Mount Olympus


William Mackesy’s account of this walk

Mount Olympus is famous as the home of the gods of ancient Greece, in all their power, beauty and iniquity. They feasted, quarrelled and schemed here, raising and destroying their human playthings and proxies below.

The Olympus massif rises alone from the plains and hills of north-east Greece, at its heart a vast cauldron circled by a dramatic ridge of rocky summits, which peaks at the saw-toothed Mitikas. If you didn't know otherwise (it is in fact formed from limestone), you would think Olympus a collapsed volcano like Taburiente in the Canary Islands.

The area is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, with four distinct vegetation zones. The usual route starts in the second of these, a forest of black pine mixed with beech and other deciduous trees, climbing into a band of smaller, hunched pines and shrubs, then tough little alpine plants nestling among the rocks of the highlands. The area is hugely rich in flora, with 17,000 recorded plants, a fair number unique to these mountains, as well as having a varied animal population, including Greece's largest population of Balkan Chamois, which can sometimes be seen high up among the broken crags, and magnificent birds of prey circling on the thermals.

Most expeditions start from Litochoro, a cheerful town at the foot of the dramatic Enipeas Gorge which drains the central bowl.
The main route starts at the roadhead at Prionia at the top of this gorge, climbing some 1,000 steep metres to Refuge A (Zolotas), a well-run hut perched on a ledge behind an outcrop. The well-maintained path climbs steadily in beautiful forests of pine, with slender beech around the ravines. The volume and variety of the birdsong here can be miraculous - in early summer, anyway.

The forest gradually thins as you trudge up a ridge above a steep ravine, dropping to cross its dry bed, then struggling up a long, tough hillside to gain views of cliffs and tree-speckled ridges. The spires of the peaks, still carrying some snow, begin to appear high above but seeming close in the clear air. In May and June you will find the bright flowers for which springtime Greece is famous, as twisted pines take over, their trunks bent parallel to the ground, poking branches vertically into the often freezing air above.

We watched a tit bring worms into a hole under a rock as we made an early attack on our lunch – hungry work, walking.

A final half-hour slog got us to the refuge and a grateful shedding of our packs. We could have explored further, but after three tough hours we instead enjoyed a lazy afternoon on the terrace, revelling in wonderful views down into the cauldron and along the Enipeas Gorge toward the distant sea. Above the hut, the pines shrink and scatter, until there is nothing but bare rock and the jagged summit ridge some 900m above. This will often be shrouded in cloud by mid afternoon – part of Olympus' mystique for the ancients; if you are lucky, you will glimpse its crags, mouth-wateringly far above, framed by drifting shreds of cloud against a clear sky.

The second day climbs to the high ridge that rings the central abyss. This is a slog – just under 2 hours to Skala peak for us – in thinner air, but alleviated by some magnificent views over the cauldron. The pines become more stunted, then fizzle out, then the shrubs do likewise. You enter a desolate bowl, surrounded by rocky peaks, drifts of snow still lying in sheltered corners in early June. Then the miserable 40 minute haul up to the justly named Skala (ladder) peak begins, which is rewarded by an outstanding panorama as you crest the ridge and discover the 500m cliffs of the Kazania chasm and huge views to the north and west. And here was our disappointment: we had struggled up in cloud, which had broken as we entered the high bowl, revealing a grey world of crags and scree between its swirling fragments. But it poured up over the high ridge, hiding any views and enveloping our first target, the neighbouring Skolio, twenty minutes along the ridge and the mountain's second-highest peak at 2,904m.

On a good day, you can turn right, along the broken ridge to an uncomfortable scramble (gut-wrenching for some) to the eroded spikes of Mitikas, the highest peak at 2,918m and once the Pantheon, the Gods' meeting place; or swing southward round the ridge to Antonis peak. On a cloudy day like ours, you can retrace your steps back down the ladder, then turn north along a narrow path which follows striations amid the precipices below Mitikas, emerging on the beautiful Plateau of the Muses, a surprising, rolling grassland which is surrounded by cliffs above and below and dwarfed by the extraordinary formation of Stefani, the throne of Zeus, king of the gods. You can make the difficult scramble to the jagged ridge of Mitikas from the plateau, and then pick your way down a steep path back to Refuge A (not always well marked – avoid this in cloud), or stay in one of the refuges on the plateau.

The weather was to poor for an attempt on Mitikas, so we started along the path through the precipices below Mithikas, but the predicted rain began (and thick cloud) swirled in and discretion proved the better part of valour: we retreated to our refuge. At a beautiful viewpoint 15 minutes above it, the clouds briefly parted and we lunched in surprising sunshine. Over-excited plans to go back and try again were, however, halted by the clouds quickly closing in again. A fine day, but disappointing.

We had to head back down to earth on day 3, but it was so clear and beautiful when we woke that we decided (to our guide's chagrin) first to slog up the difficult path from the refuge to the Plateau of the Muses. The path is beautiful at first, climbing among magnificent, twisted pines, before beginning a long, tough scramble up steep striations. Once again, cloud started swirling up from the valley below, and by the hour mark, it was up around the peaks. We reluctantly turned back, comforted slightly by beautiful, chinoiserie glimpses of the forested ridges silhouetted against banks of cloud, the high peaks briefly revealed, then hidden again by another veil of fast-rising vapour.

The 1,000m trudge down to the roadhead was surprisingly enjoyable, with some beautiful views of the jagged ridges, cliffs, forested ravines and spires of fantastically eroded limestone soaring high above. We soothed our sizzling feet in the clear and cool (until then, at least) stream at Prionia.

You can start or finish your time on Olympus with a walk through the superb Enipeas Gorge, which drains the cauldron out to the plains by the sea: don't miss this if you can help it.

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