At 2,917m (9,570 feet), Olympus is the highest mountain in Greece.
The three-peaked massif broods over the Thermaic Gulf and the three-fingered peninsula of Halkidiki in the Aegean distance, on the border between Thessaly and the province (not the country) of Macedonia.
Most choose to climb it in two days, with an overnight stop at one of the mountain huts that sit just above the tree line, but we weren’t keen on cramming into bunk rooms during viral times.
Anyway, we weren’t planning on scaling Mytikas, the highest of the mountain’s three peaks. It isn’t a technical climb, but it does require some scrambling — preferably with a helmet, given the number of people climbing above you dislodging loose rocks.
I figured we could make it to Skala ridge (2,866m) if we started from the highest point we could reach by car — the refuge at Prionia. And so we set the alarm for 5am and planned to start hiking by 6am.
The trail began at a faded sign warning of rock falls: “Great danger!! Walk Quickly”.
The first two or three hours were a pleasant climb along a forested path that was sheltered from the rising sun. Even so early it the morning, it was already beginning to grow hot.
We lost most of the tree cover at the Spilios Agapitos Refuge (2,060m), the point where we would have had to overnight if we’d started our walk in the town of Litochoro rather than the car park. Sure, we missed the Enipea Canyon with its wooden bridges and monastery , but we also cut 6 hours off the route.
The tables around the hut were filled with hikers enjoying a late breakfast before tackling the peak or descending to the town. We stopped just long enough for a Greek coffee before pushing on.
From there onwards the slope was unrelenting. It followed a zig-zag rocky path that climbed through the remaining scatter of gnarled trees before reaching rock.
The loose bit near Skala ridge was a really steep slog. The climb went on and on, and the muscles in my thighs failed over and over.
Trudge a dozen steps, rest a few second to recover enough for another burst, and repeat. Getting to the top is just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, over and over, for as long as it takes.
The thought of nubile nymphs in short white robes kept me going. That and a restorative cup of ambrosia at the top.
Unfortunately, my hopes were shattered when we finally reached the first peak.
I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you this… but the peak was completely godless (much like life, I suppose).
My lunchtime favourite cartoon as a kid — The Mighty Hercules — had misled me. Where was Zeus? And more importantly, where was Aphrodite?
Views of the Aegean Sea were some compensation. It flowed into the distance with a silvery sheen, reflecting the sun like mercury. But I had to content myself with a ham and cheese sandwich and a hardboiled egg rather than the nectar of the gods.
My pagan faith may have been somewhat disillusioned, but my body was restored, and I still had energy left to push on.
We considered climbing nearby Skolio (2,911m), the third highest peak, but another trail caught my eye that branched off to follow a ridge around a vast bowl. It would give us views of the mountain to the west, and a pleasant walk across reasonably level ground.
We followed it around the rim of the bowl to cast our gaze over inland Greece. The wind gained sudden force on that side, but it only seemed to afflict the edge.
I had a hunch we could find a way down that didn’t involve going back to the main trail and negotiating the long, steep scree-littered slog in reverse. I wanted to descend to where we’d spotted patches of snow and grazing horses on the way up.
We went off trail and worked our way down, making switchbacks to follow the most gradual contour, until we reached the first patch of snow. Two mountain sheep scuttled off in surprise, and horses raised their heads to watch our progress. They knew we weren’t the herdsmen they were used to, but they hadn’t yet pegged us as barbarians.
It was quiet down there out of the wind. The well-watered bowl was carpeted with close-cropped grass, ideal grazing land once the snow had finally gone. I could see the trail to the peak high above us; the slow progress of hikers trudging up, and the more perilous progress of others stumbling down.
I knew a faint trail that gave access to this valley branched off the route to the peak — I’d seen it on the climb up — but my guess placed it two or three hundred feet lower than our present position.
The valley’s narrow outlet wasn’t very long but the descent was steep — and still filled with snow firm enough to support our weight. Great striding slides soon took us to the path I was looking for, and the silence and easy walking through that isolated spot remained the highlight of the day.
The rest of the descent was a bit of a trial. The steep stretch to Spilios Agapitos refuge was longer than I’d remembered, and the loose stones and large rocks took more of a toll on our knees and ankles.
We only stopped long enough to sit and drink some water before moving on.
The descent through the valley to the car park at Prionia was even longer: at least an hour and a half more than what I had in my head. We’d been on the move for around 12 hours, with only a short break for lunch at the top.
I was ready for the ice cold beer and juicy gyro I’d been thinking about for at least three hours.