High in the Rila Mountains

The Rila Mountains in Bulgaria are a beautiful mountain range in south western Bulgaria, and are the highest mountains in the Balkans, with the peak of Musala standing at 2925 metres above sea level.

The area is most commonly known for the Rila Monastery, which has been situated in a remote mountain valley for a thousand years. There are also a series of seven glacial lakes, high up upon the massif which have lush, emerald green waters. These attract plenty of hikers during the summer months, and the long slopes draw skiers in the winter.

It was this natural beauty that drew us to the area in search of something more peaceful than the previous night we had spent in an old military base on the outskirts of Sofia.

We drove across the slushy plain up from Sofia through Dupnitza, via a very handy Macdonald’s. As the roads climbed gently upwards the slush became snow, and the snow thickened a little. We made a brief stop at the geyser in Sapareva Banya, a town at the foot of the mountains. The geothermal spring had only sprung up during the fifties when someone tried building in the area and unwittingly cracked it open.

After sliding across the ice coated paving slabs, past a funky little bar, the warmth of the steam spewing out of the now sculpted geyser was rather nice. This then became bitterly cold once it froze into our clothing. After a few shots it was back to the car, onwards and upwards in the hope that we would stumble across a hotel with a spare room. The sky was clear, we were sure to find something worth capturing a few shots of before we got our heads down.

As the road elevated the snow grew thicker, eventually reaching depths of up to a metre. This made driving quite fun, but progress was slow, moving at about 10mph.  We found ourselves in a winter wonderland. Piles of snow stuck to the tall trees, which in some areas rose up towards the stars like rows of huge Gothic towers.

The snowy roads of Panichiste

We drove past several hotel signs and eventually turned back to them once we reached the chairlift at the end of the road. We saw a visitors’ centre with metre long icicles dangling from it’s roof on the way which looked pretty cool. Passing several closed and apparently empty hotels we began to worry but we eventually turned a corner where we saw the golden glow of Hotel Marigold beaming at us through the trees. It was already midnight. The receptionist spoke little English but he was very helpful. Through their WiFi, my tablet, and Google translate we got the message across that we would like to head out into the night for some photographs and he gave us his mobile number for when we wanted to get back in. We found our room was surprisingly nice for the money, although I can’t remember exactly how much it cost. Massive beds, a powerful looking shower and a veranda tempted us to stay in the warm, but we donned enough layers to both look like the Michelin man and left, to findsome shots of the beautiful scenery.

We didn’t have many options, we were limited to one road, we had no idea of the features of the landscape other than what we had seen earlier. With it being so late we decided to take it easy and just shoot those simple subjects. The first of which was a cute little hut at the entrance to the chairlift. The scene was a bizarre one. The few cars there had varying amounts of snow upon them, but most were buried to the point where they were completely unrecognisable, looking like nothing more than white mounds. We started off with a star trail of a small wooden gate house and spent an hour or so lighting and shooting it. The snow at the side of the road was so deep the tripod wouldn’t hit the ground, it was just a matter of stabilising it as much as possible and hoping it wouldn’t budge.

Star trails over  Panichiste

The sky was stunning. We watched a few satellites making their way across the black expanse before the temperature dropped to minus twelve and we started to feel the cold. We spent the rest of the night milling around the open ski slopes and a small church, but cloud moved in towards the end of the night. Come six o’clock we had listened to enough random Bulgarian radio stations and thought it was probably time to wake the poor receptionist up, so we called it a night.

Back at the hotel we had an awkward situation when we couldn’t connect to the hotel’s WiFi so couldn’t get hold of the receptionist. After a few minutes however, he came to open the doors, with huge bags under his eyes, poor guy. With the blue glow of dawn peeking through the curtains in our room, we swiftly got our heads down.

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The next day we woke up late. So late that we had only a couple of hours sunlight left. Our plan to reach the lakes was still worth a shot, so after one of the best showers I’ve ever had, we left Hotel Marigold and made our way to the chair lift. There was a fair bit of cloud but as the afternoon went on this dispersed, leaving a nice clear sky which should provide some great views of the stars once we got out of the forest.

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Snow hut

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By the time we got to the chairlift they were just closing up for the day. We managed to convince the guys to crank the engines back up so we could make our way up to the mountain. We planned to visit the seven lakes via the Rilski Ezera hut, a mountain lodge on the route, where we could grab a bite to eat. As the chair lift would be closed late at night we were to walk back downhill once we had finished up.

Arriving at the top, we had missed the best part of the day’s sunlight and were now exposed to the brunt of the fiercely cold wind. We had not eaten and only had two chocolate bars between us so we stopped for some supplies and dosed up on espressos. The atmosphere in the hut was a strange one, I got the impression they thought we were crazy turning up at the end of the day.

We built ourselves up for the daunting trek across the snow to the lakes and eventually layered up and made our way outside, just as the sun was dipping below the horizon. The route appeared simple on Google maps, but looking at the terrain ahead of us it was anything but that.

The top of the chair lift

Only a hundred metres in we were already immersed in snow drifts that came up to our waists. Xiao and I exchanged looks that blatantly said ‘what the fuck are we doing?!’ as we painstakingly trudged our way through. Looking back to the hut was a constant reminder that our progress was abysmally slow. So this is why people use snow shoes then I guess. I’ve never had snow like this in the UK so felt quite inexperienced, and well aware that our mission could take a turn for the worse.

After about 500 metres the deep snow drifts became more frequent. We had only made it a third of the way to the first lake and darkness was settling in. We were already exhausted and letting our pace separate us. I got the feeling we would seriously regret continuing, and in all probability the lakes would be frozen solid and covered with snow anyway.  We chose to turn back and to be honest I was secretly quite glad. It would have turned into a disaster.

The Rilski Ezera Hut

Dragging our way through the powder we thought we should at least make the walk worthwhile, stopping for a shot of the hut as the residual light receded into a deep blue hue, balancing the bright, warm lights that were calling our names. Xiao was also calling me names, cursing me in Chinese. The wind chill was horrible, taking the temperature down to minus 20 centigrade and spitting the snow into our faces. The hut was now a very good place to be.

The kitchen was now open, thank god. We looked at the menus, all in Cyrillic text which made no sense to us. We managed to order pretty much one of everything in a bid to replace the energy the mountain wind had sapped from us. Once we had acclimatised we checked the cameras, which hadn’t and were now drenched with condensation. Half an hour later we started our short ventures outside to shoot the stars which were now beaming down onto us. An abandoned, and ruined hut nearby made a great foreground subject for a 50 minute star trail, and a great excuse to sit back in the warm while we left the cameras to do their business.

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With such dark, clear skies the views were probably the best I have seen and contained something new to me; the Zodiacal light. This subtle phenomenon which can be seen during the first couple of hours of darkness, is caused by the sun’s light hitting tiny particles in the disc of our solar system. These light up in a feint, dusty cloud, and can only ever be seen under very good conditions. The Zodiacal light is the feint glow above the horizon in the image below. The orange glow is from the light pollution of nearby villages and distant towns and the milky way runs across the top of the frame. The brightest ‘star’ is again Jupiter and on the right, the fuzzy globule of the Andromeda galaxy can be seen.

While shooting the Zodiacal light I was lucky to see and catch a nice bright yellow Alpha Centaurid meteor streaking across the sky. It’s nowhere near as dramatic in the photograph, so not worth posting here but made a nice moment.

The walk back was supposed to be fairly short, covering the same distance as I would on my average walk into my local town; 1.4 miles. With the snow, we expected it to take a little longer but we were confident we would be back in the warm car before long.

Sliding our way down the mountain

The first few steps were fine but once we reached the chair lift it all went to pot. The snow came up to our waists again. It took us about ten minutes to reach the first post supporting the chair lift, a hundred metres downhill, but once we reached the shelter of the forest we were at least generating some body heat. A combination of bum sliding, falling and slow walking took us down towards our goal, besides the occasional thought that we could get lost and freeze to death, we were having fun. We came across some skidoo tracks which would support our weight better than the fresh powder, making our walk much easier.

Knowing the base of the chair lift was well lit at night, we would be able to know when we could see the bottom. It was a long time until it came into view, but it did.

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Back at the car for about one in the morning, we were then drive to see our friend, and fellow photographer Nicola Miller for three days while we shot Buzludzha in the snow. We arrived in Sevlievo shortly before six and spent a couple of hours sleeping in the car, but were rewarded with quite a view to make it worth while.

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17 Comments on “High in the Rila Mountains

  1. It was Mike, we braved short trips outside to shoot the stars but had to keep returning to the sanctuary of the hut. The real fun was descending the mountain, bum sliding most of our way down!

  2. Amazing work. Moved from the UK to BG just for the amazing dark skies.