Mount Olympus is a giant massif with several prominent peaks. It is only located about twenty miles from the Aegean Sea, creating a bizarre contrast of idyllic beaches and snow-capped mountain peaks equaled only by Pomona's Ski-Beach Day (someone's taken the college tour). In terms of topographic layout, it is quite similar to Mount Whitney, with broad ridges separating steep rock faces. There are numerous peaks on the summit ridge. The central peaks are the most dramatic: Skolio (2,910 m), Skala (2,866 m), Mytikas (2,917 m), and Stefani (2,909 m) (left to right as seen from the east). Skolio and Skala can be reached with little more than a scramble over rock reminiscent of the "crushed graham crackers" of the Cascades. Mytikas requires a traverse over snow with a significant drop-off from an exposed ridge and a much steeper climb to the summit. If you are at all apprehensive about it, I would highly recommend opting for Skolio.
Olympus can be hiked in one, very long day or broken into two days, with a night's stay at Refuge A halfway up the mountain. Because it juts up into the sky so far above its surroundings, it has the tendency to create its own weather. On the day I hiked it, I saw the weather change from perfectly cloudless in the morning to partly cloudy (that great Seattle euphemism) by mid-morning, completely clouded over by noon (but because the mountain was so high, the clouds were surrounding it, creating a strange fog-like environment rather than the overcast conditions one might expect). Then, with little warning, all hell broke loose in the form of a three-hour-long lightning/thunder/hailstorm. So, in other words, follow the Boy Scout motto and Be Prepared.
What equipment to bring? I went all the way to Skolio with my trusty pair of hiking boots my customized SETI Nalgene, a rain jacket, my signature Seattle Sombrero, the Williams Outing Club wool knit hat, and a pair of sunglasses. I probably would have needed some heftier equipment to try Mytikas, such as gloves and gaiters. Some people had ice axes and crampons, but I think that it was mostly for show - where else in Greece can you break out your expensive mountaineering gear?
The town of Litohoro makes an ideal "base camp". It is a strange combination of a seaside Greek town and an alpine Swiss village, as evidenced by the steep-roofed restaurant just off the town square serving souvlaki. There are numerous Mountain Goat-type shops, as well as the requisite vendors of postcards and icons (this is Greece, after all). Getting to it is a bit tricky; the easiest way is to take the KTEL (national bus) from Thessaloniki. However, since I was coming from Delphi in the South, I had to get off the Thessaloniki-bound bus at Katerini, then take a taxi to Litohoro. I stayed at the Hotel Enipeas, which has an amazing view of the valley from its back rooms and is located just northwest (uphill to the right) of the main square. Also, the innkeeper lets you keep your bags in the hotel while you climb the mountain.
Unless a 12-mile hike sounds appealing (which, incidentally, the guidebooks say is rather nice), the standard way to get to the trailhead is by taxi, which runs you 40 Euro (something like $50) roundtrip (catch the taxi at the main square). A windy, but not bumpy (as some books will lead you to believe) road up the Enipeas river valley takes you to Prionia, the beginning of the standard path (there are numerous ways to get to the summit - if you're on campus next year, you can borrow a map that shows them all). Make sure you get the taxi driver’s telephone number (he’ll probably make sure you have it) so that you can call and have him meet you at the base after the descent. From the tavern, the trail begins slowly (if you think the initial grade is steep, you ain't seen nothing), climbing past a group of pack mules (at least when I was there). After switchbacking up an often muddy section (the soil is decisively organic here), it passes several dramatic boulders that could only have come from glaciers, similar to those in the Berkshires.
After crossing the river, the real uphill climb begins. Make no mistake about it: going from Prionia to the summit requires climbing 1,800 meters (5,900 feet). The trail winds its way through the dense forest of the lower river valley. Note how, after a half-mile or so, the ecology changes dramatically, then back again. I think this is due to different types of vegetation corresponding to different altitudes. After making another crossing, (after here, the trail only crosses tributaries, so it's a bit meaningless to say that it crosses the river) the trail climbs up to a ridge with a set of benches and a spigot for water (though it was dry when I hiked in early June). This viewpoint makes for an ideal first stopping point.
From here, the trail continues past a precipitous drop-off, passing the first of many avalanche chutes that hint of the power of the Mountain of the Gods. Again the trail crosses a tributary and climbs up a broad gully. The terrain becomes rockier as the trees begin to thin. At the top of the long climb, the trail crosses the first of many snowfields. Take extra care here – as acrophobes will undoubtedly acknowledge, the fall from the snowfield is long and steep. Especially if steps have not been recently cut, dig into the hill with the side of your shoe, "kicking" out a step. Maintain a low center of gravity; use your hands to balance if necessary. If you ski, the process is similar to a hockey stop, except that when traversing snowfields you don’t want to execute a down-weighting (essentially putting pressure on your heels).
After another lengthy series of snow traverses and switchbacks, including the first of many shortcuts that have left nasty gashes in the hillside, you reach a sign with a slightly ambiguous message. Written in block lettering appear the words "Refugio A, 10 minutes", but they have since been supplemented by the hasty scrawling of "if you run!". Unfortunately, the latter is more correct; though the refuge is relatively close, it is still a little ways before it is reached.
After a little while (or a long while, depending on how tired you are) you reach Refuge A. It is quite an amazing facility. Having come from the West Coast, where there is not so much as an outhouse in the backcountry, I found the lean-to’s dotting the Appalachian Trail to be an annoying intrusion into the pristine forest. However, as I began to use them, I came to appreciate the virtues of what I like to call the "civilized wilderness", where human impact is concentrated, destroying a very small patch of land to protect everything else while facilitating land usage by the masses. Refuge A, also known as the Spilios Agapitos Refuge, is the ultimate in backcountry luxury. It is a full-service restaurant (with some excellent bean soup, as I can personally report), gift shop, and lodge (think of the Mountaineers place at Snoqualmie Pass minus the Swiss Lodge charm and sledding hill). Like any true mountaineering facility, the walls are plastered with pictures of brave expeditions of yesteryear, and the necessary case of antique climbing equipment is near the door. It is well-heated, (believe it or not, this is very important, even in the summer) well-lit, and, most importantly, staffed by the friendly and anglophone members of the family of Kostas Zolotas, the legendary innkeeper whose exploits are detailed on the walls surrounding the main desk. It’s recommended that you tell them that you’re headed up in case something happens.
Above the refuge, the trail flattens out a bit, crossing several precipitous snowfields before beginning a new series of switchbacks heading up a ridge. It is easy to get stuck behind groups (this happened to me), but don’t follow the local practice of cutting switchbacks. Also, remember to yield to downhill hikers, even if others do not (it never hurts to be courteous). After several hundred vertical feet of climbing, the trail makes a sharp left. At the junction, continue to the left (the other path leads to a dangerous rock face).
The trail continues up to a very dramatic saddle in between the eastern ridge of Skala (the small peak in between Skolio and Mytikas) and the northern ridge of Kastro (a lower peak south of the central complex). From here, the summit ridge can finally be seen (if it’s clear). Continuing upwards, two peaks will become clear. Skolio is the more distant peak on the left, while Skala caps the ridge on the right. To climb the Mytikas peak, ascend Skala, cross the ridge, then scramble up the rocky slope (so I’m told). To summit Skolio, follow one of the many trails heading in its direction. Especially if it’s foggy, make sure that you stay on the trail, for on the other side of the ridge lies the Kanzania ("Cauldron"), a 450-meter drop-off that kills more climbers than any other natural hazard on Olympus. At the top are a small rock wind barrier, a box, and just enough room to snap a few pictures.
To descend, retrace your footsteps. A word of advice, though: watch for changing weather. I was halfway down the first ridge above the refuge when a sudden flash went off and an ominous rumbling resonated off the mountain peaks. Unfortunately, I must have been napping when Rescue Bob went over the signs of an approaching storm for the SOLO Wilderness First Aid class. However, I was awake enough to have the fear of death from lightning instilled within me. With the lecture on all of the bad places to be in a lightning storm (such as the open ridge in which I currently found myself) running through my mind, I made a prompt beeline for the relative safety of the trees lower down.
Returning to the refuge, make sure you tell them you’re back. The telephone costs a small amount, but it’s well worth the convenience of having a taxi driver ready to whisk you back down to Litohoro when you’re done hiking. Now, the essential question comes: how long should you allow yourself to hike down? I hiked up to the refuge in about 2 1/4 hours, so I followed my formula that it takes half the time to descend. Figuring I was up for a brisk walk, I told the taxi driver to meet me in an hour. Fortunately, he was a veteran and knew that it took no less than 1 1/2 hours to descend. I naïvely set off, intending to meet him at Prionia in an hour. However, as ten minutes went by and I had not progressed down 1/6 of the trail, I began to jog, then run, Mt. Si style, down the trail. Although the trail is supposed to seem shorter the second time you see it, it seemed to go on, endlessly crossing tributaries and winding through the forests. To make matters worse, the lightning storm had whipped up a mighty squall, sending a torrent of rain and, at times, hail down upon the valley. 1 1/2 hours of splashing through poorly drained trails later, I arrived at Prionia. A twenty-minute ride, made shorter by a lively chat about the Seattle SuperSonics, (Greeks, it seems, are basketball nuts – he knew more about the team than me, though I am not, admittedly, much of a basketball fan) and I was in Litohoro to catch the bus for Thessaloniki.
Mount Olympus is quite an experience - although it’s no more than eight miles or so, it’s really the 5,900 feet of vertical that gets to you. By comparison, Granite Mountain, off I-90, my traditional training hike for long backpacking trips, is a mere 4,100 ft., and Camp Muir, the grueling (though scenic) slog up Mount Rainier’sMuir Snowfield, comes in at around 4,631 ft. When it’s clear, the view is spectacular – quite unlike anything else in Greece and a welcome contrast from the dense urban spaces of Thessaloniki and Athens.