Greece Part One: Mount Olympus, Sea to Summit to Sea

Tom Hill and Rob WM recently took a trip to the mountains of Northern Greece, here is Rob’s take on the beginning of their trip:

Mount Olympus, the home of the Ancient Greek Pantheon,
Visible from the cities of Larissa to the South and Thessaloniki, in the old
Kingdom of Macedonia across the bay. Its summits often wreathed in cloud, the
mountain rises up out of the blue waters on the Mediterranean Sea and soars in
to the heavens. About its feet the little pan-tiled villages and shady olive
groves that lend rural Greece a picturesque quality, rather like Cezanne’s
paintings of France and Spain.

Seaside ghost town
Camping Chalets
View of the mountain

At 2918m, Olympus is the highest mountain in Greece and stands about 18km from the coast at Plaka Litochoro as the crow flies. The first three days of our trip to Greece were spent walking from the edge of the sea to the summit of the highest of the major peaks of Olympus, Mytikas, and back again.

Olympus is a big mountain massif with several refuges on its flanks. Most of these are not open in the early spring so it was decided early on that we would make use of refuge ‘A’ which is the closest to Litochoro and low enough (2100m) to make a sensible target for a first day starting from the sea at Plaka. (The open refuges are on the Muses Plateau at 2700m). The way to this refuge follows the Enipea river through a limestone canyon of gargantuan proportions and should provide a dramatic entrance to the range. From refuge ‘A’ we would summit, and then descend on the third day, possibly by crossing to the higher ridge on the north side of the Canyon to begin the descent.

A frenzied week prior to leaving saw various pieces of equipment being acquired
and organised and myself and Tom packing our shared hold-luggage bag in my lab
in Queens Building on Wednesday. On Thursday evening we left on the latest
possible train to Stansted and spent a miserable few hours in the airport
before the gate to our flight opened at about 5 on Friday Morning. Friday
afternoon was dull and slightly rainy as, exhausted, we threaded our little
hire car through the deserted streets of a sea-side resort ghost town. Out of
season we found the only cheap accommodation that was still open, organised our
food and gear and tried to make up for the night spent in the airport.
By the sea
Saturday morning dawned clear and fine and at a little bit
after 0820h we set off from the seaside verandah at the bottom of the campsite,
pounding up the main road to Litochoro in our heavy mountaineering boots,
already baking in the Mediterranean sun that beat down on the olive groves and
isolated houses and workshops to either side of the road. From the town we were
already looking down at the sea behind us, but the snow capped summits of
Olympus appeared no closer ahead.

Litochoro lies at the entrance to the Enipea Canyon, from which some of the
waters collected by Olympus are drained towards the sea. The gorge is about 8km
long before it opens out into a valley head below the main summits and cuts its
way through outlying mountains well over 1000m in height. Down its length
tumbles a steeply descending river, whose waters form beautifully clear pools,
lightly tinted blue. The less rocky sides of the canyon are covered by beech
woods and forests of larch, spruce and cedar, clinging on to the hillsides,
whilst the steeper parts form sheer walls of variously tinted limestone, often
many hundreds of metres high and punctuated by dramatic pinnacles and vast
hanging caves. The path cannot follow the river because the terrain is often
too steep, so it winds its way up and down the shallower southern flanks of the
canyon, occasionally descending to the river and crossing timber bridges to the
northern bank for a short time. In this way, an extra 750 to 800 metres of
ascent (and corresponding descent) is added to the route between Litochoro and
Prionia, where the tourist road up the valley ends. At the roadhead there is
little sense that one is in meditterranean Greece, as steep fir tree clad
mountainsides give way to the snows and the cloud base hangs in the trees,
concealing from us the high peaks towering overhead.

Reassuring information

Outlying Hills
In the snow

Still occasionally passing waymarks for the E4 long distance
path, the ascent seemed to take far longer than its 2km and 800m suggested, and
as we trudged ever higher, through every type of snow, the cloud we’d been watching
on the hills over our shoulders started to creep up upon Mytikas and Skolio.


At Skala peak the ridge turns a corner once again and the thickening cloud told
us we would not have time to visit more than one of the three big summits of
Olympus. Mytikas is the highest and from here the Kaki Skala route looked every
bit as inviting as had been suggested. There were some teams ahead of us now
who had come up from the military ski-centre or Christakis hut on the South
Western slopes of the mountain. So we decided to head for Mytikas. The other
teams had clearly roped up here and we did the same, thought the route ahead
was not supposed to be difficult, it was better to have some security on the
descent to the saddle.
The Kaki Skala
At this point a couple of things became apparent, the
architecture of this mountain was on a far bigger scale than either of us had
imagined and we were racing an unknown force in the weather. The clouds brought
warmer air that softened the snow and then snow as they lifted, this went in
cycles.
The descent to the saddle was not hard but it was
sensationally exposed, a slip here would have seen us being funnelled into the
first snowy gully we crossed on the way to the hut the previous evening, some
1000m below. Protection was hard to come by in the shattered limestone, but the
occasional bolt had been fixed by guides working on the mountain.
North face of Skala
From the col, the sense of scale and grandeur of these mountains
is again heightened as the dramatic, steep, North face of Skala comes in to
view and the South Flank of Mytikas looms up ahead. For a strong team, the face
on Skala would hold dozens of long steep ice and mixed lines when conditions
were good. We traversed another area of steep, soft snow to the right hand side
of the ridge and began the ascent of a couloir to another smaller col. Here we
had to cross the first of the teams in descent, of which there were three, each
three men to a rope. The ridge here wound steeply about the top of a large
chasm to its left and up steeper loose mixed ground on the side of a subsidiary
spur. There were bolts which the guided parties were using, and provided
convenient crossing points, but even so we lost probably an hour or more to the
process of negotiating them on the most technical section of the route.
Looking down the route
Visibility was poor now, and as we climbed a short 45 degree
snow slope, thankfully still quite icy, leaving the last of the guided parties
below us and came to the summit of a large pinnacle. For a while we stopped,
puzzled, unable to see any continuation of the ridge in the cloud, and with
steep drops all around, for a while we thought we were stood on the very top of
Greece. As another thin patch of cloud passed through, we realised our mistake
and spied the main summit of Mytikas, with its metal Greek flag away to the
north, not much higher, but perhaps 100m distant. We were separated from it by
a narrow technical ridge blocked by a bulky Gendarme. The going would not be
too hard, but it might take us an hour to bypass the difficulties and that
would certainly mean undertaking most of the walk out from Skala in the dark.
It was snowing again, but quite warm, and with no certainty about the weather,
and only our tracks to guide us safely across the gully far below, benightment
was not a thought either of us relished.
Tom at our high point
So we boldly turned tail and fled. From sub-Mytikas, about
20m shy of the true top of Greece, descending soggy, dubious snow interspersed
with awkward rocky steps, using the occasional fixed gear or dodgy axe-belay
where our 30m of rope would not carry us to the next rock. On the final exposed
turn before the ascent to Skala, I placed three poor nuts in the chossy blocks,
though I knew the ground ahead was easier.
Safely back on top of Skala, we quickly unroped, and eating
on the move began descending the way we had come. The snow was much softer now,
both melting and being covered by a new layer during the day, meaning we sank
deeply or slipped sideways where we hadn’t done on the ascent. The mountains
all around were no less magnificent, but we had learned new respect for them. The
craggy peaks of Olympus are very much alpine in scale and deserve the same kind
of treatment.
Halfway between Scotland and the Alps
After the gully crossing, a final short descent through
beautifully atmospheric cedar forest brought us back to the hut platform at
about 1930h, twelve hours after we left that morning and with about half an
hour of daylight left, longer than our enormous walk in. Wearily we ate lunch
and dinner in one sitting and put ourselves to bed. We had come a very long way
from the sea to within a few metres of the highest point in Greece, before
being driven down by the weather and lost time.
Back in the Forest

Exhausted

Neither of us savoured the idea of crossing the Zonaria to the far side of the
canyon for the descent, especially having seen it strafed by large avalanches
the day before, so we returned on the Monday, via the beautiful Enipea canyon,
revisiting the holy spring of St. Dionysus and marvelling once again at the
sheer scale and beauty, and loneliness of this place. The descent was long and
warm and humid, with occasional outbreaks of rain, and quite long periods of
ascent as we wove our way down out of the canyon and back into Litochoro, where
we ate, filled our water and resupplied whilst the cloud finally lifted off the
mountain and allowed us to see where we had been.

Free of cloud
Provisions: ‘Squeeze and Tap’
UBES

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