When I think of Greece I think of the nicest, warmest people imaginable, great food, sunny days, island life, and in my case – warm limestone and lots of sport climbing. I don’t think of ski touring when I think of Greece. But, in February, I found myself locking into my bindings at the start of a three day ski tour in the well named White Mountains on the island of Crete.
It turned out that a group of friends from Dynafit, all women, had come up with the idea to ski tour through the White Mountains. 2017 was the ideal year to do it because unlike recent years, the mountains were finally white. Crete was having a good winter, snow had nearly fallen down to sea level, and low temps were keeping it around. Suddenly it was on and I was asked to join as the photographer. So… ski touring in Greece, a hut system, views of the sea from the mountains, and five girls. Just when it couldn’t get any better, it did. Mercedes got involved and provided us with a vehicle. Off we went.
We spent our first night in Omalos where we sat down with our Greek guides from Cretan Adventures. George would be our guide while Nikos and Vagelis would help organize everything. Four days later, these guys would be like brothers after they showed us an experience so good that, except for the parts where we got drunk on sweet Greek wine and can’t remember much, we’ll never forget.
Coming from the Alps, our starting point wasn’t overly impressive, but there was snow and mountains to go up. We set out for the Kallergi Hut under sunny skies and high temps. One thing became immediately apparent, the snow was one of two types. Ice, or sludge. It seems we were too early in the season for a corn cycle to develop, so mostly it was just hard pack ice, except down low where it was dry, mashed potato like snow. But I’m pretty sure not one member of our group had high expectations, we were in it for the experience. Sometimes ski touring is more about the touring and in the case of Crete, the touring is fantastic.
We arrived to the Kallergi Hut for a quick break before moving on to the Katsiveli Bivouac, where we’d spend the night. These huts, managed by the Alpine Club of Chania, are a mix of simple bivouacs or wardened huts similar to what’s in the Alps. While used in the winter, it’s the summer where they’re used most thanks to the extensive hiking trail system. We all noticed that throughout the day, it seemed we only went up. And when we did go down, it was often with skins on because the next up was so close. Finally, with the sun dropping into the sea, we traversed a high ridge line with little of the island left above us, the sea to our left, and the incredibly deep Samaria Gorge to our right. The fact that we were skiing along on a Greek island did not escape us. Suddenly we stood on top of the 2133 meter Melidaou and pulled the skins for our final icy descent.
The skiing was a mix of chattering, sliding, grating and deafening conditions. Skiing shouldn’t be loud. Once down, we all gathered at the bottom of the day’s big descent. But there was no bivouac in sight. In fact, there was not much of anything in sight, it was nearly dark. George informed us we had some traversing, and then one last uphill to do. Out came the headlamps.
An hour later we arrived to a small shelter where we were met by yet another Nikos who had the place warmed up, soup on, water boiling, and a huge smile on his face with the realization that the men were greatly outnumbered by women.
Yet another Greek skiing reality is that you can’t get going too early. This big, wide open snowy landscape is frozen solid. You may as well be trying to skin on granite. Nevertheless, with another big day ahead of us, we set out with boot crampons on. By the time we reached our first highpoint the ice was losing it’s battle with the sun’s heat. As a result, we had our first descent in good snow in a landscape that reminded me of a pure white Sahara Desert sand dune scene.
The afternoon continued on with lots more up and little down. Once again, we found ourselves at our final summit in fading light and increasing clouds. Optimism for another good descent was shut down as George loudly dropped into a massive gulley system. We all very noisily made our way down nearly 1000 meters to where Nikos and Vagelis were waiting for us with our luxury van.
Everyone was starving and the time was right for us to visit a local’s restaurant. George had arranged a dinner for us in Ammoudari at a place where few tourists have probably eaten. Inside we were greeted by many men and just as many tiny raised glasses of raki to the arrival of five girls in neon clothing. It appeared that things could get funky. But first, food. Plates of lamb, liver, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, local cheese and giant beers covered our table. The owner of the restaurant made sure our glasses were always full, but that clear drink wasn’t water. George, Nikos and Vagelis showed off their magic at entertaining by merging our table with the local boys. Everyone’s tiny raki glass went bottom side up.
Thankfully, George got us out of there before it turned ugly, unlike the following night, when it would turn ugly. We had one more day to ski and we’d be up early to do it. No hangovers, yet.
Day three was a day tour to Mount Ida, Crete’s highest mountain at 2456 meters. Once again it was hot, mightily so, except the surface of the snow on the peak itself, which was like marble. Instead of Ida, we opted to make turns on the lower slopes and get some real skiing in. Plus, our day had to be cut short due to a meeting with a priest that evening. We’d be visiting Papa Andreas where we’d see Cretan cheese being made before a celebratory final dinner. But each time Papa Andreas’ name was mentioned, the Greek guys would all man-giggle, like some epic event was in store for us. It was.
Enough ski talk… the memories that will forever remain with me are not from what came on that final day and our perfect corn run, but what Papa Andreas would bless us with. The Greeks, as I mentioned before, are some of my favorite people. I want to be Greek because I want to live life with as much warmth as they do. I might kind of look Greek, but I don’t have their charm. I’m left to marvel at them.
Along with several other Greek skiers we’d met that day, we gathered tightly around a table piled high with food. Bones stuck up in great disarray from the meat they held, and what appeared to be large ball sacks sat amongst a plate of liver. Greek salad was everywhere, so too local cheeses, dolmas, vegetables, bowls of rice, olives, and breads. It was a true feast.
One of our group, Emy, stared in disbelief at all. “I’m sorry, I wish I could eat everything”, she remarked. “You’d be even more sorry if you did.”, replied Nikos with a grin. It turned out this was just the first course. And yes, that was a ball sack!
As we were finding our way amongst all of this, Papa Andreas rose and stood directly behind me with his giant hands wrapped around my shoulders. His complete lack of English didn’t stop him from a great speech, or any of us from listening. Thankfully, George was there to help. It was time to starting toasting, but really, it was time to start drinking. The rules; drink your glass of sweet wine dry, pour another and offer it to someone else at the table with a wish. And so it started. Around and around, we all drank, once, twice, five times, ten times. I don’t remember everything, but I do remember seeing both Nikos and Vagelis commandeer my camera and begin shooting. For this, I toasted them. But they couldn’t drink, they were driving, and so they got to watch and record the evening to remind everyone of how much fun we all had.
Earlier that evening, George had asked us at what time the limit should be. At that point we weren’t yet having much fun, and so we stated nine. We were tired after a big day and naively thought we’d go to our hotel early. When nine came, George made his announcement that we’d reached our limit. To this we toasted, “Screw you George!” The evening would end some hours later, the best time I’ve ever had in the company of a priest.
The next morning was much less fun, but we got through it and made our way to Chania from which we’d fly home. Like every trip I have ever been on to Greece, it ends with the greatest of memories and many new friends. I will return to Crete later this year to run with George in the mountains we skied through. After, I’ll join Nikos at his home to help him pick olives from his 600 trees. And Vagelis will join us for some days of climbing. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll go to church to see Papa Andreas.
A huge, huge thanks to our friends at Dynafit for making this happen. And to Mercedes for the luxurious support. But also to the incredible George, Nikos, and Vagelis at Cretan Adventures for making this experience stand out amongst a lifetime’s worth of big trips. If anyone wants the same trip, I’m pretty sure it’s the norm, give these boys a ring.
Our incredible team: George, Nikos, Alessa, Chrissi, Emy, Steffi, Dan, Helge, Sibylle and Vagelis