No ladies, there will be no pictures of Johnny Depp on this page, come to think of it – there won’t even be a pirate in sight. My advertising consultants suggested that I used a well-known title, change it a little and use it here to draw attention.
If you look at maps of Crete the most striking features of the island seem to be the three peninsulas aligned on the north coast: Akrotiri in the east, Rodoupou in the middle and Gramvoussa in the west. From afar they appear to be flat but don’t make mistakes – there are mountains, which rise directly out of the sea to an elevation of up to 800m. The westernmost peninsula, Gramvoussa is a good example as Geroskinos, its highest summit, achieves 762m. The peninsula – like the rest of Crete – is based on limestone rock, hard but brittle, which gives the area a somewhat Dolomites-like appearance. In fact, both Judith and I were reminded of the northern group of the Dolomiti di Brenta, in particular of the Via Ferrata Gustavo Vidi – minus all the iron.
There are more differences of course, the most notable being – 2000m in missing elevation and no Presanella or Adamello Group in sight. Instead there is a deep blue sea which near the coast turns into beautiful shades of emerald green. And there is the blue lagoon, the bay of the pirates…
A Rare Decision“Let’s do the hike on the west coast!” – We have just returned from a somewhat frustrating day in the Levka Ori Range, Crete’s White Mountains. We had hiked from the village of Kambi to the Volika Hut but further climbing had been thwarted by bad weather – thick clouds had kept rolling across Spahi and Mavri, the northernmost 2000ers of the mountain range, and even at the hut fog had blocked any sight. So we have returned early and now are having a cup of coffee while discussing the prospects of tomorrow over map and guidebook.
The book has three routes on Gramvoussa, one along the west coast of the peninsula, one along its west coast and one connecting trail in the south. In typical Judith-and-Gangolf-fashion we decide to do them all and thus complete a loop around Geroskinos. The guidebook claims the western leg is difficult – no water - lots of rocks – almost no marks. It is supposed to be a 7h hour trip back and forth. We calculate the loop will take us some 9 – 10h - maybe too much but we can turn back on any point of the western leg if we want.
So yes – we’ll go to the coast – a very rare occurrence.
Heading WestwardWe live in an apartment in Vamos, to the east of the Akrotiri Peninsula, so that we have to get up early to reach Falassarna more than 80km to the west. Driving on Crete’s highways is an experience you have to get used to. Slow cars file to the right – but extremely. If there is a maintenance path beside the regular road, it is used as well. Thus two lane highways turn into 3.9 lane highways, four lane motorways can be used like six laned ones. Never anything happens though I have wondered what happened if a pedestrian ventured out beside the road. But you get used to it fast – and if everybody pays attention it is not the worst kind of traffic to drive through.
Once at Kissamos, the westernmost large town on the north coast of the island we see that circling Geroskinos won’t be the best of ideas. The eastern leg of the circle would be on a dirt road and the area looks barren and dusty. Maybe we’ll stick with the western leg and hike it back and forth. It’s supposed to be the most difficult anyway. So on we go, Through Platanos and Kavoussi to Falassarna, which rather than being a village turns out to be a hamlet of houses and hotels clustered around a beach. We head on through some greenhouse plantations and end up at antique Falassarna where we park the car. Any clouds have evaporated, at least here along the coast and we’re in for a hot day. Scorchingly hot as it will turn out afterwards.
BluepointingGuidebooks are only good if they are up to date and ours dates back to 2002. By 2007 the “unmarked path” turns out to be a marked trail, still tough to find in places but with blue dots every now and again. We start a bit above sea level – the GPS claims its -15m – and the first stage takes us up a nice slope towards a broad saddle. From there we can overlook most of our route. It is not evident where it will lead us, especially where the west ridge of Geroskinos heads out towards the water. We expect some tricky terrain up there but don’t bother about it yet. Apart from scouting the route we enjoy our views – a deep blue sea underneath, emerald green near the coast, fantastic cliffs strewn between and the island around Tigani Bay, the Bay of Pirates up north. Again and again the island of Pontikunissi in the west of the peninsula draws our attention, always as a backdrop to the cliffs up front.
So far the route turns out to be an easy one. Several narrow and steep inlets have to be passed, Always heading down and out again. The sun is burning, there is no shade and we are starting to understand why this is supposed to be one of the trickiest hikes of the island. And we still haven’t but started yet! After scrambling out of one of the inlets we suddenly have a perfect view of Geroskinos and its west ridge. There appears to be something like a ledge high above the sea and we hope that this is where we will have to traverse the ridge. A slight feeling of uneasiness starts to set in.
Our next stop is a bay directly at sea level. We have lost all the elevation we had gained and now prepare for the famous west ridge traverse. We get a first taste when we try to leave the bay: a first chimney greets us, though a quite easy one. Loose rock is the main problem here and I nearly take a fall. Once on top of the rock the path winds its way to the base of the Geroskinos slope and then heads up directly. There are lots of goat tracks and without our faithful blue dots we would get lost. We wouldn’t find the best path and even with the dots we go astray.
The ledge, which we saw from underneath doesn’t exist as such. We rather head through a steep slope, which luckily is overgrown with bushes. Come to think of it – I’m not so sure that we are lucky about the bushes as they have thorns galore. But they offer some footholds where otherwise only gravel can be found. We bushwhack our way through them – often with a regular path but as often without one. The only constant factor of the climb is that is heads upwards.
In front of us – and high above us – we can see a beautiful tower rising out of the ridge and dropping into the sea on the other side. Something tells us that we’ll have to deal with it one way or another. But before we get close, a steep scree field bars the way. There is no hold and the field heads down directly to the sea. The blue points have decided they don’t like this place and have vanished altogether, at least where we are. On the far side of the field I distinguish something blue – and make a beeline for it. Very carefully we step out and cross the scree. Stones and pebbles start rolling down and initiate little rockslides which echo from the cliffs underneath. But after all – it turns out less difficult than it seemed and we are on solid ground again.
The next obstacle is a short 10m traverse through a near vertical wall. There is ample air beneath our feet but hand- and footholds are good and we quickly pass on through. In the Dolomites this would have been a protected section – as would have many of the sections we passed through before. We have almost reached the tower, we had seen from below and sure enough the route runs by real close. It heads through a saddle on the Geroskinos west ridge, directly to the east of the tower. Here the climbing is steep but easy and since we now are close to the high-point of the day we start to hurry. It is quickly reached – but suddenly a fierce wind blasts at us from the north. Tgani bay is hidden behind a spur, coming down from Geroskinos but our tower appears to pose together with the Pontikonissi Island in the background.
I decide to have a go at the tower – there appears to be a ledge on the southern side which passes the tower. Maybe I can get to its top from the far side. I climb from the saddle to the ledge which turns out to be scree covered. I venture out on it and head up westward. The handholds are good but sharp-edged and I damage hands and knees on my way. On the far side it turns out to be more difficult than I want to climb and I decide to head down again. There are no views to speak of – not better than from the saddle so I return without a single shot.
The Far SideOn the northern side of the saddle we have to descend on slabs. Limestone slabs with a good gravel covering. Uck! The blue points still guide the way and it is good that they do. Otherwise we probably would take a shallower route but seeing the points he head down very steeply. As we cross a corner we suddenly look towards Tigani Bay, the Bay of Pirates. In the Middle Ages and after the bay was used as the base by pirates of different nationalities – the ruins of a castle on top of the island Imeri Gramvoussa still bear witness of that time. Today the bay is quite popular among the yachting crowd. There is only the dirt road on the eastern side of Gramvoussa and our hiking route which lead to the bay so it is not overly crowded.
We see two boats and about 15 people from afar, bathing in the emerald green waters of the lagoon. Though we are close we decide not to descend. We already have more than 1000m of elevation gain (claims the GPS) in our bones and heading down those 400m only to return to the same place again appears to be too much. Moreover now it is really scorchingly hot and without the wind we feel we would explode. So we look for a place to lunch, which turns out to be more difficult than usual. Finally after some scrambling around the slopes we find a place 10m above the path and take a rest.
The Return Journey“Been there – done that – returned – what a drag!” – This is how the usual story goes but here we are in for some more surprise. It starts with getting back to the saddle. There are no blue points to be seen in this direction and we have to use our memory to find the correct path. We just went here half an hour ago and still we make two mistakes. But the saddle is obvious and we finally reach it, though via a different route. Next step: getting down to the wall traverse. Though the path is more obvious we descend too low and finally find ourselves way beneath the line we took through the face. Back up again it is – and over.
Now down to the scree slope. Again we descend too low but venture out, at the same time trying to climb to the correct path on the far side. Lots of pebbles tumble down towards the sea while we scramble on up. Still, we finally manage. From now on we miss the correct path more often than we hit it. I have my GPS track, the one I took on our way out, but since we are in the Geroskinos west face, readings are ambiguous. Our position on the little map jumps back and forth – depending on the number of satellites the silly thing receives. Still we know that we are correct to with about 50m, rather too much when you scramble across a steep slope.
Judith takes a fall, landing right in a thorny bush. Curses fly but she gets up again and we struggle onwards. Now we struggle through a thorny thicket, very low – too low indeed for my 6 feet 4” plus backpack. Clothes get torn, my skin gets punctuated and we seriously ask ourselves if this is what we call fun. And again – we are too high. Now we are standing on a ledge and either we go back through the bushes or climb down a couple of metres vertically. Judith opts for the former, I for the latter. Another curse tells me that my decision was the better one, though I’m hanging precariously over another steep scree slope.
Finally we have negotiated the steep part and head for the chimney which will take us back to the little bay. Right above the chimney we take a break and examine our injuries. Judith is a bit restless sitting down and I have grown measles on arms and legs. The T-shirt was old anyway and neither backpack nor camera bag have suffered significantly. Good.
Shall I say that we miss the correct entry to the chimney and instead of climbing with good holds, end up on a rather polished part? I almost fall but manage to get a hold before taking Judith down with me.
We have had it now! Whoever thought that this would be a nice trip? Who made this suggestion? We are angry at ourselves and trudge back across the broad ledges above the coast. Down through the bays – where there were two when we came, now there are three (or so it appears) – up again on the other side – at least the path is visible now. We settle into our usual hiking rhythm. Even the beautiful cliffs above the sea won’t cheer us up. Never has a return journey been that long! Water has been missing for quite a while now and we are feeling the strains of dehydration. A splitting headache announces itself in my head – Driving back won’t be fun for sure!
Still one more slope to climb! But when we have reached the top we can see our car – far away in the distance, but visible at least. And no more slope in between. We pick up our strength – or what remains – and stumble on down. A group of tourists – who have been more clever – stay beside their car and take in the views. We greet them hastily – Germans of course. Now through a flock of sheep and here we are! I let myself fall into the driver’s seat – only to jump out immediately again. The car has been standing in the full blaze of the sun for the whole day – you don’t want to touch anything!I pull on long pants and now manage to get the car going – air condition at full blaze.
Rumbling back across the dirt road we spot a mini-market at the Falassarna beach. The water problem is solved now and we start the drive back home.