Hiking the heavens on Mount Olympus
Perhaps the most iconic mountain in the world, Mount Olympus – home to the Twelve Olympians (ancient Greek deities led by Zeus) – is truly a remarkable sight. Here anyone can immerse themselves in Greek mythology, the beautiful natural scenery and maybe even a cheeky sip of Ouzo as you explore the well-developed trail network.
If Mount Olympus calls to you then you’ll be glad to know getting there is quite straightforward. Simply book a flight on a low-cost carrier to Greece’s second-largest city, Thessaloniki, hop on the Number 78 bus (80cents) to the main train station and buy a ticket to Litochoro (9 euro). An hour later you will arrive at your destination – it’s hard to miss and you’ll see the huge mountain range on approach. On the platform allow yourself a few moments to stare at the summits and fully appreciate where you will soon be standing.
Mount Olympus is huge and has about 52 summits/peaks, the highest of which, Mytikas, marks Greece’s highest point, standing at 2917 metres. Wherever you're destined to reach you're sure to have an physically demanding but rewarding experience.
The place to stay is Summit Zero. Originally a refuge for early climbers, it is now run as a hostel and makes a great base for exploring the mountain. It’s comfortable and, with its maps and wealth of information about mountaineering, it has a real adventurer's feel about it. It’s also on the beach so after an exhausting climb you can just drop everything and fall into the warm blue Aegean sea. Perry, who runs the place, is happy to suggest routes up to the summits – both the popular ones and those a bit more off the beaten track.
You’ve the option to hike from Litochoro to the Prionia, the starting point for our hike to the home of the gods. All accounts suggest this as a lovely three-hour canyon hike, however we opt for a ride to Prionia via the winding road to the gravel car park (40 mins).
Here we fill up on refreshing spring water before our journey, make final adjustments to backpacks and use the public toilets then we’re good to go. We cross a picturesque wooden bridge over a stream and disappear into the engulfing woodlands.
This first part of our trek is very enjoyable and somewhat unexpected as the track leads us through the lower forested areas of the national park. The trees provide a relief from the blistering sun. It's approximately 35 degrees Celsius as we make our way through this enchanting forest. It’s a gradual well-worn track only occasionally marked by yellow E4 (European long distance trail) markers with steps, tree roots and the odd boulder to negotiate your way over. As the path twists and turns you'll see the top of Mount Olympus with its multiple peaks far in the distance through the gaps in the forest canopy. Further en route these tall trees, which have been bent by the winter avalanches and rivers of dead trunks, all uniformly line the routes of least resistance. In this heat it’s hard to image how much snowfall can cover this region.
Under three hours later we reach the anticipated Refuge A. Mount Olympus is blessed by a network of refuges which can provide a bed for visitors as well as refreshments. All supplies are carried in by mules so of course they are very basic, however I was pleasantly surprised by what we found here – cold cans of Diet Coke and a lovely spaghetti bolognese! We’re told that Refuge A is by far the largest, most comfortable and popular of all the refuges (apparently all the cool climbers stay in Refuge C). After the break we decide to press on towards the summit, a reportable 3 hours away.
The route becomes noticeably more alpine and the earth track gives way to a grey rocky surface, and the air here feels fresher. With a handful of switchbacks, altitude is gained quite significantly, then we come across something interesting. A river of snow, almost glacial like (though clearly not a glacier – as we all know, glaciers are compacted ice and permanent) but you can be forgiven for jumping to that conclusion as we carefully cross the narrow worn snow trail. One slip and you're in for the ride of your life. Before long we’re heading up the final ridge, a barren and steep section.
We’re led up along the more 'gentle' side of the ridge. The view is awesome as you see neighbouring peaks and patches of snow. On your right is an almost sheer cliff and we slowly make our way along. On the cliff side wonderful clouds form a soft white carpet-like layer.
Almost instinctively you know you’ve arrived at the Skala summit (2866 metres). This tends to be the end for most visitors but for the purist who simply must reach the true ultra-point, then it is the neighbouring Mytikas summit you want. However it doesn’t come easily – it's rated as a class 3 scramble (falls are often fatal). One look at this, and its sheer jagged sides, can put off even a determined soul such as myself, so coupled with my exhaustion and a bad knee I know this is not for me… not this time anyway. I explain to my companions that as we’ve come up as a team I’ll be a team player and stay at Skala to look after their over-packed backpacks, allowing them an easier ascent.
Those brave enough to attempt this must make their way down a rocky path over an exposed ridge and then a near vertical climb up, with potential rock falls courtesy of any scramblers above you. The route is marked with red/yellow marks every few metres signalling to climbers the advised approach. It's often cited as a 45-minute scramble each way.
As they make a necessary descent before the climb I wish them all the best and plant myself on the rocks for my well-earned rest. Blue skies and sunshine keep me warm. Only occasionally I feel a temperature drop as I watch patches of cumulus clouds as they gracefully flow over the touring peaks and ridges. It’s amazing to just simply watch the Mytikas summit. The view is in constant flux, absolutely clear one minute and then completely engulfed in cloud the next. I stare, mesmerised. It even seems fitting to comment how heavenly this cloud makes the summit feel, almost as if you were waiting to meet Zeus himself. The tranquillity of the moment is only broken up by the occasional echo from my two companions as they shout to each other as they head towards the Mytikas summit. After about an hour I hear, “we made it!” from, at this point, the cloud covered peak. I shout back, “well done,” and again lie back and simply sit and watch the world go by. I note to myself that as they need to make a descend in order to reach me back at the Skala summit over the below approach back past the ridge it is in fact me that is the highest person in Greece, and I allow myself a self-satisfied smile.
By the time my companions have returned it's time to hurry back before it gets dark. We double back on our original route, though it feels much easier heading down as we skid down the loose scree-like rocky path. The next two hours fly by and before we know it, we’re at Refuge A again. Time for another hot meal and a decision as to whether it’s time to call it a day and sleep here, making the rest of the trip back tomorrow, or if we persevere onward and downward. It’s decided carry on. The lady at the refuge reception kindly agrees to arrange for a taxi to meet us in two hours at the car park at the original starting point. As dusk sets in we make a move and briskly make our way down our final section into the woodland.
The forest looks very different by night. Torches in hand we head on down, and before long it’s pitch black as the forest canopy keeps us hidden from any bright stars. The spookiness and rustling of the surrounding vegetation is enough to elevate your heart rate. It's approaching our 11.30pm rendezvous with our driver and we’re not sure how much ground we’ve yet to cover. Our brisk descent seems to have developed into a jog when suddenly, with five minutes to spare, we emerge from dark dense forest over the wooden bridge we crossed some 13 hours earlier. We drop our backpacks and lie down on the gravel car park, admiring the twinkling stars as we wait for our ride to arrive.
Mount Olympus is certainly an amazing place to experience the outdoors, and even for those who have no desire to work as hard as we did to accomplish it in a strenuously long day, you're free to break the hike up by staying in the refuges. We’d taken the most popular route up, but we’re told there are many more routes which are more off the beaten track for those who wish to have a more secluded experience. If you’re only in the area for a short while, then a simple hike to Refuge A or one of its counterparts can be very rewarding. For myself this has been one of the most physically demanding feats yet, but also the most exhilarating… after all, how often does one visit the home of the gods?
More Info (Summit Zero & Refuge A)
This was part of our charity challenges