In the Land of Myths
It's a long way to the runout routes of Meteora, a climbing area as ancient as Greek myth.
“C’mon, Jimi, you got it!”
No, I thought, you don’t understand. This is not a sport climb. We’re not in Kalymnos anymore; no nice bolt at my knees.
Tania said it again, this time with a little exasperation: “Come on, you got it!”
Got what, you crazy Greek woman? I’ve got enough sense to know this is dangerous. This little peanut-knob I’m high-stepping is going to pop, and I’m gonna bounce off the slab and land on you.
Tania, my partner that day, a climber with boundless psyche, wanted to go up. Bold. Beautiful. Up.
I was leading, and I wanted to go down. Sad. Defeated. Weak. Down.
Now I was getting sewing-machine leg, something I hadn’t experienced in years, and it brought to mind an old question. It’s a simple question that has no simple answer.
Why am I doing this?
I had traveled to Greece alone, and my odyssey had begun on the island of Kalymnos with fantastic sport climbing on tightly bolted overhangs, swimming in the warm Aegean Sea, and putting around on a little scooter without a care in the world. Then I met Tania Matsuka and she convinced me to go to Meteora, the ancient and mythical climbing area in the Thessaly region of northern mainland Greece.
In the past, my motivation for climbing was simple: to challenge myself on something beautiful, daunting and inspiring. But I’ve mellowed over the years, and I had to admit that now, I just wanted to impress Tania, who believed that since I was from California and could crank on sport climbs, I could also lead scary trad.
Kiesel Am Himmel is a beautiful, seven-pitch black streak that looks like the Bachar-Yerian in Tuolumne. I wanted to be a hero and lead to the top of this fearsome and beautiful 1,000-foot cobblestone mountain called Sourlati.
Kiesel Am Himmel (5.12-) had been very reasonable on the first two, harder pitches. The climbing was fun and slightly run out on protruding—sometimes exploding—pebbles both big and small. The easier third pitch (5.9) proved to be the psychological crux. In Meteora, technically easier climbing dictates a scarcity or even absence of bolts.
This confluence of conditions—embedded but loose pebbles and widely spaced (20-30 feet) bolts on the easier pitches, had conspired to defeat me on more than half the climbs I had tried. In two weeks, I had backed off more climbs in Meteora than I had in my entire 25-year climbing life, and Tania was tired of my whimpering.
Daily, I would curse Dietrich Hasse, the strict German guidebook author and first ascentionist of many routes in Meteora. During the 1970s he brought a minimalist, ground-up ethic to Meteoran climbing, and from what I could ascertain on his sparsely bolted routes, he didn’t worry much about holds breaking. His 1986 guidebook is the only one, to date, and its instructions for signing the summit registers are as fierce and no-nonsense as he: Don’t write anything funny or irreverent; name, date and style of ascent only. Climbing clothing, he writes, is likewise to be taken seriously: “Climbers will need climbing breeches and a climbing jacket with padded knees and elbows and a robust safety helmet intended mainly for protection in case of a fall.”
I went up. Bold. Beautiful. Scared Shitless. Up. No padded breeches. After 20 feet of trembling, knob-pimping roulette, a scary mantel and finally a good stance, I was greeted by a big ring bolt and cheers from Tania. My relief was short-lived, however, and the next run out, even bigger, proved too much for my fried adrenal glands. Once again, it was time to give in and go down. Sad. Defeated. Down. I offered the lead to Tania, but she would have none of it.
I consoled myself that we had climbed two great pitches, and now the rest of the day was free. We could have a swim in the campground and explore the amazing cliff-top monasteries that the region is famous for. Tania was not so happy; she wants to climb all day, every day. She’s frustrated here in Greece, living in Athens, working as a computer engineer.
“There are only about 10 other women in all of Greece who regularly lead,” she lamented. I told her about American women who live out of their vans in Indian Creek and Yosemite and saw her eyes blaze with longing.
“I will do it someday!” she said with fanatic conviction.
Back at camp, Tania found a partner for some more climbing in the hot afternoon. I swam and made my way to the Varlaam Monastery. A metal cross on display inside it, about the size of a man, had been brought here by helicopter in 1975 from the summit of one of Meteora’s most impressive peaks, The Holy Ghost, a steep-sided, bulky 1,000-foot tower. The cross is said to have resided on the summit since the Serbs conquered Thessaly in 1348. While many of the summits in Meteora show signs of ancient ascents—peg-holes every 15 to 20 feet that once anchored handmade ladders—The Holy Ghost gives no such clues. Was this mighty peak, 5.9 at its easiest (and the most sought-after summit in Meteora by modern climbers), climbed over 600 years ago by a free-soloing monk?
As crazy as that sounds, there are said to be even earlier climbing exploits: some sources believe the first Meteoran summits were attained as early as the 9th century. Dietrich Hasse speculates that in the 14th century an overhanging section of 5.7 was climbed on the shortest aspect of Alyssos, a massive cliff that towers 1,000 feet over Kalambaka.
It’s fantastic to wonder about the hermetic monks and their motivations for building, at first, huts, and later the massive monasteries atop these inaccessible peaks. The common belief is that the monks sought refuge and religious freedom from the expanding and oppressive Turkish Empire. Upon seeing the monasteries first hand, any marauding Turks must have turned away, heads shaking like those of tourists in Yosemite: How did the monks get up there?
Actually, legend has it that Saint Athanasios, the founder of the monastery on Broad Rock in 1344, did not scale the 100-foot, 5.6, near-vertical cliff, but was carried there by an eagle. Other accounts vaguely claim that he hired a local climber to bring him to the summit. Clearly, the monks’ climbing had an element of necessity, but I like to think that adventure, ingenuity and a faith-based go-for-broke attitude likewise possessed them to summit these audacious peaks.
Consider, for example, that upon establishing the monasteries, the monks used ropes and baskets to transport supplies and other monks up and down vertical faces, some 200 feet high. When asked how often the handcrafted ropes are replaced, the monks’ ancient and famous reply has always been, “When the Lord lets them break!”
After my history lesson at the Monastery, I felt even wimpier. I rationalized that the monks had been driven by survival, and emboldened with their faith in God. Faith that success or failure was in God’s hands amounted to cheating, as near as I could tell. Still, I vowed to make it up something the next day.
I partnered with Sanam Pejuhesh, an American friend who now lives and teaches English in Arco, Italy. I had e-mailed her from Kalymnos, cajoling her with the virtues of Meteoran climbing, which, at the time, I knew nothing about. The two of us chose a highly recommended classic, The Pillar of Dreams, a nine-pitch 5.9.
Sanam looked up for the first bolt, which, of course, was nowhere to be seen.
“This isn’t exactly sport climbing, is it?” she asked, consulting Hasse’s cryptic guidebook. The guidebook is full of strange symbols, unfamiliar even to world travelers like Sanam. “Hey, what’s the ‘(!)’ mean?” she asked.
“I think that means it’s a good route,” I lied. I had been avoiding routes with the “(!)” symbol, which means serious and run-out. What I had begun to find, though, and what the guidebook had not mentioned, is that the rock is usually more solid and clean on the very popular routes.
I started up the first pitch, hoping I was going the right way. The rock was solid and after some hunting around, I stumbled upon the first ring bolt, 40 feet up. With no fear of breaking knobs, we felt free to negotiate the run-outs (up to 40 feet on easy terrain) with confidence, climbing through fields of cobblestones, some bigger than a basketball, others smaller than a marble. A squeeze chimney on the fourth pitch was the crux, with just a few spots that would accept a single cam—spooky, but not horrendous. By the time we reached the broad, grassy summit, Sanam’s frown had turned to her usual radiant grin.
On a rest day, Tania introduced me to George Vaiou and Vangelis Batsios, local climbers who had broken with tradition by bolting on rappel. Like proud parents, they steered us toward their eight-pitch Action Direct (5.11 A0 or 5.13b), a brilliant and steep line that follows an ominous jet-black, knobby water streak up a monolithic portion of the Holy Ghost. With bolts only 10 or 12 feet apart, the route could almost be called a sport climb.
George, delighted that we immediately climbed and loved his route, decided that it was time for Tania and me to meet the Man. He arranged a visit with Dietrich Hasse the next day at Hasse’s summer home in Kastraki.
Hasse turned out to be very friendly and generous with his time. His disarmingly sweet smile didn’t jibe with my fantasy of him as a severe psycho who wanted to kill me with his run-outs. Instead we sat on the back porch of his small stucco house, looking out upon most of the massive Meteoran rocks, as he served lemonade and potato chips. Hasse is 76 and no longer climbs, but he is still passionate about his routes and Meteora. I asked about the huge run-outs and single-bolt belays, but he waved my concerns away like a bothersome fly, saying, “There has been only one serious injury in the entire history of modern Meteora climbing!”
When I asked him about some of the climbs that combined 30-foot run-outs and bad rock, he chided, “You must always climb with three points of contact.” I couldn’t really argue, despite having taken sudden whippers here on steep rock when knobs had popped; he was living proof that his approach had worked for him.
As the days went by, I chose my climbs more carefully. On solid rock I was able to climb more freely even high above the bolts. Other discoveries were warm spinach pie (at 7 a.m.) from the bakery in Kastraki, and $2 gyros in Kalambaka. For dinner I shared the camaraderie of Greek and German climbers by the outdoor cooking pavilion in the campground. In the evenings I walked through mazes of thousand-foot monoliths, discovered quiet brooks, secret monasteries and the flowering meadows hidden within them.
On rest days, I took day trips to an endless supply of wonderful places, such as a 108-degree F waterfall in the nearby town of Thermopoulis. To the west I found deserted white sand beaches with dazzling blue water. Everywhere, I met friendly locals and learned that Greek mythology is alive and well. I heard stories of seven-day earthquakes that created mountain ranges and oceans. I photographed a super-strong local and policeman-in-training, Christos Tsourvakas, on a splitter arête called Dragonian Devil (5.13c) that forms the right side of a huge cave. When asked about the name, he told me the myth of the Dragon Man.
“He lived here in this cave, and terrorized the locals back in the 1940s or ’50s,” he said. “He threatened and screamed at anyone who came close.”
According to the myth, God or fate collapsed the cave’s roof onto the madman, squashing him. When I asked where the remains of the Dragon Man were, Christos raised an eyebrow, and responded with the chilling words, “Under the boulder we are sitting on!”
It has sometimes seemed to me that in Europe only the biggest, most important events are written about in the history books, while the smaller episodes pass down from generation to generation through the hazy lenses of local memories until they become myth. No one remembers the name of the Dragon Man, or if he was schizophrenic or just plain evil.
Likewise, no one really knows for certain who first climbed any of the towers in Meteora, or how or why. But the evidence of ancient climbing is everywhere: an old hut on a high ledge here, an abandoned lattice of ancient wooden pegs and platforms there. Prayer flags in a cave 200 feet up on a blank wall! It’s up to you to ponder the improbability, and if you do, you might find that that stretch of rock to the next distant bolt is not really that far after all.
Jim Thornburg has eked out a living as a climbing photographer for over 20 years. He is currently working on a photography book about North American climbing areas. Check out www.jimthornburg.com.