Skiing In Greece | Riding Lines In The Mountains Of The Gods
Fresh tracks in, a ski resort to ourself, and a brush with Greek Special Forces
Words by Judy Armstrong | Main image by Sam Morris
"You are doing what?" our friends ask in unison. "Going skiing? In Greece?"
"Ah," we reply smugly. "For the last five winters, Greece had better snow than the French alps. It's the most mountainous country in Europe. The powder record is amazing. Honestly, it's a dead cert..."
This was October and we were dreaming of skiing. There had too many rubbish winters trying to scrape together snow adventures, so we are thinking laterally. Online, I find Nikos Hadjis, Greece's only UIAGM-certified mountain guide, and book him for a telemark ski mountaineering adventure for me, Duncan and our mountain bike guide friend Sam.
What could possibly go wrong?
In December, the jet stream gets involved. Snow dumps in record quantities on the northern European Alps and the webcams from Greece's ski resorts show, well, grass. Sometimes rain, but mostly grass. A week before we are due to fly to Athens, in February, we talk with Nikos. He has plans; there is no need to worry, but we might like to bring our rock climbing shoes. Undaunted, we pack for snow.
As we fly from Manchester to Athens, Europe opens below us, sharp and white. There is snow everywhere, from the high peaks to the low valleys. As we near Greece, everything changes, to green-gray terrain pocked with blue bits of water. We see mountains, but they're as dry as a camel's mouth.
On the plus side, it's easy to find our luggage at Athens airport. Ours is the only ski bag on the carousel.
It's t-shirt weather outside, and Nikos greets us as warmly as the sunshine. We decide to take a relaxed approach to this ski holiday: this will be a Greek adventure and snow is a bonus.
We drive north west for two hours, over land covered with concrete, then olive groves, then low hills. Our destination is Amfikleia, a town on the north side of Parnassos. It spreads up the side of the mountain, with steep, narrow streets, random water sources and a small church with an intricate bell tower.
"Snow seems a remote concept, so imagine our surprise when we wake to find the stuff dumping around us"
Excited to be here, we check into our guesthouse and wander into town. Despite the recent economic crisis, the bars and coffee shops are full as Greeks settle in to chat, drink and smoke. The smoking is an eye-opener: as Sam says, "It smells like the 1980s..."
As we stagger home under a clear sky, after a night of tzatziki, fire-grilled lamb chops, oil-drizzled feta, fat olives, and Alfa Hellenic Beer in a local restaurant, snow seems a remote concept. So imagine our surprise when we wake to find the stuff dumping around us: the view has vanished and our world is white.
Nikos grins. We roar up the road in his 4x4, 20 kilometres to Fterolaka, which gives access to the north side and links with Kelaria on the south. Development started on the ski resort in 1969, aided by French teams; a €20 million investment over the past year has rejuvenated the infrastructure, and paid for the installation of world-class gondola lifts from both bases. The road is thick with snow and Nikos drives like he's in the Dakar rally.
Fterolakka is deserted. We finally find someone to open the ticket office, who asks if we really, truly want to buy tickets? "Is the lift even open?" asks Nikos. "Yes," concedes the ticket guy. "But only if you have cash."
The gondola rolls into life and we glide up the mountain. At the top we startle a liftie; jaw slack with surprise, he drags a door open so we can exit onto the slopes. Luckily Nikos knows the mountain intimately. He lived near here, helped establish the resort, and has worked on plans to improve and modernise it. No other lifts are open, so for a full morning we ride powder in glorious isolation. "So there are four of us on the mountain. With a €20 million investment, that's €5 million each. Because we're worth it," says Sam.
We squeeze between trees to access a meadow now a metre deep in fluff. We bomb down runs whose markers have only the top section visible. There is just enough visibility, phenomenal snow quality, and no-one else on the area. It's remarkable, a private ski resort with powder.
Next day the snow stops, and is replaced by dense fog. We return to Fterolaka but even cash won't kickstart the lifts. Instead we set up skins and sart ascending the slope, following Nikos into the gloom. Visibility is literally zero. We stay 50m apart for safety as we creep up the mountain. It takes two hours to climb 200 metres to the top gondola station but it's a good exercise and with the poor visibility, we get a laugh out of random crashes as we work our way back down.
The plan is to be flexible and follow the best snow conditions, but a bluebird day is forecast so we stay put for another night. It's worth it: conditions are incredible. We ride up from Fterolaka, connect lifts and hidden off-piste slopes to Kelaria, and up to the resort's highest point of 2250 metres.
Ahead and to our left are the peaks and ridges that form the main spine of Parnassos. This is home to Apollo, god of sun, light, music and prophecy, son of Zeus (on Olympus). We descend, skirt small ravines and wind-carved bowls, then climb to the top summit: Liakoura, at 2495 metres. The final approach includes a ridge where the world drops away to the misty blue plains, then a pyramidal point where Nikos perches on the lip, and stares north.
"You see the white mountain, on its own, in the distance? That is Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece. That's our next summit," he says. "Over there, shining golden, is the Gulf of Corinth. Between us and the sea is the biggest olive grove in Europe. And behind it, is the Peloponnese." Ski tips waggling in thin air, he sighs. "I love this view, I love this place. Let's ski!" And we do. We dive off the summit, down untracked snow, making fat S shapes on a clean canvas.
"Nikos takes our passports, signs us in, and warns us not to take photos of the crimson-painted clubhouse"
It's a long drive to Olympus, and after three hours we stop in the town of Elassona. Like Amfikleia, this is one of the nearest accommodation options to the mountain; in Greece, ski-in, ski-out isn't happening any time soon.
The drive up Mt Olympus begins under thick cloud, but as the road swings around a series of switchbacks we emerge into bright sunshine. Cloud inversions are a wonderful thing, especially when summits poke through, like blue thumbs-up icons.
To our surprise, we park beside a watch tower, and a closed barrier. "This is a military base for the Greek Special Forces," Nikos tells us. "I trained here, for my compulsory military service." This is local knowledge taken to a ridiculous level: he takes our passports, signs us in, points out the crimson-painted clubhouse, and warns us not to take photos.
Bizarrely there is also a two-stage drag lift. Nikos ties identity badges to our rucksacks (apparently we have promised not to sue the Greek Special Forces if we have an accident), grabs the poma seat and glides up the mountain.
The first section is uneventful, but the second is a devil. Nikos takes the poma and is catapulted into the air like a peanut flicked from a teaspoon. He lands with a crash on ice and, for the first time, I feel nervous. If the guide hits the deck that hard, I'm doomed. "Sit back, sit back!" yells Duncan as I haul at the poma and crouch on it, like a kid on a potty. The thing pauses, then yanks me up and forward; the soldier watching sniggers but somehow I stay on my feet.
From the top, we climb. The massif is a series of rolling mountains and shallow valleys, and the scope for ski touring is enormous. Nikos leads us up, down and across pristine slopes, pausing often for the view. We can see so many mountain ranges: Pindos, Agrafa, Parnassos. If not for the cloud, we would also see the Aegean.
Our summit is Skolio, at 2911 metres the second highest point in Greece. It's a stone's throw and a few metres short of the top step, rocky Mytikas, accessible only to climbers. Nikos warns us not to step past a cairn marker: "There is a big cornice, we have lost people here, and it's a very long way to fall," he says.
The descent is a surreal mix of ice and perfect snow, swooping into that incredible view, and finishing at the crimson clubhouse. A soldier serves us Alfa beer, which we drink in the sunshine, shaking our heads at the total contrast between the summit and this Special Forces bar.
Zeus has the last laugh: as controller of the Sky Gods, he sweeps another storm across the country. Nikos, undaunted, drives west to Meteora, an extraordinary series of rock towers studded with monasteries. The area is on the UNESCO World Heritage list, its cliffs featured in For Your Eyes Only and Greece's longest river, the Pineios, runs at its feet. It is also a world-renown climbing area. This is one of Nikos' much-loved stamping grounds: he made many first ascents here, and is working hard to maintain public access to the towers, against the wishes of the monks.
We spend the day walking in the rocky wonderland. Nikos guides us up steep paths to the abandoned Holy Spirit monastery, and to the appalling holes in the cliffs that formed the monks' prison; points out monasteries clinging to tower summits and tells of hauling modern monks on ropes to high-level caves to see religious wall paintings, preserved for centuries in the dark.
Over the next couple of days, we work our way south, via dirt tracks over mountains, meeting men who slap Nikos on the back with the joy of a friend long-missed; discussing, all the while, the essence of this country: politics, philosophy, history ancient and recent. We end up at Delphi, the sanctuary considered the navel of the world, on the south-west slopes of Parnassos.
Awed by the archaeology museum, we step out into a world of temples and treasury houses, fountains and amphitheatres. Above are the scarlet and orange cliffs of Apollo's homeland; below is an olive grove with more than a million trees, in the distance shines the Gulf of Corinth.
I reach out to touch the marble columns of Tholos, a masterpiece of Greek architecture from the 4th century BC, and my brain crumbles. We came here to ski, but we've also been immersed in Greece as only the Greeks know it. The feeling of privilege swells and, in a whisper so as not to sound like an idiot, I thank Apollo, Zeus and Nikos, for making this adventure possible.
Do It Yourself:
We flew with EasyJet from Manchester direct to Athens (3hr 50mins flying time). Ski bags can be booked on as Sports Equipment.
Nikos collected us from Athens airport as part of his fee. Public transport to the mountains would be challenging. If you rent a car, ensure it has snow chains or winter tyres: the weather can change rapidly and violently.
Accommodation & Guiding:
Nikos Hadjis is Greece's only UIAGM mountain guide; skier, climber. We paid €1250 each for a week's guiding, including everything except lift passes (€25/day Parnassos) and lunches. Nikos lives in Austria and returns to Greece in autumn and spring to guide climbing trips, and winter on request to ski.
For more information see mountainguide.gr
Ski-in, ski-out doesn't exist in Greece; there is no accommodation in or even very near the ski areas. These are the places we used, to access Parnassos and Olympus.
Amfikleia: 30 minutes drive from Fterolaka / Mt Parnassos
Hotel Kiriaki, a beautiful guesthouse in a traditional house, completely renovated to a very high standard. It is run by Nicole and Dimitris, who speak excellent English. Large, warm rooms are en-suite, with wifi, an open fire in the bar area in winter, and terraces and a swimming pool in summer.
For more information see xenonaskiriaki.gr
Elassona: 60 minute drive from Mt Olympus / Special Forces base
RiverSide Rooms is a short walk through riverside pine forest from the heart of Elassona. Owned and run by Nikos Mezili and his parents, it has spacious, modern rooms, all en-suite and with wifi. The lounge area has a wood-burning stove, TV, comfortable sofas and bar service.
For more information see elassonahotel.gr
A word on skiing in Greece:
Without a Greek holding your hand, you'll need a Greek dictionary or phrasebook and a working knowledge of the Greek alphabet for restaurant menus and road signs.