The Mountains within

I was not born a mountain person. I began my life surrounded by water and passed my childhood safely away from the higher altitudes. I was taught to love nature but I was never pointed to look towards the hills. My first “mountain experience” came in my early twenties when I decided to drag along some friends to hike the Enipeas gorge in Mt Olympus. We did so, wearing Timberland boots (which at the time seemed really technical and sophisticated) and carrying Polo bags. I had attached a black whistle to my Polo which I was supposed to use in case of emergency (…) That was the late 90s. Funnily enough I still carry that whistle on my climbing backpack as an inside joke between me and myself. And funnily enough, no matter how absurd it must look nobody has ever asked me about it. People must think I am weird 🙂

Since that first walk in the foothills of Olympus, I have been extremely lucky to visit a fair amount of mountains all over the world. Certainly not as many as I was imagining myself climbing during my descent from Enipeas gorge that summer day of 1998 (when I decided that I wanted to be a mountaineer 🙂 ) but quite a few to form an integral part of who I am.

Probably the most impressive mountains I have set my eyes upon have been the Fitz Roy and the Torres del Paine in Argentinian and Chilean Patagonia respectively. I visited them both on the same -three weeks- trip. Both were totally overwhelming to behold. Both were besieged by hundreds of shutter-happy hikers which nevertheless did not dilute either their magic or their awesomeness. It’s impossible to describe the dominating presence of these giants on the landscape and the crushing effect on the psyche of the mortals raising their heads to behold them. The key word here is prominence. These mountains rise so sharply out of the Patagonian steppe that the resulting dramatic effect has no topographic equal that I know of. Most photos I have taken of the peaks feel like laughable attempts to capture their true majesty. Summiting them is a game for few people which I can only contemplate with mixed dread and awe.

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The giants of Patagonia are impressive but nevertheless the stone heart of our planet resides in the highlands of central Asia. I am not ashamed to admit that I shed a tear upon viewing the Himalayas for the first time as their peaks emerged from the haze and dust of the Nepalese dirt roads. I had the extreme luck to walk these high lands and briefly come in contact with the mountainous societies of Langtang Lirung in Nepal back in 2009. It nearly cost me my life but it was worthwhile nevertheless 😉 Despite the fact that I had been surrounded by some of the highest and most beautiful mountains on earth, the most lasting impression of that journey was that of the mountain people and not the mountains themselves. Meeting these isolated societies and experiencing their way of life stripped down from all assumed romanticism (as we are prone to portray it in the West) was a harsh life-changing lesson. The mountains are cruel homes and this was written on the eyes and foreheads of the mountain people. Nevertheless the Himalayan peaks have stayed with me both beautiful and terrible to this day.

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The Andes and the Himalayas being mighty and impressive, it was another mountain land that emerged as the most beautiful of my trips. Of all the mountains we had the chance to visit none felt as ethereal and dreamlike as the improbable granite peaks of the Norwegian Lofoten islands, situated just above the Arctic cycle. These jagged fairy kingdoms jump out of the Arctic Ocean, too beautiful and dramatic to be part of this world. As if the Creator had tweaked too much the curves on the world creation 3D software and the result was too unrealistic to be believable.

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And then, on the other side of the world, on the Australian desert where mountains have eroded down to red dust millions of years ago, one monolith still stands appropriately weird, mystifying and totally Cthulhian. The alien Uluru, easily the weirdest mountain landscape I have ever set foot upon. So out of this world that you can simply stand mesmerized staring at it for hours trying to comprehend what is so wrong about it. I am not a spiritual person (in fact I might be exactly the opposite) but looking at this rock was one of these experiences that you can easily fool yourself to believe to have a touch of spiritual interaction with the supernatural (a quite acceptable reaction if you are a Stone age hunter roaming the Australian desert).

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And so it goes on and on…All across this wonderful world we have broken boots, knees and egos, visiting mountains, walking around them, sometimes climbing them and ultimately paying our respect to their eternal beauty.

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And yet…

… having seen all these wonders of the mountain world, improbable as it sounds, it is the Greek mountains that I most long to return to, every time the mountain thirst takes over me. Some of the most treasured moments of my life have been carved in the shadows of those peaks of Attika, Roumeli, Epirus and the Peloponnese. Humble compared to the wonders of the world but precious to my own heart. For I have grown to understand that the true mountain experience, must have an element of solitude and self-reflection and I have really never managed to experience this on my short trips in faraway lands as much as I do in our precious little hills.

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It is true and right that we need to travel to distant places to broaden our perspectives, expand our understanding of what is real, and discover the wide and improbable beauty of the pale blue dot. But it is also true that we need to return to familiar places to search inward in the reassuring familiarity and the cleansing solitude our mountain ranges can still offer.

This solitude has been a quintessential part of my personal definition of the mountain experience. Some of my most treasured mountain memories have been such lonesome moments. These are the ones I miss most nowadays that my shitty knees stop me from venturing alone too far.

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Fortunately solitude can be had in the closest of the hills and this is the blessing of this wonderful land we live in. I feel more tranquil deliberately lost in the woods of Parnitha than I would ever be in the Patagonian steppes among the hordes of hiking freaks rushing from one “designated camp site” to the other and overambitious climbing junkies obsessing with the unattainable weather forecasts. I can recall some the most soothing moments of my life walking alone in the emptiness of Vardousia and Gkiona heading up on the hidden plateaus of the mountains and feeling that there is no single human being for miles and miles around.

Such moments have always given me a sense of proportion, a definition of self and a touching glimpse to the raw beauty of the young Earth before the dominance of man.

I truly hope we will all continue to enjoy it.

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