This is part of a series of articles called 400 Days of Pandemic, my one year and a month of writing, photography, and adventures during the COVID outbreak of 2020. This final chunk of 50 days takes place from February 16-April 19, 2021.
Bulgaria still won’t let me in so I’ve made my way to the peaks of Kopaonik, a massive ski hill overlooking the Kosovo border. I’ve cobbled together a barely functional snowboard kit composed of bargain-bin beginner gear and set out to conquer Serbia’s biggest hill.
Part 1: The Mountain
February 16: 2021: The apartment I found last-minute is functional and about $400 a month. Like most apartments in the Balkan, it was one broken heater and one barely functioning one. I spend most of my time either on the mountain, crouched next to the one heater, or tucked into a pile of blankets in bed like some sort of burrowing creature.
I’m living about 10 kilometers from the ski resort in an area dubbed “The Weekend Settlement”. Picture a twisty 2.5 kilometer strip of mountain road with hotels, restaurants, and numerous stray dogs.
February 17, 2021: The Balkans are not well known for embracing the Internet when it comes to travel, so trying to figure out living, traveling, ski gear, COVID restrictions, and my general life has been a bit of a wild ride, so seeing the first sign on a bus for Kopaonik is a bit of a relief.
February 18, 2021: This is my ski hill for the next two months.
February 19, 2021: It’s rumored in the Balkans that name brand gear is probably counterfeit which probably explains why the front pocket of my “Burton pants” pulled completely off during my first two weeks of riding.
I also buy a snowboard. The brand is whatever is Whatever-Happens-To-Be-50%-Off , which this season turns out to be a Nidecker intermediate board. I don’t think I’m that aggressive of a rider, but over the next two months, I will beat this board to death.
February 25, 2021: The day I discover the bowl.
It’s a short bowl, not more than a dozen turns, but it’s always empty and mostly untracked. There are no crowds over here and that’s mostly what I’m looking for, just a quiet place in the mountains with no unmasked mouth breathers threatening to crash into me.
February 27, 2021: Me becoming increasingly disheveled.
March 3, 2021: One small issue with this winter. No snow. The mountain has a solid base due some big dumps during January, but down here in the Weekend Settlement, I’m spending my afternoons hiking around and wondering if I have made a terrible decision.
At least the views are nice and these peaceful benches are located along my favorite trail. Sometimes when I walk back up, the Serbian army is perched on the ridge staring across the border into Kosovo.
No photos of them. I’m trying to keep a low profile here.
March 4, 2021: Most of the restaurants in town are closed or have wacky hours due to the pandemic so I’m typically on my own for food. Once a week, I ride up on the 8:00 am bus, hit up the grocery stores next to the lifts, grab a coffee, and wander about the village.
March 6, 2021: I spend quite a bit of time on the Gvozdac lift, a high-speed six-shooter with a bubble and not many people. There are two screamer blue runs straight from the top, a mostly untouched bowl, and some very untouched trees.
March 10, 2021: A storm has spit out a bit of snow this morning and there’s enough to check out a closed lift-line off Gvozdac that I’ve had my eye on for the past week.
March 14, 2021: Moving day! I never liked this apartment, but as I’m checking out I have a wave of sadness at leaving my first home in Kopaonik. It’s when I’m standing in the entryway about to close the door for the final time that I notice the sign that clearly states: DON’T DRINK THE TAP WATER.
Really wish I had seen that a month ago. Fuck this apartment.
It’s been one year since this pandemic adventure/nightmare/experience began and since then, I’ve come to learn that if you are going to be stuck inside, you might as well be stuck inside somewhere you love, so I go full out out for my second month in Kopaonik and check into the apartment of my dreams. It’s a large studio, with high ceilings, a small kitchen, and huge full wall windows facing the mountain. It’s still in The Weekend Settlement, but hey, I’ve got that bus schedule dialed in.
Part 2: The Big Snow
March 15, 2021: The storm of the season begins. I have never seen this much snow this late in the season. The week kicks off with what locals call the biggest dump in the past five years and for the next twenty-five days it will just be non-stop snowfall.
I am outside 15 minutes early for the first ski bus. The snow at the stop is past my shins. I am stoked beyond all reasonable comprehension.
There’s only one issue. They stopped the bus for the season. A month early.
“They are done running it for the season,” someone helpfully tells the ten of us standing there.
I do what I normally do in this situation – start to hitch. I’m picked up almost immediately by a small car that is about to skid off the road. “I have a solution,” the driver tells me. “Chains?” I ask. “Not exactly,” and he pulls out tiny coats for the front wheels and we ride off for the best day of the season so far.
March 16, 2021: I thumb it again. This time we are using zip-ties for chains.
The snow is deep.
They are struggling with the amount of snow so Lift 4 is the only decent lift that’s open. The liftline that I deemed 100% un-rideable last week is rideable. I hit it almost immediately.
The only issue is that is is very, very cold and everything is still shut down for COVID protocols. Four days later, I’ll look at myself in the bathroom mirror for the first time in awhile and realize that at some point I’ve had frostbite pretty bad on my face.
March 17, 2021: Otherwise known as the day I get my own ski area. It has snowed again. Snow up to my knees this morning.
Lift 14 (the bottom left) corner is a hike to reach. You have to take three lifts including two pomas to get there and it’s usually packed. Except today. The final poma to get there is broken. I’m assured by the liftie that 14 is still open so I hike up on the poma track.
And there it is. My own four-seater high speed lift with some of the most fun terrain on the mountain. All untracked. All powder. Can we call it the best day of the season? It’s definitely close, definitely in the top five, and definitely in the top 10 of all time. So good and so cold and so deep, so no photos.
March 18, 2021: Serbians seem startlingly unprepared for snow so my new morning plans involve wandering around offering my snow-clearing services to their car in exchange for a ride up to the mountain. Today, we get a brief peek of blue sky.
March 21, 2021: Still snowing.
March 22, 2021: The mornings are cold enough that my fear of frostbite is taking priority over my fear of COVID, so each morning I’m stopping inside this small restaurant to get a coffee and defrost. Of course, everything is closed because of COVID, so you have to knock a few times and then convince the owner that you aren’t the police.
March 23, 2021: The sun clears for the first time in nine days. I can finally see where I’m going.
I’m heading down for my coffee at the illegal mountain speakeasy when I’m startled by the the sound of police sirens – in the middle of the ski hill. Police on a snowmobile! They even have a pole at the back with a blue light. I ride down as fast as I can to the restaurant. “Policia!” I shout to the security guard. “No policia. Not possible.” he replies with typical Balkan confidence. With my Serbian exhausted, I sit down next to one of the wild puppies that that live underneath the restaurant and watch the raid unfold.
It turns out not to be terribly exciting. The police show up on their ridiculous snowmobile. They talk to the security guard. Money exchanges hands and the speakeasy is shut down.
March 24, 2021: Some purchases I have made in my time here. Serbian Red Bull energy drink, “Eat. Sleep. Ski. Repeat” t-shirt. Sunflower seeds that make me chortle every time I read the package.
March 25, 2021: There’s a new gondola this season at Kopaonik this season and it’s wild that I haven’t ridden it yet. Its main use is to access to a massive parking area in the valley down below. This twenty-five minute gondola ride saves drivers from a seventeen-kilometer windy ski road and an overcrowded parking situation. It’s such a long gondola ride that it has two mid-station stops.
Mainly, what I learn from riding it down to the first mid-station is that I’m missing out an untracked stash of trees. What you can’t see in the photos is that there’s a long green run that runs down the length of the ridge and then fishooks back at the bottom, so it’s impossible to get lost in these trees.
March 27, 2021: I’ve talked a lot about how I get to the mountain in the morning, but how I get home each day is just as wacky. During the deep storm, there was so much snow on the paved road that I would just ride my snowboard down the mountain road to the upper part of the Weekend Settlement. Over the last month I’ve finessed the trail to include a better non-traffic route that involves a deer path from the upper mountain, a nice open space under the power lines, and finally the tail end of a hiking trail.
April 3, 2021: I finally get into those trees that I’ve been scoping out for the past few days. They are even better than I imagined.
April 5, 2021: Pandemic restrictions are settling down and I’m able to grab some food that isn’t instant noodles. Some of my meals over the final month…
April 6, 2021: The mountain is settling into possibly the best spring riding conditions I’ve ever seen. It’s still snowing, but it’s also still super sunny. I’m adding a small rakia to my mid-morning coffee stop.
April 10, 2021: Winter is ending. My final trip down the power line stash is getting a bit sketchy.
The end did not go well, but at least I didn’t fall off that dirt cliff into traffic.
April 12, 2021: I bluff my way onto the Cardaci Shuttle for the final day of the season. I’m already feeling nostalgic for a place that I’ve only lived for two months. I stop into the Miss You Market for the last time. I’ve been coming in here in every day for the past two months and the owners still act like it’s my first time every time. Never change, Balkans.
April 13, 2021: Bags are packed. I get a taxi up the mountain to catch a bus to Belgrade. It’s snowing lightly.
April 17, 2021: I need a PCR test to fly out of Serbia. Lucky for me, the government has made the process almost seamless. All I need to do is go a crowded post office, pay $200 for a test, then catch a cab to the far end of the city where someone will incorrectly administer the test. I leave my coat, snowpants, and gloves in the park next to the bus station for the Syrian refugees that have been living there for the past six years and leave town.
April 18, 2021: This vomit bag on my plane from Amsterdam accurately sums up my feelings on heading back to the United States.
And that’s the end of how my two-week trip turned into a 400-day journey.