I blogged about Ultras here. Obviously, this Covid thing has restricted travel. However, this October Julie and I managed to sneak a week on the island of Crete. As with two previous trips for some sun and mountains – Teide and Pico Ruivo – we used a package holiday with Jet2 as the means to get to Crete.
As Greece is still looking to stimulate tourist trade, there were some decent deals to be had this October, and the Covid bureaucracy for entering the country was not too bad. It was more involved coming back to the UK.
The three mountains that I had in mind were Psiloritis (otherwise known as Mount Ida) – the highest peak on the island – Pachnes and Spathi. October is not necessarily the best month to go. Whilst the heat of summer is avoided, October is a month where the weather is much more variable. However, we were lucky and had good days for the ascents.
We hired a car for four of the days of our stay which was based in Rethymno. In advance of our trip I had enquired of the hotel we were staying at for a recommendation as to a mountain guide. I was looking for this service only for Pachnes.
There were a couple of reasons for this. First, and most importantly, the start point for the easiest ascent involves a 20km drive for about an hour up a (in places rough) gravel track. I did not wish to risk the wrath of the car hire company by taking their car up that route. Secondly, we could get a lift from Rethymno and not use up one of the car hire days. Thirdly, we would have a local who could tell us about the countryside we were passing through. And finally, it would give Julie some comfort to be with a local who knew the mountains.
So on the recommendation I made contact with Alternative Crete before we left the UK and arranged to meet at our hotel on the evening of our arrival. We had been keeping our eye on the forecast and the day after our arrival was set fair.
So that evening we met Giorgos Prinarakis. He had only set up Alternative Crete with his partner and friend in the past 18 months. He was formerly an electrician but had decided that was not the life for him and had gone through all the necessary Greek qualifications for mountain leadership.
We agreed timings for the following day and discussed our mountain experience. We were set.
At 7am the following morning we met outside our hotel in the dark. It was to be a 3 hour drive to the start point. First we went west along the coast road. Just before Vryses we turned south to take the road over the central spine of the island. The road rose steeply, on occasion in a series of switchbacks. Then we crossed over the watershed and went by Imbros which is at the start of a gorge of the same name and which we were to walk down in a few days.
If anything the drop down to the south side of the island was even steeper. We lost all of the height gained in a long series of horseshoe bends. It had become light as we went over the watershed. The Mediterranean glistened in the sun. The mountains to the right had cleared of cloud and their summits were picked out by the rising sun.
At the foot of the mountains we turned west again and followed the twisting road above the sea through Hora Sfakion and Ilingas Beach after which the road reared up again. More and more horseshoe bends. The land was more arid on this side of the island. We were entering into limestone territory – the Lefka Ori (or White Mountains). This range dominates the western end of the island. The famous Samaria Gorge passes through the western end of the range.
At around 600m above sea level we entered the sleepy village of Anopolis, its somnolence betraying a historical past when it was a city State in its own right and a centre of resistance against invaders of all kinds. Even with the good road that leads to it, the village has a remote feel to it because that road does not continue very far, certainly in tarmacked form.
Here we soon met the gravel track. This continued ever upwards in its bumpy fashion passing by a few dilapidated smallholdings. The greatest hazard were the goats that roamed, often oblivious to the car. After around an hour the 20km or so were over. We had reached our start point.
We quickly got ourselves ready. At first we followed a continuation of the track. Giorgos pointed out the ancient footpath that was originally used by locals before the current track was formed in the 1950s.
A bit further on the track had been fenced off by local farmers. We passed through this and soon turned right off the track to follow a rough path. This was obvious and well-marked with orange and white paint. Although the dominant rock is limestone, there is also a lot of volcanic rock.
After a further 25 minutes of relatively gentle climbing we reached a col. The arid land fell away before us and the ridge that we were to follow went up to our left. We stopped for a brief snack. The col caught the wind and it was briefly a bit chilly. White slopes dotted with hardy vegetation surrounded us.
We carried on. The ridge was quite broad. Only here did we first see the true summit of Pachnes.
We passed a large sinkhole, a typical feature of limestone country and one that I am very familiar with from our Dales countryside. The path contoured the slopes of an intermediate bump and led to a final shallow col.
It was now only a short 80m rise to the summit.
It had taken us a gentle 1 hour 55 minutes to the top.
Views were astounding. There was a partial inversion below us. Peeking over the clouds in the distance was Psiloritis, Crete’s highest mountain, which we would climb the next day.
We were able to stay on the summit for over half an hour. There was a stiff breeze but a shelter below kept the worst off. But then it was time to go.
The way down was easy and speedy.
And we had time to look again at some of the sinkholes and volcanic rocks. And to watch, from afar, a couple of shepherds and their dogs driving a flock of sheep against a backdrop of limestone and lava.
Then it was back to Rethymno, with just one road blockage, and a brief stop in Anopolis for a drink.
Thanks Giorgos, it was a pleasure.
The day after we had climbed Pachnes, we tackled Psiloritis. We had collected our hire car the previous evening and were able to drive to the most popular starting point at the Refugio Migerou. The road there lifts you to approximately 1500m.
Psiloritis is also known as Mount Ida, though we only heard locals referring to the former. It is the most prominent mountain in Greece, even more prominent than the higher Mount Olympus on the mainland.
Being the highest point on Crete, it is a very popular climb. There are no technical issues and there is a path all of the way to the top. We were never far from other people – it was an international mix with lots of languages to be heard. In good weather it would be difficult to get lost. Winter conditions can exist though, so the mountain should not be taken lightly in poor weather.
It was already quite busy when we arrived at the Refuge at around 10am and the car park was almost full. We were off promptly however. There is a flagged path for the first 25% of the climb.
As with much of the high ground in Crete, aridity prevails.
Although the first half of the climb is in the main relatively steep, there is not much to say about it. The path eventually joins a broad ridge.
Near the top of that ridge, it swings to the west and traverses under a subsidiary top, Agathias, having joined Crete’s long distance path, The Cretan Way. The path reaches the col between Agathias and Psiloritis and there is a final climb of about 130m to the latter’s summit.
I decided to divert to Agathias’ summit whilst Julie went on to the main one. I didn’t find a path up this top. Where there is no path, there are no hordes of people. I had this summit to myself. A trig point lay shattered on the ground and there was a wind shelter, not needed on this warm day where there was just a gentle breeze.
The view across to the main summit was nice.
Looking a little to the left, Pachnes and the Lefka Ori rose above broken cloud.
I took a couple of zoomed photos, first of the Lefka Ori:
And then of Spathi, my objective in a couple of days:
I then went down the pathless and occasionally loose ground to the Agathias-Psiloritis col and was soon up at the main summit festooned with a bell.
We spent an hour in the sun at the top looking at the views and having our lunch with the crowds. This mountain is probably a better and quieter challenge in winter. It suffers from its popularity, much like Ben Nevis, Snowdon and Scafell Pike in the UK.
I was back down at the car in 2 hours. If I had tried, I probably could have been 30 minutes faster.
After a day off I tackled the third of the Cretan Ultras, Spathi. Julie decided not to come with me on this one. This mountain is the furthest east of the three. Indeed it is a two and a half hour drive from Rethymno. In fact it took a bit longer because finding the turn to the only sealed road to the start point was a bit tricky.
Google Maps sends you to one of two gravel tracks that lead to the same start point. But I did not want to risk the hire car to either of those routes. So getting to the start point using that sealed road was the most challenging part of the day.
Spathi forms a part of the Dikti range and it is sometimes known by that name. The range forms a boundary to the Lasithi Plateau, a cooler and lush part of the island the focus of which, unsurprisingly, is agriculture. It was a very atmospheric drive in the early morning mists.
So I set my Google Maps destination to the village of Avrakontes once I had realised Google’s route preferences. Soon after entering the village there is a small triangular feature in, and on the left of, the road driving in from the north. I missed the turn on my first drive through the village.
The feature is covered in trees and it hides the road you need to take. There is in fact a sign “Dikti” in the feature. But the trees do their best to hide this.
Once I found the turn, the rest was relatively straightforward though the road seems unpromising and is initially very narrow with a sharp left turn shortly after taking the turn off the main road in the village. The road becomes narrow again once the surface becomes a concrete one. I was certainly glad that I did not meet anyone coming the other way what with the hairpin bends, the lack of passing places, the lack of barriers to prevent careering off the road and the need to avoid the rocks that lay on the road.
Eventually a rise is crested and there is a drop down into a valley with a couple of farms in it.
It is possible to drive perhaps 800m further than I did up a very rough track – probably only suitable for 4WD vehicles. Instead I pulled up amongst some trees in front of a small chapel. Google Maps Streetview shows this well if you search for Agion Pnevma, Lasithi Plateau, Greece. Agion Pnevma is Holy Spirit in Greek.
After the excitement of finding the correct start point, the climb is straightforward. The trail is self-evident, other than across the initial wash, even if quite rough overall. Even in the wash there are cairns that guide the way. Cairns, red/yellow paint marks and the E4 (Cretan Way) marker poles help if there is any doubt.
Beyond the wash the path climbed above a dry stream bed and then crossed it further up. Once over a rise, there was a level section with grazing goats. At the far side of this, the path rises again on steeper and rougher terrain. But marker poles are always visible on the skyline.
There is then a further level section and the ground here may become a little confusing in poor weather. The path splits – take the left fork. Then it descends briefly to a small saddle.
The poles disappear on the final climb from the saddle but the cairns and paint marks continue.
The path does not go straight up what appears to be an obvious ridge but skirts around its nose and makes a rising traverse below the ridgeline. I suspect that this is because of the extremely rough limestone pavement that is on the ridgeline. The final section of path goes up through loose ground to meet the ridgeline just before the summit.
Google Maps even does the whole of this route for you.
I had the summit clear, but a hazy atmosphere and some clouds prevented any long distance views though Psiloritis appeared briefly at one point.
There was even an eagle’s eye view down to my start point with the road from Avrakontes in the top right of the next photo and the crossroads by the chapel towards the bottom left.
I returned the same way. The summit rose to my right.
2 hours 50 minutes up and 2 hours 20 minutes down, including a few short stops for photos and snacks. I only had goats and a few sheep for company. There were a couple of vehicles parked at the end of the road but I did not see their occupants at any stage.
The return to Rethymno was uneventful.
We had not been to Greece for many years and had not been to Crete before. There is plenty of walking and climbing on the island. We also hiked down two of the gorges for which Crete is known, though not the Samaria Gorge. There are a number of other high prominence mountains on the island. We will have to go back.