“On belay!” The call echoed off the jagged walls towering on either side of me. Alesha and our guide Kostas were out of sight, somewhere near the base of an unseen cliff. A sharp boulder sat precariously on a steep ridge, blocking my line of vision. I felt the climbing rope tension as Kostas took up the slack. I unclipped my carabiner from a secured anchor bolt, stepped out onto the exposed slope, and started climbing.
The summit of the Great Saint loomed above me.
I shuffled and scrambled along the scree, following the snaking rope towards the rest of my team. They soon appeared as I inched my way closer, careful not to kick any loose stones to the bottom of the mountain. Eventually reaching the ledge that Kostas and Alesha were perched on, I clipped onto another bolt, securing myself to the mountain once again.
We were just at the beginning of the prized via ferrata in Meteora. The best was yet to come…
The conglomerate and sandstone cliffs of Meteora have been attracting rock climbers for over a millennia. When hermit monks first arrived in the 9th century, they were drawn to the caves in the sheer pinnacles as a place to seek refuge. They became expert free climbers, ascending and descending the cliffs on a daily basis.
Over the years more hermit monks flocked to the area, establishing a small orthodox community.
In the 14th century Athanasios Koinovitis from Mount Athos brought his followers to Meteora, and founded the Meteoron monastery. He asked the hermit monks to teach his group the skills required to climb the captivating mountains, to ensure protection from political battles in the area. The attraction to climb the peaks lives on to this day.
24 monasteries were built over the following years, but now only 6 remain in use. Today the monks and nuns use cable cars to reach their places of meditation and worship, but modern-day climbing aficionados still flock to Meteora in droves.
Meaning “suspended in the air”, one glance at the monasteries hanging meticulously on narrow summits, it easy to see where Meteora got its name.
The tallest mountain in Meteora, the Great Saint, remained largely devoid of these monastic wonders of architecture. This did not stop us from wanting to conquer it for ourselves.
While some of the routes are rated as intensely difficult in the rock climbing world, the via ferrata on the Great Saint is accessible to trekkers who are fit, yet inexperienced with ropes and climbing skills. Having not done any serious rock climbing in a few years, we were excited to ease back into the world with this mellow, but beautiful, trek.
We had teamed up with the professional outfit at Visit Meteora to truly discover the region, and were loving every moment in the phenomenal scenery. George, the manager of Visit Meteora, had learned that we loved our active adventures, and had decided to book us in for a day of climbing and scrambling to quench our thirst for adrenalin.
It was a still and clear morning when our experienced guide Kostas picked us up from the family-run guesthouse ‘Alsos House‘ in Kalambaka. We jumped into his small hatchback and drove to the base of the Great Saint, chatting about his climbing history around Greece and the Dolomites. Kostas has been climbing since he was a kid – something that can be said of most locals in Meteora.
His humour matched his loveable personality. “Like most climbers, I spend all my money on equipment and travel. That’s why I have such a crappy car,” he joked, tapping the dash of his aged and beloved car.
Kostas talked a bit about the history of Meteora, and the unique geology of the region as we pulled up at the tiny carpark on the Great Saint. He helped Alesha and I fit our harnesses and helmets, and gave us a rundown on how the carabiners and lanyards work. This was not our first time using climbing gear, but we appreciated Kostas’ dedication to ensuring we knew how everything worked.
We trekked through a leafy forest, following a dirt path until we reached the base of the Spindle, the small monolith that is recognisable all over Meteora. I guided my eyes along the bolted route, wanting to lead to the top. But behind me was the imposing Great Saint, and that is where we were headed for today.
The Great Saint is the tallest mountain in Meteora, at 630m above sea level. We would not be able to reach the summit, due to the existing bolts being ancient and unsafe. Instead, there is a tall Catholic cross built between two peaks, which can be seen from the village of Kalambaka. The cross was our target.
The hike gradually got more difficult as we reached the craggy slopes. The first few sections were easy to navigate, but any error or misplaced step could potentially end in serious injury. Luckily Kostas led the way, running the ropes and top belaying as we crept our way upwards.
We took turns trekking through the exposed slope, eventually reaching a thin crevice that carved its way into the mountain. Only a metre wide in parts, we placed each foot on either side and balanced through the crack.
At the end of every traverse we were met with a different challenge. We powered on, making good time towards the cross. At one point we had to skirt along a narrow edge, barely a foot wide, and bordered with steep cliffs above and below. The security of the harnesses, carabiners and ropes guided us safely through every part.
Kostas stopped us to point out an ancient staircase, carved by the monks centuries before. They had chiseled out a platform to drop a heavy door, stopping any invaders from following their path to the top. Even today the years of wind and rain had barely eroded the intricate work.
Rounding a corner we caught glimpse of our final prize – the iconic cross.
A short descent aided by a thick rope helped us close in on the goal, and before too long we had reached the end of our via ferrata in Meteora.
Far below us the village of Kalambaka was a hive of activity, but at this vantage point it was serenely silent. We sat on the grass and gazed out at the surrounding mountains. The beauty of Meteora is hard to describe. Lush farmlands set in vibrant plains, punctuated with the famous grey pinnacles, and snow-capped mountains forming the picturesque background. It is simply divine, in every sense of the word.
Our stay on the top was brief. We snapped some photos, relished in the unrivalled views, and began our descent. “Careful,” Kostas continuously called out. “The descent is more dangerous than the climb…And I’m hungry.” We agreed, and skilfully followed our route back down.
It had only taken us around an hour to reach the cross, but time felt as though it had stood still while we scrambled our way along the trail. Perhaps that is why the monasteries and mountains of Meteora are said to be timeless.
Kostas drove us back to Alsos Guesthouse, and we thanked him for bringing us safely up the Great Saint, and most importantly, back down. Alesha and I sat down on the patio, cracked some beers, and stared up at the sandstone and conglomerate pinnacles all around.
The via ferrata in Meteora was just one small part of our journey in the region, but offered a unique insight into a previous life led by the hermit monks of the region. We may not have climbed to seek refuge from political battles; it was simply for our own enjoyment. But having seen Meteora, while being “suspended in the air”, we like to think the monks also appreciated the simple act of climbing, just to bask in the beauty of those indescribable views at the top.
We partnered with Visit Meteora to experience the scramble and via ferrata on the Great Saint. We were also hosted by Alsos House for two nights in the area. As usual, all thoughts and ramblings are our own.
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