Loaded horses plod along the village’s ancient cobblestone paths. A woman, hunched with age, looks on with an inquisitive but smiling gaze. It’s not every day that brightly-clad skiers from North America travel through her tiny hometown. This is Greece, after all; not exactly where North American skiers look first — or even at all — when naming ski destinations.
And it’s not as though Tyler Ceccanti, hailing from Washington’s Crystal Mountain, and Josh Bibby, who calls Whistler “home”, were exactly familiar with the region or with utilizing horses in ski touring. But Warren Miller called, gave the destination, and it was up to them to make the most of it. What would you do?
You’d go. Turning down the institution that has been heralding in the ski season with dry humor and proud displays of the sport’s culture for 65 years is, simply, not an option.
So Tyler and Josh went.
After coming forth victorious in a battle with the Titans, the Twelve Olympians, gods who dictated Grecian life, set up their palaces in the heights of a newly-formed Mount Olympus. At the pinnacle ruled Zeus, the supreme being of the twelve, casting his will upon the mortals below his watch. They were puny, and thus the gods reigned over them with little remorse, laughing at their attempts to raise themselves from the earth below and smiting them when they grew too bold in their feats of strength.
Their fortress had heaved the earth straight up from the Aegean Sea and over 9,500’ into the sky. Dotted with 52 summits and with snow levels dipping down to the sea from which it rose, Mount Olympus would forevermore claim one of the biggest vertical gains in Europe.
52 summits. 9,573’ of snow-covered vertical. The gods were just daring a demographic of those puny humans — later known as skiers — to summit the rugged walls of their perch.
But would they allow it?
“I honestly thought it was a joke at first,” says Tyler, remembering the call from Warren Miller. “I mean, when you hear Greece you don’t think of skiing; you think of white sandy beaches and big expensive boats.” But the lure of introducing the world to this underground ski culture drew him in. In March, after a postponed departure, TSA-strikes and misplaced baggage, he stepped foot for the first time in the country in pursuit of the Greek god’s powder kingdom.
Stepping into the 4,000-year-old civilization sent his head spinning — even the villages Tyler and Josh lodged in originated before either of their home countries were born. Ruins pictured in textbooks now loomed large in live view. Customs from former times remained untouched. And the Greeks looked after their guests with a warm hospitality, filling them with homemade food and homemade tsipouro, a spirit first produced by Greek monks in the 14th century.
Tradition carries over to skiing in this land. As if sucked into a time warp and dropped back two decades, the pair’s fat skis differed with the local sea of straight; resorts they visited, such as Vasilitsa, only had a handful of lifts; and just getting to the hills required braving two-laned hairpin roads with massive altitude gain.
And when you get there, Tyler explains, “…it seemed like we were the only ones out exploring.”
If you think mom-and-pop Montana, you’ve got the picture. Well, mom-and-pop Montana — with a side of Greek mythology.
An ancient energy persisted no matter where they ventured. Known as “the spirit of Olympus” according to Craig Colonica, Himalyan Heliski Guides owner under which Greece Heliski operates, this energy is an undercurrent that has passed through the generations since the days of the Twelve Olympians.
And nowhere is the spirit stronger than on the iconic mountain itself.
“The locals all think it has special powers,” says Craig. It’s something every die-hard skier would jump at the chance for: a chance to ski first descents on a mountain that people had, for centuries, looked to and worshipped.
Fresh snow fell overnight, followed by clear skies in the morning. Anywhere else it would be a fly day and, had it been earlier in the week, Craig would have given the go-ahead. But, due to a local Athenian law that somehow demanded observance 270 miles away, the heliski operation only had an allotment of four fly days each week, and those had already been sapped dry by unfavorable conditions. Now, with the first perfect day all week falling on a no-fly day, all the crew could do was wait until their ration was refreshed.
In such a situation, one might wonder if the gods were testing the tiny humans’ tenacity in their attempts to stake a claim on their mountain kingdom.
“It made for a frustrating first week,” says Tyler. “But that’s why we give ourselves lots of time on trips like this.”
So the crew waited. Mount Olympus, only a 10-minute flight from their lodging, waited as well. They spent their days exploring the region, skiing some of the country’s 20 ski resorts, cliff-jumping into clear water, talking with the locals, and “critiquing” the many different brews of homemade tsipouro.
And then, it was go time. Bluebird skies greeted their first fly day of the week; a refreshing change after being hunkered down below their objective.
Mount Olympus is one of those places people don’t expect to be skied but that’s exactly what Himalayan Heliski Guides specialize in: unique descents. The crew loaded the helicopter for their short flight — a blessing to those who had stared longingly at the mountain all week — and were whisked as though carried by Hermes himself to the summit. There, Tyler and Josh found themselves standing on top of a mountain few had touched with skis, sizing up lines that exactly zero humans had taken.
“God-like,” is how Tyler describes that first taste of the summit.
Buttery snow melted under their skis as they took their individual lines. “[Greece] is wide open and has endless terrain to ski,” says Craig of the country’s backcountry, and Mount Olympus’ terrain added to that with the best coverage the skiers found during their Grecian quest.
The final test came on Tyler’s third circuit to the summit. With high altitude brings wind, which in turn can create dangerous cornices. Scoping out a line from above, Tyler and Josh decided to reposition themselves on the ridge. Moving along, Tyler maneuvered around from a kick turn when, without warning, he felt the bottom drop out from underneath him. Struggling to maintain his balance, the cornice, roughly the size of an SUV, gave way. A 3-foot deep fracture cracked along the length of the ridge and slid as Tyler plummeted with the cornice.
But it was only a test. Mercifully, the mountain didn’t send its wall of snow down Tyler’s path. Getting his bearings, he set his ski edges into the side of Mount Olympus and stopped what would have been an uncontrolled descent over the cliff band below.
The humans proved themselves, and the gods rewarded. With the power of its vertical drop and the silky snow that fell upon its flanks, Zeus’ mountain offered the pair four solid days of exploration and the gods kept the weather windows open for access.
It’s off the beaten path — or maybe it’s on a well-beaten path, trod by centuries of humans — but when skiing in Greece you can expect to find something uncommon. It’s a step back in time, it’s warm culture steeped in tradition, it’s skiing for the sake of skiing and not to feed the ego.
And as long as you remember that, tiny human, the gods will smile on you.
Warren Miller’s No Turning Back is touring all across the US from November 19 – December 5, 2014. Check out their website to see when they’ll be in a city near you and how you can get tickets.