Sep 25, 2013

Bulgaria - To climb Ruen Peak three times in a day

The next training for Kilimanjaro gathers five of us, Ivan, Stan, Dimitar, Petar and I, as all but Petar are going to climb the highest African mountain. I offered an unknown for all of us peak, the Osogovo Mountain's highest one, Ruen and the rest of the group accepted it. After some research we find out that the peak is 2,251 m/7,385 ft high and the border passes right through it. Also it is the highest border point in the European Union. The chosen route starts at the Tri buki hotel and should take us 3 hours and a half to get to the peak covering 13 km/8 mi or a total of about 26 km/16 mi. A great training, which equals to more than 1/3 of the ascent and descent in Africa. And that's for one day.

On the road, as it is Saturday, we get lots of drivers who move at about 20 km/h under the limit, hitting the brakes constantly, and the people of the county that we are passing through, Kyustendil, are famous for their reckless driving. Well, I guess, the racers are sleeping and only their grandparents are on the road. But let me mention something funny. We catch up a Honda CR-V, which like the above mentioned cars at times is going quite slow, then all of a sudden is speeding up. As we are waiting for a straight to overtake it, just before another bend, we note that the driver raises one of his/her hands up, most probably to the music he/she is listening. In the next moment, the second hand is being raised, but the car manages to go around the bend. All of us are speechless and stare in disbelief for some time, but next we get that the car is with a right steering wheel and start laughing. While we overtake the Honda we see that on the left, normally the driving seat in Bulgaria, a boy twists violently to the music, while an elder man imperturbably drives.

We reach the hotel and I go to the reception to collect a stamp in my booklet with the highest mountains in Bulgaria – Osogovo Mountain is the fifth highest with Ruen Peak. We shoulder our backpacks and take on the long road ahead of us. In the car, we heard on the radio that in the early afternoon rain is expected in the western parts of Bulgaria, especially in the mountain areas. And we couldn't be more to the west, that's why we set our expectations that most probably we'll gonna get wet.
A view of Ruen Peak
We think that one of these peaks should be Ruen, but it's not sure which one. (Well, neither of them is.)
Our fine crowd and Ruen Peak, somewhere on the left

The first part of the route is not hard, the slope is pleasant, a dirt road. Only that it is quite long. We get to a two-storey building and a cattle-shed across the road and stop for a break.
The first stop

As we put something in our bellies, we continue down or more like up the road. We pass the Prevala shelter and soon we get to the first serious uphill section. And a crossroad of quite many dirt roads, at least three roads in different directions are crossing. And the dirt road uphill has two lanes. As from our position, just before the Kulitsite Peak, the rest of the peaks, Ruen amongst which, are not visible, we decide that the highest one we see is Ruen. And as we were hiking with quite a fast tempo up till now, we decide that we are gonna climb "Ruen" Peak in 1 hour under the official time, which is 3 hours and a half. At this moment my first doubt appears whether that really is Ruen, but I dismiss it as we were moving very fast. Stan and I push ourselves and climb successfully … Kulitsite Peak (1,862 m/6,109 ft). Naturally, we don't know the real name of our first Ruen Peak at the time of the climb, but if we knew it we were going to curse at it by name. Even more naturally, it's not Kulitsite Peak's fault, when we don't know where we have to go. We take a deep breath and wait for the others to come to tell them the good news. They are not happy as well. A second doubt appeared to me during the ascent of the first "Ruen", that we are not climbing our true destination, as in the last couple of days I was looking at pictures of the route and one or two shelter were missing and the peak was looking differently.
Osogovo landscapes 1
Ilan gully, most probably.

After our first disappointment and a short rest we go downhill along the winter marking and start discussing how we should approach the second Ruen for the day. The first option is to continue along the winter marking, climbing Tsarni kamak Peak (2,030 m/6,660 ft), then go downhill and again uphill. There is only one crazy person who wants to do it – Stan. The rest of the group decides to continue on the nice gradual dirt road and to approach "Ruen" from the far side. We talk out our crazy guy of doing the first option and continue on the dirt road. Soon it gets us to the abandoned Shapka (Hat) frontier post at the foot of the peak of the same name that we think is our second Ruen. If you are already confused, believe me we were even more confused by this abundance of Ruen peaks.

We take on an uphill path just after the frontier post and we see the correct color marking and we are sure that we are on the right track. Just as we get to the summit and where we have to turn right/back to get to "Ruen" Peak, we see that there is another peak that is higher than the one that we are heading to. The second pretender that we miss climbing is actually Shapka Peak with its 2,188 m/7,178 ft.

Just before reaching the third Ruen Peak for the day, we see in the near distance another peak which is, it's hard for me to say it, but … is higher than the one that we are heading at the moment and looks very much like the Ruen from the pictures on the internet. My co-hikers are getting frustrated and refuse to climb the third Ruen, which actually is Mali Ruen Peak or Little Ruen Peak (2,230 m/7,316 ft). However, I manage to deceive my poor legs and direct them towards the near Little Ruen. The detour is not long and we got quite near to miss climbing another "Ruen" for the day.
A view of Shapka (left) and Kulitsite (right) Peaks

We pass the shelter before the peak and finally we reach the real Ruen. Only that we are not happy to see it. Again, there is nobody else to blame but us. We get down in the grass and take a veeeery deeeep breeeath. It's not easy to climb several Ruens in a day and to push yourselves to the limit as you think that this is the destination, only to find that it is not. I settle comfortably in a manmade trench, which turns out to be the borderline. After taking a bite and resting in no man's land, I get up to look around and take some pictures.
From left to rightborder stone №91, the concrete block marking the peak and part of the winter marking
The Macedonian part of the peak and the remains of a frontier post/bunker
A view from the remains – 2/3 Macedonian (left) and 1/3 Bulgarian (right)
In the valley to the right could be seen the non-functioning Ruen mine.
A jumpy insect

Just as we are thinking of posing for a picture on the peak, the promised rain decides to finally come and chases away from Ruen. Barely put our waterproof jackets, we get to the near shelter. While we wait for the rain to abate, we manage to look around the shelter. It's very basic, two rooms with tables and benches, in one of them there is a stove and chopped woods for it and in the other – a glass cabinet with different essentials, including food. And all of the stuff is left voluntary by different tourists. There is also a radio, but we couldn't make it work. After five minutes the rain is gone and we go out.
Achievement photo, even though from a distance

We head back, this time taking the dirt road, which weaves around all the "Ruens" and gradually goes down. The landscape of Osogovo is very different from that of the highest Bulgarian mountains, Rila and Pirin – the surrounding hills are round and all in grass, which has turned yellow from the summer sun – they look as if they are very soft. Even the peaks that we take for Ruen, as well as Ruen itself, are similar, only Shapka Peak looks like a traditional peak to me – pointy and rocky.
Osogovo landscapes 2
Osogovo landscapes 3
The valley of Tsarna reka River and the park of the same name (the forest). On the left is the dirt road that we used on our way back.
Osogovo landscapes 4
The valley of Tsarna reka River and the park.

Just after Prevala shelter, the clouds start gathering again above our heads and start throwing warning darts-thunders. We speed up as if we just have started our hike and pray that it won't drown us. About half an hour before the end it starts raining but very lightly. After 10-15 minutes we see a Border police 4x4, from which comes out a smiling policeman and asks to see our IDs, as well as where we come from. We reply proudly "Ruen" and ask him whether he has been there. Laughing he replies positively and adds: "By the 4x4". He asks us if we carry boxes of cigarettes. They always check for that on the Bulgarian borders, because of the many cigarettes that are sold without excise labels. We, as good citizens and as even better friends say that the cigarettes are with the two guys of the group who are just coming to us and say that they are very suspicious and should perform strip search on them. He overlooks our jokes with a smile. On the internet I read that you have to notify Border police if you are going to hike in the area, but they didn’t make a problem that we didn't. As two of the guys have their IDs in the cars back at the hotel, we offer the border patrol to take us back to our starting/finishing point to show them, which will be good for us because of the rain. The policeman gets the joke, gives us back our IDs and lets us go with a smile on his face.

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