Paying a visit to the gods of old

Don’t you love friends who greet you not with “Hello” but with “Let’s go on an adventure!” whilst unconcealed excitement sparkles in their eyes? I do. So when my friend Alkis suggested flying to Greece for the weekend to climb Mount Olympus, I didn’t have to think long – I’d booked flights before I’d asked for the time off work.

According to the ancient tales, Mount Olympus is the home to the Twelve Olympians, the major gods of the Greek pantheon. It is said to be perfect. No wind, Homer says, ever-shakes the troubled peace of Olympus; no rain ever falls there or snow; but the cloudless firmament stretches around it on all sides and the white glory of Sunshine is diffused upon its walls. I’m not sure about that – as one of the tallest mountains in Europe I think it gets its fair share of snow and wind. But that doesn’t make it any less perfect. I had to go and find out.

Friday saw the rush of London fade slowly into the calm of Litochoro. The journey had been punctuated by a number of small events that represent city life; a 3am start, a spontaneous change of route to the station, a free coffee from a Pret barista who thought that 3am was too early to be without caffeine, an airport full of tourists. Thessaloniki was similar, if a little more laid back, a delayed bus and a missed connection. None of that mattered. A five minute walk from the Airbnb, the beach in Litochoro appeared before us, the Aegean blue and sparkling. Now, I’m not a beach person unless there’s some kind of activity. I’m bad at sitting still and sweating. I’m also not in love with salt water, and I don’t like swimming where I can touch the bottom. In general, swims in the ocean tend to be short. After a few handstands, and a longer-than-usual swim, I took to building cairns from the pebbles making up the beach at Plaka whilst my clothes dried. Worth it.

Wandering along the beach to a campground reminded me of the forest campgrounds I’d been to on the west coast of the US. Pine trees, soft needles on the ground, and sites filled with families who look like they’ve moved there for the summer. We took in fruit smoothies and checked out the weather forecast for Saturday. It looked perfect.

Starting early on Saturday, Nikos our host drove us into the town of Litochoro and pointed out a bakery where we stocked up with bread and spanakopita to fuel our ascent to Prionia. We had decided to follow the E4 hiking trail from Myloi through the Enipea Canyon up to the Prionia trailhead, the highest point reachable by car. Nikos had warned us against it, saying it would be hot and tiring, but to us that sounded great. There was a mountain marathon coming the opposite way, and every few minutes we stopped to let them pass, say hi and cheer loudly. Don’t get me wrong, it was hot, and it was tiring, but there were so many things that made the hike more than worth the effort.

For most of the morning, the views were of the trees and cliffs bounding the canyon, but as we descended we came upon the river. Cold and clear water after a hot and sweaty hike is almost impossible to refuse. We jumped in at the first available opportunity.

Shortly after the swim were wild strawberries. Hot and tiring pales into insignificance in the face of such a treat.

We reached Prionia by the early afternoon and refuelled with bean soup and greens at the restaurant. I had imagined Prionia to be a village of sorts, but it reminded me more of the kind of mountain restaurant I’ve been to whilst skiing in the Alps, all by itself on the side of a mountain.

The final stretch for the day took us from Prionia to Refuge ‘A’ Spills Agapitos. The trail was steeper here, but the clouds came in to provide some respite from the heat. The waiter at Prionia had said we’d take around 2.5-3 hours to reach the refuge, so we were pleased when, 2h14m later, we arrived at the front door. Within another hour, we had pasta and white wine and an astonishing sunset.

A perfect day, but it was about to get better. As the light faded, the stars emerged. There was no city glow, no moon to dilute the impact. From the patio of the refuge, I could see all the way to the edge of the galaxy as the milky way rose overhead.

There was no particular rush on Sunday morning. We had the entire mountain to play on, and the only time restriction was to get back to Prionia before the last tourists left so we could hitch a ride back to town. Maybe a little earlier, so we could eat at the restaurant again. We took it easy up the first section from Refuge A, not necessarily by choice. I hadn’t slept in the refuge, and my legs were feeling Saturday’s 20km. That’s 12miles, and to my PCT-altered mind that sounds like nothing. The grade was harder than the PCT, and I’m way way out of practice, but still. Ouch.

Being slower than usual meant a lot of time to lean on the hiking poles and turn around to admire the view.

The sun had come out, we were walking through greenery for an hour or so, and the views over the mountains were all I had hoped for. As we found our legs, the trail emerged from the trees, and turned into the shadow of Olympus. The summit of Skala beckoned. The last stretch to this first summit was beautiful torture. Long, straight, with a clear view of the prize. Although it took less than an hour to make that final traverse, the anticipation was almost too much to take.

Once at the summit of Skala, we ditched most of the contents of our packs behind a rock, and weighted it down. We took only the necessities – food, water and cameras! We knew what was coming.

The route from Skala to Mytikas is exposed and rocky, descending maybe 75m on rocky slabs with a dizzying view down the valley. It then turns upwards, requiring a scramble up to Mytikas peak. The meeting place of the gods, where they would decide the fates of the mere mortals below. I always imagine them as capricious, moving humans around on the board according to the whims of the day rather than any strategy. Making it to the top felt like they had smiled on me that day, bringing sunshine and a distinct lack of gravity-induced rocky death.

Sitting atop a mountain is one of my very favourite things. Especially with snacks. I find myself a rocky crevice to wedge myself into, and look out over more distance than I can fit into my mind. I can zone out from the other people on the summit, and listen to the wind. In those moments, the smallest things become my whole world. The warmth of the sun on my skin, the wind in my hair, the bitterness of the chocolate. Senses are heightened and thinking is slowed. I can be present, I can be me. And this is why I seek out these places.

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