Mt. Olympos

1938: Mt. Olympos is named a National Park (the 1st of 10 such areas).
1981: UNESCO declares it a “Biosphere Reserve.”
1995: Jill Peterson and Janice Siegel scale its heights.

For a full screen picture, click on each individual photo as it appears below with our story or go directly to the photo portfolio from here to begin your virtual climb up the highest mountain in Greece, known in antiquity as the home of the gods.

It is unfortunate that we didn’t also document the pre-climb portion of the trip with pictures. There was the family of gypsies who serenaded us on the six-hour train ride from Athens. And the look of surprise on the conductor’s face when we told him we planned to disembark at Litochoro, the picturesque village in Olympos’ foothills. I’ll never forget the vision of the faces of all those passengers peering out at us from the windows as we two disembarked at a station closed and deserted, and the train chugged off leaving us alone in the middle of nowhere. The best was our first night’s accomodations: the kitchen floor of the youth hostel manager’s private home since there was not a room to be found anywhere in Litochoro. No, we didn’t take pictures of any of that, but here are the ones we did take, along with our story…

At our trail’s beginning, we were vastly amused by these international signs prohibiting wild-flower picking, campfire- building and … butterfly- catching?! But we were sure glad that these beautiful butterflies were protected once we reached the summit the next day, where they could be seen flitting about freely…

For the first few hours, we walked through your basic forest landscape: gently upward-sloping paths soft with pine-needles fallen from the surrounding trees, a great pine aroma, and little furry creatures jumping in and out of view.
Suddenly we heard bells clanking and a heavy tread. Along the narrow path came a caravan of donkeys with their cheerful guide on their way down the mountain for supplies. We scrambled up on the cliffside, just barely getting out of the way in time, or we would surely have been run over. With a hearty “Yasu!” the guide led his charges downward . . . while a trusty sheepdog brought up the rear, urging on the stragglers.

Petrostrounga is a sheepfold that we passed through about halfway on our journey to the summit (it is 2000 meters above sea-level). Here we met a Greek couple who showed us how to pick Mt. Olympos tea leaves, co-exist peacefully with sheepdogs, and most importantly, find our way up the mountain during the thunderstorm we were about to encounter.

 

Other sites along the way up:

This photo was taken moments before we got caught in that terrific downpour and features the couple we met earlier. As the encroaching clouds on either side of the ridge enveloped us, we relied on the sound of our Greek friend’s whistle to guide us along the barely visible, flooded path which zigzagged its way up this ridge and down the next, and the next after that… What are you supposed to do if it starts lightning when you are above the tree line on Mt. Olympos?

We learned the hard way that Homer’s genius was indeed due to his creativity and artistry and that his poem is not meant to be a reflection of reality! (And that he had never climbed Mt. Olympos . . .)

“Olympus, the reputed seat
Eternal of the gods, which never storms
Disturb, rains drench, or snow invades, but calm
The expanse and cloudless shines with purest day.”
(Homer, Odyssey 6.41-46; trans: William Cowper 1791)

What joy flooded through my heart as we trudged over this ridge and saw the beautiful lodge waiting in a burst of sunshine for us after our travails! After our seven-hour mountain hike, I couldn’t wait to get out of my wet clothes, warm up, sit down. How painful it was to find it closed and deserted…to know that we had to keep going into the clouds beyond it…

Our destination was the SEO lodge (the highest refuge in the Balkans) majestically nestled in the Valley of the Muses among the eight peaks of Olympos (the lodge is in the middle of the picture – we snapped it the next day from Mt. Skolio, one of the peaks). Its outdoor Turkish toilet, minimally stocked kitchen and tiny but toasty fireplace met our most basic needs, but the deep down warmth we really sought came from that bottle of Cretan retsina we had lugged up the mountain . . . after all, Zeus may have been born on Crete, but he was Lord of Olympos!

Up at dawn and thrilled at the site. The air glowed around rosy-fingered-colored Mt. Stefani (locally known as the “Throne of Zeus”) right outside the lodge. The sheer rockface of Stefani cannot be climbed without special equipment. After a quick breakfast, we set out for the heights of Olympos..

For several hours we followed a circuitous route along the bases of several of the peaks, almost losing our way a few times. The grade was steep, the surface slippery with broken shale. Whoever was in front stiffened at the sound of a mini rock-slide behind, and the affirmative response to the occasional “Are you all right?” was always awaited with held breath. As we neared the actual peaks, the path ceased to exist, and we scrambled up any way our feet could find purchase. Just one false step…thank goodness it wasn’t until after we returned home that I read in a guide book that “Mt. Olympos has claimed its share of lives…”

Mytikas, the highest of the eight peaks of Mt. Olympos at 2917 meters, as seen from our perch atop Mt. Skolio, a mere 5 meters lower. The path shown here is called Kaki Skala, or the “Rotten Staircase.” We were warned by the Greeks who stayed overnight at SEO not to attempt to climb this most dangerous of peaks on this cloudy day, for cloud cover moves in so swiftly that climbers can lose sight of their own feet.

Other sites among the peaks:

At midday, we descended via a different path and reached Refuge A in just two hours or so, where we had reservations for our second night on the mountain. The next morning we walked for several hours until we reached Priyonia, a restaurant/parking lot for day-trippers. There we gratefully accepted a ride from the local baker, hopped the bus from Litochoro to the National Road, and in a mad dash caught the last train out to Athens.

Sites along the way down:

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