What it’s like to climb Greece’s tallest mountain

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More than two thousand years ago Zeus, the God of the sky, sat on his throne atop Mount Olympus. At 2,917 metres high, the mountain towered above the mortals of Ancient Greece who lived in both fear and awe of the Parthenon’s power. When the clouds parted, people in the village of Litochoro and in nearby Thessaloniki could see all the way up to Mytikas, the tallest point, upon which Zeus, and the 11 other Olympic Gods lived.

Fast forward a few millenniums and I am lacing my hiking boots, staring at the menacing peak of Mytikas. I am about to climb it.

I’m perched on a rocky plateau, not far from last night’s refuge. The sun is rising through the clouds which blanket the rolling valleys, forests and the town far below. The crisp mountain air and almost blinding golden hue of sunrise is a surreal experience. I’m not an early riser but I’m warming to this.

I am one of 10,000 hikers who step into this so-called ‘Playground of the Gods’ each year. Trekkers typically make the challenging trip to the summit and back in four days but one of our guides, Thomas, has blitzed it in one. “Mum was cooking, I wanted to be home for dinner,” he says and grins.

This trip was a spur of the moment decision but one of the best I made that year. My mother, a passionate adventurer, was heading to Greece with a few friends and their daughters. Reluctant to trade the comforts of home to hike under hot sun with a heavy backpack while blisters formed on my feet, I said no. Not long after, I caved to her persistence and so the weeks before the flight were spent breaking in new hiking boots, packing and repacking my pack and researching what islands I could stop by for some well-deserved sun and cocktails.

It’s not hard to see why people are drawn to Mount Olympus. The lower trails weave through forests, across wooden bridge river crossings and up rocks leading to stunning views. Or, as Theo – our other guide – suggests, “a glimpse of Zeus himself.” With ancient Greek mythology tied into almost every step taken, cave encountered, river swum in and plateau crossed it’s not just a hike, it’s somewhat of a divine experience.

The mountain’s ethereal quality is evident as the sun rises and I step into my harness, buckle my helmet and zip up my down jacket, ready to embark onwards and upwards towards the peak of Mytikas.

The landscape grows rockier and more desolate the further we walk from the refuge. The magic of the sun is gone, in its place a thick fog is settling across the landscape, adding to the barrenness. We’re above the tree line and well into the clouds making visibility poor. Our guides tell us to stick close together as we weave along a narrow path.

We pause as we reach the final part of the ascent. Looking up, a steep rock face is swallowed by clouds. It’s both mysterious and ominous making it easy to see why the ancient Greeks thought their Gods lived here.

The next 45 minutes are spent finding hand and footholds on razor sharp shale rock as we slowly scour upwards. Our harnesses serve no purpose other than giving us the option of being attached to our guides should nerves set in. We’re essentially free climbing up a 60 degree face. Occasionally we’ll stop to make small talk with passing climbers or hug the face as we dodge tumbling rocks.

I’m so focused on my racing heart and the rhythm of lifting each arm and leg that it takes a few seconds to realise there’s no more rock to climb, I’ve reached the peak of Greece’s highest mountain.  It’s breathtakingly beautiful with 360 degree views across rolling green gorges. The National Park stretches for kilometres, all the way to Thessaloniki and the blue Aegean Sea. The clouds have drifted away, soaking the peak in warmth. There’s a calmness up here coming from being far removed from the preoccupations and chaos of life past the valley below. I can see why so many hikers are drawn here. Give me this sense of accomplishment and content over cocktails on a crowded beach any day.

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