Exotic Freeride in Kalavrita - Greece
“Nature doesn’t act without a cause” - Aristotle (384 BC - 322 BC).
Aristotle, Plato, Archimedes, Socrates, Greek pioneers and founders in the field of science, literature anf philosophy, but give them a board or a pair of ski’s and drop them of at the top of Mt. Olympus and they will not excel. We owe a lot of our heritage in the western world to the people of Greece, but freeriding is not a part of that heritage (yet). Is it possible to freeride in the country we nowadays associate with white sandy beaches, islands and monetary reform (but let’s not get into that)?
When you think about Greece you tend to forget how many mountains there are in this land, from the north all the way down to the skiable island of Crete. Mountains that turn white during winter, with nicely spaced cedar trees and even some serious terrain with spines. This winter seemed perfect to research the possibilities of skiing in Greece, since they had a great start of the season with a solid base and big storms, and the Alps suffered with less snow and a scary snowpack. Now is the time to go to Greece!
Back to basics
First of all: infrastructure in the ski areas in Greece is basic. No heated seating, big gondolas, WiFi or RFID liftpasses. Think slow two seater chairs, secondhand POMA lifts and sticker skipasses. To us it felt like one of our favorite regions in the Alps: the Piedmont in Italy, but with different food and scenery. One thing to worry about is that we heard some rumors about lifts closing quickly when it’s snowing heavily.
En route to Kalavrita
After a lot research and hours of staring at elevation maps we made the call to go to Helmos/Kalavrita ski center. A glimp at the map doesn’t reveal a big resort: only two chairs and two draglifts, but as a freerider you look at the terrain, and not just the groomed slopes on the map. And the terrain didn’t dissapoint: north faces with a lot of options on the backside as well and the best treeruns in Greece.
As snowholics we follow the trends in the snowpacks worldwide and this season there was a Greek resort in the top 20 of top accumulations almost every week. Unfortunately, there is no wePowder.gr yet so in order to finetune our weather window we could only rely on GFS maps.
It was our plan to make the call to go on Wednesday and then fly to Athens on Friday, ride for 2 days and than catch a evening flight back to Amsterdam on Sunday. No different than driving 8-10 hours to get to our beloved Alps. We found some good deals on last minute tickets, got an upgrade on our rental car and within 9 hours we checked in into our hotel in Kalavrita, not bad considering that it takes at least 3 more hours traveling to get to Prali!
There is no central avalanche bulletin in Greece. There is a measuring station on top of Mt. Helmos that collects some weather data, but that data is not freely available, so your best bet for snow safety assesment is digging pits. Hiring a guide who is familiar with the snowpack and the terrain is recommended. We hired Yannis Kotileas from Way Out Adventures. He works together with his businesspartner to show the great touring options Greece has to offer and has an impressive skiing resume as well, including a first decent from the the top of Mt. Olympus through the Mytikas Couloir.
Upon arrival we were greeted by the new manager of the resort: Leonidas who proudly told us the recent changes to the resort and how the best season in six years was evolving. He is really passionate about skiing and during our stay we kept running in to him on the lifts with his cell taped to his ear or chatting with guests.
Unfortunately the wind plastered the north bowl so the skiing here was okay, but not epic. It was not hard to imagine the potential of this lift though. Big terrain, quite steep (avalanches have happened in the past) and with some nice cliffs. Think Steinberg in Engelberg. So not a lot of good snow on the open north facing aspects, better check out the treeruns then!
Once every three years
Yannis had come up with a different plan the night before: to ski all the way down the backside into another valley towards the town of Lousi (elevation 1100m). A run that was skied for the last time three years prior to our visit and that would be possible with some commitment. So in the morning we left one of our cars under one of the big cedar trees in the deserted little village and now we were gonna pick it up. We took the Styx lift towards the highest point of the resort, then hiked towards the ice covered observatory and onto a ridge that exited the resort.
'Welcome to the Vallée Blanche of Greece!', Yannis yelled after we had skied the first pitch of prime quality pow. After a nice bowl and some decent tree skiiing we hit some crust in the lower part of the forest to end up on a forest road that led us all the way down to the little village of Lousi. The run made us hungry and just when we wanted to ask Yannis if there was a store for some snacks we arrived a tiny restaurant with a table for us in the sun. We had an awesome Greek lunch with local cheese, eggs and bread and of course some Tsipourou, the local moonshine, while making plans for the afternoon.
During the drive through the pleasant Mediterranean scenery back to the snow we figured that our best bet for good powder would be to ride the north facing forests accessed from the resort and riding down to the road. After a short hike and three turns on the firmer snow above treeline, the snow turned GOOOD and the awesomely spaced cedar trees swished by. We skied the “afgo” or egg, an old slidepath that ran into the forrest. The tree runs in Kalavrita are great: no terrain traps or crazy cliffs and after a great run you end up at the road. You could either walk back to the resort, or if you venture more to the left hitchhike back to get your own car. The occasional Greek freerider doesn’t bother with parking cars or hiking, so even two days after the dump we still had a private forest with first tracks every run!
The second day we used our skins to ski the upper part of the run we did the day before. We returned to the valley of Lousi only to find our own tracks, so plenty of space left!
After a great run we changed our set up to touring and contemplating whether or not it was a good idea to start a catski operation in the abandoned hut on the ridge we toured back to the resort.
After that we hit the trees for a couple of runs and around 15:00 it was time to call it a day and head back to Athens to catch our flight. After an horrible airport experience, ABS airbags versus Greek Airport Security and some mild food poisoning hitting our crew we were home around midnight, but still smiling thinking about our big fat Greek mountain adventure.