Snow covered the track, drifting downwards over the scree, and with a rocky cliff and more snow above. It was frozen hard and very slippery. I’m a complete coward when it comes to this kind of thing. I hate heights and I hate scree. It was only a short stretch but I looked down and quailed.
Back in the warmth and safety of home I had planned on taking the high level route from Gistova Lake along the Albanian border, to the Tsouka Petsik peak (2500m), then down to Aetomilitsa via the civil war monument at Gesos – an amazing ridge walk, described in Tim Salmon’s book. But the peaks were still snow-covered, and we would have needed ice-axes and crampons. It was clearly far beyond our capabilities. We were walkers, not climbers. In fact, we were told that it was only in the past week that the snow had melted enough to make even easier routes passable.
I think Thanassis was worried whether we would make it, though he didn’t say so. He and his three dogs came with us for the first part of the walk, stopping to gather the wild spring greens that grew around the sheep pens. His generosity was typical. Time and again people would go out of their way to make sure we were on the right route and passed safely through their patch of the mountains. Thanassis took us on dirt tracks not marked on the map. In summer, they would be used by the shepherds in their pick-ups, but after the winter snows, they were impassable for vehicles until a grader had been along.
Thanassis left us when we were safely up over the pass, still among patches of snow but with a clear route on dirt roads down to Aetomilitsa. Shortly after, we came to the snow drift across the path. We had no choice but to continue. Having been a climber and scree runner in his youth, Alan has a much better head for heights than I do. He calmly gave us a lecture on how to jab our walking poles into the snow like ice axes if we fell. Then he inched across, kicking footholds into the snow as he went. Veryan and I followed gingerly in his footsteps. Relief! We were across.
Then it was an easy walk down past some very eroded areas, until we could see the roofs of Aetomilitsa below. We spent two nights there. The village was coming to life after the winter, as the shepherds moved back to their summer pastures, though the two village cafes were still shut. But the guesthouse was open, a lovely relaxed spot with three puppies draped and sprawled across the courtyard; below two pet deer shared a pen with the chickens. There were hot showers, good food, a magnificent view from the balcony – and to Alan’s delight, the World Cup was on TV.
The route: Track via Flamboura and Stani Lambrou, to the east of Kiafa, not marked on the map. It is not an official route and there are no waymarks until you start to descend to Aetomilitsa. The “ex- waymarks” here are metal poles without any signs on top. Easy walking, except in snow. Plenty of water from streams en route. Kilometres: 20. Ascent: 853m. Descent:841m. Map: Anavasi 3.3 Gramos Smolikas Voio Vasilitsa.
Facilities: Aetomilitsa guesthouse and taverna is open all year, but only at weekends in winter. The owner also runs the refuge (dormitories) next door. Cafes open in summer.