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Zagori, Winter hike to Drakolimni

The Zagori region,located in Northwest Greece, is one of the favorites of Higher Than Everest (HTE) for excursions and treks. Last December, with a group of enthusiastic hikers we started our trip aiming to reach Drakolimni lake of Tymfi. Our team's leader, Satyabrata Dam (Satya) presence, dispelled any doubts that might have arisen in the minds of the novice participants. The unknown always scares you but choosing to take your first steps next to a guide like him, it gives you the confidence you need to enjoy and focus on the essentials during the hike.

In winters, the sun sets early in the afternoon. In order to complete our journey to the lake and return before it gets dark(it takes at least eight hours, due to the snowy terrain), we start early Saturday morning before sunrise. Walking in the dark for a novice hiker is a unique experience in itself. With the headlamps illuminating the narrow stone-built streets of Mikro Papigo (the place from where the trail starts and also one of the most stunning villages in Greece) and our whispers breaking the night silence, soon we reach the starting point of the O3 path. We pass the first spring with fresh water (Ambragonios spring), we fill our water bottles and continue the climb up. Soon we turn off the headlights, since the full moon allows walking without the use of artificial light.

Passing one by one the wooden kiosks, placed next to the water sources along the path, we take a short break every two kiosks, eat some of the snacks we carry, adjust our clothes and continue. At the height (1748m) of the last spring "Kruna”, we wear our gaiters. The snow is now a lot, making each step more difficult. We are now quite exposed to the cold wind, and although the team follows Satya with determination, I can see the uncertainty depicted in their eyes. It happens often when beggineres face bad weather for the first time. Doubts and fear have risen, along with questions like: «Will I make it? Will I stand the cold? What if I run out of energy and won’t be able to return? What will happen if I get frostbite (yes, they even worry about this version even though this is not possible in this case)? Such and many more questions flood the minds of hikers who are first confronted, not so much with the extreme weather, but mainly with themselves, their phobias and doubts about their abilities and limits. I have seen it happen in front of me many times but I also felt it myself, as a beginner. I try to relax and motivate them to show them that everything is under control, but I also let them experience it for a while and let them find their own footsteps, to become stronger.

The weather is "closing", the wind is building but the team is vigorous. As soon as the leader is climbing up, so are we. We trust his infallible judgment. Everything is fine,however I'm sure some of the team members are whispering to themselves: why am I doing this to myself; why I left the comfort of my home” and many others that could fill an entire page.

But this is the moment where the feeling of satisfaction and almightiness is built step by step with every little success and progress we make in the snowy terrain. When we return back home, all the weary difficulties will be forgotten and the feeling of victory will arise . A victory that makes you dream of even higher peaks, even greater goals; a victory that makes everyday struggles seem manageable.
So, step by step we reached the Astraka´s hut (closed for the time being) at the saddle, standing like a guardian among the towers formed by the mountain peaks around it.
From there we will follow a downward route to Xeroloutsa, Laka Tsoumani (cavity with water) and we will cross it from above, since in the winter months it freezes.

Staying at the hut´s balcony we are exposed to the elements of nature from all sides, making our break for relaxation a nightmare. Nevertheless, the view from 1926 meters takes our breath away. Everything is covered with snow and the panoramic view transports you to the Alps.

B, devours the snacks she has carried, trying to maintain the temperature in her body, thinking that the more food she consumes the faster she will warm up, while S and A kiss each other, taking souvenir photos, showing their love but mainly their admiration for each other for managing to reach even here. George, with his restless spirit and while chewing one of the dried royal dates that he loves to carry on every hike (and they are in high demand by all of us!), explores the area around the shelter, allowing himself to integrate with the environment.

I, with a big smile on my face (visible even above the bandana that covers almost all my head) live in the moment, realizing once again why I return again and again back to the mountains.
And while the team refuels and takes the necessary souvenir photos, Satya goes down to Xeroloutsa to check the quality of the snow and find the safest route to continue. Our descent to Xeroloutsa requires all our attention as the slope is quite steep. The snow at one specific part of the slope is quite icy and without crampons the descent will be hazardous. We have two options.Either we go back or we “open” the trail by digging the ice, creating a kind of "stairs". With my help, Satya uses his mountaineering ice axes and the crampons on his boots (we are the only two with the extra equipment required) we dig the ice and create a path with stairs that makes the descent safe.

One after the other, following the footsteps of the one in front of us, we cross the difficult point and continue ahead for about an hour and a half, approaching the end of the route.
Our impatience to reach the lake, combined with the fatigue and the increasingly strong wind, makes the last steps endless. However we follow Satya who tries to encourage us by saying: “Come on guys, we are almost there”. He has a magic way to make things look easy. The way he moves on ice and snow is like floating; as if there is no friction or strange for him.

And this is how we keep on climbing up and down and then up again until the point we finally see him, reaching the top of the slope, he stops for a second, looks down and then around with astonishment, at something that makes his jaw drop. It is the view of the frozen lake “Drakolimni” that lies among the hills, creating a mesmerizing scenery. She is dressed in white and allows us to walk and even jump on her. She will remain frozen until the end of spring. Her name is after the newts, a rare species of amphibian lizard that lives in it. If you are bold enough you can even swim when the ice melts and then she reaches 3m depth.

The joy and excitement of everyone overflows. Screams of triumph echo on the steep slopes of Tymfi and in a second the cold and the fatigue we feel disappears. Only satisfaction is mirrored in everyone's eyes. The girls, being more spontaneous, jump into Satyas's arms, showing him their gratitude that led them here safely and that he proved to them that, in the end, it was not as difficult as it might have seemed at first.
"If you don't try you will never learn how far you can go" Satya said and with those words in our minds we dance in joy on the frozen lake.

In addition nature sends us one more gift as an extra trophy to our struggles; suddenly a gentle snowfall begins and we let the thick snowflakes land on our faces, as if the sky sent thousands of kisses, for us.
However, each "peak" marks halfway, Satya soon gives the return sign. The weather starts "closing" and gray clouds are forming, fast in the sky, designating the end of our stay in the lake. We have to move fast before it gets dark and before bad weather finds us while in the wilderness.
Stronger, confident and full of pride, we load the backpacks on our backs (B's obviously lighter, since she has already consumed almost all that snacks she carried with her!), we cover the exposed skin and we take the road back.

Various thoughts are now swirling in everyone's mind; starting from the food we will enjoy next to the lit fireplace, to the moment we will take off our (wet for some) boots and let our tired body sink in the warmth of our beds. And while commonplace images flood our minds, the frozen lake scene with the panoramic view of the wild alpine landscape comes to the fore again to remind us why we put your body and mind in such misery and ordeal.

Yes, it is worth every labor and we would definitely do it again! In fact we will return soon. In summer the landscape changes utterly and transforms into an even more mind blowing scenery. June is approaching and we are looking forward to our next already fixed trip to Drakolimni.

C u on top!

Drakolimni during summer time.

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