Thursday, 11 February 2016

“Mountain of the Gods" Climbing Mount Olympus

Chris Raven climbing Mount Olympus. (Photo © Simon Raven)
The Raven brothers drive to Greece in their quest to climb to the top of Mount Olympus, the home of Zeus.

By Chris Raven

I have only climbed two mountains in my life. The first was Ben More on the Isle of Mull in Scotland at the tender age of fifteen. There I was an adolescent teenager with a bumfluff moustache and skinny legs, battling through the whipping rain on an adventure to the summit. My second mountain was one in the Himalayas in Nepal. At twenty-four I was stronger, wiser, and I knew how to pierce a blister with a pair of scissors. An old Dutchman in our shelter that cold, dark night told me, “In the mountains there are only two grades: You can either do it, or you can’t”.

Now I'm in Greece, the Hellenic Republic to be exact. It’s my first visit to this beautiful Mediterranean country, and one of my missions while I'm here is to climb to the top of Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece. Greece is strategically located at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. It's a country famous for feta cheese, baklava, moussaka, Philosophy, Mythology, Plato, Alexander the Great, Homer, Socrates, Aristotle and Easy Jet's Stelios Haji-Ioannou, archaeological museums, the capital city of Athens (one of the oldest cities in Europe), sea sponges from kalymnos, the Olympic Games, quite a big national debit, early retirement, 9,000 miles of coastline, 2,000 islands, Mount Olympus, Parthenon (438 BC, dedicated to the maiden goddess Athena), Greek tragedies (Ajax), and the largest maritime fleet in the world.

Our mission: To climb to the Mytikas summit.

Altitude: 10,000 feet (3,000 metres).

Location: Olympus Range on the border between Thessaly and Macedonia, about 100 kilometres (62 mi) away from Thessaloniki.

Equipment and Supplies: Walking boots, energy drink, sun protective cream, sunglasses, cheese sandwiches, binoculars, plasters, packets of crisps, water, warm clothes and bananas.

Risk factor: High altitude, indigestion from eating too many cheese sandwiches, falling off a cliff, being attacked by a wild goat or being trampled to death by a mule train.

Mount Olympus was the most worshipped mountain in ancient Greece, and has been the setting for many Greek mythical stories. Great battles were fought up here in the misty summit, with Olympian Gods booting the Titans off the rugged slopes. With their new kingdom all furnished and the blood and bodies removed, the gods would snack and drink nectar and discuss the fate of the world and the poor mortals living on it. But it wasn’t all roses in the kingdom of the Olympus gods. Should a god break an oath, he would be cursed to live nine years away from Mount Olympus and banned from taking part in any of the gods' parties and fun gatherings. So cruel.

Our journey begins in the pretty little town of Litochoro, just 5 km from the sea at the foothills of Mount Olympus. It’s six o'clock in the morning and I feel wide-wake. Making our way to the central square, we wander through the quiet lanes and admire the old wooden courtyard doors and gabled roofs belonging to the traditional Macedonian houses. After filling up our water bottles from a public fountain, we begin our accent on the beautiful country roads that lead us through the UNESCO Mount Olympus National Park. As we climb higher and higher, our attention is diverted away from the strange blowing noise coming from under the hood and is now focused on the truly breathtaking views. We pull over and gaze out across the calm Aegean Sea, and watch a sailing boat kiss the horizon against the rising fireball. It is so magical. If the views are this dramatic here, I can’t imagine what they’ll be like from the summit.  We eventually reach Prionia, the highest point up the mountain that you can drive to by car.

Within ten minutes of slipping on our walking boots, we find ourselves on the trail and knee-deep in thick forest and Greek strawberry trees. There appears to be no one around, and the feeling of having the trail all to ourselves puts a skip in our step. Thirty-two species of mammals roam the forests in the national park from the chamois, deer, ferret, wolf, bear and lynx, and over 108 species of bird. The entire area was declared Greece's first national park in 1937 and consists of eight peaks including the "Throne of Zeus" at 2,909 metres and Mytikas which has the highest summit at 2,919 metres.

The trail becomes steeper as it weaves through the beautiful, sweet-smelling forest. My trusty staff (or, moss covered branch) helps me along the way. A yellow sign nailed to a pine tree let’s us know we’re now 1,750 metres above sea level, and that it’s a three hour trek to refuge 'A'. Hearing cow bells clanking further down the trail, we quickly perch ourselves on a large boulder and wait in anticipation for the mule train to pass by. I spot the big ears of the first mule which comes into view from around the corner, followed by seven others trailing behind, all of them ladened down with sacks tied to their saddles. We both exchange smiles with the young guy and the girl riding on the first and third mule. With his long black hair and beard and her leather jacket and biker boots, I can’t help thinking they look more suited to cruising down an open road on a big shiny Harley Davidson, rather than riding on the back of a lolloping floppy-eared mule.

A middle-aged guy grasping ski poles appears from out of the trees and walks up close behind the mule train. He's in his late fifties and wearing full trekking gear. He looks agitated and is annoyed to be trapped behind these dumb animals that are affecting his pace. "For god's sake, even in the wilderness there are traffic jams!", I can hear him cry. The impatient guy strides past us at speed, with only a quick nod to express his good morning. Making a daring move, he sees an opportunity to overtake and leaps down the grass bank. He runs like an athlete alongside the mules, and just about manages to jump back onto the small trail in front of them before disappearing into the forest. Why are some people in such a rush? 

Before long we arrive at the refuge at 2,100 metres, and slump into a couple of chairs on a balcony. Si orders the cold drinks, while I whip off my walking boots and feed fresh air to my sore feet. My calf muscles feel like they are about to explode. I ask the young guy running the refuge if many tourists stay the night, and he looks serious for a moment and explains that tourism this year is at an all time low. He blames the recent protests in Athens and the economic problems in Greece that have been dominating the headlines all summer.

After a good rest, Si suggests we continue with our mission to walk to the summit and hang out with the gods. We quickly leave the refuge behind, and pass a spooky charred tree that wouldn't look out of place in one of Tim Burton’s quirky, dark Gothic movies. At around 2,300 metres, we say goodbye to the trees and enter alpine terrain. I begin to feel rather breathless at this altitude. Up ahead we see a group of people sat down beside the trail. We stop and say hello to three gentlemen, who are taking time out from their journey down the mountain. One of the men is from France, near Paris. He’s hunched over and looks exhausted. The second guy seems a little friendlier. He has a slight quiff, and we find out he was born in Athens, but now lives in Toronto. A local guide accompanying them beams. He looks as fresh as the morning dew.
  “Much further to the top?’ Si puffs.
  “Only a few hours,” the guide smiles. “Be careful of the ridge.”

Appreciative of the advance warning, we continue on our way and soon approach a heavily misted area. Walking cautiously through the mist along a narrow path, we peer over the side and can see shale disappearing into white cloud. One foot wrong and it’s over the edge we go into Zeus’s steaming cooking pot. Stone steps lead us up closer to the summits of Skala and Mytikas, and we see markers on the rocks pointing us in the right direction. It’s very rocky and barren with mist clinging tightly around the two peaks. A chamois pops its head up over the shale horizon. It looks at us and then leaps off. The steep trail soon hits another ridge, and after three hours it opens up to a wide flat grassland area and an unpaved track. We've reached the high plateau called ‘Musses’ at an altitude of 2,450 metres.

Once on the Skala peak (2,866 metres), we are rewarded by amazing views of the dominating rocky tower of Mytikas. Red markings lead the way, as we walk higher and higher along the route called Kakoskala (bad steps). With the muscles in my legs turning to jelly and my knee joints on fire, we finally arrive at Mytikas. We had made it to the top of Greece's highest mountain. We had made it to the home of Zeus. I open my arms out wide and absorb the energy of the surrounding peaks. A Greek flag dances in the breeze and sitting down on a rock, we snack on cheese sandwiches in celebration, drink nectar (well, Red Bull) and discuss the fate of the world like two Greek gods.

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