Thursday, 28 July 2016

Not in the Footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor

The Taygetus range in spring rising like a wall above Sparta.
Over the years I have spent quite a bit of time in the Mani, that central finger of the southern Peloponnese.  Down its spine runs the Taygetus range, its highest peak Profitis Ilias, which though rising to only 2404 metres is the highest mountain in the Peloponnese and the third highest, after Olympus and Parnassus, in Greece. On the eastern side of the range is Sparta and the Laconian Plain; on the western side, in what is known as Outer Mani, is the small town of Kardamyli and numerous villages along the coast or on the mountain slopes behind them.

My first full view of Viros Gorge from the village of Tseria near Kardamyli whetted
my appetite for the traverse a year later.  Profitis Ilias is in the distance at the
upper left of the photograph.
From many places along the coast and in the foothills of Outer Mani I would catch sight of Profitis Ilias, which always fascinated me because its peak looked snow-covered even in summer, or shielded in electrum as the ancient Egyptians used to do with the Pyramids.

That fascination led to a desire - and it was a desire, something like a lust and a need - to traverse the Taygetus range from east to west, from Sparta down into Outer Mani.

My copy of Mani.
I had read Patrick Leigh Fermor's Mani and had followed most of his adventures, to the towerhouse villages of Kitta and Vathia, for example, and Old Kardamyli, and also out onto the Tigani peninsula with its ruins of a Villehardouin castle and the bones of Latin knights visible in the opened crypts.

Patrick Leigh Fermor's house outside Kardamyli.
But Leigh Fermor's description of his traverse of the Taygetus range offered little clue to his route.  All he says is that with the help of a guide he followed a gorge down into Kampos well north of Kardamyli.  Otherwise he is entirely unhelpful and vague.

Recently at the Durrell conference at Rethymnon I met Chris White who is an expert in Leigh Fermor's exploits in Crete and has tracked down his routes and hideouts from the time when he and the resistance kidnapped the German commandant General Kreipe.  I asked Chris about Paddy's traverse of the Taygetus and he agreed that his description is vague, most probably because he never did it, instead that he made several shorter explorations and then linked them up in his book to look like a traverse.

Which confirms what I began to suspect at the time.  After poring over maps looking for Paddy's possible route I eventually gave up and decided that the only thing to do was to keep it simple and direct.  I would climb Profitis Ilias from the Sparta side and then come down into Outer Mani along the Viros Gorge which spills into Kardamyli and the Messenian Gulf.

Wending my way up Profitis Ilias.
That winter back in London I talked about my idea with my friend Neville Lewis and he agreed to join me in the traverse.  Meanwhile I bought a pair of stout boots and did some walking across the south of England and also in the Greek islands in preparation.  At the end of August we met up in Athens and drove down to Outer Mali via Sparta and the Langada Pass through the mountains to Kalamata and so down to Kardamyli and beyond.

Having shown Neville the eastern approach and the western flank of Taygetus and had a good look at the peak of Profitis Ilias and the Viros Gorge, he announced himself game and we set off, friends driving us back to the Sparta side.  If they did not see us again soon, they were to do something, though none of us knew what.

Michael atop Profitis Ilias.
Climbing Profitis Ilias from the Sparta side is easy enough.  The Spartans used to do it all the time and worshipped at the top.  Even the Orthodox Church has constructed a ramshackle chapel up there with a tin roof for the occasional ceremony.

Neville looking for a way down.  There is no way down except the gorge.
Getting down is another matter.  I discovered that what had appeared as a snow peak in summer, or a cap of electrum, was actually scree, that is loose stone which covers a considerable amount of the upper part of the mountain.

We soon received a warning of what could happen if things went wrong. We began by walking south along a ridge but it came to a sudden end with no way down.  Here we found a piece of paper held down by four stones, saying Nikophoros K------ (I forget the last name) eton 38, also two cardboard boxes held in place by stones inside, a scarlet robe also held down by stones, and a reed cross lying among the stones.  Neville immediately went looking for the grave itself and found it beneath a rocky ledge, a body-length pile of stones.

We retreated back along the ridge and found a more promising line of descent.  But the scree, being loose underfoot, made it difficult to descend without slipping, which I did, destroying my water bottle at the same time.  Even a bottle each was too little, it soon became apparent.  This was early September and there was no water anywhere.  And we now had one bottle of water between us for a descent that I hoped could be accomplished in a day but maybe not.
Neville at the grave of Nikophoros.
Just follow the gorge, it was as simple as that, I thought.  But the gorge was a torrent in the late winter and was filled with gigantic boulders.  Sometimes you could walk round them but more often than not you had to climb over them.
In the gorge, climbing over boulders.
By late afternoon we had no more water. 'Desolation!' Neville exclaimed as every bend we turned revealed several more ahead, and 'Dio pagomenes bires amesos', calling out for two ice cold beers immediately. Fortunately as it got dark a full moon rose to illuminate our way.  Just keep going along the damn gorge; it will take us eventually into Kardamyli, I told myself.  Then Neville spotted a path rising off to the left, a rocky defile rising out of the gorge and up past streams of water pouring from the rock face where we drank ourselves silly before continuing into the village of Exochori.

The long dry descent.
At Exochori there is a pantopoleion which doubles as an ouzeri and general drinking hole.  We went in for a beer.  Next to us two men were sitting.

We finally reach the tree line but still no water.
They asked us where we had come from.  From Sparta, we said, over the top of Profitis Ilias and down through the gorge.  They said nobody has ever done that before.  We told them about Nikophoros.  Ah, they nodded and told us that he had climbed the mountain from the other side and died up there two months previously; he was a lunatic, they said.

Two days after our traverse of Taygetus, myself and Neville at Old Kardamyli at the mouth of the Viros Gorge, somehow alive and well.