Review of Shar Outdoors: North Macedonia cat-skiing holiday

Feb 23, 2023 BY Luke Rees

When given the chance to go to a country I have not visited to do an activity I have never done, I didn’t even take a breath before saying yes. I mean what’s not to like about a North Macedonia cat-skiing holiday!? You can find out how I got on in this review of Shar Outdoors – the company who run the trip – from a visit in the last week of March 2022.

hiking for lines during North Macedonia cat-skiing holiday

Where is North Macedonia?

A question I should probably have answered before I agreed to go… But I knew roughly were it was! My geography degree was actually less influential than being a teenager with just four TV channels in 1992.

As this was when Yugoslavia split up so it was all over the news. The communist/socialist state became Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia (including Kosovo and Vojvodina), Slovenia and Macedonia.

But the Republic of North Macedonia only got its current name in 2019. A long running naming dispute with Greece, because they have an adjacent region called Macedonia, meant that since 1994 it was known internationally as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Landlocked and bordering Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece it is a southern European nation with a very interesting history. Politically it has been ruled by the Persian, Macedon (the dominant state in Hellenistic Greece), Byzantine (Roman) and Ottoman empires. More recently it has been controlled by Bulgaria, Serbia and then Yugoslavia.

Skopje from walls of the Fortress during review of Shar Outdoors

Despite this combustible mix of ethnicity, culture and religion, independence was achieved without war. The country has diplomatically avoided conflicts that affected other Yugoslav nations.

According to the 2021 census nearly 60% of the population identify ethnically as Macedonian. Macedonian’s have an ancient history, including being mention in the Bible. But the modern political concept of a Macedonian ethnicity only became distinct from their Balkan neighbours in the 20th century.

So North Macedonia boasts a diverse population. But also one that came together to form the country. They are hugely proud of their nation and what they have achieved peacefully. And this is evident in their passion, openness and the friendly way they treat visitors.

Getting to North Macedonia

Like most of Europe North Macedonia is easy to reach from almost anywhere in the continent. We flew Wizz Air from Luton to the capital Skopje. It took just over three hours.

Wizz air are a budget airline out of Hungary that offer super cheap flights. Looking at live prices you can fly to Skopje next week for £36. Although you will probably be charged more for your luggage than the flight. The late night flights were not at very sociable hours, we arrived after one in the morning. But they were comfortable and roughly on time.

Dushan Bridge in Skopje, North Macedonia

It is worth pointing out in this review of Shar Outdoors that you could also fly into a neighbouring country. For example, Sofia in Bulgaria, Tirana in Albania or Pristina in Kosovo. But all of these options are at least a three hour drive to Skopje.

From Skopje it takes a little over an hour to reach the Popova Sapka. The closest other airport to the mountains is Pristina in Albania which is just two and a bit hours from the resort.

Skiing in North Macedonia?

Now southern Europe does not sound like the best place to go skiing or snowboarding. But Sarajevo held the 1984 Winter Olympics and there are ski resorts in Greece and Turkey.

North Macedonia is very mountainous. We visited the Shar mountains which reach 2,748 metres. There are 30 peaks higher than 2,500 metres that are snow covered throughout winter. Interestingly, the highest point in the country, Mount Korab (2764m), isn’t even in the Shar Mountains!

Skiing during North Macedonia cat-skiing holiday photo of Rob Stewart

There are nine ski resorts in North Macedonia. Admittedly none are very big with a total of just 54km of piste between them. The only two resorts of notable size are Mavrovo with 25km and Popova Sapka with 20km. We spent a day in the latter resort – more about that below.

What is cat-skiing?

My mum seemed to think I would be forcing cats to race on skis. A friend took that misconception one step further by asking if it meant literally skiing with cats instead of skis. Fortunately for feline lovers, neither of those are true!

Cat-skiing is a little like heli skiing. But rather than being taken up the peaks in a helicopter you use a piste groomer which has caterpillar tracks. The original company making them were called Sno-Cat – and the name has stuck.

The ‘Cats’ in question have been modified with a cabin built on the back. A group of skiers and snowboarders then all pile in to be driven into the mountains. The idea is you can then ride untouched snow to be picked up again at the bottom by the cat. You then repeat this all day!

Review of North Macedonia cat-skiing holiday with Shar Outdoors

Review of Shar Outdoors

Metodi Chilimanof (Meto), the founder of Shar Outdoors is one of those people you instantly like. He has built a company in his own image, which is fun but informed, exciting but sensible and motivational but not pushy. These are all great qualities for backcountry skiing as it’s fun but without compromising on safety.

All the guides embody Meto’s attitude. Safety was taken very seriously, but that doesn’t mean the guides have to be serious. I have had mountain guides that have been so earnest that it sucks some of the fun from the experience. But the guides at Shar Outdoors strike the right balance.

While English is not their first language they all speak it very well along with multiple other languages. In mixed group situations they cope very well communicating with everyone across a swathe of different languages.

Review of North Macedonia cat-skiing holiday

This part of the review of Shar Outdoors is all about the actual cat-skiing!

Snowboarding during review of shar outdoors in North Macedonia photo by Rob Stewart

We were both lucky and a bit unlucky with the conditions. It was a little late in the season so we knew it might not be ideal when booking.

The good news is there had been some fresh snow a few days before our arrival, but it had been accompanied by some strong winds. The bad news was that warm daytime temperatures meant snow had thawed in places and then refrozen.

So we were expecting variable conditions. We were told it could be challenging in places, and that we might find a little crusty powder higher up. But the best was likely to be classic spring conditions of soft melting snow over a firmer base as it warmed up in the afternoon.

Day 1: cat-skiing in North Macedonia

Having been heli skiing in Turkey I thought being in a snow-cat would be a breeze. But on the first day I was feeling a little nervous when stood next to the huge machines before we set off. It was the unknown of doing something new, of course this is also what makes it exciting.

Playful snowboarding during North Macedonia cat-skiing holiday photo by Rob Stewart

My apprehension went up a notch when we set off lurching up the mountain. It was not a smooth ride and the bumping and tilting cabin on the back of the snow-cat suddenly felt rather exposed.

My nerves reached a crescendo, and I was not alone to let out a little yelp, when on a ascending a particularly steep ridge we very suddenly stopped. My immediate thought was, ‘if we slide backwards we are all done for’.

But we didn’t slide. However, we did reverse which for a few seconds felt like sliding – this time the yelp was more of a squeal… After our guide chatted by radio with those in the front we found out wind blown snow had blocked the track to the top. So after a few aborted attempts to clear it/go over it we all unloaded for the first run of the day.

First snowboarding in Macedonia

To be honest it was a relief to exit the snow-cat. Even though it was onto windblown snow on a steep slope. Stepping from a warm man-made protected cabin into natural world is a great moment. You go from safe and enclosed to free and exposed. Let the fun begin!

snow cat in Shar Mountains at pick up after a run

The first run during this review of North Macedonia cat-skiing holiday was one of the best in terms of snow conditions. The windblown snow had a crust but beneath it was soft. And a little further down the crust was gone and there was a little fresh snow.

Unfortunately these good conditions did not last. The powder petered out and we found ourselves riding over older snow. And at the bottom, where it had melted the previous day, the snow had refrozen and was rather sketchy.

We had been promised variable conditions, but I didn’t expect everything in the first run! However, it was all a lot of fun, but not something intermediate skiers or snowboarders would be very comfortable starting on.

There was a bit of a wait for the snow-cat as it cleared the blocked track. But soon we were picked up and taken back up the mountains.

skiing during review of shar outdoors in North Macedonia photo of Rob Stewart

More of the same!

The first day continued in the same vein, minus the blocked path. Before long I got used to the jolting, tilting ride – so much so that a few times I nodded off between runs. It is funny how what felt exciting and scary to begin with soon became the norm.

The snowboarding conditions were varied. From time to time we encountered windblown snow that had turned to sheet ice, at others we found pockets of powder. As the day wore on the icy snow softened particularly lower down. In the sun it was very warm and really pleasant spring conditions.

After the first long(ish) wait for the snow-cat they were either there before us or soon after our arrival. How it differs from my heli-skiing experience is that the rides back up take 15 to 40 minutes rather than a couple of mins. This means you get a proper break so it is nowhere near as intense or tiring.

We had progressively moved away from our base to the edge of Kosovo and Albania. This meant a 90 minute long journey back to our base – plenty of time to catch up on sleep. On the way back we stopped for a break on a ridge to watch a stunning sunset. By now it was very cold, so we didn’t stop for long. But it was well worth it!

Setting sun over The Shar mountains in North Macedonia looking towards Kosovo

Day 2 of North Macedonia cat-skiing

What had thawed on day one refroze over night, so conditions early on were hard and icy in places. But our guides led us to some untouched slopes with patches of powder. But as it warmed up into late morning the snow became softer and more spring like.

It is a vast snow-cat area – Meto said they are still exploring the area. So on day two of this North Macedonia cat-skiing holiday we headed off to different slopes. We began with a longer drive to get onto the new slopes and allow the conditions to soften up.

From there it was mostly pretty similar. Ride a slope, hop in the snow-cat, do some more freeriding, hop back in!

Hiking for lines

As the early conditions were a bit icy, a group decision was made to hike a peak. The idea was to access a steep and high slope that had been shaded and untouched. Which should mean powder.

hiking for lines during review of Shar Outdoors North Macedonia cat-skiing holiday

It was not an easy hike! Steep in places, slippery underfoot and at over 2,000 metres we took our time. But the views were incredible and of course the sense of achievement at the top was hugely rewarding.

On closer inspection the slope we were aiming for did not look stable enough to ride. It was a shame, but this is a good example of the precautions taken by the guides. They have been exploring the area for many years, first on foot and for more than a decade by snow-cat. Safety always comes first, so we rode down a different route.

In the afternoon the warming snow meant riding thawing slightly slushy snow. It was a little like damp powder conditions. It was great fun and I was able to relax and to express myself on the snowboard a bit more.

Day 3:  Snowboarding in Popova Sapka

The very warm afternoon was going to be followed by a really cold clear night. Conditions would be very icy all over the mountains, so a decision was made not to cat-ski the next day. Instead we would do some resort skiing in Popova Sapka.

Longest chairlift ever in Popova Sapka, North Macedonia

So that night we had a bit of a celebration of two days of epic riding with our new Slovakian cat-skiing buddies. As it was the weekend a group of Kosovan school teachers were staying at the hotel – so we ended up parting with them.

We were watching them do some traditional Kosovan dances, and then we were beckoned over to join in. The DJ ramped it up with late 90s dance classics which all had been given a Middle Eastern feel. It was one of the strangest nights I have had but a lot of fun!

The morning dawned the same time as normal but I didn’t rise with the sun. Feeling rather worse for wear we eventually got our act together to head to the slopes. The walk from the Skarpa Hotel was less than 10 minutes and the one day lift pass cost about £14/€15.

Hungover snowboarding

The first lift we caught was long and very slow taking more than 25 minutes. The two person lift had originally been part of the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics and had already seen better days when it was moved to North Macedonia. But it took us to 2,510 metres – the highest point of the ski resort.

At the top there was very little to mark the piste edge, nothing denoting the difficulty of the slopes or even what direction the runs go. So following the skied snow we headed back down beside the lift. The only way to tell you were on the piste was that it was slightly more cut up than the off-piste! It certainly hadn’t been groomed for a while.

Snowboarding during North Macedonia cat-skiing holiday photo by Rob Stewart

But it was a long run. And part way down conditions got a bit better as we joined a groomed slope with markers. On reflection we had stumbled across the resorts black and unpisted slopes. In fresh snow these would have been a lot of fun as it is a good pitch, fairly long and really open terrain.

We decided not to get the half hour chairlift again and instead rode the new six seater. It was surprisingly fast and very comfy. In addition to this there are a few drag lifts that help you get around the area.

To start we took a run back to the same lift. Then followed that with a few more runs around the resort. The early afternoon slopes were not bad, albeit a little flat in places. But conditions were very slushy, other slope users seemed slightly out of control and the hangover was approaching critical… So we stopped for a beer and a bite to eat.

As ski resorts go Popova Sapka’s 20km of slopes is tiny. It only took a couple of hours to explore it all. I am sure it would be great fun in powder, particularly from the slow lift. It is also very cheap – but it is more of a ski-for-a-day kind of resort than one to visit for week long skiing holidays.

Hiking and scrambling in Matka Canyon

If anything conditions for cat-skiing had got worse. So the next day Meto took us to Matka Canyon near Skopje. This is a natural heritage reserve gorge, with incredible limestone cliffs. It is a popular destination with locals and tourists with spectacular views of the man-made Matka Lake.

Matka Canyon and Lake in North Macedonia

You can kayak and row on the lake or go on boat trips. Below the dam, which is a hydroelectric plant built in 1938, there is very impressive rapids. We spotted people kayaking in the white water – apparently athletes train here and it is a site for kayaking competitions.

St. Nikola Shishevski Monastery

Rather than a tranquil lake tour – not really my kind of thing – we crossed the lake to hike up to the St. Nikola Shishevski Monastery. It is a steep but pretty trail that switchbacks repeatedly uphill. On the way Meto pointed out a few rock climbing spots that are popular.

The Monastery is interesting to look around. It is also a popular camp ground with younger Macedonians. We drank from the natural spring and then headed through a small gate, almost back the way we had come. From here we followed a narrow trail cutting across a very steep slope with quite a bit of exposure.

The path soon becomes a very challenging scramble up to the top of the ridge – I wouldn’t do it without someone who has been before. To be honest a few short sections were more like rock climbing than scrambling. But it was a lot of fun! The views from the top were incredible – but you need a head for heights.

Scrambling at Matka Canyon in North Macedonia

After descending back to the monastery (arguable more difficult then the climb) we followed a different trail back to the river. Meto explained a story about some hidden gold that is allegedly hidden in these mountains and we came across some people who were trying to find it!

On the way back to the hotel we stopped for an incredible meal on the outskirts of Skopje. It was in an uninspiring communist era block that had been turned into an artists retreat. The traditional Macedonian dishes were simple but very tasty. Great food is a theme repeated throughout our time in North Macedonia.

Review of Shar Outdoors: Hotel Scardus

Shar Outdoors is based at the four star Hotel Scardus on the edge of Popova Sapka. It is a really nice and relatively new hotel with super friendly staff. It certainly has all the facilities of a four star but is slightly rough around the edges. Still very nice just don’t expect the equivalent of four star in the Alps.

There is a great spa in the basement with pool, sauna and steam room. Plus you have access to a gym.

Food at the Skardus Hotel in Popova Sapka, North Macedonia

The food is exceptional with lots of fresh vegetables as salad, grilled or roasted. All served with grilled and roasted meats. I don’t think I have ever eaten so healthy on a ski trip. In the Alps meals are usually very carb and cheese heavy, but the Macedonians eat a cross between a Mediterranean and Slavic diet.

We had a small two bed apartment that was comfortable without being luxurious. It did the job as the rooms were warm with easily regulated temperatures. I slept far better on this North Macedonia cat-skiing holiday than I have in most ski resorts.

Finally the WiFi was strong throughout the building. This is important as using your phone in North Macedonia costs a future. So being able to communicate via WiFi and get some work done while conducting this review of Shar Outdoors was very important.

Two days in Skopje

Visiting a country that was new to us both we wanted to explore the capital Skopje. So we headed there mid morning the day before our late evening flight home, giving us two days to explore.

Exploring Skopje in North Macedonia

The good news for the next group on a North Macedonia cat-skiing holiday was that temperatures dropped and snow was falling in the mountains. Meanwhile it was shorts and t-shirt weather in Skopke – unfortunately I had only packed trousers!

Skopje is a very interesting city with a mix of influences and a long history of habitation dating back to 4,000 BC. If you like statues you are in for a treat! Almost every corner has one – at points there are more statues than people…

The town is divided by the Vardar River along which are many of the main sights and things to do. The older part of town is north of the river with Skopje Fortress (free to get in and great views), the Old Bazaar market area, various mosques and other interesting buildings. Experiencing the Muslim call to prayer was a nice surprise.

The Old Bazaar is great for souvenirs and there are plenty of food options – but no alcohol as it is the Muslim part of town. On the edge of the market are a high concentration of restaurants some sell alcohol and some not. And near the fortress we found a brewery with a nice outside bar and great beer.

G Hotels in Skopje during review of North Macedonia cat-skiing holiday

The other side of the river is more modern with a large square, museums, galleries and shops. Plus an unbelievable amount of statues. Over two days we walked most of the city from our base at the Skopje G Hotel. It is another four star and was very comfortable.

On our only night in the city the North Macedonian football team played Portugal to a spot at the World Cup. The pride and passion among the locals was evident more than an hour before kick off. The disappointment when they narrowly lost was palpable. But it was a good night out.

Review of North Macedonia cat-skiing holiday: Conclusion

As I am sure you have gathered this trip was far more than just cat-skiing. We got to experience a different country, learn about their culture, history and food. There was time to explore a local ski area and we did some hiking and scrambling.

All in all North Macedonia is a great country. Culturally it is fascinating and the people are incredibly friendly – they started conversations with us just because they heard us speaking English. Plus the food is excellent – the fresh tomatoes alone were way better than anything in the UK!

hiking for lines during review of Shar Outdoors in North Macedonia

The conclusion to a review of Shar Outdoors would not be complete without discussing the cat-skiing. We were unlucky with the weather but it was still excellent. Two days of exploring the Shar mountains, taking on fresh lines all the time, getting some pow and some spring slush was well worth it.

The groups before us and after all had fresh snow – you win some you lose some! And after a slow start this season I have seen lots of pictures of powder riding with Shar Outdoors. Ultimately I would be very happy to return to do it all over again, which I think says everything you need to know!

I hope you found this review of Shar Outdoors useful. It costs €1,425 for 6 nights full-board accommodation (twin occupancy) with 5 days of guided cat skiing with at least 3,000m vertical a day. Shorter and longer North Macedonia cat-skiing holiday packages are available. Find out more at www.sharoutdoors.com

 
Balkans, Europe, Matka Canyon, North Macedonia, Popova Shapka, Shar Mountains, Skopje
Cat Ski / Board, Ski Touring, Skiing, Snowboarding, Splitboarding
Backcountry, cat-ski, Freeride, Off Piste
Travel Articles
 

5 responses to “Review of Shar Outdoors: North Macedonia cat-skiing holiday”

  1. So much misinformation about the history of Macedonia. Yes, Macedonia not that fascist name that you use. The name of the country was, and always will be Macedonia. The name of the state was change by force, and only the politicians use it.
    The kingdom of Macedon was never part of Ancient Greece, fist because there was never land of a country called Greece in ancient times, second the only connection with the ancient Hellenic sities is that Macedonia conquer them.
    Another thing, Macedonians consist more than 70% of the population in Macedonia, and it’s one of the oldest ethnical groups in Europe and are even mentioned in the Bible.
    Friendly advice, don’t use Wikipedia as a source 😉

    • Hi Petar – thanks for the comment. Can you provide links to articles that back up your information, if it can be proven to be correct I will amend the article. The naming is I know a very difficult topic in Macedonia and Greece (eg when I referred to the country simply as Macedonia on a social media post it was jumped on by people from the neighbouring Greek region). So I am approaching this from an a-political outsiders stand point – for most people around the world knew is as FYROM and now as North Macedonia. The Ancient Greece comment is my mistake – I can now see that from the Wikipedia entries – I have changed it. I have also clarified more what I meant about Macedonian as an ethnicity. Everything I have written is this article is from a place of huge positivity – I love the country, culture and people and I think that comes across in the article. The goal is to get more visitors and then people can learn about the history from Macedonian’s rather than wikipedia etc.

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