The Mountain Of The Gods
The Olympus Massif seen from Skolio
A few years back I read the amazing novel by John Fowles called The Magus. In the story, two of the main characters visit one of the refuges on Mount Olympus in Greece. They did not attempt to climb the mountain but merely came to see the terrain and appreciate the history. This part of the story raised my interest in the mountain. The ancient Greeks worshiped the 12 god's called The Olympians who were named for their dwelling place, Mount Olympus. Now the idea began to form in my mind that maybe I could climb this "mountain of the gods".
Some research revealed that Olympus has several high points along a long ridge and the highest, Mytikas, is 2917 meters or 9570 feet. The standard route ends with a long exposed rock scramble. I decided that it was probably within my abilities but wouldn't know for sure until trying. When the trip went beyond a possibility to a definite plan, I made contact with several of the local people. I contacted a guiding service, a climbing club, and a worker in one of the refuges. My correspondence with these people convinced me that my original idea of climbing in the end of April was likely too early in the season and it would be better to wait until June. I therefore set my window of opportunity for the end of May / beginning of June.
After some difficulty with the Greek train system coming out of Athens and also seeing a bit of evidence of the current political unrest, I arrived in the town of Litohoro on the afternoon of May 29th. I first went straight to the information booth downtown. I asked the lady working there about the current conditions on the route. She told me that the route doesn't melt off each year until the middle of June. She further assured me that at the moment the snow up there was quite dangerous and impossible to climb. This set my mind in a panic. I thought about the possibility of renting an ice axe and boots for snow. I left the booth preparing for the worst but still hoping for the best.
Next I called the refuge to ask the people up on the mountain what they knew. What they told me was much more encouraging. Maria said that the snow was only patchy and expected to melt off in a day or two. In fact, two people had made it to the summit that day. Feeling reassured I wondered how someone working in an information booth could be giving out such bad information. To maximize my chance of success, I decided to start on the 31st.
The only decision left to make was whether to make the climb in one day or two. At home in the Cascade Range, I occasionally faced days requiring 7,000 or 8,000 feet of vertical gain. I was tempted by the idea that a one day ascent would be a greater accomplishment. What eventually won me over was the prospect of lodging in a genuine European climbing refuge. In the American wilderness we have nothing like that. European climbing culture is so far advanced in comparison. Even the masses have accepted climbing as a worthwhile past time. Due to unfavorable media in America, a lot of the general public views climbing as an unreasonably risky sport carried out by people who are psychologically unsound. Talking with Maria on the phone, I was shocked and excited to hear that Refuge A has a complete restaurant and showers as well. That settled it. I would try Olympus in the local fashion and make a relaxed two-day ascent.
On the morning of the 31st I hired a taxi to take me to the Prionia gate and trail head. The driver told me his opinion on the current economic disaster in Greece and all the trouble the politicians have made for the people. He also said that he is forced to work 365 days a year and explained that it was pretty much impossible to pay for college for his daughter.
I started walking at 7:25 AM and was at the refuge by 10:00 AM, gaining 3215 feet (980 meters). This upper portion of the Enipeas River Gorge was well forested with beech trees. At the beginning I crossed a picturesque bridge and strayed from the trail a short way to see a waterfall. Further on I crossed the riverbed in a dry section where the water was running underground. At one point I caught a glimpse of some of the summit pinnacles up above. Nearing the refuge, the trees became patchy and some bare slopes were covered in grasses and alpine flowers. Just before arriving at the refuge I crossed one large avalanche chute filled with dirty snow. The path was cut into the snow. No need for an ice axe or boots here.
Refuge A was even more impressive than I had imagined, constructed of sound masonry stones. There were two large buildings, one for the two dining rooms and gift-shop / store, the other contained bunk beds and wash rooms. I asked the man behind the counter at reception if he had any update on the weather prediction. He told me that it was expected to rain during the night and possibly the next day as well. He also said that people coming down from the different summits today had said that it was very cold and windy up top. With this information I walked back outside to the terrace and looked up toward the summit. There were a lot of clouds in the sky but a big open hole was hanging over the summit. Sun was covering the whole summit massif. I thought to myself "this might be it, if you wait until tomorrow, you may never get another chance". I quickly went back inside. My mind was set. I repacked my bag leaving behind some overnight items and was back on the trail by 10:50 AM. I didn't even stop to eat.
Above the refuge, the wind was picking up speed the higher I went. The terrain changed rapidly and soon there were no plants in sight, just grey rocky slopes. Some of the gusts nearly caused me to lose my balance. At one point I stopped and experimented with completely leaning against the wind. It was strong enough to hold me up. I was fearful that gusts like these between 30 and 50 miles an hour (50 and 80 km) would make the final scramble over to Mytikas too dangerous.
Rounding the bend at 8200 feet (2500 meters) I could see the high point of Skala above which is located between Skolio and Mytikas. Now I could see a lot of snow on the slopes around me but the trail ahead was totally free. I was really fighting the wind at this point stopping to brace myself during the strong gusts so that I wouldn't lose my footing on the loose rocks. I zipped up the zipper of my jacket so that it would cover part of my face. I could feel the effects of thin oxygen on my brain as I made slow progress toward Skala. My thoughts slowed down and I experienced that familiar dull euphoria of altitude.
By 1:00 pm I was on top of Skala, 9403 feet (2866 meters) and I had my first intimate view of Mytikas. It looked pretty gnarly from that vantage but I reminded myself that usually these routes are not as bad as they look from a distance. Once you get your hands on them, there is often plenty to hold onto. There were three German's on Skala and one of them came right up to me and began speaking. I could tell from his body language that he wanted something. He explained that the three of them had travelled from Germany to climb this mountain but that his two friends upon seeing Mytikas in person had decided to turn around and go down. He asked me if I planned on climbing Mytikas and if I would go with him since it's safer to climb with another person. I was happy to get such a request and I prefer to do this kind of thing with company. I told him "yes, I will go with you". He was very happy and joked that he knew I was coming and had been waiting for me for an hour. I paused only to put on a second polar fleece and eat some cookies, and then we were underway.
The first part of the scramble was fretfully exposed and required some down-climbing. Guido (pronounced Edo) led the way and showed me how the entire route was marked with red and yellow paint marks on the rocks. That surely took the guesswork out of the route finding and I was glad to have the confidence of being sure we were going the safest possible way. He had read some books about this climb in preparation. I hadn't been able to find any in English. The ground we were covering was not entirely vertical but a mistake here would lead to a fatal drop of nearly a thousand feet. I'm not familiar with the other climbing rating scales but by American standards this route was mostly YDS class 3 with several class 4 sections. Thankfully the gusts of wind were coming from the west and our route traversed the eastern cliffs so we were sheltered from the worst of it.
After 40 minutes of scrambling we reached the false summit and saw that the true summit was nearby. We had to descend one more time and cross a notch before climbing to the summit at 9570 feet (2917 meters). Mytikas the highest point in Greece! I made it! The "Mountain of the Gods" is my third international high point! Guido and I took a few minutes taking pictures of each other with the flag, holding it in place as the wind tried to turn it. We only spent 10 minutes on the summit. The wind was fierce and dark clouds were blowing in from the west. We wanted to get past the scramble before there was any chance of any rain.
Back on Skala I said goodbye to Guido. He was going down and I wanted to visit Skolio which is the second highest point in Greece, before descending. It was only a short walk over to Skolio 9551 feet (2911 meters) where I enjoyed my second summit of the day. The view of Mytikas, Skala and the other high points of Touba, Profitis Ilias , and Stefani were unique from this vantage point. There is a giant chasm dropping 2600 feet (800 meters) just west of those summits. From Skolio it's quite a sight.
I made a good pace on the descent and caught up to Guido before reaching the Refuge. I met his two friends and found them to be pleasantly intellectual. We sat in the dining room and talked for 5 hours glad to be out of the wind. I ordered two dinners, spaghetti with meatballs and veal with potatoes. It was the fastest service of anywhere I had been in Greece. On the way to the bunk house, in the dark, I caught a glimpse of the lights of Litohoro far below. I was amazed to think that I would be walking all the way through Enipeas Gorge to get down there tomorrow. I had decided to take the long way back on the E4 trail rather than catching a taxi at Prionia.
The next morning I delayed my departure by a few hours due to scattered showers. The weather report had been correct and I felt bad for the people who had planned to climb that day. There was no way they would be able to do the scramble on wet rocks. I left the refuge at 9:40 AM and made good time reaching Prionia by 11:00 AM. The rain was fairly light up to that point. Below Prionia I crossed a number of wooden bridges over the Enipeas River. Here the trail began alternating between ascending and descending as it navigated among the cliffs and rough features of the gorge. With only 7 miles (11 km) left to go, I became tired from the effort of the previous day.
At one spot in the trail I came upon a snake which I jumped over since I was moving too fast to stop. I'm not positive but I think it might have been a viper of some kind. I later came to the small chapel of Aghios Dhionisios built into a natural cave. About two thirds of the way to Litohoro, the rain became constant and heavy. My clothes were soaked but I didn't mind because the air was warm and the water kept me cool. I made it back to town by 2:40 PM. Walking over the wet cobblestones, I enjoyed the sense of accomplishment, and I thought back to those exposed sections on the route to Mytikas.
For more photographs and videos from this trip to Egypt and Greece, check out the trip report on NWHiker.net