Cross Country Skiing, North Macedonia

A brush with fame in Mavrovo

Cross country Skiing Mavrovo North Macedonia

I’ve always fancied having a crack at cross-country skiing. I figured it would be a great way to get out and about in the snow, away from the noise and crowds on the downhill slopes. I was in Macedonia in the middle of winter, and Mavrovo ski resort was less than two hours’ drive from Skopje, so I reckoned it was as good a place as any to start my cross-country career.

Starting any new hobby, you tend to learn a lot really fast. The first thing I learnt was that, in Macedonia at least, it’s bloody hard to find a cross-country ski instructor. If you want to do downhill in any of its forms you have more instructors than you can poke a pole at, but if you’re after cross country you’ve got Buckley’s1. I contacted all the ski schools and private instructors I could find, including one who’s translated web page stated ‘Take your first steps in skiing with professional skiing and brothel instructors at the…School‘ (which seemed like an interesting if unusual combination of tuition) but had no luck at all. Finally I got a contact from one of the downhill instructors. His text contained only a number and a name. Darko.

Ok so it’s probably a bit childish but when I heard the name ‘Darko’ it immediately conjured up thoughts of mysterious Eastern European contacts that western agents would meet in sketchy Communist countries in Cold War spy movies.

I texted Darko, and despite our sometimes cryptically app-translated messages we managed to work out that yes he could teach me, and yes I should come to Mavrovo, and yes he did have all the gear I needed. ‘Great!’ I thought. All the gear, that is, except for boots. ‘Bugger it!’ I thought. Seems like he didn’t have the skids2 to fit me, but then he assured me he could get his hands on some. With that assurance, I set about planning my three day trip.

It was snowing steadily the morning I was due to leave, and the sky was dark and stormy. I wasn’t in any hurry, as my first lesson was not to be until the following day. Having done bugger all driving in the snow, I was glad not to be in any rush. After clearing the snow off the hire car I was on my way.

I took it easy on the highway, then turned off and followed the signs to Mavrovo. The snow on the access road was decidedly deeper, and I tip-toed along until I got a feel for how the hire car was going to cope with the conditions. It wasn’t the most relaxed drive, so I was pleased when I arrived at the little town of Mavrovo. I couldn’t park in the Hotel carpark as the snow was too deep, so pulled off the road as best I could.

After checking in I messaged Darko, who had gone a little quiet. I got a message from him later saying he was in Skopje, and would be back soon. He was concerned that the heavy snow and stormy conditions might mean we would not be able to ski the following day, but he would let me know.

Snow fall outside a hotel

The next morning he did: no go. The storms had made a mess of the cross-country course and they wouldn’t have the trails groomed until late in the day. I have to say I was pretty disappointed. But there was nothing that could be done about it so I just had to hope the following day would be ok.

With the day to myself I went out on the road past the town and into the forest. Bummed though I was about the skiing, it was a beautiful walk.

Cross country Skiing Mavrovo North Macedonia

Later that evening Darko messaged me and said the trails had been groomed, he had the boots I needed, and we were all set to go the following morning! It was a great relief as I was starting to think that on my first cross-country ski trip I wouldn’t even get to clip on the sticks. We agreed to meet at one of the hotels near the ski lifts at 10am.

It was overcast and a little foggy as I slipped and skidded my way towards our meeting point. Cars full of day trippers were making their way to the top carpark, and excitedly unloading their gear for a day on Mavrovo’s slopes. I loitered outside the hotel for a few minutes, then I noticed a forty-something bloke doing the same. ‘Darko?’ ‘Jim?’ Contact made, and after picking up two sets of skis and poles I followed Darko towards the chairlift. He seemed to know everyone, and and I mean everyone. It was almost like he was a local celebrity. Darko asked if I had a pass, I told him I didn’t, he assured me it wasn’t a problem and lead me though the staff entrance and onto the lift. The bloke was the man.

As we rose steeply up through the forest we began chatting. Darko spoke ok English, which was great as my Macedonian was still restricted to ‘good morning’ and the mis-pronounciation of a handful of foods. I mentioned that he seemed to know everyone, and he told me he had lived in Mavrovo his whole life. He also casually mentioned he was a three time Olympian. An Olympian? Three times over?? Now you don’t meet one of them every day, or ever. I shook his hand and he seemed genuinely chuffed that I was as impressed as I was.

Cross country Skiing Mavrovo North Macedonia

So it turns out the mysterious Darko I had been messaging had represented Macedonia at the Turin (Italy, 2006), Vancouver (Canada 2010) and Sochi (Russia 2014) Olympic Games. So he actually was a local celebrity! That explained a few things.

We ascended above the treeline and after about 15 minutes reached the summit of the mountain. Dismounting the chairlift, I followed my triple-Olympian instructor across the downhill runs to the cross-country loops. Darko handed me the boots, which I later found out was the reason he had traveled all the way to Skopje the day before. What a top bloke! He showed me how to clip in to the bindings on the cross country skis, which looked as thin as matchsticks.

We spent the next hour and a half covering the basics of ‘skating’ style of cross country. It seems like it’s all about rhythm, and I would follow Darko trying to mimic his technique as he called out ‘Ohp, ohp, ohp’ everytime he pushed his poles into the snow. Turning around, he would watch me approach, calling out tips and laughing with me as I stacked3 in every conceivable way. It was bloody hard work and bloody good fun. When I got into some semblance of rhythm, and managed to cover the stretch of trail we were using as my training run without crashing, it felt great. There’s something really satisfying about learning a new physical skill, and I was enjoying my baby-steps of progress.

There’s plenty of evidence that ‘fitness’ doesn’t cross-over between activities, so even though I was in fairly good nick, 90 minutes of cross country tuition and I was tuckered out4.

Darko Damjanovski North Macedonian triple Olympian

After my lesson, Darko explained that he was going for a training session, and would meet me back at the hotel in an hour. With that he took off his jacket and ski pants to reveal the Macedonian Olympic Team ski suit he was wearing underneath. With the red and yellow of the nation, I have to say it looked pretty impressive. Then he disappeared into the distance with effortless ease.

I met up with Darko after his training session, and I thanked him for his time and for introducing me to cross country skiing. After a chat he dropped me back at my hotel. All that was left to do before returning to Skopje was to dig out the car.

Snow covered car Mavrovo North Macedonia

I really enjoyed my first dip at cross-country, and hope to continue learning as my Odyssey continues. I wonder if my next instructor will also be an Olympian?

1Australian slang: ‘Buckley’s’ is short for ‘Buckley’s chance/hope’, which means you have little or no chance of whatever you are hoping for coming to pass. The term comes from the name of an escaped convict, William Buckley, who went bush in 1803 and was given up for lost. Ironically, Buckley ended up doing rather well, living for over 30 years with local Wathaurang Aboriginal people.

2Australian slang: shoes

3Australian slang: crashed

4Australian slang: exhausted

To learn more about Mavrovo click here

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