A few months ago I decided I needed to book a summer holiday. For an insane reason I felt that instead of opting for a week by a pool, basking in the sun and doing very little, I needed to challenge myself. I knew I wanted to take part in something that would give me a sense of achievement, and I knew I wanted it to be really f_cking hard. That said, I also knew I didn’t want to cry myself to sleep every night. 

The Booking - The Easiest Part 

I hunted around the internet, not really sure what I was looking for, hoping that if I clicked on enough sites the paid ads would do the hard work for me and my perfect trip would land in my lap. I was toying with doing the UK’s Three Peak Challenge for some time, but ultimately got put off by the weather. I’m all for undertaking an exhausting physical challenge, but doing so in the pouring rain is not appealing. Turns out this was exactly the right call to make as the UK had one of the wettest Julys in history. Shock.  

Thankfully the paid search Gods answered my wishes and I became the number one target of a company called Much Better Adventures. I was being served trip after trip, and eventually caved and headed over to their website. A few glasses of wine later and I had booked myself onto The Balkan Three Peak Challenge - climbing the highest mountains in Albania, North Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro. It looked stunningly beautiful, was within my budget and there were enough health and safety warnings on the landing page to convince me it would be equal parts thrilling and dangerous. Delighted with myself, I headed to bed and didn’t give it much thought until about six weeks before my departure date.

Fitness: The Part I Had Conveniently Ignored 

As the trip loomed closer, I realized there was a small detail I had grossly overlooked. Fitness. I’m active; I run and I’m in the gym 3-4 times a week, however hiking for 10-12 hours a day is a very different ball game. I read and re-read the trip details, and my eyes kept coming back to one graphic in particular - the ‘difficulty’ barometer. It was lit up in an angry red color and came with a secondary warning; only for experienced and fit hikers. 


Was I experienced? Kind of. I have done several multi-day hikes in Japan and New Zealand and climbed some of the UK’s most well known peaks and been fine. Does that mean I would comfortably class myself as the next Grandma Gatewood? Absolutely not. 

Shoutout to Some Really, Really Dull Training 

Just as I was about to hit panic mode and question whether or not I had bitten off more than I could chew, my gym took a delivery of a stair machine. These are incredibly dull, slow, painful and sweaty torture devices designed to make you hate every moment of working out. Sadly, according to various online sources, it was exactly what I needed to hit ‘peak’ fitness. I threw myself into last minute training and bored myself for hours in the evening until I headed off. 

The Arrival: Hot and Sweaty, Bags are Heavy 

I landed in Tirana on July 22nd. My first impression of the place? HOT. I got in at 9:30pm at night and proceeded to melt while waiting for a taxi. This was particularly problematic as my packing consisted predominantly of base layers, leggings, jumpers and just the one pair of shorts. When the next day rolled around, I was able to experience the city in all its 38° glory. 

Fire pit temperatures aside, Tirana is great. It has all the infrastructure in place to cope with the ever growing surge of tourists who are now visiting. There are a decent selection of hotels and a booming food scene that can cater for everything from traditional Albanian meals to great Asian fusion eateries. One that deserves a special mention is Salt - a Nobu knock-off and a very welcome break from pickled dishes. It’s probably a city you wouldn’t want to spend more than a few days in - use it as a base, explore the surroundings and then get out to see the sites of Albania as soon as possible. 

Digital Sim Cards: Travel’s Best Kept Secret?

Worth mentioning at this stage is that Albania isn’t included in most mobile phone network’s roaming plans. I bought myself a Vodafone SIM at the airport, but could have saved a small fortune had I discovered digital SIM cards before I left home. I had never heard of these before, but effectively they’re eSIM cards that allow you to access the networks of almost any country in the world - for significantly less than a local, traditional SIM card. The company that was recommended to me was Airarlo, but there are loads to choose from. I have a feeling I’m incredibly late to the party with this one, but regardless, I thought this wizardry deserved a special mention. 

Day 1 - A Very Breathy Bus Trip 

The first day of the tour was a travel day - a casual 4-5 hour drive through Albania to the North Macedonian border to climb Mt. Korab. The bus we took had all the branding to make you feel at ease - huge promises of ‘air conditioning’ stuck to every window, but once you were inside, you realized this was a cruel lie. At best, the fans blew breath-temperature air onto us - enough to know something was being wafted in your direction, but sadly not enough to dry the sheen of sweat on everyone’s forehead. Although I moaned at the time, hindsight is a wonderful thing. Thanks to some seriously terrible bus trips that came later on in the week, I can retrospectively be very appreciative of that warm, breathy, blowy situation masquerading as aircon. 

A Completely Shameless Db Plug 

One thing I became incredibly grateful for early on in my trip was my Roamer Split Duffel 70L. Having a bag that let me quickly and easily access my belongings was a lifesaver. You do a lot of packing and re-packing on trips like these and watching my roommate pour the entire contents of her classic travel duffel on the floor of our room every morning and evening was enough to put me off ‘conventional’ duffels for life. My bag became somewhat of a celebrity and at least two were ordered by my trip peers once we got home. Genuinely.  

Day 2: The First Peak, Mt. Korab 

Albania and North Macedonia share Korab’s peak, so this is how we were able to say we were climbing three peaks in four countries - clever marketing if you ask me. There’s not much of a breakfast culture in Albania, so in terms of sustenance, we had options of boiled eggs, tomatoes and cucumber (these three ingredients seemed to be the foundation of every meal throughout the trip). Despite the 6:30am start time, Korab was the easiest climb of the three peaks. It was long and steady, but the day was peppered with multiple breaks so we could take our packs off and get some water down us. There were various springs on the way up so that we could refill our bottles, and the food skeptics in the group (me) were able to tuck in to energy bars we bought from home (do this if ever you go). Reaching the summit was steep and arduous, but as always with these things, the views at the top were worth it. The descent in all honesty, was dull. It was long, slow and we were exposed to the sun the whole way. A previous knee op some years prior means that downhill walking is not my forte. Uphill, I do a very good impression of a mountain goat. Downhill, I look like a geriatric who’d never heard of cod liver oil supplements. I plodded along at the back, fantasizing about a girls trip to Ibiza, wishing my water bottle was fizzing with aperol spritz and not hydration tablets. When we returned to base, we were bundled into yet another heavily ‘air conditioned’ branded vehicle and whisked off to Kosovo. 

Day 3: Dirt Tracks and Decent Views, Mt. Gjeravica 

Kosovo was very much the unsung gem of the trip. It's a country with a complicated and painful history that has very much risen out of the ashes of the war nearly 25 years prior. The people were incredible. They were so welcoming to tourists and couldn’t do enough for us, appearing genuinely grateful that we were there. If you can, or have an interest in visiting, Kosovo is a must. 

The second peak of the trip was Mt. Gjeravica. At 2656m, it's the highest peak in Kosovo. We took Landrovers up to about 1400m and climbed the rest from there. The landscape was totally different to Korab - much greener, and in my opinion, prettier. We broke up our ascent with swims in the lakes en route, which were freezing, but excellent respite stops for tired, aching legs. The summit was nowhere near as hard as the previous day’s. A short scramble to the top and we were there - overlooking the landscape below, and putting off all thoughts of descending until absolutely necessary. Unsurprisingly, I regressed from goat-girl to grandma on the downhill and once again resumed position bringing up the rear of the group. We walked all the way to our accommodation that night - which is where things took a turn for the worst. 

Day 3 (Evening): The Worst Mountain Lodge EVER.

I have stayed in some pretty ropey places in my time. Generally speaking, I’m blessed with the ability to fall asleep almost anywhere, meaning that subpar living conditions are rarely a problem for me. However,  myself and the rest of the group were immediately on the back foot when, as soon as we arrived, we were approached at great speed by a French hiker begging us for electrolytes. We were warned before we set off that there had been an outbreak of Norovirus in the mountains and paid little attention to it, but the grey, sweating Frenchman desperate for Immodium was the reminder that none of us wanted. In terms of hygiene, this place was poor. None of the loos had loo seats, the showers were wet rooms that didn’t drain properly so you had to wade through other people’s dirty water to brush your teeth, and the sewerage system and water source were just 15ft away from one another. The sheets hadn’t been changed so we were all sleeping in our sleeping bag liners, and just as you managed to drift off to sleep the chorus of several midnight over-the-balcony-Noro-spews would wake you right back up again. By the time morning rolled around, we were all shadows of our former selves. 

Day 4: Something Marketed As A Rest Day That Definitely Wasn’t A Rest Day

Wednesday was our ‘rest day’ - something we were all initially excited about until we realized that in Albania, ‘rest day’ still means hiking 17km through the mountains. We were knackered, traumatized from our previous night and starting to question our sanity and ability to actually summit the final peak the next day. Landscape-wise though, it was stunning. Think green fir-tree woodlands, rolling hills, loads of sheep and multiple home-cafes along the way for us to refuel. After about eight hours, we limped into our accommodation for the night, narrowly missing the heaven’s opening and soaking us through. Dinner, another meal of some sort of egg-cucumber-and-tomato concoction, and was relatively uneventful and certainly didn’t give us any indication of the hell that was about to ensue.  

Day 5: POV: Norovirus Entered the Chat, Mt Kolata  

From midnight that night, Norovirus took a hold, felling three members of our group with sickness, and two more with ‘other’ stomach issues. Two of the guys were so bad they couldn’t summit the final peak, so our group of 14 was down to 12 on the final day. Morale was low and as the hours ticked on, we all got progressively more ill. After about three hours on the trail, the first group member started vomiting. From there, the virus moved through us like wildfire and it soon became completely normal to watch your peers fall to all fours and be violently ill. To say all barriers were broken would be an understatement, and soon no topic about bodily functions was out of bounds. Incredibly, as a team we summited the last peak - Mt. Kolata. This was by far the hardest climb/scramble I’ve ever done. It was sold on the website as a ‘steady 2.5hr climb to the summit’ - something I would hugely contest. The ascent was a full-blown scramble from start to finish and took us hours to do safely with the added burden of the virus. Our guide was incredible at this time, and I’m completely in awe of what we achieved - despite the world (and our bodies) being against us. 

A Very Public Cry

Again, the descent was hell on earth. By this stage I had developed a blister underneath my big toenail on my left foot - something I wasn’t sure was even possible until it happened. I was in agony and had the threat of a further four hour downhill hike ahead of me. After holding it together all week, I flopped myself down on a rock and promptly burst into tears while draining my blister. I’m not one for public displays of emotion, but once the waterworks started, I couldn’t stop and was mortified that my tear ducts had let me down so badly - cue more tears. After throwing some water on my face and wiping my snot on my t-shirt, I managed to pull myself together and begin what would turn out to be the worst descent of the trip. 

What was meant to take us three hours, took us five. In the process, a further four people came down with the vomiting bug - including our guide. Every opportunity we had to rest we’d lie down on the floor, not even having the energy to take our packs off. In the end, out of fourteen people, 13 got a variant of the virus - the only one who managed to dodge it was a pediatric nurse - likely because she built up some form of immunity to it through her job. We eventually limped over the finish line to home at 8:30pm that night just as darkness was setting in. We were all too exhausted to celebrate and just headed straight for bed, one night closer to being back to our home comforts and never having to eat cucumber again. 

The Final Feeling

When reading this article back, it comes across as a largely negative experience. It absolutely wasn’t. The Balkan Three Peak Challenge was one of the best things I have ever done, and I don’t regret it for an instance. HOWEVER, while I can recognize that what we did was a huge achievement, it’s an accomplishment that was definitely overshadowed by puke. I think due to the sickness, none of us had the opportunity to actually stop, acknowledge and celebrate the completion of the challenge. It’s only sitting here, writing this a few weeks later, that I can look back and think ‘that was pretty cool’

Climbing the three highest peaks in Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro is no mean feat, but doing so with Norovirus was even more challenging. As a group, I think we’re pretty much trauma bonded for life and I don’t think there is a topic of conversation we wouldn’t be able to navigate. I learned during the week that there are three set types of activities; Type 1, Type 2 and Type 3. Type 1 is the kind where you enjoy doing it at the time and enjoy it after, Type 2 is where you hate it at the time but enjoy it after and Type 3 is where you hate it at the time and hate it after. This was definitely a Type 1/ 2 hybrid. Yes, I loved it, but there were also times where I deeply questioned my sanity and the only way I could continue was to fantasize about marmite crumpets and my own bed. 

I’d 100% recommend it to anyone, but I would advise you to take the fitness side of things seriously, buy boots that fit and finally, remind you that there is no such thing as too much hand sanitizer.

/ Saskia

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