Skiing Greece- In Search of Ancient Gods
In a year with a scarcity of snow on the Italian slopes of the Alps, my mind has gone elsewhere full of hope. The idea is to be able to find new slopes on which to fulfill our adventure skiing madness. It is needless to think of northern places: Iceland, Greenland, Svalbard or Canada. The budget available is too low. Georgia or Armenia might be a solution. However, our time to collect information is too little and we aspire to a project that is easy to organize and at the same time highly satisfying. Finally, one idea of a few years ago comes to mind; Mediterranean skiing with seaviews. Epirus seems to be the right option. A quick search on the web to find a cheap flight and the destination is determined: the mountains of Greece. We will ski going in search of the ancient Gods. Because if you think that Greece is to be visited only for its beaches and its islands, you are wrong, Greece has gorgeous, wild mountains! During the winter these mountains (even those of the islands) are filled with a beautiful snow that quickly turns into firn. It is also an easy journey to organize, a few hours by plane from the rest of Europe. In the winter and spring season there is practically no need to book accommodations in the valleys. It is possible to wander, leaving the view of the most snowy mountains and decide day by day where to find skiing happiness.
Now, with the ski pole I press the release of the attacks and free my boots, and look down. The track of the skis climb along the wide ridge that leads up here, on top of Skala. The snow, in the last one hundred and fifty meters of altitude, was tough and carved by the wind. Not a great pleasure to climb, and it will probably not even be fun on the downhill. Below however, I’m sure the sastrugi will give way to the most beautiful spring firn imaginable, a mantle that will bring our skis memorable curves. When at last I look up, I do it slowly, almost with reverent awe. The true summit of this mountain is just beyond, not far away, perhaps only 7 meters. But to reach it would be necessary ski down to a pass and go upclimbing on the ridge rocks, which is not what I want. I prefer to sit here, between the snow, and watch the dolomite wall, a stone altarpiece that rises vertically and on which the great climber Emilio Comici traced, in the 30s of last century; an aesthetic way of climbing to the summit here on Mt. Olympus.
So I remain silent, my eyes fixed on that limestone, and yet for how hard I look, I still cannot see the son of Cronus and Rhea, the Sovereign of the Gods, the lightning pitcher, the seducer of goddesses, nymphs and mortals, the immortal Zeus. I cannot even see any of the others, not Era, nor Aphrodite, Ares, Athena, or Hermes. Yet, I am sure that their spirit is still alive among these rocks. The importance that they have had in the history of men and women in Europe is so great that you cannot think of this mountain and of these lands without the thoughts and the the aura of mythology pervasive to this region. Even if I went up and then fell on skis from the highest mountains even more difficult than this, the feeling that now shakes my soul is among the strongest that I have ever experienced. This is an emotion that comes from a past millennia before my birth, but it is still powerful as it was when it lived in the words that came out from the mouth of Homer. Here was born what we are today, here are the basics of our culture and our way of life. Here are the foundations of our civil and democratic society. It isn’t possible that all of this legacy has not left a mark on these rocks.
I look again at the top of Olympus. The rocks continue to be deserted. Only a black Alpine chough (crow) spreads its wings from the top of Mitikos. With rapid beating of wings, it rises up, and remains for a moment on the vertical of the mountain and then disappears towards the Gulf of Thessaloniki. Who knows, I think with a smile, perhaps it could be Zeus in one of his many disguises.
I release the skins and then I hook the skis, I close my boots and with my friends begin the descent. It is the last day of this little adventure. Tomorrow, a plane flight, and within a few hours, we shall return towards home. But this will not be a real trip. Because even if it will lead us to our affections and loves, it will also be a journey to established certainties and security of everyday life. The trip however, the real trip, is man’s confrontation with himself and with the doubts that the road puts in front of him. Only in this perspective, can the trip back make sense: it is no longer the end of the experience, but a moment of a circular path, a return to the roots, where it all began and where the story of the trip can be metabolized and told. Living this right here and now, in the land of Greece, the birthplace of of all travel narratives, the story of the Homeric hero Odysseus, was how we weave a connection to ancient history and all the mythology of the gods of ancient Ellas. Crossing Epirus and going up three of its mountain ranges, with a snow perhaps not plentiful but with an exceptional and wonderful firn, a slush which lets us slip the skis with an unparalleled pleasure, we met other explorers and found that even in Greece there are backcountry skiers. Perhaps a small number of skiers, but with great skills and a desire similar to ours to enjoy the snowy mountains.
The massif of Timfi, the Smolikas, the Lakmos and Mount Olympus, are destinations that have been allowed to live in wild places, where it is normal to to run into traces of bears and wolves and slipping on slopes without finding ski tracks. Places where time flows slower than places elsewhere. Because Greece has always held this additional magic for me. Every time I have visited I had the impression of going back to the years of my childhood, to Italy in the early sixties, a bit provincial perhaps, but still strong and powerful roots planted in my past. Maybe because I’ve always avoided the places where the trip loses its true characteristics and become exclusively about tourism. For this is the only way to end our wandering: to let our skis slip on the massive snows of Olympus. It was how to close another circle, draw a route within the trip itself to the deepest emotions.
In the days before this climb, we were on Mount Goura, where we climbed and descended with a large group of Greek backcountry skiers touring The Timfi Dressed in white, a gathering of friends now on their third expedition. Here we met with Constantine Papanicolaou, a California photographer and videomaker of Hellenic origins who filmed, edited and produced the first Greek film dedicated to backcountry skiing and the mountains of Greece. A wonderful work, full of those special emotions that only a certain passion can make live. After Smolikas, the second highest point iin Greece after Olympus, our goal was Mount Skolia, and with an itinerary of skiing among giant pines we had been obliged to fix our skins under our skis again to go back and enjoy again the beauty of the place and the special quality of the firn that covered the slopes. From Metsovo, we climbed to Lakmos and discovered a solitary glacial valley with views that have nothing to envy compared to those of the most renowned mountain ranges of the Alps. In the evening we also had the luck to enjoy the traditional dances and songs of Armânji, a Greek people who are thought to descend directly from the Roman Dacian troops. Finally, before returning to home, we decide to ski Skala Peak in the Olympus group. Waves of slush are raised by the edges of our skis. This transformed snow, the real spring snow, gives us a happy downhill, fast and fun under a clear sky and a sun that gives a warmth that tells of the sea and the nearby Gulf of Thessaloniki. We glide happily in this little adventure, bending knees and ankles at every turn and in doing so, in my mind, a dance rhythm that joins the heartbeat, and following a cadence which resembles a Sirtaki, the Greek “dance of the Zorba.”