Solo-Hiking the Peaks of the Balkans
On my long journey to Iran, hiking the Peaks of the Balkans trail was one of the things I looked forward to – and was scared of – the most. Another solo hiking and wild camping adventure, in the incredible landscapes of Albania and Montenegro.
However, this was not just another trail for me. It was the last puzzle piece on my way back to the confidence and adventure spirit I had before anxiety turned my life upside-down.
All it takes is a first step
Starting a new trail, a new adventure, is always challenging. It requires you to walk into uncertainty, with only trust and courage as your companions.
At the beginning of June, it is a bit early to start the trail. There still might be remaining snow fields and/or even new snow falling. Only a few weeks before I started the Peaks of the Balkans, a Swiss hiker tragically lost his life on the very first section of the trail.
And of, course there were the bears! It would be my first time hiking – and wild camping – in bear territory. I had asked the locals if extra safety precautions like a bear canister were necessary – apparently not – but it still felt strange knowing they’re out there.
But mostly it’s been everything that had happened the past year that made this trail feel different. A little bit extra scary, because I did not know if anxiety would interfere with my plans.
But I knew I had done it before, so I was determined to do it again. It was just a little more challenging to take the first step.
What is the Peaks of the Balkans trail?
The Peaks of the Balkans trail, short PoB, is a circular trek that leads you through the bordering region of Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo. It is 190km long and consists of 10 sections with typically 1000m+ up and down a day.
Since I work remotely while traveling, I ‘only’ had about 10 days to spend on the trail. And I did not want to rush through it nor push my body to extremes (after all, I hadn’t been properly training for it).
So I decided to skip most of the trail in Kosovo and to focus on slowly enjoying the sections in Albania and Montenegro, with the option of some side hikes here and there if time (and weather) allowed it.
Learning to go slow and being gentle with myself has been an integral part of my healing journey this past year and approaching it like this helped to start the trail without too much anxiety.
After all, there was nothing to be achieved – I was only heading out to have a good time in the mountains, as slowly as I wanted and needed it to be.
Beginning my Peaks of the Balkans solo hike
As many others, I started the trail in Teth, Albania. I already arrived there two days earlier and found myself marveling at the mountains all around. A hikers’ paradise.
I was happy to start the first part of the trail accompanied by two fellow travelers – and it took away some of my own fear, seeing how one of them bravely came along despite her fear of heights.
There’s a strange beauty to seeing how humans just fight their way through life, each one with their own struggles and fears. But we persevere. Nothing inspires me more than people who just won’t give up.
The long ascent, with the weight of my backpack and the heat, was hard, of course, but I made it to the top – without a panic attack. I could not help but feel emotional.
I knew that if I could do that first mountain pass, I could do the rest of the trail.
‘I made it. I can still do it.’ I was thinking to myself, and as if to confirm it, there was a little hand-painted sign on top that said ‘You made it’.
After a busy first day – the trail between Valbona and Teth is incredibly popular – I was the last hiker out there. I camped near the river bed in Valbona valley (and looking back, that might have been my most beautiful wild camping spot).
A couple of old Mercedes mini-busses passed, I waved, and they waved back. By now, I’m so used to wild camping alone that I do not worry too much about who might see me anymore if I feel good about a spot.
A horse came to visit and it was warm enough to spend some more hours outside, just lying in the grass. What a perfect ending to a beautiful first day.
Wild weather, tired bones
The next day, everything changed. Not only was I the only hiker I saw all day, but also the trail conditions were entirely different. It was… rather bushwhacking than a stroll through the forest.
And then came the thunderstorms. Only on my first day, I was granted a quiet night. Experiencing thunderstorms in your tent is always a little scary (if up close), unnerving (if you just can’t fall asleep), and boring (if it goes on for hours during day time).
There’s not much to do but wait, read your hiking guidebook for the millionth time, and eat way too much of your precious snack reserves. And pray, of course, for lightning not to strike anywhere close to you.
The strains of a long-distance hike show up quite quickly. Every day, my pack felt a little heavier, despite it getting emptier. Not having gotten enough sleep due to the thunderstorms, I also didn’t recover very well.
So, already on day 4, I reminded myself of my very own promise to take it easy, simply walked one hour into the next mountain village – which consisted of little huts scattered in the most beautiful valley one could imagine – and called it a day.
I even treated myself to a guest house. It may not seem like a big thing, but I was proud of myself. I’m so used to choosing the rough way that, for me, choosing comfort is almost an achievement in itself.
And there could not have been a more perfect place to have a rest day! The mountains there reminded me of Iceland. And so did the dramatic weather that rolled through later in the day.
It felt absolutely amazing not having to go anywhere. To just…be.
Famous for a reason: Balkan hospitality
As I enjoyed the friendly welcome at the family-led mountain hut, I thought back to an encounter the day before. I’ve already heard and experienced much of the famous Balkan hospitality – and it even works without a shared language.
At the beginning of June, people are only slowly returning to the mountains. Most settlements were still abandoned.
Walking past shepherd huts, I spotted one that was already occupied. The man, however, did not notice me, hence I walked past – however, all of a sudden, I heard him yelling after me.
I waved and smiled, but from his gestures I could tell he wanted me to come to him.
So I turned back and walked up to his wooden hut. “Mirëdita”, good day, was one of the three things I could say in Albanian. We shook hands and he squeezed mine with surprising strength.
Again, more with gestures than words, he indicated me to sit down. He brought me water and offered – no, rather commanded me – to have some of the pie on the make-shift table.
I asked about family, a word he did seem to understand – he pointed only at himself. In return, he grabbed my hand, checked for a ring. When I showed him the ring on my other hand (not an actual wedding ring but what does it matter), he smiled, seemed content.
Normally, I barely take photos of strangers out of respect for their privacy. But we ran out of words to say, so the camera was a way of connecting. And after I showed him the photo on my camera, he even went inside to get out his flip-phone and took a photo of me in return, carefully positioning me in the sunlight in front of his house.
He pulled me into a hug – so strong it almost broke my bones – and gave me a kiss on the head.
No, you do not need words to understand what kindness means.
Hiking across borders after a day of rest
The conversations with other hikers (and an unexpected invasion of dozens of rally bikers!) made my rest day pass quickly.
The next day, I felt revitalized. With fresh energy, I enjoyed the hike so much more again. Walking along the border between Montenegro and Kosovo, I took in the beautiful views and congratulated myself on having slowed down.
Here and there, I hiked together with a German couple I had met at the mountain hut. We sought shelter from the heavy rain in an unfinished house with excellent views. We were quick to build a bench out of some bricks and wood – our very own panorama bench.
It didn’t take long and we bumped into each other again just as we encountered the next thunderstorm in a forest. We were close to the top, so we knew we should not continue to climb up higher.
Instead, they shared their tarp shelter with me where we waited until the thunder and rain slowly started to fade away. I’m thankful for having met them right at this moment – without them, I may have turned around and missed out on enjoying the rest of the beautiful hike.
Breaking with my resolutions
Something shifted. Not only did it turn into an unexpected 30km-day (which is exactly the opposite of taking it easy), but the weather also got worse and worse.
A daily afternoon thunderstorm is manageable, but now, it was just incalculable rain and thunderstorms at any moment of the day. Instead of cheerfully sitting in wildflower mountain meadows, as I had imagined, I was now just busy seeking shelter.
Going slow was not really an option anymore. Now it was just making it through.
An unlocked shepherd’s hut (with left-over firewood from last summer) saved my life on one particularly wet and cold day.
But still, the next day, I had to give in and descend all the way I had come because it just was too risky to continue along a 2000m high ridge in this weather. At this point, I was feeling rather miserable.
Hitchhiking is my reliable friend for emergencies like this one – after unexpectedly having returned to Plav, two cars stopped to give me a ride without me even putting my thumb out. Zero effort hitchhiking!
They dropped me off in the next Montenegrinan town along the trail, but to finish the Peaks of the Balkans, I had to get back to Albania.
One last challenge on the Peaks of the Balkans
If I could have quit and simply hopped onto a bus, I probably would have – but the only direct connection to Teth is across the mountains. There was no point in waiting, either, the weather was not supposed to get any better. So… I had to risk it.
The sky was looking nothing but threatening when I started the hike from Vusanje to Teth. And it stayed that way all along, but I was somewhat lucky.
It barely rained, despite the dark clouds hanging above me. The bigger issue, however, was the increasing wind.
The higher I climbed, the rougher it got. I tried not to listen to the fears telling me I would not be strong enough to make it.
I just needed to make it.
And that’s when I met my personal guardian angel of the day. There’s something so reassuring about meeting another human being in such a desolate area, braving the storms, heading in the same direction – simply to know you’re not the only one out there.
And to my surprise, he was rather unbothered by the weather. In fact, you could even sense he was enjoying it!
His calm, cheerful demeanor helped me to shift my perspective and unlock the joy in experiencing the wild beauty around me. Yes, the winds were rough, but here we were, facing them. Oh, suddenly I felt so alive.
Michael brewed a hot chocolate for me which gave me the energy to make it up the last ascent.
I was walking faster than him – and we were both comfortable with enjoying the hike at our own pace – so I arrived at the top alone.
An emotional end to an exhausting journey
Just like the first, the last mountain pass brought out all the emotions, too. With tears in my eyes, I looked down to Teth, from where I had started the hike 9 days earlier.
I had made it through the storms. It was as if all the struggles of the past days fell off my shoulders at once. Now I just needed to descend – and for that, there is always energy left.
Light rays hit the dry river bed down in the valley as if the heavens opened up just to illuminate my long-desired destination. Nobody knows to put on a show like nature does. And it moved my entire soul and being.
Oh, what a journey. Especially in the last few days, I wish I could have enjoyed it more, but luck was not on my side with the weather.
I finished the trail exhausted, but euphoric. My mood stayed elevated for days and gratitude for the beauty of this life kept overwhelming me in the most random moments.
Maybe that’s why we need (voluntary and involuntary) hardships in our lives – to reconnect with ourselves, to realize what really matters and to grow in appreciation for the beauty in front of our eyes.
Do difficult things to find your strength
If this trail has shown me anything, it is that: I am still strong enough. I am coming back to who I was.
Yet, of course, having experienced panic attacks and anxiety does not leave me the same. It changed me, but also in good ways. It gave me the capacity to feel so much more profoundly. And reminded me to take better care of myself. To listen closer to myself.
So if overwhelming fear ever comes back, I now know that I am still capable to do the things that matter to me. Little by little, I tackled all the things that scared me over the past months, and solo hiking another long-distance trail was the end boss.
Step by step, I’m moving forward. Just as I would on a hike.
Previously on my journey from Germany to Iran:
The Beginning | South Tyrol & Slovenia
Bears and Wilderness | Croatia & Bosnia
Mountains and Impermanence | Bosnia & Montenegro