeting the pristine rivers that run through them. The Valbona and Vjosa rivers—the latter of which is considered the last wild river in Europe—are home to about 70 endemic species of fish, along with critically-endangered animals such as the Balkan lynx. 

More than 3,400 hydropower plants (HPPs) are currently planned in the Balkans, with hundreds in Albania alone. At least 14 plants have been illegally granted permits on the Valbona River since 2016, without the required public involvement. 

The Valbona River flows from its source in the Accursed Mountains 45km (28 miles) through the national park until it joins the Drin River basin. Photo courtesy of Elion Çikopano

For the local communities, the rivers are an inseparable part of their culture and daily life. Historically, many of the families have relied on the waters for sustenance. According to the World Wildlife Fund, 70% of the local population wants to leave because of the construction of HPPs and physical threats from the companies, among other reasons. As the river and land are being destroyed, so too are people’s identities and future.

Tourism has also marred the landscape. The untouched natural habitat has been bombarded by ostentatious five star hotels and restaurants. In stark contrast to guesthouses, which are typically part of a family’s home and discreetly settled in traditional villages, one new accomodation was introduced directly into the middle of the river. For the uninitiated, the area still appears wild compared to most of Europe, but it’s nothing like six years ago before there was any development, according to Schüssler.

Towards Greener Pastures?

Albanians are being reintroduced to rock climbing and the world is being introduced to the country. However, the untouched nature that makes Albania so attractive is under threat. 

“You can still see the shadows of the dictatorship,” says Çikopano “After it ended, people started exploiting whatever they could to get by—selling the railroads for scraps, cutting the forests, quarrying, other things—all unregulated. The consequences were horrible.” These days, attractive places for sport often presage aggressive commercial development for tourism.

Elion Çikopano climbing Çohu Icik (6a), boulder #21 in the guidebook, a diagonally-stacked set of boulders that starts on a triangular jug and weaves through a series of crimps, cracks, and slopers. Photo courtesy of Elion Çikopano

Çikopano, who was recently named the Secretary General of the Albanian Mountaineering and Mountain Tourism Federation, is hoping to establish climbing as a meaningful source of ecotourism, and is creating new development guidelines so they can do so sustainably. 

In the Valbona Valley, it is already common for climbers to hike the Valbona-Theth trek, which extends their stay by a few days and puts money in the local economy through nights at guesthouses, purchasing meals and produce (and raki), and hiring mountain guides. Other climbing areas, such as Gjipe and Permet, have seen a similar pattern of organic growth.

“We have something which is still unique in Europe: we have wild places. If we don’t try to protect it, what else can we do?” It just takes someone who will try. 

Interested in learning more about the burgeoning climbing scene in Albania and want to help develop new sectors? Çikopano has a goal of completing 300 new routes by October, in time for the next festival. Contact Elion for more details.

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