I felt incredibly grateful– and lucky – to have shelter when Cyclone Ianos arrived unexpectedly at dawn on my third day in the Greek mountains, effectively immobilizing everyone in the hut until it died out twenty hours later. Outside the water-stained windows of Giosos Apostolidis, Greece’s highest mountain refuge, thick gray mist obscured views clinging to the cliffs of Stefani, Mount Olympus’ third-highest peak. The only choice was to sit by the old stove with a few fellow adventurers and swap mountain stories about tsipouro blows for what seemed like an eternity. At least I had a successful summit story to tell.
Olympus, Greece’s highest peak at 9,570 feet, is better known for its mythological status than the magnificent limestone cliffs and mountain-ringed meadows that cover its slopes. Some even think that the massif is imaginary. But the Realm of the Gods is a very real mountain located in central Greece, just north of the fertile plain of Thessaly and a hair’s breadth from the Aegean Sea. With 52 distinct peaks and covering nearly 200 square miles, the mountain is almost a range unto itself.
My introduction to Olympus was rather dramatic. Growing up in a small neighborhood not far from the Acropolis of Athens, it seemed like everyone around me knew about Mount Olympus, but no one had been there: the mountain seemed as remote as the mythology that surrounded. But I wanted to see where all the stories came from. Last August, my childhood friend Theo and I decided that the popular trails of Prionia and Gortsia were below us and started our adventure from Litochoro, a cozy little town at the northeast foot of the mountain. . This way we would climb a longer route to Olympus, starting from sea level and walking through the lush valley of the Enipeas River. Unfortunately, the hot July sun got the better of me at the start of the climb. Despite my heat fatigue, however, after three days (instead of the usual two), we finally joined the most popular route up the mountain at the Prionia trailhead. and reached the Plateau des Muses, a vast flat plain of 1,000 feet under the top. Looking at the trail above, however, we decided that scrambling Louki (the couloir to the summit) behind the Sunday traffic, having already been slowed down by the heat, seemed like an unnecessary risk. We went back down.
A few months later, on an idle Wednesday in September, Theo dropped me off at a completely deserted parking lot in Prionia, the trailhead and tavern that marks the start of the most popular route to Olympus. He would join me this weekend, but the first few days I was solo. Eager to get started, I took a deep breath and set off, accompanied by the soft rustle of the beech forest that framed the first mile of trail.
Three hours and 3,000 vertical feet later, I reached the usually crowded mountain hut of Agapitos. Mid-week it was empty except for three Italian students sitting on a picnic table. Along with the muleteer from the cabin, they were the only people I had met all day.
After a hearty plate of spaghetti and meatballs, I put on my pack and set off for the second part of the climb. By the time I reached Zonaria – the trail that skirts the characteristic limestone layers of the upper slopes – thick clouds had gathered beneath me. There was little wind, however, and a few rays of sunshine were drawing golden spots on the fluffy cover of the cumulus clouds. In those precious moments, I apparently had the whole mountain to myself.
I finally reached the hut where I was going to spend the night. Giosos Apostolidis – where I would wait for the gale – sits on a windswept saddle on the edge of the plateau of the Muses, overlooking the grassy plains of the surrounding Olympian peaks. When I arrived, the staff and a handful of guests were on the porch, watching the clouds push their way through the cirque that separates the Stefani set. Soon clouds would fill the entire valley, rising like foam. Eventually, mist covered the set, leaving only the dark mass of Stefani looming overhead as the sun set.
Artifacts and shrines found on nearby peaks prove that the ancient Greeks also climbed here. Two and a half millennia ago, someone might have stood where I now stood, admiring the grandeur of this mountain and believing that it must be where the gods dwelt. According to Greek mythology, the nine Muses for whom the plateau is named were deities of the liberal arts and sciences who lived just below the high peaks. Stefani was considered the throne of their father, Zeus, who reigned over mortals as over the gods.
The early morning hours found me tossed around in my hard sleeper, waiting for my alarm clock to go off. Knowing that the anticipation of the summit would keep me awake, I grabbed my headlamp and turned it on, casting the room in an eerie red glow; everyone was sleeping. I slipped outside in the dark to join the few others waiting in the cold for the show to unfold. The ascent of the Plateau des Muses is an arduous undertaking, but those those who make the climb and are willing to sacrifice some sleep can witness one of the most majestic sunrises in Greece.
It all started with light streaming from the distant Aegean Sea, flooding the horizon with a golden hue. Minute by minute, the intensity increased, the brilliance became fiercer, and the sky lit up with the deepest blue I had ever seen. Everyone remained motionless, bewitched. Finally, the sun broke out in full yellow and orange from the Aegean Sea, casting the first streaks over Stefani. The new day had arrived.
And what a day it was. I would have liked to bask in the first rays of the sun, but I had unfinished business with the mountain. After hiding a few essentials in my pack, I started the 20 minute hike to Louki. A few minutes after cruising around the east face of Stefani, I saw the hand painted spots that mark the way to the top.
Soon I was standing at the foot of the corridor, leaning upwards to watch the towering mass of loose limestone hovering above me. I had never been so intimidated on a hike. This Class 4 stampede claimed more casualties than any other location on Olympus. I climbed cautiously, clearing the sills of the scree that apparently covered everything before taking a step. Slowly but surely I climbed, always keeping an eye out for falling rocks. Forty minutes later, I was standing on the cloud-covered peak next to a small Greek flag. Finally out of the precarious ravine and hit with the corresponding adrenaline crash, I sat on a rock and watched the clouds swirl around me.
Compared to the life of the ancient Greeks who once lived here, ours is radically different. But, just like them, we marvel at the mountains, storms and sunrises we find in nature. Even though we are now aware of the mechanisms behind them, we still feel the same wonder as those who first laid eyes on the mighty peaks of Olympus and decided that only the gods could dwell there.
Back in Giosos Apostolidis, gossip flew around the hut that a cyclone named Ianos had picked up on the Mediterranean Sea, but probably wouldn’t affect us. Even though it turned out Almighty Zeus had other plans, I didn’t mind; I had finally stood on top of Mount Olympus, and it was worth waiting for any storm to pass.
Season Late spring, summer, fall
Starting point Prionia, 40.0838, 22.4070
Permit Reservations required for popular huts.
Distance 17.1 miles
Days 2 to 3