I’d not been since the 1960s to Crete’s Samaria Gorge, with its history of human settlement stretching back to the 8th century BC. So when our son Barney, who’s taking some time off after 8 years working with the travel company Expedia, agreed two weeks ago that he could join me for some high mountain hiking there, it was a great chance to escape rain-soaked England for a few days.

Only 24 hours out of Manchester we were en route for Omalos in the west of the island. At 1100 metres this mountain plateau is the springboard for the magnificent 16 kilometre descent of Europe’s longest gorge to Agia Roumeli on the south coast and we were eager to be off.

Then came the shock when we stopped at a local taverna. Serving us our lunch, Maria reported that they had just found that morning the bodies of two members of an escorted group of 31 Polish tourists. There had been a massive search of the Gorge for 4 days but without water, the 37 year old brother and his 40 year old sister had been unable to survive the temperatures of up to 45 C.

The walk through Samaria Gorge is strenuous and hot but the 5-7 hour route is obvious enough, with steps and railings, WCs, resting and water points, a medical centre and even a helipad – all provided with the aid of generous EU grants for setting up this National Park.

How I wondered could people in a guided group die or even get lost and we found ourselves piecing together the story and events from people we met and from newspaper accounts. Rumours and theories were initially rife, but over the next 6 days we built up a consistent picture of just what had happened (though a coroner’s report is still awaited).

  • The group leader failed for two days to report that the two were missing.
  • The authorities were told the two were seen in the Samaria Gorge itself; and because of this 4 days were wasted on searching the wrong area.
  • On 26 July the brother was found still just alive by a Greek walker who had decided himself to climb above and away from the Samaria Gorge to the more westerly and dangerous Tripiti gorge.
  • The two made no contact via mobile phone to seek help during their 6 day ordeal – presumably because there was no coverage available.
  • The Greek walker had climbed higher in order to use his mobile phone to get news back to the cafe at the head of the Gorge.
  • The resulting search party found the two bodies early on 27th July after a long night climb; and helped the Greek walker back to safety.
  • It’s a tragic story but will lessons be learnt about support and emergency procedures, staff training, registration and group sizes? Basic mountain craft procedures of counting the group in and out of the Gorge were simply not used and there were the other obvious failings (identified above).

    Nor do the Park’s own control systems appear to have been put in place for checking off all successful descents at the southern exit point of the Gorge. Our own exit control counterfoils (See No 24753 below) were not checked or requested from us by the Park officials at the exit gate despite our early descent on 28 July being only a day after the bodies of the two walkers had been found.

    Ticket for Gorge with counterfoil, not removed.

    Finally there’s a key question about the deployment of mobile phone technology. With up to 800 people being bussed daily into the Samaria Gorge (and perhaps 50,000 in a full season), this is big business and a major income generator for the whole island.

    This area of the White Mountains is no ordinary remote wilderness, but a place of mass tourism where the vast majority of people will not be experienced mountaineers but will have a mobile phone.

    A phone mast on the top of Mount Gigolos above the Gorge at 1964 metres (See photo below) wouldn’t stop mistakes being made, but it would provide coverage for emergency calls for most of the area. Is this too much to ask for to lessen the risks to life in this wild and wonderful walkway?

    Mt Gigolos above the Samaria Gorge - a suitable site for a phone mast for SOS calls.

    Perhaps the EU Commission should be asking this question when next it comes to consider an application for a tourism development project for Crete. In the meantime though if you’re travelling abroad, check out the emergency number you need to use for the relevant country on this website. The number 112 is widely used in Europe but it’s worth checking the details before you go.

    Sadly it would not have helped Marek and Danuta Sawicka last week.

    POSTSCRIPT – 10 August 2007

    Yesterday Polish Radio announced that prosecutors in Wroclaw, capital of Lower Silesia, were investigating the deaths to discover if the travel company which organised the trip had put the two walkers into unnecessary danger.

    Advertisements