GREECE – Frustration, fog and beautiful mountains by Johan Jonsson
Johan Jonsson and Tom Oliver Hedvall went to Greece
What do you think of if I say Greece? Sandy beaches? Diving? Drunken tourists? I bet you don’t think of skiing, though. This is about to change.
So why? Why do you go to Greece to ski? I can only speak for myself – it was a question about seeing something new. And when you’re working with The North Face®, it’s all about seeing something new.
Three years ago, I had never thought any deeper about the words Never Stop Exploring. But now, being surrounded by a team which truly lives by that motto, those three words have led me to a couple of places I wouldn’t have visited otherwise.
I’m one of the “small” explorers in The North Face® team. I don’t go to Chad to climb (Renan & co, you guys rock!), or to Mount Everest to save the melting glaciers (keep up that good work, Conrad!). I try to look a little bit closer. ‘Cause sometimes, the best trips don’t have to be on the other side of the planet. Sometimes they’re just around the corner.
In the beginning of February 2011, pretty much every ski resort between Biarritz and Salzburg had crappy conditions. In my winter base Engelberg, photographer Oskar Enander and I took a quick decision, booked flights, and were less than a day later on our way to Athens. There we hooked up with Free Radicals cinematographer Erik Henriksson and Swedish jibber Tom-Oliver Hedvall.
After the normal hassle with lost bags and rough negotiations with non-cooperative airport staff, we threw the dice and went for the ski resort Parnassos, 200 kilometres northwest of Athens.
Pretty late in the evening, after a mellow three-hour drive, we arrived in the closest town to Parnassos – Arachova. We had no clue about anything, but before ten minutes had passed by, a local snowboarder had hooked us up with a beer at his friend’s café, a nice room at his other friend’s hotel and a third friend was going to be our guide on the mountain the next day. It felt unreal, but we just accepted, and went to bed happy.
This genuine kindness was going to follow us through the trip, but after 30 minutes on curving mountain roads the following morning, we were confronted with something else that would also follow us – fog. At the foot of the mountain, the fog was so thick we could have had it for breakfast. We didn’t. Instead we did the best out of the situation, found a nasty jib with flat landing for Tom-Oliver, and started a session. Local workers and tourists in 20-year-old one pieces were staring as Tom-Oliver dominated the scene.
Even though jibber legs are strong, they have a limit when it comes to flat landings. So we started cruising the resort, jumping off small rocks, bonking fences and trying to get a grip of the area. It wasn’t that easy, but the small holes we got between the worst fog attacks gave us a few glimpses of what was surrounding us. It made us want to see more!
We wanted to ski Parnassos the next day, but the fog wanted something else. After looking like lost Swedes (which was exactly what we were) for a few minutes, we met patroller Konstantinos “Kostis” Papadakakis, who (at the same time as he was rolling and smoking some cigarettes and buying us Greek raki) immediately helped us out with our new location – Vasilitsa.
The drive north took almost the whole day, and was only interrupted by a one-stand fruit market in the middle of nowhere. The old couple running the show probably sold more fruit, olives, honey (why did we buy honey?) and home made candy than they normally do in one month. But it was all worth it, and we knew that we now had food for the rest of the month.
Late that evening, we crouched under the howling wind to get into the hut in Vasilitsa. Immediately we were forced (I know, the horse and the water and all that, but it’s hard to say no sometimes) to drink some Greek moonshine and say hello to all the local heroes. After some thrilling stories and more moonshine (we even got a bottle as a gift), we managed to sneak back to our room to get some sleep.
After a quick breakfast, consisting of white bread with marmalade and passive chain-smoking, we entered the slopes, guided by local freeriders, who were more than willing to help. The light was flat, but the terrain fun! We spent a few hours shredding mini stuff in the resort, and cruise between gigantic trees in the mystical forest. It felt like we were in a fairy tale, and the long branches were reaching for our clothes. We made it out, though, and had really fun while doing it!
At lunch, the Greeks once again showed us their hospitality, and Ski school big boss Achilleas spent a perfect skier meal on us – double hot dog. After that, we felt strong, and went out to build a kicker at a sweet spot we located earlier. When the sun went down, and the kicker was done, I almost felt relieved that my injured foot didn’t allow any jumps. Our feature had a lot of airtime, a small fork to fly through and a heavy landing. I knew that it wasn’t going to be a problem for Tom-Oliver, though.
After one more evening with simple, but delicious, food, and a good night’s sleep, we woke up the sound of a screaming photographer.
- Get up! It’s sunny outside, Oskar was yelling.
We put our gear on, ate “breakfast” and ran to the lift in 100 meter pace. On the top of the mountain, the race continued, as Tom-Oliver immediately saw a small line he wanted to ski, and started hiking like his life depended on it. It didn’t, but we did see the fog rolling on a few hundred meters away… “Come on Tom. Work harder.” I was mumbling to myself, and three minutes later, Tom-Oliver was at the bottom of his run, happy and smiling, but surrounded by fog.
Suddenly we remembered our kicker feature, which was less dependent on weather. So we went up again, and started a session. After a couple of hits, it was brutally interrupted by a loud “WHOF!” as a weak layer in the snow collapsed, and we all sank five centimetres. Panic! The snow didn’t move, but it was scary enough for us to take the decision to move on to the next resort.
When we came down to the parking, our local hero Achilleas came running to us:
- Hello! I fixed everything now! Just go to Karpenisi. It’s the closest town from the resort of Velouchi. Call this number, and Alex will fix everything.
The people of Greece were treating us so good, we could hardly believe it.
At the end of another long drive on winding Greek mountain roads, we felt bad when we dialled the number Achilleas gave us, cause the time was way past midnight. Ten minutes later, a man in a suit shows up, and guides us to our hotel. When asked why he was all dressed up, he responded that he had to get back to the wedding. We were so embarrassed, but also very happy to see Greece and its people.
Velouchi ski resort welcomed us with a thick, white fog the following morning. We were almost counting on it, and started looking for jibs instead. With the help of the locals from “Velouchi Freeski Team” it didn’t take us long to build a small transition for a wallride, and one-two-three: session! Oskar was happy about some more “mystic looking shots”, and I survived shooting the second video angle from inside a lift hut, together with five chain-smoking Greeks.
The day passed on without us seeing much of the mountains. Instead we accepted an invitation to the Freeski Team’s hut. Inside there was a warm fire, and lamb chops were waiting for us on the grill. We had another lovely dinner, and went back to our hotel in a good mood.
Day two in Velouchi was different. And two times we were hiking for some lines that was rather looking like Chamonix than Greece. Evil, sharp rocks surrounding steep lines with different kind of cliffs and other features to play with. We were bummed out for the fog that came and went, but got a good guiding around the resort while praying for less fog in our lines. It didn’t happen… But the powder cruising the resort offered was not bad at all!
At the bottom of the mountain, we took a decision to go back and spend the last day in Parnassos. Halfway there, we stopped at the thermal bath in Thermopyle, which we were told helped against pretty much everything bad. We thought that it might include fog, and gave it a shot.
Last day. Fog. We were grinding our teeth as we went to the other side of the resort, to explore the tree skiing there. No lifts were running (in Greece, the lifts just don’t run some days, we never really saw any pattern though), so we started hiking through the woods, searching for something to play with. And found it: A decent cliff, perfect to do a trick off. Tom-Oliver hiked up, threw a perfect backflip japan, and that was it.
On the parking, saying goodbye to our new friends in Parnassos, parts of the group wanted to go up and give it a last try, part of the group wanted to check out the night life in Athens. We did the right thing, and went up.
In the last lift, it looked almost like the fog was getting thinner. We were hoping. Hoping so badly. And on the top, we finally saw the mountains for the first time. And not just a few hundred meters – we saw it all! Almost enchanted by our new view, we just stood there, slowly spinning our heads, nodding at each other, mumbling: “Aha… Mhm…” Suddenly, my eyes fell on a smaller peak, just at the border of the resort, and I had to break the spell.
- I really think we should move over there. Now.
As soon as my friends saw what I was looking at, they agreed, and we started hiking towards a peak with numerous small lines to ski.
At the top of our runs, we got stuck with our mouths open again, looking at all the beauty surrounding us. The mountains were not as big as the Alps, but after seeing almost nothing but fog for a week, to us, they felt like Himalaya!
- Tom-Oliver dropping in ten seconds!
I slowly lowered the radio as I was watching Tom-Oliver take a couple of turns, drop a cliff, and then aim for the bottom with big turns in the cold snow. I smiled to myself and thought that one really, really small cliff wouldn’t hurt my foot, and I asked Erik and Oskar if they were ready.
At the end of my run, I jumped around to fakie, looking back at the tracks I just made in the powder. I closed my eyes, filled my lungs with fresh mountain air, and felt totally calm.
We continued to hike the small peaks as long as the sun was shining, and felt like characters in Bram Stoker’s Dracula as we were walking and skiing in the last sunlight of the day. Our lungs were screaming for rest, and our throats for water and Greek moonshine. When the sun disappeared, we satisfied them both.
Athletes: Tom Oliver Hedvall, Ohan Jonsson
Photographer: Oskar Enander and Gosta Fries