Within only a few steps, the weather changed from sweaty summer heat to windy winter chill, and I knew we were entering the most challenging section of our trail running adventure. It was the third day of our tour through the Albanian Alps, and high atop the Valbona Pass, we were met with a big surprise. The snow was still covering many sections of the trail; it was clear we’d need to revise our plan for how to move forward.
Despite these conditions, our seasoned trail enthusiasts were determined to find a way. Our guide, an Albanian named Adri, quickly rerouted us to a different trail down the mountain range. He explained that the trail we had planned to take was still too dangerous because of a high snowfall year in the mountains, and we would need to take a route called the “winter trail.” No one doubted this decision, primarily because a hiker had perished trying to take the main trail only two weeks prior.
A few days earlier, our group of seven trail runners — five Americans and two Colombians — came together in Tirana, Albania for a week in the Albanian Alps, with the goal to cover miles of trails and create lasting memories. This little-known and mostly-untouched corner of Europe is a paradise for mountain lovers. I chose Albania as our destination after my own trip there last October. It was clear to me that this area of the country was ideal for adventurous runners seeking stunning views, challenging miles and few tourists.
The first couple of days were spent in the small town of Theth and included running and hiking several trails featuring massive waterfalls, bright blue-green waterholes, lung-busting climbs and unparalleled views. At one point, we had three neighborhood dogs follow us 3,000 feet up to a mountain pass named Qafa e Pejes. It was clear these dogs were in their element, as they easily trotted up a trail that had us humans breathing heavily. Just before we were to descend back to our guesthouse, we turned to see a herd of mountain goats moving at full speed through the mountain pass, and one of the dogs moving at a much slower pace behind. Then our canine friend quickly gave up his pursuit and joined us on the run back down.
The Albanian Alps are also known as the Accursed Mountains. This ominous-sounding name seemed very appropriate on that third day descending over the Valbona Pass. Within a matter of minutes of running down the winter trail, the path disappeared under a bright white layer of snow. The sharp angle of the mountainside meant we would have to use extreme caution traversing the 25-30 yards across the snow. One slip would mean a pretty dire emergency situation. Following Adri’s lead, we each carefully stepped into the previous person’s footprints while steading ourselves with our trekking poles. The short distances felt like an eternity. We would repeat this process many times as we slowly moved down the mountain.
It took almost one hour to go a mile down the trail, but as the descent became less steep, we found sections of snow that were easier to slide down than hike. The tense moments quickly turned to child-like excitement as we shot down the snowbank on our butts. The final four miles of actual running that day felt easy after what we’d experienced on the pass.
Over our five days of running in the Albanian Alps, our group discovered a few truths. Each and every encounter with an Albanian was met with a friendly smile and genuine appreciation that we were experiencing their country. Every postcard-perfect moment was immediately met by another of even greater beauty. Day after day, we would ask, “How can it get any better than this?” — then it would.
We stayed in guesthouses across the region that offered comfortable beds and endless dishes of authentic Albanian food. From plates of fli, a crepe-like delight, to dish after dish of lamb and beef to a never-ending assortment of breads and vegetables, all meals were fresh and locally sourced. Luckily, we were burning so many calories each day on the trails that these meals were both tasty and necessary. Each night, we would head to our rooms to sleep earlier than the night before, the result of another tiring and thrilling day completed.
As I lay in my bed on the final night of the trip, legs exhausted from five days that included 50 miles of running and over 15,000 feet of climbing, I reflected on all we'd seen and experienced. I considered how quickly we had all bonded during this shared adventure in an unknown land. As I faded into sleep, my thoughts drifted back to sliding through the snow and the joy traveling to a new place can bring when you share it with others.
Greg Wingo is the owner of ROAM Projects, an outdoor recreation consulting company. In addition to organizing the Albanian Alps Trail Tour, he is also the race director for Great Alabama 650, the longest annual paddle race in the world. If you’re interested in the 2023 trail running trip to Albania, reach out to Greg, at firstname.lastname@example.org.