I had been following the hiking trails along the Rindomo gorge, trying to cross the Taygetos Mountains from Messenia to Lakonia. It had proved to be much more challenging than I had anticipated, and was about to become even more so…
Leaving the safety of the church of Panagia Kapsomatousa around 3.30pm, I followed the rocky track to the tiny abandoned village of Rindomo. I didn’t know what to expect, although I thought there might be a slim chance of finding a friendly shepherd there. What I discovered was a cluster of half collapsed stone houses sitting to the left of the path, with no life or sound. Their corrugated iron roofs, plastic sheet covers and generally decrepit look enhanced the sensation that this really was an abandoned village, although I had the impression that shepherds at least still used it from time to time. In March however, with cold, uncertain conditions, it is completely empty.
To the right a tiny white church is perched on a hill, and a few houses sit in silence, as if hibernating for the winter. The mountains tower all around, and as I stared up in awe at the snowy peaks, I realised I could go no further that day without safe shelter. The small church provided that, and I sat on a wall overlooking the pass below, the mountain glaring down at me malevolently, grey clouds swirling and encircling the peaks, growing more and more threatening in the fading light. But at that moment, as I read Henry Miller, I felt relaxed and happier than I had all day, comforted by his wise words. I lit a small fire in the fading light and using some slate tiles, I was able to have a simple dinner of toasted week old bread, grilled cheese and avocado. The silence around me was deafening.
Inside the church I found a bag containing thick rugs which I laid out on the floor, surrounded by the orthodox icons of Christ and Mother Mary and the candles flickering silently, casting shadows on the walls of the tiny chapel and reflecting the gold halos of the religious icons. Crawling into my sleeping bag I attempted an early night. It was completely silent, but you could sense the monumental presence of the mountain outside. As I lay there wondering what the next day would have in store for me, I was given the answer: occasional thunder claps crashed in the darkness, and soon the sound of rain pattering on the roof of the church. It seemed that the gods were not yet finished toying with me and were still playing! I was very happy to be inside, relatively warm, and dry, and tried not to worry about the possibility of climbing a mountain in the rain the following day!
I managed to sleep a little, and in the morning I woke to beautiful clear blue skies, the nighttime washed away and replaced by morning tranquility. I set off in bright sunshine, the birds were singing, and the rain and dew speckled the ground, glinting in the light of the day. My map showed a clear footpath from Rindomo to the mountain refuge on the other side of the range. How hard could it be?
As I looked up I saw ahead of me the imposing snow shrouded peak of Profitas Ilias, like a giant snow cone extending up into the clear blue sky. All around me, like a horseshoe, the mountains were blanketed in white. It had clearly snowed during the night, and the sun was beginning to emerge over the head of Profitas Ilias, lighting up an impenetrable wall of snowy rocky peaks. On any other day I would have marvelled at the beauty surrounding me, but at that moment I was more worried about where my path was and the realisation that I was in for a climb.
Climbing a ridge I surveyed my surroundings: according to my map I needed to go east, and as it was the only area without an impenetrable wall of mountains, I headed in that direction. Through rain soaked, prickly pine trees, over a grassy knoll, and down a scree filled slope, I arrived at…red dots, and the path I was searching for! It really is amazing how they materialise out of nowhere, illusive and so easy to lose again. Which is precisely what happened. I stood again in a gorge running down from the top of the mountain, the first rocks, boulders and trees marked with red dots, but soon after I lost them amidst the scree, fallen rocks and pine trees.
Of course climbing a mountain with 25 kilos on your back is neither easy nor advisable, but I had started, and 1 foot at a time I was getting higher. In places I was literally climbing vertical cliff faces, clinging on for dear life, and after just half an hour I looked down to see the gorge floor seemingly out of sight, a speck below me. And then it began to hit me: I was taking my life in my hands with this climb.
It is difficult to describe exactly what was going through my brain at this moment. There is a line between adventurous and complete stupidity, and I knew I was veering way into the latter, as if an unseen power was driving me on. But halfway up the mountainside, I could see the top, so close and yet so far, and I knew that I couldn’t turn back. Of course I was forgetting Murphy’s Law (or rather choosing not to think about it): at the top of the mountain there is always another mountain. I crossed my fingers, hoping I would reach the top and below me would be the refuge I had read about, shining like a beacon.
Little by little, rock by rock, I came to the lip of the ridge, where according to the map, I was on the line between Messenia and Lakonia: the frontier. And I understand why! 2 trees stood at the head of my chosen ascent, and when I reached the top I looked over to reveal…an icy snow filled slope running down and then up again, and the peaks rising even closer all around me, completely desolate, impassable, and absolutely frightening.
At that moment, as I looked down at the only possible route forwards, and then back to the one I had just completed, I was struck by fear. Not a simple fear of the unknown, but a complete terror, the realisation that I was stood in a place where nature, in her full glory, is the mistress, and humans are unwanted guests. I stared, feeling completely overshadowed and in awe. I knew, with complete certainty, that if I plunged onwards I might never make it out alive. Without being over dramatic, I was stood at 2,100 metres, surrounded by ice and snow, the summit of Profitas Ilias to my right, and I thought really and truly, I am on the edge of life and death. And I was afraid. Genuinely, truly afraid. But it’s strange what happens in moments of such intensity, as if you become aware of yourself in slow motion, every sense heightened. You are so conscious of how inconspicuous you are; you become aware of your own limits, and stand on the edge of everything, the raw fear in your chest grips you, your heart pounding. It is something incredible. You realise that you are alone, and that the only person who can save you…is you. It is a moment of intense and profound humanity. A calmness descends; you feel a sense of peace; you breathe, rationalise your options; there is only you and the mountain…and time stands still.
I had 2 choices: either to go over the ridge and plunge down into the unknown, crossing the icy slopes and hoping that on the other side of this mountain I would find the refuge, and not an other mountain; or go back, return to the safety of the village, the church, and the promise of a hot coffee, and a hot meal.
I stood there just breathing, a moment of profound meditation, as the clouds gathered and swirled around the peaks, grey and foreboding. And I knew that to go on would be to continue on a fools journey, and that I most probably would barely escape with my life, if I was even that lucky. And so I looked around, not relishing the idea of going back down the mountainside I had so rashly scaled. I followed the rocky ridge to my left, and just as I was beginning to think I might be stranded, thoughts of mountain rescue running through my mind, I saw a rock with a red mark…the red dotted path I should have been following but had somehow misplaced.
I kissed the rock in hope and happiness, took a last fleeting look at the icy slopes which obviously obscured the route onwards, and began my descent. Sliding through the pine trees and the muddy scree, a light rain began to fall, and the world was enveloped in a misty, resin scented air. I knew that I was making the right decision, and my regret at turning back was tempered by the thought that at least I was following a different path.
The funny thing about mountain climbing is that going up is actually much easier than going down. I managed to keep to the red dotted “path”, but found myself slipping, sliding and dangerously close to twisting ankles and doing some serious damage, which would definitely have spelled the end of my misadventure. In the middle of this pine filled slope I would probably never have been found.
But as seems to happen in moments of adversity and extreme hardship, I persevered. There was no other option. And always knowing that at the end, when I arrived back at the church, I could count on hot coffee and and a warm plate of food. This was vitally important and kept me going.
After a little more than an hour of scrabbling from red dot to red dot, I arrived at a gorge which headed down, the same gorge I had used to mark my progress as I had climbed up. I heard water gushing down the rocks and knew I just needed to follow it down. I let out a huge sigh of relief, realising I was so close to warmth and safety.
A black tube runs down the length of the gorge, all the way from the mountains to the villages by the sea. It is a feat of engineering which brings spring water from these desolate places, and gave me a lifeline, something I could easily follow. Jumping from boulder to boulder, through needly undergrowth, and back amongst the wet rocks, I gradually descended. And then I was on a grassy slope, with man made terraces, and planted fruit trees. An abandoned house was just below me, and as I burst through the undergrowth, I stumbled onto…THE ROAD. Oh blessed, man made road. I could have knelt down and kissed it, except the pain and complete exhaustion I felt had transmitted to my legs, and the thought of bending down was beyond me.
The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and the malevolence of the mountain, which had almost overcome me before, was behind me. And there, on the wall by the abandoned house, was a red dot. I stumbled my way back down the road, every now and then my legs giving an involuntary, uncontrollable jerk, which almost sent me tumbling on a number of occasions.
Round a bend and there on the hill was the church of Ritombo, where I had slept the night before. I collapsed, sitting down on my bag to stare back up to the head of the gorge. Looking up at the mountain peaks, extending hundreds of metres into the air, I began to feel a little giddy at the thought that just hours before I had been almost at the very summit. What on earth had I been thinking? What had possessed me to embark on that outrageous plan, quite literally putting my life at risk so wantonly, thoughtlessly? I contemplated the snowy peaks, now sparkling in the afternoon sunshine, and I realised how lucky I was to be alive. And yet I didn’t feel defeated. To be honest I didn’t really feel anything…I was numb, mentally and physically shattered. I couldn’t think, I just stared at nature.
After a little I stood up painfully, my body crying out, my legs almost giving out. I had one thing on my mind…hot coffee and food! Mind numb, every joint jarring with my steps, I trudged and stumbled my way back to the safety, shelter and warmth of Panagia Kapsomatousa. After 45 minutes it appeared as it had 2 days before, a beacon and sign of life. Inside the church I found a huge bag full of enormous wooly blankets, and smiled at the thought of how warm I would be that night.
An hour or so later I sat sipping hot coffee on the stone bench outside the church, wrapped in a thick wooly blanket, my feet blessedly cleaned and washed in icy water and free from walking boots. In my hands I held a plastic bowl filled with week old bread soaked in olive oil, and hot, life saving lentils. Food has never, ever tasted so good. My body ached, I was exhausted…and I felt alive. So completely alive.