In the moun­tains around Sarajevo, a snow­shoe­ing novice finds a new—if in­el­e­gant—way to ap­pre­ci­ate the Balkan win­ter.


Snow­shoe­ing in Bos­nia.

Snow­shoes, I quickly learn, are not re­ally shoes at all. They’re more like the work­ing end of a ca­noe pad­dle with straps and cram­pons at­tached, de­signed nei­ther for speed nor com­fort, let alone grace. As I strug­gled to buckle a pair onto my hik­ing boots, Samer Ha­jric, our Bos­nian moun­tain guide, knelt down be­side me to help. I told him I felt a bit like Cin­derella. “Ex­cept, maybe not as el­e­gant,” Samer laughed. “Sorry.” For those who still as­so­ciate the Balkan na­tion of Bos­nia and Herze­gov­ina with the dev­as­tat­ing civil war of the early 1990s, Sarajevo will come as a sur­prise. Though it re­mains bat­tle-scarred, the Bos­nian cap­i­tal is alive with color and di­ver­sity, an ex­otic mélange of Ot­toman mosques and Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian build­ings that fan out from the old flag­stoned bazaar of Baščaršija, the city’s Turk­ish quar­ter. It’s also a place of great nat­u­ral beauty. Nes­tled in a val­ley along the banks of the Mil­jacka River, Sarajevo is sur­rounded by forested hills and the lime­stone peaks of the Di­naric Alps, which en­abled it to host the Win­ter Olympics in 1984. And it was for the moun­tains I’d come.

Samer’s em­ployer, an eco-tour out­fit called Green Vi­sions, is the lo­cal part­ner of the Bri­tish travel com­pany—Ex­o­dus— that had put to­gether my itin­er­ary: an eight-day snow­shoe­ing ex­cur­sion in the high­lands of Mounts Bje­lašnica, Ig­man, and Tre­be­vić, with some nights spent in Sarajevo and oth­ers in moun­tain­side pen­sions or chalets. On pa­per, it had sounded like a great ad­ven­ture. In ac­tu­al­ity, it was much harder work than I had an­tic­i­pated. And much more re­ward­ing.

Fol­low­ing Samer’s tracks across the knee-deep snow, our small group lurched away from the vil­lage of Umol­jani, a 90-minute drive south­west of Sarajevo on the far flanks of Bje­lašnica. Feel­ing less princess-y and more like a yeti, I waded slowly, med­i­tat­ing to the swish, squeak, and clack of our ten­ta­tive strides. A bliz­zard wel­comed us on our first morn­ing. Low vis­i­bil­ity and a chill­ing head­wind hin­dered our progress, and within an hour I was ques­tion­ing why I hadn’t cho­sen a trop­i­cal hol­i­day in­stead.

But as the weather cleared, I be­gan to en­joy my­self. There was some­thing mes­mer­iz­ing about be­ing amid a frozen, all-white land­scape with no vis­i­ble paths or land­marks. At one with the el­e­ments, the rhythm of our gen­tly crunch­ing steps took on a lulling qual­ity. For much of the time, the only things to gauge our progress by were bare beech trees or snow-laden spruces. It’s a mys­tery to me how Samer and our se­cond guide, Lorenc Konaj, man­aged to main­tain their sense of di­rec­tion, but they led us un­err­ingly through nearly half a kilo­me­ter of el­e­va­tion gain to the sum­mit of Cr­veni Kuk, a 1,671-me­ter peak.

“To this side of the ridge you can see Mon­tene­gro,” Lorenc said at the top. I squinted my eyes to­ward the dis­tant hori­zon, but to no avail; a dense fog en­shrouded us. “Okay, so to­day you might have to use your imag­i­na­tion. But on clear days, the view is re­ally ex­cel­lent.”

As we got used to our snow­shoes, we were able to plow on a lit­tle farther each day, pass­ing aban­doned shep­herds’ huts, ser­pen­tine streams, and old wa­ter mills. When­ever the pale Fe­bru­ary sun broke through the clouds, it spot­lighted the bril­liant white­ness of our sur­rounds. The coun­try­side’s per­va­sive si­lence was bro­ken only by our echo­ing chat­ter and the song of for­est birds dart­ing in and out of their snowy hide­aways. It felt like we were the only peo­ple around.

“Bos­ni­ans don’t trek for fun,” Lorenc ex­plained when I com­mented on how few peo­ple we saw. “They don’t un­der­stand why you would be out here, hik­ing in the cold with­out a need to get from A to B. So you pretty much have the whole moun­tain to your­self.”

We tramped about seven kilo­me­ters a day, though be­tween some steep as­cents and fresh dumps of snow, each leg took about five to six thigh-burn­ing hours. Thank­fully, the food en route was hearty and warm­ing: meat stews, home­baked breads, stuffed pep­pers, and plates of bu­rek, or phyl­lodough pas­tries filled with cheese and ground beef. Our lodg­ings were also pleas­ant, from a newish bou­tique ho­tel in Babin Do (the main ski re­sort on Bje­lašnica) to the cozy bed-and break­fast in Umol­jani where we stayed two nights.

With its fire-warmed pub, the ho­tel was es­pe­cially invit­ing af­ter a day’s hike, though it was all I could do to drag my­self to bed af­ter din­ner. El­e­gance may have eluded me on the slopes, but I can’t re­mem­ber the last time I slept so soundly.

Vil­lages below Mount Bje­lašnica. Below: Snow­shoe­ing in the Di­naric Alps.

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