Athens to Mitikas(Olympus)……or bust
An account of a two-day jaunt in August!
The initial drive behind this trip was a one of comment at work – “what you up to this year for your holidays – climbing again? My reply was that I was on a family holiday to Greece. The reply “ Oh I read an article in Trail about a walk up Mt Olympus”. The die was cast, and I set about researching the possible variations of such a trip.
Athens To Prionia
Driving in Greece is not for the timid, although once on the National route the driving is no different to UK motorway traffic. The major challenges are Athens, and the smaller villages. Directions are usually only signed once, after which it is “use the force” and feel the way. Some signs are dual written, i.e. Greek and English-Greek (which helps). I used a 1:100 series map for Athens and the surrounding area, whilst the country map supplied with the hire car was sufficient for the remainder of the drive. Petrol stations are usually attended (not self service), and the distance between them is similar to the UK when on the major roads
It is also the habit that when the major road becomes two-way, any hard shoulder becomes the extra lane, with an overtaking game of spoof going on in the middle. The use of the horn is obligatory as both warning and recognition. Motorbikes are popular, and it is not unusual to see whole families, perched loads, and older ladies riding side saddle. The law is to wear helmets, but very little notice is given – “it just too hot”! At junctions the bikes always make the way to the front - so be very aware. The minor roads do have potholes, which would not be out of place on the Somme, but in the main the roads are in good condition.
In essence drive as the Greeks do, and I do not think you will go too far wrong!
Certain sections of the National Route E75 are Toll costing 2 euros (2005), and for each way 3 separate tolls roads are used.
My drive north was using the old road initially via Mandra, Fitchi, Inoi, Thiva, before picking up the National road North. This took me through the massive formed by the Pareras Mountains rising to just over 1000mtrs. Within the massive was the town of Inoi containing the Ancient Tower Of Inoi
The northern end of the massive provided an expansive view over a vast agricultural plain centred on Thiva. I then joined the E75 National road to travel north. Just north of Thiva were some interesting Limestone outcrops exhibiting caves, of which some had clearly been converted/utilised as habitation.
45Kms north of Thiva the road joined the holiday Riviera squeezed between the sea and mountain outcrops before swinging round just short of Lamia.
Lamia is a major holiday resort and the coast road contained many beaches, small fishing ports and campsites. The road then swung eastwards before heading northwards passing Volos to the east, and onwards to Larisa.
Volos is 325km North of Athens and is one of the major commercial ports of Greece. Volos is also the "land of the Argonauts", the "lair of the centaurs". In Ancient Greece, Volos, then named "Iolkos" was an important part of historical events of the time and was highly renowned for its chivalry which was considered to be the best in the Hellenistic world. This is the place that Jason (Iason) initiated the "Argonautic Expedition" and this is also the place that the mythological creature, the centaur, was said to live.
Larisa (Larrisa) is the capital of Thessaly, and is an important junction on the south bank of the river Pinios. From 1389 to 1881 it belonged to the Turks who maintained a garrison. Today it is the centre for agricultural produce and food processing from the vast plain surrounding it. From the air traffic it also appeared to be home to a major military airbase.
The road again headed north towards a pass before descent via the Tebi Gorge, before crossing the river and rejoining the coast. Twenty minutes further along, a left turn is required to access Litichoro.
Litochoro, is the last village encountered before the ride to Prionia. Before entering the village the road passes a military establishment with associated firing ranges. It is very evident by the road signs that cameras are not welcome, so keep them packed away. The establishment formed part of the main disembarkation point for a contingent of 2,200 US Marines joining the Kosovo implementation force (KFOR) before being deployed in Kosovo in the mid 90s.
The road from Litochoro to Prionia was well signed, as was the steep switchback style of mountain roads affording tantalising views into the inner cirque of Mitikas. The only turning off was to the new Dhionisos Monastery. On entering the valley (formed by the river Enipeas) steep escarpments are seen, reminiscent of Cheddar George but on a far greater scale and many more times complex. Once past the turning to the ruined Dhionisos Monastery, (bombed during the German occupation), the road becomes unmetalled for 1700mtrs. The distance from Litochoro to Prionia was 17.3km.
The total driving time from Athens to Prionia was five hours thirty minutes, with a short stop for petrol with a distance of 450km. For the return journey I took the National road, but instead of leaving at Thiva, I continued directly to Athens. This appeared to take about an hour less, but involved navigating through Athens at the end of a long day – exciting and stimulating!
Prionia (1020mtr) to Refuge A Spilios Agapitos (2060mtrs)
The road terminus is Prionia, which is no more than a car park with a wooden café (former woodmill), and stables for the mules, that provide the transport for provisions required by the refuges.
I had previously purchased an Anavasi (www.mountains.gr) Map Topo 25 using Standfords on line in the UK. It is 1:25.000 and covers the entire area, and was also recommended by the refuge warden Maria. It is GPS compatible and waterproof, and contains a lot more information than a UK equivalent.
I arrived at 17:00 and managed to get a parking spot, although by the parking it obviously becomes very busy.
There is a spring of welcome cold water to top up any water containers, and a “tourist” map of the area.
The path to the refuge is well maintained, and the first kilometre was obviously used by casual walkers. It initially follows the valley of the upper river Enipeas , which of course was completely dry, but there was evidence that the river was active at other times of the year. The forest comprised of deciduous Beech, and created a nice shade from the heat. The downside was the flies/midges that frequented the woods. In the main the path was upwards, but occasionally crossed the riverbed.
At 1400mtrs (Souri) the climb started in full, ascending the nothern side of the Maghalias Valley, with the Refuge just visible - enticing but still a good hour of ascent away.
At 1960mtrs the vegetation had been cleared. I initially thought to provide visibility for the heli-pad, but found out later was the result of winter avalanches. As nature dictates, this winter damage, was being replaced by a low scrub of pine. Amongst this were Atropa belladonna bushes (Deadly Nightshade), identified by little warning signs as poisonous plants (which of course they are). Over this section a shared my walking with a party of Greek people and their dog (whom I was to meet the following day).
The total walking time was 2:30 hours, which I was assured was good going. Most people I spoke to took a minimum of 3 hours 30. I drank just over 2ltrs of water, and still felt thirsty – in fact at this time of year dehydration is a real problem, and natural water was none existent – be warned!
Refuge A Spilios Agapitos
The refuge is situated on an impressive Buff of rock at 2060mtrs (spot the light 2/3 up in the middle). It comprised of a reception area, dining area, plus sleeping accommodation. Run by the Zolotas family, it is a very clean presentable refuge providing food if required for both residential or visitors alike. It is open Sunday to Friday, closed on Saturday. If staying overnight you are provided with three blankets. Rooms are to be vacated during the day to enable cleaning, and then locked. Radio contact/Weather reports are available. If a member of a recognised mountaineering association the cost (2005) was 8 euros (10 euros for non-members). Food is available up until 21:00, and hot drinks until 21:30, at approximately 22:00 the generator is closed down and the lights go out. The refuge in August starts the day at 06:15ish (first light) and breakfasts are available. Maria Zolota the refuge keeper was multilingual and very informative on all aspects of the area. The Climbing base was at refuge C, with the warden there keeping climbing records of new routes.
The contact details are +302352081800 or email@example.com. The website address is www.olympusrefugea.gr
My room consisted of three bunk beds, two Germans, a Greek father and daughter team and myself. I initially got speaking to the daughter Marina who was studying English, and required some help with the book she was reading. Her Father had walked extensively in Greece in both the North and South, and via his Daughter advised me on other less frequented areas. He also confirmed that most parties ascend to the refuge, spend the following day on the mountain, stay overnight, and return on the third day.
My plan however, was to get an early start, partly due to the heat, and partly due to my tight itinerary. The initial aim was to team up with other singles. However by the time I had checked in, spoken to Maria, shown to my room, met Marina and her father, most people had turned in (the only other British resident was student from what appeared to be Somerset – small world, she however was asleep so we never met). It was however clear that the route would be well marked, and the only danger would be from being on my own, a risk I assessed as being acceptable. I decided to stash some of my kit, and leave early the following morning. I wrote up my notebook, retired to my room, had a brief chat to Marina and her Father, plus the two Germans before the lights going out finished our conversation.
Refuge A (2020mtrs) To Skolio 2904mtrs).
I left the Refuge at 04:45. The skies were clear and the sun was yet to light the way (sunrise 06:15). The path from the refuge follows a steep ridge (Chondromesorachi), by zigzagging upwards through scrubby trees, a rude awakening to a pair of legs that had sat still for the best part of the day before. Once clear of the tree line the real path was a little indistinct due to the various versions created by descending parties. However once clear of the initial ridge the path became clear again. At this point the sun was just rising and the heat of the sun was apparent (until this point I was wearing a Helly top and a Goretex jacket, and feeling a little chilly). At 2500mtr I came across the metal yellow flag indicating the path to Refuge C, and onwards to Skala/Skolio.
Moving along the Skala/Skolio path afforded good views to the coast, and to the south with Stavraities (2637mtrs) to the south. The path now cut westwards to the summit of Skolio. Once on the ridge the full extent of the west face of Skala, Mitikas, and Stefani was visible with the valley of Xerolaki far below to the northwest. A short stop on the summit and departed 07:30, then almost retracing the steps took me to Skala.
Skolio (2905mtrs) to Skala (2880mtrs)
I arrived 07:55 and stopped for a snack and assessed the next section, the infamous Skala (Evil Staircase.
Skala (2880mtrs) to Mitikas (2918mtrs)
The Evil Staircase. The initial gully descent looked a little improbable from the summit of Skala, but as per usual the actual difficulty was negligible, probably being moderate scrambling at times. The way from Skala to the summit of Mitikas was well marked with stripes of Yellow/Red paint (not as distinct in the photo), and any potentially difficult sections provided with Belay hangers (usually contained within a yellow and red square).
The initial gully was replaced by a gradual descent across rough ground to a col, where an exposed step down between Skala and Mitikas took you to the ascent of the stepped slabs. Far below mountain goats (Rupicarpa) skeetered across the steep ground sending showers of loose rocks downward for a short distance. The view to the west at the Col gave good views to the west faces, and their expanse.
The stepped slabs posed no difficulty, but careful ascent is required as there is a long drop off below. The Summit of Mitikas was attained at 08:45. At this point I saw the first of the days walkers arrive at the summit of Skala, the first people I had seen all day. I spent some time taking photographs and assessing the Couloir.
Mitikas Louki Couloir to Refuge A.
I hate couloirs (having had a helmet written off on my last trip to the Alps due to stone fall). So I was slightly concerned with the descent.
Departing at 09:30 I quickly realised I had no worries, as the yellow marks (maintained by the Hellenic Mountaineering Club) revealed the safe path (It would be a little different however if there were parties above as there were plenty of loose rocks waiting for their downward tickets!). Again where steep sections arrived, hangers were provided.
I arrived at the bottom of the Couloir at 10:00 meeting Marina and her Father who were debating the ascent. Whilst here her father showed me the plant called Radeki that apparently when boiled was very tasty. It looked like a dandelion, which in fact it was. During the German occupation, in some parts of Greece Radeki became part of the staple diet.
The terrain on the East side was more reminiscent of the Dolomites consisting of tall yellow conical towers. After an exchange of greetings, I picked up the Refuge C and the Muses plateau path, which runs in parallel to the rockbands and is known locally as Zonaria. This path is avalanche prone in the winter, and early spring. Whilst powering along it passing the Greek party and their dog I met the day before and we passed greetings. The southerly end of this path picks up the zig zag descent paths to the refuge. There were a string of parties ascending in the heat, and I felt vindicated for my early, but cooler start. I arrived back at the refuge at 11:00. I drank 2.5 litres of water over this period, and certainly felt like I could have done with some more.
I picked up my stashed kit (that was safely locked away for me), had a mug of tea rested for half an hour, refilled my water bladder thanked the Refuge team on duty, and headed down the trail for Prionia. By this time the Sun was very hot, and it was useful to be under the trees. I joined the two Germans that shared my room, who were pacing along the track to join their two families. My legs by this point were beginning to feel the pace but the conversation helped to while away the time. I arrived back at the car at 13:30 having left the reunited families further back up the track. After a visit to the ice-cold spring to cool down, I swapped boots for sandals packed the kit, and head for Home some four and half hours and 450kms away.
The trip was a long two day out, and warranted more time. I should have liked to have visited the other refuges and spent a couple more days in the peaks exploring the topography but as stated my available time was limited. My advice for anybody else is to do it, and maybe earlier in the year (when it is cooler). Certainly a winter visit is worthwhile if any of the photographs are anything to go by!
A.J. Cocker Sept 2005.