Albania Big Wall Adventure: Covid-19 Pivot
Updated: Oct 23
The Fledgling Angel Investor & Big Wall Climber
Rock climbing and investing are both passions of mine. I truly believe that the work I put into one helps me achieve success in the other. In the last two years, I have started to climb big walls and I have started to invest in early stage companies. The skills I have built training for climbing have helped me become a better angel investor. Being an investor requires you to build networks, immerse in new cultures, and stay vigilant to new opportunities. It requires you to seek out experts for mentorship, guidance, and coaching and you must continuously build new skills and work hard. Learning to big wall climb requires all of these same skills.
Your hobbies and your passions in life are no less important than what you do for work. The skills we build through our passions are absolutely transferable and should be recognized as such. One should never discredit the importance of their passions. Those around us should support us to build skill sets in various activities and encourage our physical, mental, and emotional health as much as building our “professional” skills.
(Gjipe Beach, Albania)
Albania: The Climber's Paradise
Albania is a climbing destination that everyone should be talking about. It has just enough climbing development to be a world class destination; yet so little is published on this magical place that it maintains nothing but utter adventure. While there is more than enough to keep a climbing party busy for months, the amount of climbing potential that has yet to be developed is unfathomable. Albania, and its Balkan neighbors, may be some of the last places in the world with relatively accessible big walls and long multi pitch routes still waiting for first ascents. According to Climbing Magazine, “Valbona, in the far north—with its pristine alpine environment, soaring limestone massifs, and steep caves hundreds of meters high—is poised to be the Balkan Potrero Chico. In fact, it’s arguably the best limestone adventure climbing in Europe. And it remains mostly untapped.” I couldn’t agree more with this assessment.
“Where is Albania” my friends and family asked inquisitively when I told them about my upcoming departure. “It’s next to Greece,” I would respond, although I have to admit that my own Balkans geography was limited before researching the trip. Marc and I were supposed to meet in the Dolomites in September for one of our annual big wall trainings, but the European Union remained closed to Americans due to Covid-19. As borders slowly opened up, I got my hands on a list of countries open for tourism. As I scanned the list, Albania caught my eye. I had a vague recollection of a mountain biking movie I had seen at a film festival years prior. I knew nothing about the country; yet that short feature had grabbed my attention. There were big mountains Albania.
Tirana: Dining, Wining, and Climbing
One of the best things about climbing in Albania is the ability to have a leisurely morning drinking coffee at a local coffee shop in Tirana, driving an hour outside the city to climb, and then returning to the city for a five star meal at an extremely affordable price. Albanian food, wine, and coffee is incredible. The major cities and towns are surrounded by farms and vineyards making it a world class culinary experience. Two people can dine at the best restaurants across Albania, eating multiple-course meals of locally sourced meats, cheeses, veggies, and breads paired with a bottle of locally grown wine, for under $50. We joked the entire trip that we were on a food and wine tour and climbed on our rest days.
We started off our tour in Tirana, the capital city, and climbed for two days at Lake Bovilla. Marc picked me up from the airport, and within an hour of my arrival, we were sport climbing above a turquoise reservoir surrounded by limestone cliffs. It was breathtaking. The reservoir is a nice place to start the trip because there is a good range of climbs in the area. The first day we warmed up on moderate climbs in the Lake Sector. The second day we spent most of the day around the Tufa Sector. Marc sent a 7B+ on the last climb of the day! I had never climbed a tufa before but I managed to struggle fest my way up it. I lie backed those tufas as if I was a European in Yosemite!
(Lake Bovilla, Tufa Sector)
(Lake Bovilla, Lake Sector)
Recommended Coffee Shops & Restaurants in and around Tirana
Uka Farm (outskirts of Tirana)
Mrizi i Zanave Agroturizëm, Fishte (about 1.5 hours north of Tirana)
(Mrizi i Zanave Agroturizëm, Fishte)
(Mrizi i Zanave Agroturizëm, Fishte)
As great as the climbing is at Lake Bovilla and as great as the food is in Tirana, the traffic getting around Tirana is absolutely insane. We were excited to escape the city and head to the coast. About three and a half hours south of Tirana lies a small beach called Gjipe. To arrive at the beach requires either a 4x4 vehicle or a 20 minute hike down the road. Since we only had a small car at that point in the trip, we packed the haul bags in the parking lot and ventured out to spend the next three nights camping at the beach.
Gjipe Beach is a sport climber’s paradise. For 5 euros a night you can set up your tent next to the base of amazing limestone cliffs with some very high quality lines, you have access to bathrooms and showers, and there is a small restaurant on the beach for coffee, meals, and beer. The bright orange limestone in the canyon is an incredible contrast against the bright blue turquoise sea. We only spent three nights here but one could easily spend a week climbing, relaxing, and swimming in the ocean.
(Hike to Gjipe Beach)
(Climbing above Gjipe Eco Campground)
Albania Big Wall Climbing
The entire trip we were closely watching the weather in the mountains where our main climbing objective lived in the Theth Valley: an 18 pitch big wall, Raki on Arapi (7a/11d). A good weather window was opening up in a couple days so we decided to pack the haul bags and leave the beach. We exchanged our small car for an SUV, something that I would recommend for the mountain pass and the approach to the climb, and started our 4 hour journey north from Tirana.
We stayed in Okol, a small cluster of homes on the outskirts of Theth, because of its proximity to Maja Harapit (Mt.Arapit). In the mountains it is most common to stay at a guesthouse, meaning someone’s home who has extra bedrooms. Generally the family prepares your meals, in which our experience included very generous portions of delicious meats, breads, and cheeses. How did we make it up the big wall, you wonder? I’m not sure…
(Theth Valley, start of the approach to Mt.Arapit and the camping area)
We had four good days of weather in the mountains. The first day we tested the approach and scouted the climbs in the area. The trail was very well maintained and took about an hour. The rock was still wet from the last week of rain so we stashed our gear and decided to return the next morning to climb Ferdelli, a six pitch climb to the left of Raki on Arapi.
Ferdelli was a great warm up. As an American climber, I do not have much experience placing gear in limestone or climbing with two ropes. In order to practice, Marc and I swung leads and he coached me on managing and clipping the two ropes. While limestone is nothing like the granite I’m used to, the gear placement wasn’t a problem. I thought the rock quality was good and I found limestone trad climbing to be super fun!
(Top of Pitch 5, Ferdelli )
(Pitch 5, Ferdelli )
Big Day, Big Wall
At 3:30 am we arrived at the trailhead. Marc was still half asleep while I had two cups of espresso flowing through my veins. The last couple of years we had been working towards this moment: attempting to complete our first big wall together. While Marc is a very experienced big wall climber, I am his fledgling bigwalera apprentice. Since Marc lives in Spain and I live in the United States we only get to train together once or twice a year. Last year we spent some days together on Leaning Tower and Washington Column in Yosemite but bad weather kept us from sending. This year we had spent a week climbing together in Catalunya but then Covid hit, so we went virtual like the rest of the world, and conducted hauling lessons over Zoom in my basement.
By 6 am we had completed the first few pitches in the dark and made it to a large ledge just in time to watch the sunrise over the valley. As we transitioned from climbing in puffy jackets and approach shoes to base layers and climbing shoes, the pitches slowly began to increase in difficulty. Some of the pitches were still wet even though we had experienced two days of full sun. Around pitch nine I finally took the lead for a bit to give Marc a break. It was so fun navigating the limestone crack systems, mixing face climbing with hand jams, and working on my route finding skills eleven pitches above the Theth Valley.
(A few pitches up, Raki on Arapi)
(Pitch 11ish, Raki on Arapi)
Marc took control again when we reached the crux pitches. As with many multipitches, the style was varied and it had a bit of everything. It was a complete adventure climb. Our main objective was to get up the climb, not to free the route. There is no shame in pulling on gear. This is an important lesson that Marc has taught me over the years. If a move is too hard, put a sling on it, aid that sh*t, and keep going. You don’t have time for perfection in the mountains. One of my favorite sections of the climb was this crazy step across move off this slab, up and over a very overhanging section, and then into a hand crack. I fondly remember laughing to myself thinking “6C, really?” as I stepped into the sling and hoisted myself up.
Around Pitch 13 or 14 the headlamps came back out and the temperature dropped significantly. I started my private dance party at the belay, quietly singing and dancing to Lizzo to stay warm in my two puffy jackets, while Marc navigated the route in the dark. Around 9 pm I was shivering at the belay when Marc said, “Chelsea... there’s a scorpion…”. “Excuse me….a scorpion?”, I responded, hoping I mistranslated what he said. One can only imagine that the final three pitches were climbed delicately, with an acute awareness of finger placement.
We arrived to summit around 11:30 pm. We were cold, thirsty, and tired. We still had a four hour walk off ahead of us, so there was not a lot of time for celebration. We drank the last bit of water we had, ate a bite of sandwich, and headed down the mountain. We reached the car around 3:30 am. In total it was a 24 hour adventure. We were the third or fourth group to send the route and we were the first American-Catalan ascent!
(Summit, Raki on Arapi)
Planning a trip like this takes considerable effort. I spent a month reading every resource available on the internet about climbing in Albania, connected with local climbers for beta, and spent hours looking at maps to piece the trip together. Currently, there is no guidebook for climbing in Albania. I had to make my own. However, as someone who identifies as a traveler, an adventurer, and an anthropologist, planning the climbing trip and connecting with new people around the world is half the fun.
Covid-19 has taught many of us to be flexible and live in the present. Marc and I would never have considered Albania as a big wall destination had we not been forced to pivot; yet it will likely remain one of our greatest adventures as a team. I cannot recommend Albania enough as climbing trip. There is so much more to explore that is not mentioned in this post. We only scratched the surface on our first visit. Pack those haul bags folks, Albania is ready for you! Oh, and don’t forget the yellow alien, you’ll need it!
(Gjipe Beach, Marc's Favorite Picture of the Trip...)
Interested in traveling the world, learning to big wall climb, and having high quality photos and video? Marc Subirana is your guide! Feel free to reach out for his contact information.