RRCPC Newsletter
Volume 40 Number 2 Article 8
September 2003

Lefka Ori Trek

June 2003

Fair enough, it's not exactly a caving epistle, but it all happened in karstic surroundings and does contain features of caving interest and it does help pad out the Newsletter!

Our Boeing 757 came down with a clatter, dead on time in Heraklion at 18:30 local time, to a pleasant 29ºC. The plan was, after baggage reclaim, to find a taxi returning to Chania and negotiate a sensible price for the journey, then continue to the small village of Kambi, south of Chania, in the northern foothills. This was to be our launching out point for the statuary Alpine start.

Well, a taxi driver strike knackered that plan, so it was to the bus station, which in actual fact proved very pleasant as well as economical. With the time schedule upset we had to slum it in a 4 star hotel in central Chania.

The new plan was - up early, taxi to Kambi then a semi-alpine start.

Plan No.2 also knackered; taxi drivers still on strike and the only bus to the village departed at 14:00 hrs. Oh well, plenty time for a few beers, a Greek Salad plus a few essentials.

Salad plus a few essentials. Kambi was the end of the line for the bus and we were the soul occupants to alight into the square amidst a somewhat deserted cluster of houses. No people were about and the shabby little taverna was closed. That was a blow as we planned an hour here to allow the ferocity to ebb from the high afternoon sun. Even at 2000 feet above sea level it still held a bit of clout. We sat in the shade of a large plane tree in the Village Square; our target for tomorrow dominated the backdrop. Spathi, a sharp pointed peak soared to 6710 feet, but that was tomorrow; we still had today's target to reach.

16:00 hours came and it was still bloody hot but we started walking anyway. Five minutes later we were lost. The network of tracks, footpaths and shepherds roads caused much confusion and the harassment of heat didn't help. A sign-post, Volika EOS (Greek Alpine Club) heralded the correct route; this came as a stroke of luck as we stopped yet again under a cypress tree.

Lill ordered me to put my sun-hat on - the moment I'd been dreading - I'd left it on the bus. She growled in exasperation like Marj Simpson and threw her hands in the air, then magically produced her 'spare' from the depth of her rucksack and threw it at me.

After 10 minutes the shepherds road stopped at a steep hillside and a virtually indistinguishable track disseminated up a steep Jerusalem Sage blanketed hillside. Not a pleasant herb scented stroll that it sounds, but more like wading through a sea of strimmers that erupts a nostril-clogging plume of obnoxious pollen with every step.

At the top of the sage hillside a freshly laid tarmac road surprised us, but it gave a few easy kilometres to where we cut of on another shepherd's road that wove its way past the foot of the Volika ravine; our route up to the EOS hut.

An old mule track flanked up the right wall of the steep ravine sometimes a few hundred feet above the dry stream bed. It was well shaded with cypress trees that treated us to a pleasant ascent with excellent views out across the foothills.

Above the ravine a narrow gulley continued and brought us out onto another shepherds road just five minutes below the refuge at 4855 feet. It was 21:00 hrs and starting to get dark. The main priority now was to find the spring, a 400 metre traverse to the east of the hut. Armed with headlamp and containers the spring was soon located and the essential water supplies replenished.

Next morning we were up for 05:00, well before the sun threw its first rays across the landscape. With camp broke and water supplies once again topped up it was onwards and upwards in a pleasant early coolness.

From Volika it was head for the way-mark pole on the crags up behind the hut then follows the track south. A 10 metre scramble brought us to the pole and an obvious path skirted round the hillside into a u-shaped valley. 'Continue,' the book said, 'to the end of the valley then cut up onto the right hand spur via a water worn channel.' OK, no problem, plenty water worn channels to lead us to the top. Up we go!

Reading on, 'You will now see a broken down Mitato (stone shepherd's hut), the last man made construction on the route.' No ruins in sight when we hauled ourselves onto the ridge. It was now 11:00 and getting hotter by the minute. Confused, we took a rest, a snack and re-read the chapter again and again. Then the horrible truth dawned. I hastily pulled out the compass to find that our obvious path ran west and we should have went south on the non-existent path!

We scanned the area with binoculars. About a mile away and 500 feet below us two spurs beyond, sat a Mitato. It looked awkward to reach. A mountainside-traverse, crossing the heads of two gullies and a central spur, plus the bonus of loosing our hard won height was something we could have done without.

The head of the first gulley was a huge shake-hole feature that we traversed round which took us just below the summit of a minor pointy topped limestone peak; this marked the upper limit of the middle spur. The next leg was down into the gulley top and up the other side at a much lesser height and onto the third spur a short walk from the stone hut.

Now it was after midday and firing up fiercely but the Mitato offered a welcome coolness from the sun. The only obvious problem was this was not a ruin - it was in good repair and still in use. Mmmm!

The north face of Spathi soared almost vertically directly south of us. That's where we were wanting to be, but from this position it was impossible.

Our water supplies were dwindling by all this unforeseen activity. Now, well behind schedule, we would have to decide to go on with what we had and hope we locate a snow patch higher up, or return to Volika to a known water source. At that we decided on a brew, a siesta, a meal then see how we felt later in the afternoon. After six hours of hard toil, at this site, we were only a thousand feet higher than Volika and only a mile away and feeling totally pissed-off!

Just after 15:00 we emerged from the Mitato, blinking against the dazzling, white limestone, and feeling thoroughly refreshed and rested. We were ready for action.

Again the mountains were scanned for clues. Then we saw what we were looking for. The tumbledown Mitato was on top of the pointy peak on the central spur; we had passed a few metres below it while heading for this location.

An hour later we were at the ruin and learned that its method of construction made it only visible from the central and eastern spurs.

We had now reached the point of decision. Confident that we were back on track it was onward and upwards, with the hope of finding a snow patch for water. The altitude and lowering sun made for good conditions and excellent progress was made towards Spathi. A snack stop was enjoyed on a rocky peak that marked the start of the Spathi west ridge, close by a deep shake-hole guarded a large volume of snow. This was good news - once again water supplies were replenished. Skirting right around the base of the mountain along the southern flanks we were heading for the Spathi saddle, the recommended starting point for an ascent to the summit. This was reached after a 40 minute walk-come-scramble across the steeply dipping limestone beds. Now and again large windows in the ridge gave impressive views of the steep north face and down onto the hardly discernable Mitato where we had our siesta.

On the saddle we dumped our heavy rucksacks, had a brief rest and drink then headed up the steep bare slabs to Spathi summit carrying only a bottle of water. What a luxury to be free of the weight of our loads.

Thirty minutes later we were on top at 6710 feet above sea level. To the north, Kambi, our start point lay far below with Chania slightly to the left on the coast. At an angle to the right Georgioupoli could be seen on the coast. In the distant east Psiloritis, Crete's highest peak stood out in the central massif, but closer to hand across the valley Agia Pneva, home of Loci Gorgothakis, Greece's deepest cave, was highlighted with the low westering sun.

On the southern horizon Pachnes, our next peak, the highest of the range stood proud above the rest, but to our base was the amazing 'Badlands Valley' which we had to cross in the morning. It lay between the mountains like a huge distorted limestone waffle; high bare limestone ridges interspersed with huge deep shake-holes whose depths looked even greater with the lengthening shadows. No path went through here - it was a case of suck it and see. The book warned of high craggy dead-ends with lots of back-tracking and to be prepared to spend a night in it if things didn't go well. "Bloody-hell!" remarks Lill. "We manage to get uselessly lost when there's a path to follow - we'll never be seen again in that lot!"

Back down and re-united with our rucksacks we cleared a flat gravel area of thistles and jaggy things and put the tent up. Another snow supply was found in a huge shake-hole close by after skirting round a long hole not unlike a dried up Juniper Gulf.

It was a cool windy night and the tent flapped loudly all night and it was a relief when the first light of dawn appeared. When opening the tent a scorpion had to be evicted that was guarding the entrance from a sandal beside the sleeping bags.

We studied the Badlands for sometime before setting out and could visually follow a route that would take us well into the puzzle. But what can be seen from a vantage point can look nothing like what you imagine when your in amongst it. Three hours later we were standing on the Livida saddle at the far end of Badlands. We encountered no problems and it all went very smoothly. I suppose you've got to hit lucky now and again! A few deviations were made to study features of speleological interest especially around the Livada saddle at the base of Agia Pneva. Deep holes were all over the saddle - but I was sure this area was covered by the SUSS expedition in the 80's and most of this accessible potential had been recorded.

Now we stood on the Livada rim - the southern edge of the saddle where it drops steeply for 300 metres onto Livada plain. This is a flat bottomed polje similar to Omalos, only a helluva lot smaller and a helluva lot higher. Pachnes looked just as far away as it did last night from the top of Spathi. Livada is surrounded by high mountains, and not even a hint of a breeze reached its baking surface; the sun was climbing high by this time as we made our way across the plain to ascend the valley that was our way on at the far side. A kilometre up this valley was our next watering hole, but for once we were quite well off for water.

A dried stream bed lay in the valley with plenty sink holes and insipient cave entrances. Unfortunately none were big enough to escape the relentless overhead sun.

We passed the Livada cistern and took on water anyway - just in case. Again we hit lucky, a large boulder with an overhang offered a 20 inch shadow-band. We squeezed into this for lunch and stayed out the sun in the ever shrinking shadow, until we finally were forced to take to the track again.

It came as a very pleasant surprise, when after hour's plodding we turned a bend in the valley and half a mile ahead and a few hundred feet above us the Katsiveli EOS hut stood in silhouette on the saddle. This marked the start of familiar territory and gave us a good psychological boost. Katsiveli is a long established shepherd's enclave in the heart of the Lefka Ori where the sheep are driven from the lower slopes for the spring and summer months. As well as a sprinkling of shepherds huts there are two mountain refuge's run by the EOS. The larger hut that is sited on the saddle has to be pre-booked and the key obtained from Chania. The other smaller hut is open to anyone who passes and the door is never locked. It blends in well with the other shepherd's huts but is easily recognised by its pitched roof. It's bunked out with 12 matressed sleeping places which are surprisingly clean. The water hole is about 50 metres further down the hill.

We entered this hut at 14:00 hours thankful to be out the sun and sat on the edge of a bunk looking out over Pachnes. It was pleasantly cool inside. The master plan now was a brew, a sleep, a light meal then a late ascent of Pachnes. We intended to be walking by 16:00 but it was 16:30 before our boots hit the dirt. Firstly we had to skirt round the conical peak of Midako cutting quite high up its flank to cross the head of a wide gulley which made a large gash in its side. From here we lost our height again and dropped down to a dry valley that appeared to offer a reasonable route for this path-less ascent.

We built up marker stones as we progressed, as our descent could possibly be in the dark. Huge shakeholes were everywhere, most of them were snow filled. As we gained height the snow fields became bigger and steeper but they were easily avoidable as we kept to the rock between them.. Then at 19:30 we were beside the summit cairn admiring a breathtaking panorama at 8047 feet, the highest point in the range and the second highest in Crete. The low angled sun showed the mountains at their best with the dark shadows accentuating their rugged relief. Gingolos stood out stark in the distance easily distinguished by its vertical north face. In another direction Kastro was dominant, recognised by its huge scree slopes. Far below in dark shadow our route through the Potamos Valley for tomorrow, was just imaginable. A photo session, a quick bite and we started down.

The descent went smoothly and quickly with our miniature cairns guiding us easily back to Katsiveli, to arrive at the hut just as the first stars appeared, around 22:00 hours.

The moonless, cloudless clear air gave such fantastic views of the heavens that a compulsory star-watch was enforced; it was a pity there was only coffee or tea for drinking to put an end to another rewarding day. Three cups of coffee later and it was time to turn in as tomorrow was the long trek to Omalos. A proper mattress should give us a great night's sleep. Wrong again. The caffeine overdose didn't help; the alternate layers of sun-cream, salt and sweat, not washing since the hotel in Chania, plus the stuffy heat that was now trapped in the hut and strange scuttling sounds going on around the building, all made for a miserable night. Our sleeping bags clung to us like Velcro and a few turns and you were rendered immovable as it tightened round like a boa.

Again morning came as a great relief and we were glad to be up and off. Fresh water supplies were collected and we set west for an hour and a half before turning north into the Potamos valley. The Potamos valley feeds into the top of the Aligas Gorge which runs parallel to the east of Samaria Gorge. Progress was slow and hot but a shady relief was found under an overhang - an ideal spot for lunch - even though we shared it with the remains of a long dead goat. A nearby snow patch cooled our drinking water but the domestos taste from the purification tablets could never be disguised, the warmer the water the bleachier it tasted.

The valley seemed to go on forever but all the time we were steadily climbing onto Melindaou, the last summit before Omalos. Without realising it we came out the valley and were now high on the south flank of Melindaou. A truly fantastic path, that contours horizontally around the hill offering superb views across the Samaria Gorge and over to the rocky face of Gingolos. Pachnes still dominated the skyline far to the south; had we really come that far today? Kallergi EOS hut was in view now, our milestone before dropping to the Omalos plain. It was only four miles away in a straight line, but our route was anything but straight.

We dumped out bags and made a quick trip to the summit of Melindaou, travelling light it only took about fifteen minutes. At 6998 feet it has a rounded summit and looks much more impressive from the north than it does when approaching from the south. Again, tremendous panorama's across the White Mountains. From this point it was downhill all the way to the shepherd's road that leads to Kallergi. Our cooling breeze on the hilltop diminished in proportion with our height loss, so by the time we had descend onto the dirt road it was stifling hot and not a zephyr in sight. The worst bit now, it's all uphill to Kallergi along this three mile stretch of washed-out shepherd's road.

Every step put up a puff of fine dust that clung to sticky skin and the application of sun-cream felt like emery-cloth. "God I'm knackered." announced Lill, while plodding up a steep part of the track. "And I feel filthy and dirty." "Super, keep it simmering 'til we reach the hotel room." I replied. A plastic water bottle bounced of the back of my head.

Kallergi hut came as relief and the steep path up to it was a sting to the tail. We lay on cool shaded concrete at the back of the hut until we were capable of speech, then once recovered headed round to the front.

Kallergi has a permanent warden; it also has a bar and serves meals. Beer at last, the first since leaving Chania, and a Greek Salad to boot. The customer sitting at the front was the first person we had seen since getting off the bus at Kambi and strangely enough he was from Giggleswick. His daughter was in the same class as our son at Settle High School - small world!

Our day wasn't over yet but the refreshing rest amidst super scenery boosted enthusiasm for the remainder. It was downhill only for the next hour, dropping down to the metalled road across Omalos plain. It was a grind, but we reached the road down the tedious zig-zags in the estimated time span. It was now the final two and a half miles to the Exari Hotel at Omalos village.

With less than half a mile to walk and feet feeling like fried hamburgers a car drew up, it was Georgio, the hotel owner. The last lap was chauffer driven and a beer on the house when we got there.

The following day was a fester-day with a leisurely walk along to Xyloscala at the head of the Samaria, a few beers and a meal, then the bus back. (Shame on us.)

Next day, our last full day, took us to the top of Gingolos where the find of the century was made, just below the summit. On the limestone / schist boundary hidden between the clints was a small hole. Measuring less than a metre wide by two metres long I lobbed a rock into it. It crashed down the hole until the sound faded away with depth. I tossed another in to make sure. The same happened again. Still unconvinced I shouted Lill over to the edge and repeated the action. Lill turned pale and backed away to a comfortable distance.

Bloody good I thought, something extra to visit when we return for a descent of the Tripiti Gorge.

On arrival back at UK our caving contacts in Crete were e-mailed, and no-one was aware of this hole on top of Gingolos.

Jim Stevenson

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