Kom-Emine: The Fellowship Of The Mountain

The name of cape Emine (Bulgaria) has Arabic origin. It means “fearless and courageous”.
Ever since I start thinking of adventures the idea to cross Bulgaria from West to East popped up in my head. This route required trekking on the back of Mt. Stara Planina for 600+ km, climbing of 100+ peaks, and to accumulate denivelation of 20k+ m. To make things even more complicated, at the central part of the mountain 279 days a year are dominated by fogs and storms with winds often exceeding 100km/h. Along the course, there are only handful mountain refuges and water fountains, giving limited opportunity to refill. My idea was to do this adventure alone because I had only 17 days to completed it and I feared, if I take anyone with me, I will be slowed down and my chances for success will be near zero.

Mitko & Georgi at Kom peak, Bulgaria

In the early morning of Aug 1st, 2015 armed with a big smile on the face, backpack, tent, trekking gear, sufficient food for two days, camera, lot of positive energy I started my journey from Kom Peak (2016m). My trusty best friend Mitko came to escort me for the first 40~45km to make sure the hungry adventurer was kicking off well.

From Kom Peak I took two small pebbles. The first one to throw into the Black Sea at Cape Emine, and the second to keep as memory.

Mitko descending Kom peak, Bulgaria

Smooth beginning is what I expected. Instead just few km down from Kom Peak we were lost. My GPS unit sent us into wrong direction. Returning to the right track required steep climb and fighting with the dense bush. From there we could see how a girl who seems to have similar course was surpassing us, because she avoid the mistake we did. The sun was already burning and that event made me realize navigation will be much more challenging than I initially anticipated. Based on quick estimation we were 1.5 hours behind the initial schedule. Apparently not the most brilliant start. Anyway, deeper concentration and I still might be able to spot some of the trail marks to arrive at Cape Emine on time.

Ani, Mt. Stara Planina, Bulgaria

In the late afternoon we caught up on the girl. Ani was a solo traveler who wanted to walk along the “Kom - Emine” trail as well. Her plan was NOT to have a plan and just to complete as much as she could. We invited her to trek with us till we find a place for camping. Ani didn’t have any map and I wanted to help her. Regardless of the mistake from the morning, I was still confident in my navigational skills.

Tzetzo, Mt. Stara Planina, Bulgaria

My GPS notified me we had about 3.5km left to arrive at the camp location when we met a guy in early 30’s. Tzetzo was a theater artist who had an unsuccessful “Kom - Emine” attempt previous year and was fully committed to make it this time. I could read in his eyes that failure was not an option. I offered Tzetzo to camp with us as well. That day despite different pace and motivation Mitko, Ani, Tzetzo and I completed the first leg (43km) of the trail. Those two strangers who joined me seemed to experience numb legs and few blisters on their feet already. I start to have doubts, if they could sustain their endurance for the future as well. This is why at that moment I had no intention of building any group whatsoever.

What is the price of 1gr weight in the backpack?

On the 2nd day I woke up early and my head was full of thoughts. Maybe I have taken too many things with me and I should use the last chance to optimize the weight of my backpack. Simple math 600 km x avg.1000 steps/km x 1g = 600 kg. Good! Now multiply this by 1000 to get how much I can cut, if I remove only 1 kg of my luggage. Yeah, I know there must be some smart dude who might read this and comment that all this weight will be lifted not at once. Sure! But still it requires effort and calories. Nothing comes for free. So, it was an easy decision to send my tripod and few more items contributing to 1.5kg of total weight. Tzetzo and Ani also used Mitko to send home 4+kg.

Georgi's feet, Kom-Emine, Mt. Stara Planina, Bulgaria

Every morning I spent about 1.5hours for preparation. Majority of the time I filled placing plasters on my feet as protection from what was about to come during the day. Walking 5~10km was one thing. But doing it for 35~40km was completely different story, especially if I had to endure all this for multiple days.

Learn the secret of raspberry wine

Tzetzo & Olya, Trastenaya refuge, Bulgaria

The raspberry fielf of Trastenaya, Bulgaria

Without been affected by my concerns about Ani & Tzetzo's endurance, I continued trekking with them. After all, we had so much fun together.  Like the case of our arrival at Trastenaya refuge, when we met Olya. She was the manager who showed us her local raspberry plantation and share some insights about wine making. Not sure, if it was due the numerous jokes Tzetzo was making or the raspberry wine was kicking off already, but all of us were laughing all the time.  

100km mark

Time with my new friends was flying and suddenly we reached the 100km mark since the starting point. I was impressed how untrained people can adapt so fast to the challenges the tail offered.

Georgi 5km East of Leskovo refuge, Bulgaria

In average we walked 40km per day crossing countless valleys, rivers, and mountain peaks.

Halil & her dog, Leskova refuge, Bulgaria

The end of the 3rd day caught us at Leskova refuge where a giant mountain dog jump in front of me. I was thinking this was it! We were gone! That dog was perhaps 70+ kg, full of muscles, big teeth and deep bark like a thunder storm. Really frightening. However, the old lady who was taking care of the refuge gave the dog a signal, and suddenly we became friends. 

The view from the top of the mountain, Mt. Stara Planina, Bulgaria

Big part of Kom-Emine trail was immensely scenic…

Somewhere bellow Murgash Peak (1687m), Mt. Stara Planina, Bulgaria

...but also brought us to deep forests. Especially when was getting dark majority of the noises sounded like coming from a roaring monster. Sure, there must have been bears, wolfs, and other predators, but there is nothing more powerful than the human imagination. Anyway, we only saw the presence of wild boars, deer, and rabbits. 

Our arrival at Vitinya pass was everything but pleasant. We had walked 12+ hours and with horror discovered we had only 2 Korean ramyon soups left and there were no opportunities to purchase any kind of food. In general, that kind of endurance trekking demanded lot of calories from our bodies. We were sentenced to starve that night.

Marin - the last communist of Vitinya pass, Mt. Stara Planina, Bulgaria

Thankfully the security guard Marin, who introduced himself as the last communist of Vitinya pass, offered us all the food his wife prepared for his shift. To him we were his kids and he insisted to accept his help. We were saved! 
Tzetzo, Ani and I were about half day behind my schedule, but I decided to give them a chance and continued on the trail together. I feared they might get lost without me and my GPS map.

Temenuzhka & Vesko

On the way to Chavdar refuge we stumbled upon Temenuzhka and Vesko. They have travelled for couple of days and got lost. Without a map and compass they faced massive difficulty finding the way to continue. Thank God they have met us! As it often happens in life the right path was just 100m from them, but having too much stress they were unable to see it. I gave them water and suggested to bring them to the nearest refuge. One thing I had put in my bucket list was to safe a stranger. And there you go. I had perfect chance. Perhaps, they could have done it without my help, but let's say i brought them faster back on the trail. Other item in that list was to be disconnected for two weeks from internet and without a phone. Obviously I should have thought carefully what I wished for. Since that moment for some reason my phone refused recognizing my finger print and I was unable to use it. All my tries to log in went in the vain. Consequently, my family, girlfriend, close friends as well as former colleagues worried a lot that I was totally disconnected. Here Tzetzo and Ani helped me with their phones.

Face to face with the wild horses of the mountain

The wild horses of Mt. Stara Planina, Bulgaria

In the Bulgarian mountains especially in “Stara Planina” there a plenty of semi wild horses. It made me try to imagine what must have been exploring in the Wild Wild West when the first scouts traveled America.
Our delay compared to my initial schedule grew to 3/4 day.

45km Chase by a mountain storm

Sunrise above Svestiplaz Peak (1888m), near Kashana Refuge, Mt. Stara Planina, Bulgaria

To wake up at 4:30am it became kind of routine. Quick refill with food & water and we hit the road.

Mt. Stara Planina before the storm, Bulgaria

Those clouds, those clouds! I had some bad feeling. Even the storm alarm on my watch was warning of air pressure significant drop or in other words upcoming rain. Around 11:00 we have experienced the first rain for about 20min. The dark clouds followed us all day long. While climbing the last Peak (Vezhen) the storm alarm on my watch went insane. Then the massive thunder sound came from NE. We have packed as fast as we could our walking sticks that could draw any lightning, and continue up to the peak in what later will be known in the history as “thunder pace” (2.0x of our normal pace). Nobody was talking. We were just pushing faster and faster to escape that storm. Vezhen was a peak with 2198m that was very flat on its top. Near the summit Tzetzo, Ani and I noticed our way was blocked by a herd of wild horses. As if by a command and the herd broke up into a kind of cordon to let us pass through.

Rainbow above Mt. Stara Planina, Bulgaria

We were descending for long time. Legs start to fill numb. It was already 20:00. The sun gradually retreated and darkness was the new king in the mountain. We were forced to use our headlamps to be able to continue. Nobody was talking again. Our trail brought us in a forest that was totally wet by the rain we managed to escape earlier that day. Even though, there was lot of water dripping from the threes and made us wet. Finally, around 21:30 we arrived at Echo refuge. That day we managed to achieve 45km and to compensate the delay from my initial schedule. Ani was about to cry, but she didn’t. Tzetzo and I decide to reward her by asking the refuge managers to serve Ani her favorite dish – tarator soup. Tzetzo wanted to make her feel more comfortable and was really taking good care of her. That night I realized walking 600km to Cape Emine is a big challenge, but Ani & Tzetzo will do the impossible and we will arrive on time.

After the storm comes the sun!

Plamen, Echo Refuge, Mt. Stara Planina, Bulgaria

Plamen, Echo Refuge, Mt. Stara Planina, Bulgaria