Mount Olympus (Greece)

In High Places

By: Burton A. Falk


Okay, given that Mt. Olympus is the high point of Greece, the question arises, "Which one?"

It seems that the Ancient Greeks--who believed Mt. Olympus to be the residence of the Gods, were quite fond of the name. So fond, in fact, that they dubbed peaks in Elis, Arcadia, Laconia and on the Island of Euboea all with the same appellation. Greek colonies in Cypress and Asia Minor also jumped on the Olympus bandwagon. A couple of thousand years later, to add to the confusion, a band of philhellenes in the State of Washington added yet another Mt. Olympus to the list.

As I discovered recently, however, the actual Greek high-point is located along the boundary of the regions of Macedonia and Thessaly, just a few miles from the Aegean seacoast. To be more precise, the 9,538' peak stands about 80 air miles SSW of Thessaloniki, Greece's second largest city, just to the west of the village of Litochoro.

My Mt. Olympus adventure began at the end of a three-week tour of neighboring Turkey. A month or two prior to leaving on the trip, I decided that, since I would be in the eastern Mediterranean area, I should try to find a nearby high point to climb. And, after considering costs, time involved, ease of access and comfort for my wife, Jo, who would be accompanying me, Mt. Olympus became the logical choice.

So on May 29th, flying to Athens, and renting a car, Jo and I set out at mid-day, heading straight through the center of Greece's capital city. The day was hot, the air smoggy; the roads traffic-choked. We had no air conditioning in our little green Opel, even though it was costing us a whopping $57/day in rental. Directional road signs were dismayingly few and far between. By the time we reached the northern boundary of the sprawling metropolis (a Greek word, by the way), I had developed a well-deserved headache.

Leaving the city confines didn't leave us carefree, however. Our route, the National Road, E-75, which stretches between Athens and Thessaloniki, is, for the most part, two lanes wide, with something akin to a bicycle path extending along each shoulder. The locals were driving with the right half of their cars in this marginal lane (Thank God, there were no bikers), while all manner of passing traffic roared up and down the middle of the highway, double lines and left-hand turnouts notwithstanding. I first became aware of this deadly peculiarity when I glanced up (I was smack in the middle of what I considered to be my lane, to have and to hold) to find a huge truck hurtling straight toward me. By the time we reached Litochoro, about 6 p.m., I was ready for a glass of anything containing alcohol.

I had to wait, however. After walk-through inspections of three hotels in that resort town of 6,000--and deciding that none were suitable, we then visited the Litochoro Police Station, where we inquired about a "nice" lodging. The officer on duty told us there was no such thing in Litochoro, and suggested that we return south on the Nationl Road about 10 kilometers to the Poseidon Palace Hotel, along the shores of the Aegean. We did so, and found his suggestion to be accurate. After registering and freshening up at the luxurious but reasonably-priced ($59/night) resort, we drove off for dinner at a front desk-recommended restaurant, The Corfu, in nearby Platamon, where we enjoyed delicious meal of crusty bread, a plate of tasty appetizers--I especially liked the Tzatziki, a combination of yogurt, cucumbers and garlic, and a bottle of good local wine. From the restaurant window, we could see the Mt. Olympus massif, and we noted that it was cloud-covered. On the way back to our hotel it began to rain. I decided to not attempt the peak the next day. I'd wait for better weather, and for a more complete restoration of my equanimity.

So we spent the next morning reconnoitering the Litochoro area, and that afternoon we explored Thessaloniki, a sea front city possessing many handsome tree-lined streets and parks.

On Saturday, May 31st, I jumped out of bed, ready to begin my solo climb of Mt. Olympus. My first stop, at 6:15 a.m., was for rolls and coffee (which I spilled all over the counter) at a nearby 24 hour gas station. I then drove through Litochoro, and up a winding road to the trailhead for the climb, 3,600' Prionia, site of a rustic cafe, a public restroom and a large parking lot. Looking up I could see that the summit ridge remained hidden in a seemingly stationary cloud bank. Like many Hawaiian peaks, Mt. Olympus makes its own weather.

I then threw on my pack, and at 6:55 a.m. began chugging up a well-graded trail, though a lush forest of oak, chestnut, beech and plane trees. Arriving at the 6,870', 90 bed Refuge A precisely at 9 a.m., I asked the hut-keeper there what my chances were of reaching the summit without crampons and an ice axe. He assured me I didn't need them, even though there had been an overnight snowfall on the mountain top, and in spite of the fact that about a half mile up the mountain we could see a line of 30 or so climbers gingerly working their way across a steep snowbank. "Just be careful," he said.

Starting off again at 9:15, I climbed first through a pine forest, then past dwarfed conifers typical of the timberline zone. By the time I reached the 9,000’ 1evel, the mountainside had become completely barren. A few minutes later the trail disappeared under the snow, and I was enveloped in a swirling mist.

Possessed with an enormous amount of energy that morning, I had already passed several hikers and was in the process of overtaking the group of thirty that I had observed from the hut. As far as I could see--literally--only one climber remained ahead of me, and he or she, with ski poles flying, was skittering up the rock and snow at a rapid pace. Although our race to the monument on the summit was close, I have to admit I lost by 20'or so. The time of my arrival was 11:15 a.m. Six thousand feet of gain in four and a quarter hours--not bad for an old guy.

The speedy climber and I introduced ourselves to one another. Be was Gephart Holtzman from Munich, Germany, almost 70 years old. We shook hands and took celebratory photos of one another. Be told me that in his prime he had climbed every peak in the Alps over 4,000 meters in elevation. I told him that during my middle age crisis I had climbed every 5,000'+ peak in the San Gabriels. Be then yodeled, which I momentarily mistook for the first sign of cardiac arrest.

Checking my altimeter, which I had calibrated at Refuge A, I found I was about 20’ higher than I should have been. The large party of climbers was approaching. Everything was going swimmingly. I started down.

When I was about 300' below the summit, the mist cleared momentarily, and to my chagrin I spotted another spire--it too possessing a monument—along on the summit ridge, a peak which looked at least as high as the one I had climbed. I attempted to reconcile the situation. My altimeter indicated I had climbed the proper peak; the line of oncoming climbers was heading for the summit I had ascended; Gephart remained back there on top enjoying his victory lunch. I decided that I must have been right, and I continued down. Other than for that, my descent was uneventful, and I got back to the cafe in Prionia at 2:45 p.m., where I inhaled a bowl of excellent bean soup and quaffed a large beer.

That evening, in the little resort town of Leptokaria, beside a halcyon Aegean Sea, Jo and I ordered tzatziki, gyro and a bottle of retsina (which must require Greek ancestry to truly enjoy) at the Verginia #1 restaurant. Although we didn't sit down until well after 8 p.m,, we were still among the first to dine. It wasn't until after nine that the place filled and a guitarist/singer began playing.

Still later that night, back at the Poseidon Palace, studying a map, I came to the conclusion that I had, in all probably, ascended Skolio at 9,518' rather than nearby Mytikas at 9,538'. Bummer.

I decided "close enough," however. I wasn't going back. Should anyone ask, I’11 say, "Mt. Olympus? Oh, yeah. Been there; done that."

ODDS & ENDS
The Mount Olympus massif bears a remarkable resemblance to the Mt. Whitney area in that both peak's east faces are sheer and that both of their summit ridges are multi-spired (e.g. Mt. Muir, Keeler & Day Needles, vs Mytikas, Skolio, Stefani). Additionally, their approaches are similar in that on both you start in a valley, work your way west up and across the south shoulder of the summit ridge, and then approach the spires from the relatively level west side. If you have the time, it is possible to make a loop trip out of the climb, continuing N along the summit ridge, descending via a trail which passes the 80 bed Refuge S.E.O., and then dropping down to join the road below Prionia. For those desiring an even longer climb, consider beginning in Litochoro and hiking up the beautiful Mavrolongus Valley, alongside the Enippas River, to Prionia.

Prionia, by the way, means "saws" in Greek, and it is the site of a former sawmill. The cafe there has been built from pieces of timber leftover from the mill. Just below Prionia is the site of a 15th century Greek Orthodox Monastery, Ayios Dhionisios, which was blown up in 1943 by Germans who rightly believed it was being used by Greek guerrillas. A monk who lives there by all by himself is in the process of restoring the building. The Fodor's Guide reports it is possible to spend a night in one of the monastery's undamaged rooms at no charge. Contributions are appreciated, however.

Still another way to ascend Mt. Olympus (although not nearly as popular) is from the west side via a military road and Refuge B.

Regarding the climbing history of the peak, Sultan Mehmet IV, the ruler of the Ottoman Empire, is reported to have made an unsuccessful attempt on the high point in 1669. In 1910 Edward Richter, on his third attempt to climb the peak, was captured and held for ransom by bandits in the area. Three years later, in 1913, two Swiss artists, Daniel Baud-Bovy and Prederic Boissonas, along with a local guide, Christos Kakalos, made the first ascent of Mytikas.

The Mt. Olympus climbing season extends from May to October. While the peak lies closer to Thessaloniki than Athens, airline schedules are much better into Athens. Buses run between Athens and Thessaloniki on a frequent basis. From a stop along this popular route, one can catch a local bus into Litochoro several times a day.


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