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TGO – chapter 6 (the final)

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Chapter 6

There is an old Yiddish proverb that goes ‘Gatkis shmekkle – reem kaif chavver’ which translates as ‘What goes up must come down.’ Danny and I had this very much in our minds as we said goodbye to the Greek Gods and crawled off the fragmented summit of Olympus.

Since most deaths occur on descent; and since last week a Polish climber had gone to meet his maker down the Kaki Skala while descending from Olympus; and since Danny had a library book that he wanted to take back and didn’t want the fines to accumulate as he lay in a Greek hospital bed with tubes sticking in him; we took extra special care on our way down.
Dropping down the gully, making controlled sliding descents down near vertical slabs using our backsides as braking systems, we descended a few hundred feet to the traverse: then singing songs to ward away the demons we girded our loins, didn’t look down and scrambled back to the lip of the cauldron where Dimitri was waiting for us.
By his side were four strangers, two couples in their twenties who had, like Dimitri, decided the summit ridge was too much for them. They all clapped Danny and myself as we pulled up onto levelish ground.
‘Do you speak any English?’ I asked the strangers.
They shook their heads.
‘They’re Belgian.’ Dimitri explained.
‘Very nice chocolate, Tin Tin and Jacques Brel” I said smiling at the Belgians.
They smiled back.
Then I turned to Dimitri and gave him two minutes of very good Manchester swearing which included references to the fact that not only had he organised this trip and left the fruit of his loins and myself to do the last nasty bit while he lay snoring in the sun but that also he was a page boy at his parents wedding and not a member of Mensa; and furthermore if he ever asked me to climb a mountain again two words not unconnected with sex and travel would spring to mind.
The Belgians laughed. They did not understand the words but somehow the sentiment had communicated itself to them, particularly my cheerful mime showing that any future schemes of this sort would result in the impaling of Dimitri on one of his own sheek kebabs.

Having got this off my chest we began the descent, so elated at having climbed the mountain from sea to summit one of the hardest that any I have ever made, only eclipsed by the descent from the Gangalwat Pass in the Hindu Kush.
Not only had we just climbed 3,000 feet, the last five hundred a sever scramble, but we now had 6,000 feet of descent to make, most of it through piles of mule crap.
I won’t tire you with a blow by blow account of the heat, the dust, the flies that followed me down the mountain in clouds licking the salt sweat off my skin, only leaving me when I came to a particularly fine pile of mule crap – So they preferred mule crap to me!
On we trudged muttering and groaning in the heat – in the words of Captain Bloodnok “God it was Hell I tell you – no more curried eggs for me!”
By the time we got to the road head we were hobbling like spavined mules. (I don’t know what a spavined mule hobbles like but it’s a fair guess it looked like us.) Anyway oy gevalt ! Enough already! We made it to the car with kneecaps exploding and boots on fire and drove immediately down the treacherous mountain track to Litohoro where we staggered into the nearest Taverna after I had instructed Dimitri not to pass Go and not to collect two hundred pounds.

The first pint didn’t touch the sides but fizzled and hissed when it reached the dry sandy bottom of my belly. The tavernist, or whatever it is you call a man who drives a tavern didn’t even ask us if we wanted any more but brought three more tankards of chilled nectar toute suite.
‘We Mount Olympus have just climbed’ I declared in fractured English
‘My twelve year old daughter did it on Sunday with her school’ he said in perfect English, smiling.
‘He’s lying” I said to Dimitri as we got in the car to continue our pilgrimage
‘He has to be lying, either that or there’s another smaller Olympus with steps up it.’

And so we bade farewell and aloah and drove into the sunset towards Meteora our final destination where we were to spend a few days of rest and recuperation looking at some interesting monasteries that were built centuries ago on completely inaccessible rock pinnacles.
Everything, including the monks had to be hauled up in baskets and this isolation,
– according to Danny, who is a student, served two purposes – being several hundred feet higher on a rock column sticking up off the plain brought you just that bit nearer to God so that you could meditate and pray in peace and silence and it also meant that worldly distractions such as red headed ladies with big bosoms and Turkish marauders who wanted to chop you heads off couldn’t get near you. I suggested to Danny that perhaps they just haul up the red-haired ladies with big bosoms and leave the decapitating Turks far below. He thought about it for a moment and then said ‘In AD786 Musselman the Significant made his entire army or thirty thousand murderous muluks dress up in sheath dresses and fish net tights and don red wigs. Thus accoutred they infiltrated all the rock column monasteries of Meteora and decapitated all the monks. That’s why even to this day there is a Greek proverb which says ‘Beware red headed women with big bosoms bearing scimitars.’
I tell him that not only do I not believe him but that when we get to the Taverna we are staying at it is his round.

We arrive at the Koka Roka our hostel for the night. It is built under the shadow of a massive rock with a monastery on the top. The landlady’s son has spent thirteen years in Australia. He sounds like a cross between Harry Enfield’s Stavros and Edna Everage.
While he brings us beer his mum cooks chunks of lamb sprinkled with rosemary over an openfire and as the moon rises over the monasteries of Meteora where bearded monks lie troubled by dreams of red haired women with creamy thighs our little adventure draws to its close.

Posted in The Greek Odyssey|

TGO – chapter 5

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Chapter 5

Once beyond the last straggling stands of the forest we are in arid semi desert conditions with the fanged peaks of Metaxa ahead of us and the broad sweep of Kastro, another of the peaks of the Olympus range to our left. There are deep swathes of snow still in the gullies of Kastro, not many, but enough to show how difficult these mountains can be earlier in the year. You have to wait until June or after for the snows to have cleared enough to make the mountains safe for ordinary hillwalking.
Dan and I wait for Dimitri who is having difficulty with the temperature and the height. We’re now approaching 9,000 feet another thousand to go.
The flies which are so much part of life in the forest, attracted there by the mountains of mule dung left behind by the pack trains, accompany us on our upward journey, clotting around the sweat on our faces and generally making life miserable. We are above the tree line, not yet at the snowline but obviously still within the bluebottle line.

The temperature is already in the top thirties and rising, Dimitri is not in his thirties and isn’t rising – well he’s rising, but gradually like soda bread. Dan as befits a young chap full of testosterone, lox and bagels is set fair to run to the top. I plod along at my usual pace dripping with sweat and wild haired, cursing the fact that I didn’t have time to get my hair cut before I left and realising that I now look like Ben Gunn on Treasure Island, the madman who spends his life looking for a bit of ‘Christian bread and cheese’ – what’s Pagan bread and cheese I wonder?

The farting burping Germans who turned last night in the mountain hut into an unwanted but spectacular son et lumiere are gaining on us. Dan and I wait for Dimitri to catch up and the Fahrtenwaffe zoom ahead of us towards the Cauldron and Kaki Scala. I had hoped the flies would follow them but they don’t, they prefer us sweating English types.
I should explain here that Mount Olympus is really a massif of several interesting peaks, that look down into something called the Cauldron. The Cauldron is a huge corrie fifteen hundred foot deep and fringed at its south western rim by the fangs of Mitikas, the main peak of the massif, some ten thousand feet above sea level. The ascent of Mitikas – or Metaxa – as I have renamed it in honour of the brandy – is described as a Òmoderate scrambleÓ in the Cicerone guide to the Greek Mountains. This otherwise excellent book, part of that otherwise excellent stable of books overseen by the otherwise eminently sane Sir Walt Unsworth is remiss in only one respect. A moderate scramble would to me describe something of reasonable difficulty, with say three points of contact with reasonable stable rock at all times and minimum exposure. Anybody following the route that Dan and I took to the summit will see from the teeth marks on the rock that our interpretation of ‘moderate scramble’ is different to the guidebook’s.
When we get to the rim of the cauldron Dimitri lies on his belly, peers over the edge and looks at the way we have to go and says ‘No’. This I decide is a pretty brave thing to do because any fool could say ‘Yes’ and then go on to climb beyond their ability. Which is what I do because the next couple of hundred feet are pretty hairy and consist mostly of holding on to things and trying to be brave.
The route is named in the guides as the Kaki Skala. This is translated in some books as Poor Staircase. The true translation is Shitty Staircase – and in case you think I am making this up – it’s there in black and white on the maps. To get to the Kaki Skala we drop down off the Cauldron rim onto a bit of a crumbly arette that then brings us to a traverse of several hundred yards of bad rock with a five hundred feet drop beneath us. There are two bad steps where we crawl round the fangs of Metaxa and at these points we have a drop of five hundred feet on one side and fifteen hundred on the other. On the first of these Dan freezes on the rock and I have no alternative but to climb round him and lead him on.
After the second bad step we are in a broad gully with great slabs of rock and, every so often a clump of bright green grass. Our tortuous way up this ‘moderate scramble’ is marked with splashes of red paint put there by the Greek Mountaineering Club. I send Dan ahead so that I can keep an eye on him, telling him to follow the red paint marks. I then notice that he is going all over the place scrambling erratically and climbing into impossible situations. I tell him to stop where he is and take over the lead. I ask him what the hell he is doing not following the red paint marks and he tells me he is red green colour blind. He has been following the tufts of grass. What am I doing climbing Mount Olympus with a red-green colourblind junior rabbi? I ask myself.
I lead up some smooth slabs with poor holds that look as though they will be more of a problem on the way down. By now I can see the Greek flag on the summit and realise that we are going to make it – the first Joint Jewish Lapsed Catholic Manchester Olympus Expedition scrambles out of the gully and we hug each other, drink some water, eat some chocolate, look at all the holes around us and decide that it is no wonder the gods decided to live here. There is no sign of Zeus. we ask one of the other gods and he says that Zeus has probably gone off in his swan costume to give Leda another seeing to.

Posted in The Greek Odyssey|

TGO – chapter 4

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Chapter 4

They pick our driver up of the floor, dust him down and give him another ouzo and bottle of beer in case he has a sudden attack of sobriety. I ask Dimitri what the Greek is for ‘We have changed our mind. We will sleep on the pile of mule crap outside. Please do not trouble the lorry driver any more.’ but at that moment two and a quarter Germans arrive in the hut. The two are man and wife, the quarter is their four year old son and they have just returned from climbing most of the way up Olympus. The last stretch was too dangerous for the child. They offer us a lift back down the mountain road. we accept. With profuse apologies to our Greek driver who is on the floor again we pile in the back of the German’s camper-van and in an hour we are back at the little hotel we left this morning. I decide that Einstein must have worked out his Theory of Relativity while climbing a Greek mountain. How can it take less than an hour coming down and all day going up?

The landlady laughs at us and gives us our rooms back. She knew we weren’t going to make it. Why didn’t she tell us and save us all that trouble? I notice that she is wearing stockings held up just under the knee by rubber bands and also that she has a hairy mole on her chin. ‘Ha’, I think, ‘I might not be able to climb mountains but at least I don’t have a hairy mole on my chin or wear stockings held up by rubber bands.’
We have some food and go to bed glum deciding that tomorrow we will be real mountaineers and not shnorrer nebbishes who take all day to do the Litahoro Gorge. In the room above mine the Americans who stumbled up the mountain a few days ago on a diet of red wine and marijuana are smoking more dope and drinking more red wine and arguing about which country they are in. They finally decide that they are in Finland. I shout at them to shut up in German and the debate starts all over again.

In the morning the landlady gives us some more pretend orange juice and frozen eggs and we set off again for the mountain. This time we drive to the hut at Paranoia following the hairy mountain road and avoiding the mountains of mule crap that are not marked on the map. We leave the car and gird our loins all three of us in good heart. It is 8.30 and cool, the sun just edging over the rim of the gorge. We fill our water bottles and with good heart and a cheery disposition we enter the forest. Four hours and three thousand feet later we are sitting in the sun on the benches at the mountain refuge. Easy peasy this mountain climbing we decide just over three thousand feet more and we’ll be on the top of Metaxa, the main summit peak of Mt Olympus eating Ambrosia and talking to Zeus and Mrs Zeus and all the other Greek gods.
Danny and Dimitri go for a lie down while I sit in the sun watching climbers come and go. From the mountain refuge you can see all the way back to Litahoro and the coast and all the way up to the serrated ridge of Metaxa which looks, from here, like the fingers of a splayed hand. A group of German blokes arrives very noisy and covered in dust and sweat. I hope they aren’t billeted in our bunk room then find out that they are.

Dinner is good and is cooked on wood fires fuelled by the windfall in the forests.
After dinner we crash ready for the climb ahead. As Danny and I lie on our bunks Dimitri starts to organise his pack, taking (and this is no lie since I timed him) forty five minutes, during which the room is filled with the noises of somebody trying to be quiet and failing miserably. Plastic bags rustle no matter what you do and after forty five minutes of Dimitri and the plastic bags Danny shouts at him in Yiddish and Dimitri gets back into his pit and all is quiet for three minutes.
Then the Germans come to bed. All night the Germans fart and whisper. The whispering is bearable but the farting is quite unbelievable loud and long and widespread, eight Teutonic sphincters in uncoordinated cacophony, and when one of them gets up to go to the toilet lighting his way with a cigarette lighter I half expect the refuge to be blown off the face of the mountain.
I hate bunk houses and lie there sleepless and cursing wondering what the hell I am doing climbing a mountain with a junior rabbi and a Manchester Greek taverna owner. Instead of counting sheep I secretly machine gun the trouser coughers in my imagination and soon the room is littered with the bodies of farting Germans.

The next day’s journal entry reads ‘Vas ein tag! Mein gott in himmel! Up at 5.30 to photograph the sunrise which is quite boring – without cloud the sun has nothing to play on and rises like an unpoetic orange balloon. The farting Germans come out too late and just to get my own back I tell them that it was the best sunrise I have ever seen. They fart some more and then go in to breakfast.
We pack and are off by 7 am. At first our way leads through forest and is a cool dander, then the forest thins out and gives way to rougher stony ground. Ahead of us Olympus beckons. Behind us we can see the Germans, a cluster of tiny farting dots following us up the mountain.

Posted in The Greek Odyssey|

TGO – chapter 3

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Chapter 3

With the bells of the town graveyard still ringing behind us we drop down into the Litohoro gorge. The early morning sun is already hot enough to fry eggs on the pavement but having brought neither eggs nor pavement we carry on walking and sweating. The heat in the gorge thickens and we climb steadily in its narrow confines going from close to sea level at Litohoro to where the old shepherd’s track we are walking on climbs up to a narrow stone gate on the cliff face where there are great views of the gorge ahead and the coast and town behind us. Having gained this height we lose a good lump of it again dropping back to the river. The temperature now must be close to forty and for hours we follow a switchback path along the river. I am lathered in sweat and though I’m drinking a lot of water it doesn’t seem to be enough and I can feel the beginnings of cramp in my calfs – I knew I shouldn’t have brought them.
In two places the path leads out across the cliff face high above the river. Over the winter the path has fallen away and twice we have to shuffle along twelve inches of crumbling dust with a lot of nothing underneath us. Dimitri is very quiet at both these points while Dan mutters phrases in Yiddish that have words like ‘shnorrer’ – ‘shlemiel’ and ‘meshuganah’ in.
At 11.30 we stop for a food and water stop at a side gully where a winter avalanche has cleared a break in the forest. There is a stream and waterfall with tufa formations on the rock similar to those in Gordale Scar and we sit for an hour rehydrating and eating our nuts and fruit. Dan decides that being the first junior rabbi on Mount Olympus isn’t such a bad idea. Dimitri has a quick snooze and I eat a bag of dried apricots, remembering too late that it was eating a bag of dried apricots in the Pakistan Himalaya that earned me the title of ‘the sahib with the exploding trousers’ amongst the Balti porters.
After the gully the path is much more difficult with boulders and fallen trees blocking our way forward. Most people climbing Olympus ignore the Litohoro Gorge and go straight to the road head at Paranoia. Spending the day in an airless gorge scrambling over landslides in a temperature of forty degrees centigrade was my idea – which is why I am a meshuganah shnorrer.
Danny is going strong now over the difficult terrain, I’m much slower and Dimitri is finding the going a lot harder. He’s climbed Snowdon and Kinder recently but all his other climbing has been up and down the stairs in his Manchester taverna, and this is the first time he’s carried a heavy pack. I’ve had some kind of a virus infection just prior to leaving for Greece which I’ve managed to defeat with echinacea tincture but I’m not on best form so I too am finding it hard going.
I’ve drunk a lot of water but have lost more through sweating in the unforgiving heat and about an hour after the gully I cramp up badly at one point lying flat out on a rock both calf muscles locked solid, the pain so bad I describe it on my journal as ‘like giving birth with your legs’. After bearing down and doing my breathing exercises I manage to carry on. For the next two hours I hobble on slowing everybody up.
We have not seen a soul all day then suddenly twelve German walkers appear upstream powering down towards us their trekking poles flashing in the sun, all but two of them are women, mahogany brown and fit as butchers dogs. The two men trail behind them and I ask them how far it is too Paranoia. They are not in the mood for talking but hurry on down shouting ‘Not far – maybe one hour’ over their shoulder. The guide book reckons the gorge should only take four and a half hours. It’s three o’ clock now which means we three shlemiels have been shlepping for seven hours (six if you deduct the water stop) and are still an hour off Paranoia.
We plod on. Dan mutters something about Moses and forty years in the wilderness. Dimitri is too knackered to mutter. I mutter anyway just to keep Dan company.
A little way on we come to a chapel built into an overhang under the cliff where a stream resurges flowing through the chapel before falling down to the river. Inside the chapel an oil lamp burns before a handful of icons.
We move on up the gorge and within a kilometre of the chapel we see a ruined monastery amongst the fir trees on the opposite side of the gorge. Dimitri looks in the guide book.
‘The German’s destroyed it because the partisans were using it as a base.’
‘No wonder they were in a hurry to get down.’ Dan says.
‘It was nearly sixty years ago.’ Dimitri tells him
‘They didn’t look that old.’
Dimitri and I look at each other and wonder whether he’s kidding us but decide to leave it. The path is much easier now and a slow and steady pace brings us to the little taverna at the road head at Paranoia exactly eight and a half hours after setting off. We are all completely trashed so any thought of going on the extra two and a half hours to the refuge on the mountain goes out of the window.
We sit and drink, rehydrating in the shade and Dimitri manages to cadge a lift back to Litohoro with a swarthy brigand who drives a small truck up here every day bringing supplies for the mountain huts. Beyond here it goes on mules. I watch the driver throwing ouzo and beer down his throat as though he has heard a rumour that that there is to be a world shortage of the commodities and I wonder whether we shouldn’t walk back. Greek mountain roads are bad enough with a sober driver – this guy is off his tree. I silently curse the pope for demoting St Christopher from saint to ordinary mister and watch in silent terror as our driver throws another glass of ouzo and pint of beer down his gullet. He wipes his mouth and burps before falling off the bench onto the dusty floor. We look at each other glumly. Here we are in Paranoia in a beer hut – no beds – a drunk driver – a long journey back down the mountain to start all over again tomorrow.
‘Oi gevalt’ Dan says which I think is Yiddish for something very bad.

Posted in The Greek Odyssey|