When I first heard of Greek ski touring, I didn’t even realize there were high mountains in Greece, or skiable snow. Turns out, there’s both. When I had the opportunity to head over there this winter, I jumped at the chance.
Although we didn’t find the best snow, it was still a fun trip. We got a few days of good skiing in (and a few days of bad skiing). The days where skiing wasn’t in store, we were shown around by a crew of enthusiastic Greeks. Greece is incredibly rugged and mountainous, something I didn’t realize at all. We toured through deep mountain valleys on precipitous shelf roads. Much of the Greek population lives in the cities, so much of the countryside is rural and sparsely populated. Ancient villages of stone houses dot the hillsides. An idyllic place, that’s for sure. Tourism is the biggest business in Greece, but it’s mostly confined to the beaches and coastline, and mostly during the summer. Wintertime in the mountains isn’t touristy. It’s quiet and I liked it.
We started out the trip by meeting with folks from Dynafit, as well as several other journalists, for the 2016 Dynafit Press event. We went to the tiny village of Samarina, and spent several days there. Our first ski day was spent in a miserable storm, which luckily dropped some snow, that we harvested on Mt. Smolikas. We spent the rest of the trip driving around with Constantine Papanicolaou (C.P.). Constantine is Greek-American skier and filmmaker, and has spent the last few winters in Greece, exploring the mountains and making a film about them. Check out the preview for the film from its kickstarter a few months ago:
Constantine Papanicolaou on Vimeo.
C.P. has a ton of knowledge about skiing in Greece, enabling us to make the most of our relatively short trip. The next few days we drove through several different regions and villages. Wet, warm weather prevailed (made me feel right at home), so we didn’t get much skiing. We checked out several areas, but the snow was thin, and apparently at unusually high elevations for January. We drove up several roads and passes that are normally closed by snow all winter. We also saw a few ski areas that were thousands of feet below the current meager snowline. We made the most of our visit, and checked out other stuff instead. Greek Orthodox monasteries are everywhere, many of which have stood for centuries. There is an old monastery built right on the edge of Vikos gorge, which is one of the deepest in the world. The old bathroom just hangs over a 100 meter drop. Greek food is absolutely awesome, and we indulged.
Eventually we saw a break in the weather forecast down south. We headed toward Mt. Parnassos, a large peak situated right on the Gulf of Corinth. There we also failed to find much snow. However, we utilized the lifts that go up one flank to access the upper bowls and slopes, which had the white stuff. Skiing right above the Mediterranean was a truly beautiful experience.
For the final few days of our trip, we stayed in Athens. We walked around and checked out the ancient history of the area. Athens is a great city to explore, with tons of awesome cafes and eateries, not to mention the ruins and monuments scattered about. A unique way to end a ski trip!
I’m looking forward to heading back to Greece at some point, hopefully next season if they have a good snowpack. Surprisingly, it seems to have the combination of elements that make for a good ski trip. Over the course of our trip, we checked out quite a bit of potential ski terrain. The peaks aren’t high, but they have lots of relief. In some areas 2,000 meter runs would be possible.
Access is an issue with most ski touring destinations, especially outside of Europe. There just aren’t that many plowed roads that go into mountainous areas. In Greece, people have been living in the mountainous areas for thousands of years, and so there’s quite the road network. Even with the high snow levels we experienced, we were able to drive up to snow in several areas. A combination of locals and government keep roads plowed, although it might not be on the quickest schedule.
In contrast to the rest of Europe, there are very few people in the mountains. Of course it’s still much more populated than North America. Some of the alpine villages we passed through had dozens of houses, but only one or two families. This is largely due to the tradition of shepherd families moving with their sheep down to the lowlands in the winter, but also due to the increased urbanization of the population. On top of that, there are very few locals who backcountry ski. This all makes for completely uncrowded backcountry (my favorite type).
As a dirtbag, the incredibly low cost is a major draw of a Greek ski trip. Of course, this is largely due to the unfortunate economic situation in Greece right now. It was an interesting aspect of the trip to see firsthand the effects of the crisis. I’m an occasional financial news geek, and read quite a bit about the Greek debt crisis, even before I thought about a ski trip. It’s evident that it has hit many citizens hard. However, it seems to be slowly improving (albeit with the occasional setback). Nonetheless, everyone we met was incredibly hospitable; offering places to stay, and eager to show us around. I sincerely hope their situation improves quickly, but for now, the prices are a definite plus, at least for foreigners. Even with the crisis, the country still feels very much like a western European nation in the sense that it’s safe, clean, and easy to travel in.
Of course, there’s some disadvantages as well. The major one is the lack of a formal mountain rescue service. Similar to the U.S., they have a variety of volunteer mountain rescue groups. In the event of a helicopter rescue, it’s the Helenic navy that sends the birds. Unfortunately, their helicopters and pilots are focused on maritime use, so they aren’t set up for mountain flying or rescue. For one body recovery several years ago, a pilot and helicopter had to be brought all the way from the Alps to do the job. I’d expect the situation is better than in mountain ranges in South America or Asia, but definitely not as good as the Alps.
So there you have it — terrain, access, minimal crowds, low costs, hospitality, and a developed European country that combine as perfect ingredients for a ski destination. On top of that the history and culture is incredible. Plus, there are beaches.
For information and help with Greek ski touring travel, contact Way Out Adventures.
Louie Dawson earned his Bachelor Degree in Industrial Design from Western Washington University in 2014. When he’s not skiing Mount Baker or somewhere equally as snowy, he’s thinking about new products to make ski mountaineering more fun and safe.