Macedonia: cat skiing in one of Europe's least explored ski destinations


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Apr 07, 2024

Macedonia: cat skiing in one of Europe's least explored ski destinations

The cat and skiers at a base station in the Shar Mountains. I glance nervously through the steamy window of our cat track machine. The ‘cat’ a tank skidoo hybrid is perched high on a horribly thin

The cat and skiers at a base station in the Shar Mountains.

I glance nervously through the steamy window of our cat track machine. The ‘cat’ a tank skidoo hybrid is perched high on a horribly thin ledge straddling North Macedonia and Kosovo. I take some comfort in the skills of its experienced driver, Aljush, who looks like he might double up as a decent mountain rescuer if things take a turn for the worse. Reversing, it seems, is not an option, so there’s only one thing for it: we ski. In fact, this feels like a relief, despite the steepness of the slope.

Our group are all experienced at cat skiing, the term that describes accessing remote mountain regions in a vehicle with tank-like ‘caterpillar tracks’. Our cat can take up to 12 skiers and is remarkably agile and manoeuvrable, except on this occasion, apparently. “It’s like heli-skiing, but cheaper and more relaxed,” my fellow passenger, Luke had noted just before we’d become wedged in a snowdrift on a 45-degree precipice.

Unscheduled stop aside, I was itching to ski the ride up from the tiny resort of Popova Sapka in the Shar Mountains of North Macedonia had offered up some dramatic South Balkan scenery. But now, the views across the vast mountain range reach right across to Albania, and the terrain beneath me looks decidedly inviting, with fresh powder snow despite the spring-like weather. And we have the whole mountain to ourselves.

The group assess a steep gully to decide if it's safe to ski.

Our cat tour company, Shar Adventures, was established five years ago by local skier and mountaineer Metodi ‘Meto’ Chilimanov. Also our guide for the day, with his bandana, beard and big energy, Meto is like a cross between a 1970s rock star, spiritual guru and mountain goat on skis.

He’s motivation embodied and works with a team of expert ski guides, two allocated to each group of 12 skiers. We make our way down to one of the lower tracks that crisscross over 30sq miles of terrain rolling out south-westwards from our base at the Scardus Hotel. Some of the surrounding peaks rise to above 8,530ft, and even though it’s late March, there’s snow right down to resort level.

Ski guide Meto prepares his skis for the final climb to the top after bein dropped off by the cat.

While we take in the view, as if by magic, our cat machine appears, freed from its snowy prison. And Meto is in an exploring mood, so we push further west, up another ridge, before skiing deep into the valley below. The cat machine never far behind, we explore yet another new valley. We press on, trying to beat the spring sunshine before it melts the snow. Each time our cat departs, with its churning metal tracks and powerful engine, the suddenly contrast of silence brings the wilderness more sharply into focus.

Shar Adventures attracts skiers and snowboarders who want to experience serious backcountry terrain. Its fleet of four cats can handle around 40 people a day, usually a broad mix of travellers from Scandinavia, Central Europe, the UK and US, most of them skiing for at least four days. Despite much of the country being mountainous, North Macedonia has limited skiing areas, with just a few small ski stations across the country.

The group gets ready to descend after being dropped off by the cat on a ridge high up in the Shar Mountains.

Popova Sapka is the largest, yet it only has three chairlifts. A journey aboard one chairlift, purchased in 1984 from Sarajevo following the Winter Olympics, is the longest I’ve ever experienced, taking over 20 minutes. I guess it’s why cat skiing has fulfilled a natural need here. But there’s also a new, eight-person express lift that’s as good as any you’d find in the Alps, and on a sunny weekend, locals from the region flock to the slopes.

But for overseas visitors, cat skiing is the raison d’être here. And that skiing area is vast. We explore more every day, pushing further away from our base as the warming weather transforms the snow into the mythical ‘corn’ variety that feels like velvet under our skis. Long runs under cliff bands and through gullies allow the group to spread out, reconvening on a cat track below the machine is never far away. Lunches are al fresco in valleys far from any restaurant bustle; warm moussaka a favourite Shar Adventures’ picnic.

It’s a wilderness that also feels a long way from the North Macedonian capital. But in fact Skopje, where I’d begun my trip, is just an hour’s drive away. Divided in two by the river Vardar, a stop-off here adds a cultural element to a novel ski break. On the north bank, I find a retinue of mosques overlooking the Old Bazaar, and markets laden with showy jewellery and local food.

A snowboarder plays in the powder.

The call to prayer brings in the male population, the simple restaurants serving kebabs and Turkish tea await their return. Across the Stone Bridge to the south, the city feels more European; local wine is served with dishes inspired by Mediterranean cuisine rustic and comforting. Fresh salads are ubiquitous and it seems a point of national pride that they showcase the very best homegrown tomatoes. But up in the Shar Mountains, it’s the wilderness than wins the most accolades.

Despite our cat’s precarious start, by the end of the week, the machine feels like an old friend. On our final day, Meto gazes southwards, across the vast untouched terrain towards the country’s highest mountain, Korab, which punctuates the horizon at 9,068ft. There’s so much more to explore. “Our company began with hiking, then ski touring, then we found our first cat machine,” says Meto. “And we now have four,” he beams. “We’ll keep exploring this place. This is our home, and we’re very lucky.”

A six-night stay at the four-star Hotel Scardus in Popova Sapka costs from €1,425 (£1,234) per person, full-board, based on two sharing, including five days of cat skiing. Flights and airport transfers not included. Wizz Air operates non-stop flights from Luton to Skopje which is about an hour’s drive from Popova Sapka from £44 one-way.

Published in the Winter Sports 2022/23 guide, distributed with the December 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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