Climbing through the Balkans - North Macedonia


14 min. 16. 11. 23

Interview with Vladimir Trpovski - author of many climbing routes, boulder-gym owner, coach and president of the Macedonian Sports Climbing Federation.

As very often happens, the things you do not plan are the one that surprise you and you enjoy them the most

This exactly happened during my stay in North Macedonia, where my intention was to climb just a couple of days and after that keep heading south. But in the end I stayed unexpectedly 3 weeks in this small, but amazing country. It was like this…

In my attempt to escape from the heat wave that hit while I was in Albania, I found out about the Mavrovo Cave, which is located very close to the border in North Macedonia at higher altitude. I wanted to take advantage of the cooler climbing conditions in the shade and refresh myself in the icy river nearby.

As soon as I’ve arrived at this pretty famous place, I saw many other climbers, and to be quite honest, I didn’t meet many of them during my Balkan travels. As the hours and the day passed by (still, climbers don’t like to get up early, no matter the country they are from) more and more climbers came, and I soon realized that the climbing community in North Macedonia is quite active and maybe the most passionate one I had the chance to meet in the last weeks of my journey and travel.

Mavrovo Cave – crag where also Adam Ondra bolted few 9a routes

It’s still a rule, that climbers don’t like to get up early, no matter what country they are from

In a short time I made many of contacts, got tips for another crags, exchanged phone numbers and also got help with everything I would needed. Within a few moments I felt very welcome and not only the climbers, but all the people from the country showed their kindness and hospitality as I never felt anywhere in a long time.

The climbing in the Mavrovo Cave is quite a well-known place with some really hard 9a's bolted by Adam Ondra, and some other hard stuff made by Slovenian Klemen Bečan. It is a really unique place: on the left side you will find technical and slabby routes, on the right side pumpy overhangs (that schooled more than one good climbers), and in the middle between, are several horizontal roofs with short but hard lines.

It took me a few days to climb all the routes I could and soon it was time to meet up with my new friends for a weekend in Bislim Gorge. The Bislim is the newest climbing area bolted during the Covid pandemic, moreover it is located just only an hour or so from the capital Skopje. This is where I got stuck for 5 days, climbing non-stop, bathing in the river every time when the sun came up, and eating the most delicious tomatoes and peppers I've ever had in my life! Straight from the gardens of our lovely neighbours in Pchinja.

Here I contacted Vladimir Trpvoski, the man who bolted entire Bislim crag. Vladimir is, among other things, the point of reference for the whole community of sport climbers in Macedonia. For many reasons…

Well, you can read about this yourself in the attached interview below. So let it read and climb great after it.

Vladimir Trpovski – author of many routes in the Bislim Gorge sector and president of the Macedonian Sports Climbing Federation

Hello Vladimir. Who are you and what do you do? Please introduce yourself to Rafiki readers briefly.

My name is Vladimir Trpvoski and I’m the president of the Macedonian Sport Climbing Federation and this year I am celebrating 35 years of my climbing career. I come from Skopje and well: my profession is mechanical engineer (but I’ve never worked as one). Simply: climbing is way a better job!

I drill routes outside and I’m a route setter for competitions and climbing coach of the North Macedonian Climbing and Youth Team. I’m also the proud owner of BoulderBar, which is bouldering gym in Skopje, and last but not least: distributor of Petzl, Tenaya and several other brands. I’m married man, I have two sons and my wife has been my climbing partner since I started…

...SO HERE WE ARE! (he smiles)

My profession is mechanical engineer, but I’ve never worked as one. Simply: climbing is way a better job!

What can you tell us about the history of climbing in Macedonia? Is it something new or does it have ancient roots?

Climbing and mountaineering is in the long-standing tradition in North Macedonia, well…a tradition of the former Yugoslavia. Obviously, it started in the high mountains and alpine environment. Slovenia was the first country and Macedonia the second one to set feet on Everest (author’s note: reader, you better check this out yourself!).

At the same time sport climbing started to develop with the first competition in Split, which was in 1985, with 2 competitors from Macedonia. I’d say that everything started to get more serious in 1988 when me and my climbing partner Lazo, drilled the very first sport climbing route in Matka Canyon, a route called Jumbojet, now classified as 6a+.

Climbing and mountaineering is in the long-standing tradition in North Macedonia, well: a tradition of the former Yugoslavia

Matka Canyon – the oldest crag in Macedonia, where the first climbing lines were established in 1988

At the time it was very difficult to find and buy any bolts at all, we had no money and things were expensive, so we had them "hand-made" here in Macedonia and that’s when the first climbing routes started to be drilled. After then we had the lucky chance to meet Francois LeGrand and he introduced us to bouldering

So we started putting together some boards and then slowly training with this. But that was just the beginning! We drilled more routes in Matka Canyon and then the Demir Kapija crag followed, which is now the biggest area in the whole Macedonian country.

From what you say: sport climbing has a tradition of at least 30 years in Macedonia. How the things has changed during the time and how does it continue to evolve?

A funny story is that the first traditional route in Macedonian mountains was made by the famous Italian alpinist, Emilio Comici, but we don’t even know where the route is! (he smiles)

Regarding the development of climbing: if we compare ourselves with other countries, for example with some of the Central European countries, we are definitely not that far behind as a climbing organization! We have climbing clubs, federation, rules, and so on. But we lack the climbers!

The breaking point was covid, which made people discover climbing and after the lock-down the number of people interested in climbing increased many times. At least 200-300 % and perhaps more! So, after that we had to catch up and train new climbing instructors and coaches, open new areas and drill more routes, as well as work more on our Macedonian "indoor" climbing facilities.

Funny story is that the first traditional route in Macedonian mountains was made by the famous Italian alpinist, Emilio Comici, but we don’t even know where the route is...

What are the reactions of the local people towards climbers in the area? What do people from the local small villages think about foreign climbers?

The local people are very happy and welcome the climbers warmly. It’s so hard for me to understand when I hear about other countries, where climbers often have problems with landowners, with access to the climbing crags and other issues. This certainly doesn’t happen here in Macedonia at all! On the contrary, the people are very open-minded and will help you with everything you need. Also the municipalities and towns welcome this new sport and the opportunities that come with it…they support us wherever and however they can!

It’s so hard for me to understand when I hear that climbers have problems with land-owners, accessing the crags. This doesn’t happen here in Macedonia at all!

Bislim Gorge – firstly neglected, but today one of the TOP climbing destinations close to the capital Skopje

We are now in Bislim Gorge and you have a very nice story about this crag which you developed during the covid days. Tell us more about it.

Yep, it’s very interesting story and it’s hard to describe how crazy, but rewarding it was indeed. Before the covid pandemic we noticed one crag, but didn’t pay much attention about to it as it’s such a relatively short wall with only a few longer routes possibility. Everything else is otherwise really short and boulder there.

But then the lock-down came and we decided to come here because it’s next to a little village (means fewer rules, less restrictions). We slept in a tent at neighbour’s garden for a whole month and we worked hard (also partied hard too!) and made more than 80 climbing routes located in four different areas. And there's so much more potential here.

Right now, it’s one of the TOP climbing areas for climbers from Skopje and surroundings, because of its easy approach, amazingly solid and especially sharp rock, also due to moderately difficult climbs for everyone. Plus there is a river nearby for swimming. What more could you ask for? (he smiles)

We have four 9a’s routes and maybe one 9a+ that is not free climbed yet

Bislim Gorge – crag that was developed during the lock-down of covid pandemic

Since you are very experienced in the climbing world all over the Europe: how do you see the potential for more harder routes? Will they have an attention of world-class climbers?

Well, basically the most of world's strongest climbers have passed through Macedonia before. The North Macedonia was one of the countries of Petzl RocTrip 2014, climbing road trip in bouldering area – Prilep. We have several routes bolted and climbed by Adam Ondra and lot of famous climbers visit our country in the recent years, for example Dani Andrada, Chris Sharma, Arnaud Petit, Dave Graham, Ethan Pringle and others…

But what’s really nice that they don’t come here just for a relaxing climbing holidays, they come here for projects, opening new areas or bolting new lines. They love the potential we have here and the possibility that Macedonia could become a world famous climbing destination.

Are there a lot of routes in the ninth grade difficulty?

We have four 9a’s routes and maybe one 9a+ that is not free climbed yet. This route was bolted by Klemen Bečan.

Is it possible to climb here all year around?

The only problem could be the summer months, because during this period, the only suitable place for climbing is Mavrovo Cave due to its higher altitude (800m above sea level). So we are developing more routes in this area, but otherwise climbing in any other season, no problem at all. You can climb literally everywhere. Sunny crags in winter and everything else during the spring or autumn.

We are lucky that in Macedonia is possible to climb outside all year round. Many people climb rather outside on real rocks, than on plastic.

And what about indoor climbing in Macedonia?

In Skopje we have several climbing centres: an outdoor climbing stadium KARPOS for training and climbing competitions (a place similar to the famous outdoor climbing wall in Arco, Italy, where the Rock Master competitions are held. In the rest of our country, all other climbing clubs have very little space where people can train and keep themselves fit.

But as you may have gathered from our interview, we are lucky that in Macedonia you can climb outside all year round. Many people here climb outside on real rocks, rather than on plastic walls!

Do you organize any competitions or climbing events?

Yes, we have the Macedonian League, which is almost 11 competitions during the year. There is also the annual Balkan Championship and there will be the very first European Youth Olympics Games in Sport Climbing in 2025 in Skopje.

Yeah, and festivals: in October there is a climbing festival in Bislim Gorge, in April festival in Demir Kapija. Plus very other year we organize a Winter One in Kadina on the local harder routes.

What about the young talents in your country? Are they getting passionate about climbing?

It’s incredible! We have a group of very talented kids who manage to place on the winner's podium in almost every category, even at the Balkan Championship! Let’s hope for good results now in the Europe League, where we have 88 boys and 90 girls. So I’m very satisfied with the participation in all these climbing competitions.

Vladimir (far left) with two young and passionate talents of sports climbing in Macedonia (right)

Golden Question: your favourite route and cimbing crag? And to make it little harder: what’s the best line you've ever bolted?

Oh, that’s tough! Favourite crag? I would have to say Demir Kapija where I climbed a beautiful 7a/7a+ route in the VDD sector, but also the Arena crag has a place in my heart as well, because there I climbed my first 7c/7c+ route.

On the second place I would put Mavrovo Cave because it’s very challenging and motivates you to climb harder. And also for its potential for drilling new routes in this area. One last tip of mine: Kadina Cave for the big overhang and climbing on big pumpy tufas.

Do you considering publishing a paper guidebook? There are plenty of information online, but what about a classic printed, paper book?

Well yeah, there is no classic guidebook yet. We are still thinking about it, but we are also asking ourselves: "should we publish it or not?" It’s complicated: we want to do it in a sensible ways and controlled manner to make sure that any profits from it go in the right direction (for opening new climbing routes, but also for maintaining the current ones).

There is already a bouldering guidebook of Prilep area, with over more than 600 boulders, but things area really slow with sport climbing here. And on top of that: our country is now a destination for those of you who like to experience real adventure, amazing (not polished rock) and meet just occasionally few other climbers...

Let’s talk about Prilep for a while, which is kind of "Balkan Fontainebleau"

Well, Prilep has more than 1000x bouldering lines and we are talking about 20 % of his entire potential. It’s a paradise of granite and conglomerate rocks, where it looks like on Mars: empty land with hundreds of boulders in the middle, just waiting to be climbed! So, get ready for sharp rock with the perfect friction and pack your skin care creams!

Your personal recommendation for someone who is going to North Macedonia?

Come to enjoy the landscape and respect our nature. Climb on amazing limestone cliffs or granite boulders, experience our culture and taste the local cuisine. You won’t regret it! (he smiles)

Prilep – "Balkan Fontainebleau", a paradise of granite blocks with more than 1000 bouldering lines

Sometimes I wake up in the morning and think about going to bolt few more lines, but then my wife tells me to "take it slow"

Sport climbing is a relatively young thing in Macedonia. What do you think would be beneficial for you so that climbing and new crags continue to grow?

To be honest, we have now everything we need to open and develop more areas, we need more people and enthusiastic climbers. Also more people learning how to bolt and maintain current routes. Maybe any kind of "Course for bolting crags and drilling new routes" would be useful, and certainly training new instructors and climbing guides…

Quite possibly, the priority is that more people come climb here first and only when there will be a real need, we will start with drilling new lines...

We talked a lot about the potential of your country and the possibilities for drilling more routes. To what extent do you think this is a top priority?

It's a tough fight for me. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and think about going to bolt more routes, but then my wife tells me to take it slow! It’s a process that you can’t force and push forward, instead it has to follow its natural course of the community and local climbers…and sometimes, you know: "less is more". (he smiles)

For example: some routes don't have even 10 repeats yet and a lot of lines waiting for their first ascents . So, quite possibly, the priority is that more people come to climb here first, and only when there is a real need, then we will start working on new routes...

Hard work as "bolting" and drilling new climbing routes

Vladimir, thank you very much for this great and comprehensive interview.

We wish you that all your visions come true and I'm already looking forward to our next common meeting :)

Limestone cliffs of all colors - in the photo a climber in "Sahara" sector, Demir Kapiji crag.



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