View from the trail

‘Explore’ moves away from Crete this month  – some 6000 km in fact –  for a brief account and some photos of last November’s Paleochora Himalayan Expedition.  Our international team of ten consisted of Michelle, Andre, Klervi & Bernard (French), Karin (Swiss), Marianne & Josee (Dutch), and Jane, Lindsey & myself (English), all of us either living in or with a close connection to Paleochora.  We met up in Kathmandu, flying in from Athens, Paris and Amsterdam, via Istanbul and Delhi, then two days later traveled seven hours in our team “bus” to Arughat, on the worst roads I’ve ever seen, in places almost destroyed by monsoon rain, and the start of our 14-day trek.

The Intrepid Team

The Intrepid Team

The pattern for the next two weeks began with tea at 6am next morning, then breakfast, and we were usually walking before 8am.  For four days we would follow the valley of the Burhi Gandaki river, often high above it, gradually acclimatising and gaining height.  Then a steep ascent beside the tributary of the Shiar Khola into the almost hidden Tsum Valley, below the peaks of Ganesh Himal and Sringi Himal, over 7,000m high, and both, I later discovered, with only one ascent, in the mid-1950s.

The well-marked trail, narrow at times, and used by mules and later yaks, took us across steel suspension bridges and some precarious-looking wooden ones, through small Nepalese villages amid stunning scenery, and by late afternoon each day to our overnight campsite  – and welcome tea, followed by a substantial evening meal.

Careful ....

Careful ….

As we climbed higher, temperatures decreased.  Cloudless blue skies and warm sun during the day were replaced, after sunset, by cold starlit nights, and by 8pm we were usually in the warmth of our down sleeping bags.  Camping at Lar (3,245m) after a visit to Rachen Gompa monastery, it fell to below 0c overnight, and we were glad to be moving the next morning.  Our highest point was above Mu Gompa monastery, at 3,700m, tantalisingly close to the Tibetan border, which was two days away but still 1,500m above us.

View from my tent at 3700m

View from my tent at 3700m

We returned down the valley to Arughat, a week away, often on alternative paths and camping at different locations.  My favourite was outside the village school at Ripche, surrounded by magnificent peaks, and where the children posed proudly for photos, holding the pencils and crayons they had been given.

Ripche schoolchildren

Ripche schoolchildren

We were superbly looked after by the team from Glacier Safari Trek  –   porters who carried heavy  loads on difficult terrain, cooks who provided nutritious meals high on carbo-hydrate and protein, and our Sherpa guides, the ever-smiling Lokpa, Norbu, Nymar and Prakesh.

Our Sherpa guides

Our Sherpa guides

Back in Kathmandu we relaxed, went sight-seeing, reminisced and re-lived our experiences of the past two weeks.  At a celebratory dinner, before we flew our separate ways next morning,
lines from Everest mountaineer Frank Smythe’s book “The Spirit of the Hills” came to mind :

“And so from the hills we return, refreshed in body, mind and spirit, to grapple anew
with life’s problems.  For a while we have lived simply and happily ; we have made good
friends ; we have adventured well. “    

Here are some more photos from the trip…

Ganesh Himal 2

Ganesh Himal 2

Ganesh Himal

Ganesh Himal

Katmandu

Katmandu

On the way back

On the way back

Sringi Himal

Sringi Himal

Tibetan onlookers

Tibetan onlookers

The winner of the Explore Christmas Puzzle was James Dymore-Brown, and the correct answer was ‘SOUGIA’.  Thanks to all who entered.

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Outdorsy PathwayOnce upon a time, when Lynne and I were exploring that area, we came across a sign for an “Outdorsy Pathway” between Sassalos, Malathiros and Makronas.  But although we found and enjoyed the route from Makronas to Malathiros, we never located a path through the  Halasses gorge to Sassalos.  And I know why now  –  there isn’t one.  Further research and local enquiries over the years gave more information.  The cafe owner in Sassalos told me the gorge was “oxi diskolo, alla oxi efkolo”  – not difficult, but not easy, and it would take around three hours, but that the gorge is only possible during the dry months of summer.  From the Internet, webcrete.net  suggested the gorge was  “Medium, 3-4 hrs, not clearly marked in some parts.”  Not at all, as it turned out!

So Colin and I set out to explore, taking climbing gear for possible abseils or lowers.  Sassalos is a pleasant 30km drive from Paleochora, through Plemeniana to Aligi, then over to Milones and down the chestnut tree lined valley, around 45 mins.  Not indicated in any way, access to the gorge is north past the turning to Floria, then left through houses to reach a ford, dry in summer, and the riverbed.  This we entered too soon, emerging scratched from brambles to walk easier on a track alongside to reach a concrete water cistern, then left below walnut trees and through a wire gate into the gorge proper, wide at this point.

Gorge from above

Gorge from above

Easily at first, and after passing an inexplicable picnic site, the gorge soon becomes boulder-filled and route-finding serious.  In 4km it will fall 200m, much of it inside the first kilometre.
Although we never used the rope, our old climbing skills were necessary to drop down short walls, occasionally under enormous boulders, and sometimes briefly out of the ravine before
re-entering.  An opening in a fence was marked by a plastic container (as was another lower down), and then came some respite at a small plateau, with a threshing circle and evidence of crop growing on terraces above.

Deep in Sassalos Gorge

Deep in Sassalos Gorge

The lower section is less difficult, though still requiring concentration, especially when descending to a rock “tunnel”, which proved easier than it looked from above.  After a similar one, and the second fence, the gradient eases ; we climbed left out of the streambed to meet a track through olive trees taking us to a fence and a three-way junction.  We saw no path or waymarking in two hours from Sassalos, and any stone cairns would be washed away during the winter, when the water surging through the gorge must be spectacular.

Rock tunnel from above

Rock tunnel from above

The 'tunnel'

The ‘tunnel’

From the foot of the gorge, the track ahead leads to Makronas and on to Voulgaro. We took a less obvious route up to Malathiros – on a narrow path once carefully maintained but now in some disrepair. No longer marked, it begins above a stream, keeping initially parallel with it before rising out of the valley, always climbing, then heading east, below cliffs, to a small cave/grotto with a tiny waterfall.  Continuing above here, it will eventually turn right (ahead is impassable) to lead, through a series of gates, to reach a rough track.  Go right, rising to wooden fencing, and then up left into the village of Malathiros, the main road, Agios Giorgos church, and in front of it a little square shaded by plane trees  – ‘Platea 28 August 1944’.

This is a lovely peaceful spot, but also one of the saddest places I know.  It was on that day that German soldiers came to Malathiros and nearby villages, took 61 of the men and executed them. The youngest was just thirteen years old, and the oldest sixty-six ; a marble memorial lists their names, as many as seven from the same family.

Malathiros church

Malathiros church

From Malathiros it’s an hour’s walk, 5km, back along the road to Sassalos, passing en route a shrine and rocky outcrop with a superb birds-eye view into the gorge.  It was late afternoon as we reached the village outskirts, having left around midday.  Then, Sassalos was totally empty, and we had seen no-one.  Now, as we turned the final bend, there were cars parked everywhere, and Greek music was drifting down from above the village.

Curious, we followed the music up to the former village school, long since closed, but now with several hundred people seated at long tables, music playing, and dancing in full swing, like a scene from the musical “Brigadoon.”  “Elate!” people called to us, “come and sit down, join us!”  It was the annual Sassalos Chestnut Festival, tables laden with roast chestnuts, local wine, inevitably “raki”, and “souvlaki” grilling on barbecues.  We stayed for over an hour, and had we not arranged to meet Colin’s wife Jill for dinner, would have been there long into the night …

Footnote:   Colin and I first enjoyed this route in Oct 2013.  This year, having ascertained that the Chestnut Festival began at 4pm on the 12th October, several friends and I repeated the walk through the gorge, up to Malathiros, and back along the road into Sassalos to find it  ……. completely deserted.   Maybe it was all just a dream ……

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