By Jens Ourom
Aphrodite. Apollo. Hermes. Poseidon. Zeus. You. One of these individuals is unlike the others. However, all possess the unique opportunity to dwell upon Mount Olympus, whether it is for a night, or eternity.
Surprisingly, if you were to refer to the residents of Litochoro, the nearest town carved into Olympus’s foothills, as Olympians, many Olympians don’t bother ever climbing to the legendary cloud-wreathed ridges and spires.
Nevertheless, to refer to “climbing” Mount Olympus is to misrepresent the activity, fortunately for those without the requisite skills and equipment, and unfortunately for those looking for hardier adventures. While reaching the summit of Olympus’s highest peak, Mytikas, requires an exposed vertical four-limb scramble that has claimed lives in the past (albeit very infrequently), the bulk of the 1-2 day hike is pleasantly gradual.
Litochoro is nearly worth the journey itself. Reminiscent of Rocky Mountain, Italian and Swiss Alp towns — but with superb weather — its twisting, landscape-determined cobblestone streets are quaint (in the word’s most positive connotation) and its people the definition of welcoming. As Litochoro lies near sea level — its train station, a few minutes out of town, is practically on the beaches of the Aegean Sea — and Mytikas stretches to 2,917 metres, the one-day elevation gain is as likely a limiting factor as degree of hiking difficulty. Regardless, you are not necessarily required to, and most tourists do not, cover each of these 2,917 metres by foot. The trailhead, at 1,084 metres is only conveniently accessed directly by cab or car, (and believe me, an effort to hitch-hike was attempted in vain) unless you enjoy a couple hours trudging upwards along shimmering blacktop switchbacks.
There is, too, a silver lining for those of you who don’t necessarily prefer the most adventurous vacations. At 2,059 metres lies the surprisingly well-equipped beacon of hot chocolate, cold showers, and bunk beds known as Spilios Agapitos, or Refuge A, as uncompromisingly creative English translators christened it. “Refuge” hardly describes the immaculate family-run centre that is more chalet-like than anything. Agapitos’s available amenities keep food and equipment requirements on this legendary ascent stripped to a minimum, allowing you to occupy your thoughts with Olympus’s glorious views instead of adjusting ungainly backpacks, and applying moleskin. Equipped with 110 beds, A is a truly remarkable refuge. Though Olympus’s year-round alpine chill makes the cold showers a steely test, fireplaces and hot beverages manage to comfortably return your body’s disposition to blissful homeostasis.
Considering that our day began in Litochoro by lacing up boots in the typical, searing heat of a Greek August, the considerably more biting weather of Mytikas came as somewhat of a surprise. Still, the frosty weather wasn’t nearly enough of a deterrent to pre-empt a spirited Canadian-style snowball fight at 2,900 metres. In our world, increasingly aware of global warming and its effects, there was something innately soothing about tossing snow around at the peak of summer in a famously arid country. I’m sure the robust Greek Gods said to reside on Olympus would approve.
And it is easy to imagine why Ancient Greek legend placed their diverse Gods at the top of this particularly imposing summit. Besides being Greece’s tallest mountain, all of the three main peaks of Skala (2,882 metres), Skolio (2,911 metres), and Mytikas inspire thoughts of grandeur — and each seems to possess its own personality. The approach to each requires different technique, from Mytikas’s near-mountaineering, to ridge-top hiking (Skolio), and a shale scramble (Skala).
Also, as if the Gods decided to have a little fun with the clueless tourists who decide to clamber atop Mytikas first, from each one of the peaks, the others appear as even larger monoliths, making for a disorienting optical illusion of defeat, no matter which peak you stand on. Despite this frustrating quirk, one cannot help but feel the tranquility, with garlands of clouds, and possibly a slight elevation-induced light-headedness.
On Olympus, the first national park ever protected in Greece, a few questions inevitably occur. Miraculously, you are almost alone. There are no throngs. Not even of the mountain goats that graciously showed their faces to us on this day, in numbers suggesting only an immediate family. The scarcity of life around Olympus’s summit — during peak tourism season — was a welcome reminder that there are areas of beautiful, accessible desolation in our climate of bus tours, and hour-long attraction lineups. Agapitos was less than half full, I estimated. Fifty souls spread out over a mountain of epic proportions made for surprising solitude.
The stunning variance in flora is another Olympic bonus. I was not surprised to learn that Olympus is in a league alongside Hawaii, the Galapagos and Madagascar for the high number of species present on its flanks and no where else, after coming across numerous plants as notable in their variation as their beauty.
After a knee-knackering descent another of my sneaking suspicions was confirmed. I couldn’t remember running into one Greek soul during our hike, as our cab driver on the way up had prophesied. The Greek family that offered me a ride back to Litochoro in their gleaming new Mercedes was happy to explain. They had come all the way from Athens, nearly a six-hour leg, to simply take a few pictures at Olympus’s base and dine in the rustic restaurant at the bottom. And they were more than happy to do so.
They couldn’t understand why I had come all this way to exert myself, when I could have been relaxing beachside. The Greeks, I was pointedly informed — without a hint of embarrassment or shame — preferred their pleasures to be of the mind, of the palate, and requiring minimal exertion. I was a silly tourist for getting sweaty, and bothering to get to the top of Mount Olympus. This echoed the thoughts of our cab driver who insisted, to an unbelieving audience of myself and my two Canadian companions, that the majority of Litochoro’s populace lived in the shadow of a mountain that more than likely sustained their livelihood in the tourism industry, but which they never ascended.
If it wasn’t for the Greeks that made their living in direct relation to the mountain — the family that ran Agapitos, the cab drivers, and the mule-accompanied exotic flora foragers — this “Greek” experience would have consisted of German, Italian, Swiss, and other North American tourists.
One is tempted to lament on a nation missing out on its own beauty, to proclaim they don’t, in fact, know what they’re missing. But I think they do, and they don’t miss it at all. Sometimes the appreciation of otherworldly sights and experiences requires visiting another world entirely, and when you’re an Olympian, Mount Olympus just doesn’t inspire the sort of reverie that being from another country, another continent, does.