February 2017

Powder Skiing in Greece?

 

Text – Valentine Fabre + Ben Tibbetts

‘Mythical’ was the adjective that sprang to mind when considering a ski trip to Greece. At the last minute a ski race was cancelled and we found ourselves, in early February, with a fortnight free in the diary. Ski mountaineering is both a sport and a perfect tool for adventure and exploration. We just had to work out where to go. The Alps were desperately lacking in snow and it seemed that even in Arctic Norway it wasn’t much better. Our thoughts wandered from Scandinavia to Morocco and even Nepal in search of better snow conditions, but finally we decided to head to Greece. We were surprised to hear that enormous quantities of snow had been falling across the Balkans and Greece over the previous weeks. It was a recent book by a French Mountain Guide – Jean Annequin – that gave us the first few ideas of what might provide good objectives in Greece, and sent us searching for local contacts and more information about refuges and routes. Having booked flights and started to make plans only five days before our departure we were overwhelmed by the friendly and enthusiastic responses of local guides and refuge guardians in Greece. They helped us hone our ideas towards a sensible plan and the most interesting locations.

The kit laid out for departure!

Skis, Boots, Skins, Crampons, Sony A7rii, Gimbal, Drone + batteries, Microphones, Binoculars, Heated socks, First Aid kit, Tripod, Hard drives, Lenses (20mm, 24-70,70-200), Filters, Harness, Repair kit, Delorme in reach, Jetboil, Down clothing, Goggles, Helmet, Clothing, Shovel, Probe, Spare skins..

After a short stay in Athens we quickly understood that Greeks must have one of the highest meat consumptions in Europe. The irresistible smell of grilled meat was wafting through every street, and the dishes we were served for a standard meal left us feeling rather greedy. We left the next day for the west towards the massif of Vardousia and Giona. We hoped to do a couple of peaks here before heading towards Olympus in the north of Greece.

(CHECK OUT THE PREVIOUS EPISODE – A LINE IN THE SNOW – GREENLAND!)

The weather in the north looked abominable with high winds and warm damp air destabilising the snowpack. However it was only slightly better in the Vardousia where we were headed. Over two days we managed to reach the Vardousia refuge and meet loads of friendly Greek mountaineers. In terms of skiing though we abandoned any attempts of getting any higher than the refuge in hurricane force winds. The mountains were perfectly suited to ski touring and mountaineering, and amply provided with interesting couloirs to descend. These mountains would have to wait for another trip though as we retreated back to lower altitudes and drove north.

< Sunset as we left Vardousia

It was about a 5 hour drive north and then whilst we waited for the weather to calm down we spent a day on Mont Ossa (1977m), a smaller summit just south of Olympus with gorgeous views down to the ocean. Surprisingly it had a cleared tarmac road leading to an Alpine refuge within 500m of the summit.

At the end of the road there was a huge piste making machine, a “Pisten Bully” that seemed a little misplaced with no pistes or lifts to be seen anywhere on the mountain. The road nevertheless provided perfect access for a quick lap or two of spring snow in the afternoon. There were a choice of easy gullies on several aspects and a clear view of the clouds raging across Olympus 35 km to the north!

Looking from Mont Ossa north to Olympus and the sea>

We had a meeting the following morning at the trailhead of Mount Olympus (2918m) with Nikos (climber converted to skiing) and Lazaros (mountain guide and passionate ski mountaineer), the two guardians of the Apostolidis refuge (2697m). Along with them were their staff and friends Giannis and Giorgios. The refuge is normally closed for most of the winter season, but they planned to head up for a couple of days under the pretence of needing to clear off the snow from the solar panels.

With a short window of clear weather forecast I suspected that this was a good excuse to get a few days up in the mountains. Having contacted them before leaving I was really hopeful that we might manage to meet up and go up with them to see their refuge. Likewise they were delighted to be able to show us this other side of Greece – the spectacular mountain terrain that it offers. In Greece these mountain folk showed us a level of kindness and hospitality that is becoming rare in the more popular mountain areas of Europe.

“In Greece these mountain folk showed us a level of kindness and hospitality that is becoming rare in the more popular mountain areas of Europe”

Apostolidis refuge at dawn, Mount Olympus

Though I had never even heard of Greece having high mountains before this trip it turns out that nearly 80% or the country is covered in mountains. It seems that both politics and culture in Greece have largely ignored this great gift of nature, favouring of course the easy pleasures and tourist economy of the coastline and islands. Nikos explains to us that in his country people have not developed the taste for the risk and commitment of mountaineering, or for getting tired for the sake of climbing a mountain, as it is so much easier to go to the beach and have fun. He started in the mountains through climbing and quickly became obsessed with spending all his time up there, balancing his life between a little time at home in Thessaloniki, and a lot of time up in their refuge near the summit of Olympus. Having learnt skiing when he was younger he was focussed only on rock climbing when he took to job of guardian of the refuge. Having followed behind on foot too many times in thigh deep snow whilst Lazaros was on skis Nikos finally took up skiing again as a means of access in winter.

^ Skiing back across the “Muses Plateau”, Olympus

 

From the car park at 1100m we made our way up through dense forest following the summer path, first on patchy snow, then deep wet snow which gradually became firmer and drier as we gained height. At 1900m we passed the Petrostrouga refuge and from here the pine trees became sparser and the skiing looked really enticing for the descent. However Dense clouds and a little fresh snow smothered us for the entire climb up. As we traversed the “Lemos” (=neck) ridge in the fog the team pointed out the fantastic views that we couldn’t see and in the whiteout it was hard to imagine that there was a steep drop of over 1000m to either side. A short passage on rocks took us up onto the “Muses Plateau” and the Apostolidis Refuge. It was only the next day that we got a sense for the curious terrain – the plateau is about 1km square and largely flat, yet on all sides were precipitous limestone escarpments, and the impressive blades of rock that form the summits of Stefani and the highest point of the massif – Mitikas. The team got to work straight way de-icing, clearing snow and getting the generator started to top up the storage batteries. As they had suspected the solar panels were covered in a deep layer of snow – an unfortunate consequence of being installed on a section of roof that is at about 20º from horizontal. Lazaros explained to us that this was actually one of the very rare times that they come up to the refuge without overloaded sacks full of food for guests and were able to take full advantage of the good snow conditions.

Valentine crossing "Lemos" on Mount Olympus

There is a legal restriction on flying civilian helicopters in Greece so most mountain refuges are supplied with food and fuel by teams of mules. In summer as many as 8 per day make the journey up from the valley. Of course with deep snow in winter this is not possible, so for any guests staying during the winter or spring ski touring period they have to use dry and frozen supplies stored over from the previous autumn. These supplies are supplemented with what fresh produce they are able to carry up on their backs for the 1700m climb from the roadside! The descent back to the valley was as we had hoped – mythic – the best powder we had skied all season and perfectly spaced pine trees. It made for a beautiful experience as we started high above a sea of clouds and then plunged down into them at the tree line… even if behind the camera I skied down the whole mountain in a high-speed snowplough to keep the camera stable! That evening we walked along the beach and watched a pod dolphins leaping across the waters edge.

“It made for a beautiful experience… even if behind the camera I skied down the whole mountain in a high-speed snowplough to keep the camera stable!”

Ski touring near Vasilitsa >

With another spell of heavy snowfall, high winds and low visibility forecast we headed north west to the Pindus Mountains. Whilst the storm passed we spent two days in a tiny village called Samarina and skied in the exceptionally beautiful forests that line the slopes above. We hadn’t understood quite how remote these villages were and which roads would be closed with snow. With dwindling petrol reserves in the car we realised we hadn’t enough to get to the next petrol station 80km further on. We were staying in the Hotel “La Noi” and thankfully the daughter of the owner was able to bail us out of trouble by purchasing a can and fuel on the back way from Thessaloniki.

 Current adventures and Alpine conditions?  >

The Pindus Mountains lie in the far NW of Greece and spread over the border with Albania. They provide a smorgasbord of opportunities for the ski tourer. The angles are generally moderate in all the right places and provide safe and stress free skiing. There are plenty of couloirs and steeper ground to be had if the weather and snow conditions should align. Samarina is located on the east side of the massif of Mount Smolikas, at 2631m the second highest mountain in Greece.

With all the snow that fell we had a hard time extracting ourselves from Samarina as it turned out we had taken the wrong size snow chains for the hire car and so we made it only to the small resort of Vasilitsa the following morning. Try as we might, like good amateur tourists, we were unable to get to the col beyond and get to the south side of Smolikas. We spent a day ski touring off the side of the resort until the sun finally burnt through the clouds in the afternoon and we drove the spectacular mountain road down to Pades.

Valentine on Vasilistsa summit with the Smolikas massif behind

Ascending Mt Smolikas

We stayed in a charming and rustic guesthouse “Munti Smolikas” and then set out the next morning with Kostas who helped run the guesthouse, and their troop of 3 dogs. As Kostas on foot when we hit the snow line Valentine and I made quicker progress on skis. Nevertheless the dogs, one of which was only a few months old, kept going between us until near the summit itself. The snow conditions here on the western side of the massif were markedly different from the east. Most of the storm fronts this winter had driven in from the north east and so here instead of the fresh knee deep powder of Samarina there was a thinner snowpack. It was crunchy spring snow that softened to perfect corn as we began the descent – on the two sides of the same mountain we had gone from winter to spring conditions.

Valentine above "Dragon Lake" on Mt Smolikas

For our final tour we had the chance to meet up with Giorgos, another enthusiastic proponent of Greek ski touring. He is a mountain guide and manager of the Astraka refuge. This large hut is in the beautiful Timfi massif to the south-west of Smolikas. Even the drive to the trailhead was breath-taking. The road passes high above the northern end of the Vikos gorge, one of the deepest in Europe. We met Giorgos at Mikro Papago. Like all of the Greeks we met he was laid back and friendly despite me sticking a camera in his face from the very first minutes we met!

Timfi Massif and its northern ramparts seen from Smolikas   >

As one of the most westerly mountains in Greece the Timfi had received much less snow than the rest of the Northern Greece. This was for the same reasons that we had little snow in the alps – namely the predominant westerly storm fronts had not brought much precipitation this winter. Nevertheless after half an hours hiking we put skis on and toured up on the crispy spring snow up to the hut. Giorgos wanted to check on his solar power and see how much fuel was left in the backup generators. The hut is perched on a magnificent col with views across the foothills to the west and then up into the larger peaks to the east. Gamila, the highest peak in the area, presents its easy side to the Astraka refuge – a 600m slope up to a rounded summit. Beyond that though the north face drops steeply 1800m down into the gorge separating it from Smolikas. It was with regret that we didn’t have the time to go further into the massif but we turned heels and skied the softened westerly slopes and were back in the village as the sun set.

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Vikos Gorge at sunrise

In just 12 days we managed to ski on all types of snow from knee-deep powder, smooth spring snow and everything in between. The itinerary we followed landed us on some of the most beautiful and highest terrain, though for certain we barely scratched the surface of where you could go. As we drove back south via Meteora down the spine of the Pindus we were spotting to left and right innumerable peaks to come back for.

Astraka Refuge   >

Gamila, the highest peak in the Timfi massif, seen from the Astraka Refuge   >

Maps

Anavasi.gr produces and distributes good maps of all these regions.

#2.3 –Giona-Oeta-Vardoussia

#4.5 – Mt Kissavos – Tempi (for Mt OSSA)

#6.11 Mt Olympus (1:25,000)

#6.4 Valia Kalda – Vasilitsa

#3.3 Gramos-Smolikas-Voio-Vasilitsa

#3.31 Mt Smolikas (1:25,000)

#3.1 Zagori (for Astraka refuge and Timfi massif)

Guidebook

Surprisingly there is a great little book – “Ski Touring with Sea View – Greece” by Christian Mayer. Also published by Anavasi.gr

Logistics

The ski touring season is in the low season for traditional Greek tourism so some hotels are closed, but many are open with off-season pricing. It is worth booking ahead a couple of days, as some hotels are “dormant”. In the Pindus Mountains both shops and petrol stations were notably absent so it is worth leaving populated areas well stocked.

Though most of the mountain refuges in Greece are traditionally closed in the early winter they are often willing to open for a group, or for some private huts the key may be available to borrow. In spring time several of the refuges are open on weekends or by arrangement.

Don’t forget to hire snow chains with your car!

Some useful sites:

http://www.apostolidisrefuge.gr/en/contact.html

http://www.astrakarefuge.com/en/

http://www.olympus-climbing.gr/index.php?page=refuges&id=4

Refuges of Greece – https://www.google.com/maps/ – refuge info

Period

The higher mountains usually have a good snowpack until the end of April, though in exceptionally dry years this is not always the case. February is the most reliable month to get some fresh snow, a substantial snowpack and the most likelihood of skiing from the road. Midwinter is however more stormy weather than springtime. From March the weather is likely to be better, but there you are more likely to need to hike from the road head to hit the snow line!

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Giorgos and Valentine on the way back down to the village

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