'Out in the dark blue sea there lies a land called Crete, a rich and lovely land, washed by the waves on every side, Densely peopled and boasting ninety cities. Each of the several races of the island has its own language. First there are the Achaeans, then the native Cretans, proud of their native stock; next the Kydonians…'
Homer, the Odyssey
Crete is a well known holiday destination in the summer, but how many of you have any idea of its majestic mountain scenery in winter. I know I didn't before I moved to live here. I had heard of the Samaria Gorge, but other than that, it was just another Greek island with fabulous beaches and azure blue seas. Great in itself but only a small part of the overall whole.
I love the natural environment and have done a fair amount of walking, but I'd never really had the chance to walk in mountains in the snow. I grew up in Derbyshire and have great memories of a few winters being cut off by deep snow, and of course I've done a little skiing. But that is so different from winter walking with crampons and an ice axe. Skiing for the novice generally involves lots of noise and people, jostling for space on the piste. I never did do any cross country skiing which sounds and looks much better. But up in the mountains, walking on a clear winter's day is something else. Especially in Crete as you can see the beaches in the distance below.
So, as soon as the first summer was over and the first snows had arrived, I headed up into the mountains with the mountaineering club of Rethymno. We went to stay overnight in a small mountain refuge so that on the following day we could more easily climb to the summit. We drove up the dirt track as far as we could before having to leave the vehicles to walk through the snow. The first thing I learned was that in deep snow it was essential to walk in the footprints of the person in front. We all took a turn in forging a path and it was indeed hard work. Apart from our breathing silence descended with that strange muffled quality that snow gives. After about an hour and a half we at last made out the silhouette of the refuge hut and gratefully climbed the last few meters to its door. Surrounded in deep snow the front door opened without too much difficulty, but the toilet was another matter as we had to dig to find it.
No electricity! Great. Just lanterns and a wood-burning stove. Soon the hut was toasty warm and someone had cooked up some spaghetti and all was well. Outside the sky had cleared and it was icy cold. Below, the lights of Chania and above the moon dimly lighting our way tomorrow. Before going to sleep our guide gave us a talk on mountain safety and showed us how to fit our crampons correctly so that in the morning we could leave quickly after breakfast.
The route from the hut was immediately very steep the next morning and through deep snow. Soon we had to put on our crampons which very quickly became compacted with snow so that every few steps we had to hit them with our ice-axe. The only sound to be heard. The conditions were good apart from a fairly strong wind so we reached the peak without much difficulty. We were above the clouds and the sun was reflecting off the snow. Magical.