Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Greece Part Two: Adventures in the Southern Pindos

More from Rob and Tom on their Easter Adventures to keep you distracted during revision:

After Olympus, we had one day of organising our gear and food and travelling and then a bad weather day in which we discovered an amazing piece of culture that we’d only had a very vague prior idea about, the Monasteries of Meteora. All this left us with one, possibly two days to explore the area of the Southern Pindos in which we found ourselves. We had already seen the dramatic, snow covered mountains all around Elati, Nikolas had pointed some of them out to us when we met on the night we arrived. Modest and unassuming, Nikolas must be at the forefront of mountaineering in Greece. He knows the hills of his own country very well indeed and works hard to promote hillwalking and mountaineering in the the country via the website Hellaspath. He has also coordinated numerous expeditions to more exotic destinations, especially the mountains of Northern Pakistan and India. From the panoramic windows of his cousin’s restaurant in Elati, he had recommended a ridge traverse immediately to our South, beginning on a hill called Mavropouli and continuing over Loupata, Marosa and Avgo. This would take two days and whilst it was largely walking, contained some technical sections. He advised against it should the weather be poor, so it was with disappointment that we woke to rain on Wednesday morning.

Night-time view from Elati


Not to be defeated however, we set off in clean air on Thursday morning to tackle the centre portion of the ridge, with the most technical interest, gaining Loupata from the North and Continuing over Marosa for as far as time allowed.

We rose early and drove on tiptoes through the dark mountain roads to the place Nikolas had recommended we park. We left the car at a junction on a minor road and continued on foot, down over the river and up through a small clearing to a left turning hairpin where we struck off up the ridge into the forest.

The road in the morning
Light in the trees
There are no paths in these fir woods, and though managed to a point they retain quite an open natural feel. From time to time the way we took looked almost path like, at others we were pushing through low branches and staying as close as we could to a vague ridge-line in the trees. The darkness was punctuated by dappled sunlight and little sound as we climbed steeply away from the river. We crossed a couple of forest roads and by and by the little clearings became more frequent and the trees grew thinner and shorter and we found more and more exhilarating little glimpses of view to either side of the spur we were climbing.

Forested ridges

Breaking out of the trees on to the open mountainside we were confronted with a spectacular scene. We had already been walking on snow for some hundreds of metres and the rounded spur on which we stood was oddly reminiscent of the English lake-district or one of the softer corners of the Scottish highlands. Away to the East and West, however, were snippets of mountains from different continents, the forested ridges of the Appalacians capped with the rugged crags of the Rockies to the North; the lochs and Glens of Scotland to the East and West providing a footing for great snow-covered alpine peaks and dry golden limestone crags like those of the Pyrenees or Vaud Canton. All around was row after row of mountains marching off in ever receding shades of blue as far as the eye could see.


Distant Mountains
The view to the saddle
As we climbed higher, exchanging the lead on almost perfect virgin neve, punctuated with the occasional deep drift, the scale and wilderness of this place became increasingly apparent. Though we were not far from roads, they were clearly seldom used, and even less frequently been strayed from and as the spur we were on joined the main ridge that swept up from the saddle below Mavropouli, it became clear that we were the only people to walk on this mountain certainly since the presently lying snow had fallen, and given its consolidation that could be months.

Tom breaking trail


Loupata is a rounded mountain on this side, a plateau with three great curving summits rising up from it, each like a miniature version of Skiddaw when viewed from our side, but steeper – in less perfect snow conditions, the going would be hard indeed. The further side of these peaks however was steep and craggy, vast cliffs as large as any mountain crag in the UK formed what from the South would be a solid wall of mountain holding back these peaks and making elegant swooping ridges between them. The crags were steep, shattered golden limestone kissed with rime-ice and harbouring a few small trees here and there.
Descending Loupata
The main ridge looking back to Loupata
We progressed across snow so sturdy we barely marked it, following the undulations of the ridge, the vast country lay spread out below us on both sides. The expanse and lonely beauty of this place were wonderfully uplifting, and seemed to brush away the occasional tongue of cloud that washed over the mountains. The further round the skyline we travelled, the more dramatic the cirque on the steep side of the ridge became, though unlike the northern side it was largely devoid of snow. At last we came to a subsidiary summit some distance from Loupata where we must descend the top of the steep crags to continue on the ridge, the correct descent line is via a vague rocky couloir which is hard to follow from above, though we found the incut top of it fairly easily. We downclimbed for four pitches of our 30m rope, winding down broken, vegetated mountainside and belaying each other where we could until we reached ground shallow enough to walk on where the onwards ridge protruded from the base of the crag.

Tom on a belay


This last episode took far longer in reality than it did to describe, whereas the opposite is true of the spectacular views from the ridge above. We probably spent an hour and a half taking turns to shiver on dubious belays whilst the other picked their way delicately down through crags and scruffy bushes, with the odd surprisingly technical move on fairly friable limestone. If for a moment one were to face out from the crag, the view along the wall of steeper cliffs bounding Loupata’s southern flank made a spectacular frame for the surrounding landscape.

During our descent, the lower clouds had dissipated, giving us our first view of Marosa, the next mountain in the chain. Its main summit is a vast round topped pinnacle, surrounded by steep walls of rock, sometimes undercut and linked to the main ridge via a short but exceedingly steep ridge. The more accessible summit on which a man-made triangulation pillar stands, was linked to where we stood by another long, elegant ridge, with cliffs once more to our left and rolling, but often steep snow-fields to the right. The limestone mountainside here is full of small twisted crags and sink-holes, pointing to a landscape that is still quite actively shaping its own destiny.

Marosa


Bear tracks in the snow
Until this point in the day, we had clearly been completely alone on the mountain, but now as we looked along the ridge there appeared to be a set of footprints coming up to the saddle. In the bright snow it was hard to make out exactly where they came from or went to, but it was clear that we were not the only ones to traverse these hills in recent days as we’d thought. However as we approached the trail, the spacing, though man sized, was noticeably uneven, and on arrival in the saddle, we found that no human had made these tracks, unless they had scaled the cliff behind us and descended towards the crags and forest below; heading out of, rather than in to the wilderness. They would also have had to possess several large claws on each foot.

After further observation and concluding that these tracks disappeared behind a crag but did not reappear on its further side, we made as much haste as we could up on to Marosa, in order to put as much ground as possible between us and what could logically only be a bear, occasionally scanning the vast snow field below for any moving shape, but there was none, though in our minds eyes any of a number of boulders might have shifted itself slightly, dozing in the mid-afternoon sun.

Even Marosa’s more rounded summit was a steep affair, and the chord linking it to the rocky tower seemed uninviting given the time of day. Seeing black clouds looming in a vast sprawling mass behind Avgo as that final mountain in the chain came into view confirmed our decision to skip it out, continuing the ridge would require us to descend into the vast corrie between us and Avgo in any event, and if the weather looked unlikely to improve we could descend the valley that it fed. A direct descent from the summit seemed infeasible, so we descended a gentle ridge to the North for about fifty metres before heading downhill into the corrie.

Approaching Marosa
Marosa's isolated main summit
This descent probably took no more than 15 or 20 minutes but it could have been hours or even days of carefully picking a way down steep snowfields and through little crags, sometimes walking normally to traverse from one area of clear snow to the next, but mostly facing in to the hillside, which for the middle 100m or so of descent must have been rather steeper than 40 degrees and necessitated careful kicking of pigeon-hole steps, a tiring and time consuming process. In places on this hillside the snow was soft from the warmth of the day and not especially deep. The debris on the corrie floor suggested that most of the winters snow cover had avalanched from this hillside and what we were cautiously slithering our way down was the result of a couple of recent large falls. In the first snow field we were startled by a solitary peal of thunder from over Avgo, and though we heard no more, this only acted as an encouragement to gain more stable ground quickly.

Tom on the descent


Having safely negotiated this leg of the journey we found ourselves in a vast bowl reminiscent of the Grey Corries but on scale so much greater it is hard to describe – double the linear dimensions and the mountains feel of a different order of magnitude. We had spied out the shepherds hut that would have been a bivi spot if we’d done the entire ridge traverse and headed for that not wishing to be caught out, even on a peak as amenable as Avgo appeared from a distance.

Avgo

Hellebore
Crossing a stream

Shepherds Hut



We splashed through rushing meltwater streams where the tongues of snow ended and crossed wild alpine meadows, rich with nodding hellebore and golden king-cups, and by the hut joined a mountain road. The road dived almost immediately into steep forest, clinging to its shallow topsoil and frequently revealing twisted limestone strata like a section through a badly folded blanket. This road had not yet been opened for the summer and sections of it remained blocked by the winter’s landslips and avalanche debris. This high up it was still only just spring. The cuttings where the road had been laid on the hillside seemed keen to dislodge rocks on the unwary traveller and we made our way past them fairly briskly. Occasionally we would turn and look back, we were following another of Greece’s magnificent gorges, this one wreathed in cloud and eerie in its remote splendour. The rivers we had crossed on the mountainside as streams and again as wide rocky fords as we entered the wood now thundered below us through inaccessible rocky alleyways and breaking the surface of deep tree-locked pools.

Rain


The road became recognisably more like a forestry track as we descended, and there were even the signs of some human activity, and once in the forest proper it began to feel like a very long road indeed. We marched on in the rain, through the ruts of large forestry vehicles until we at last wound our way down through a series of hairpins to the big valley out of which we had climbed.

Forest road

Once on back on the more major dirt road in this valley, we covered the final 5.2km in just over an hour, winding our way back up the river, watching it decrease in size and activity as we went. We were focussed simply on returning now. It was late and there was little light left and it had been raining for several hours. We had been so engrossed in making progress over the mountains that we had neglected to pause for proper food all day, and so it was wet and exhausted that we came over the last little summit in the road to find the car parked up by the junction waiting for us. In thirteen and a half hours we hadn’t seen another human being, though we’d been within a kilometre of a village when we reached the road. These mountains are very remote and wild, and we had used all of the available light that day exploring a very small piece of them.


After wearily eating the food we had intended for lunch as a makeshift dinner, we drove ourselves back to Elati through the heavy snow that was now falling, and were kindly received at the hotel Kroupi. After two nights of roadside camping and what had felt like the hardest day of the trip a hot shower and proper beds were most welcome before the journey home began on Friday morning.