CLIMBING TO THE SKY, MOUNT OLYMPUS

to Dimitrios Fragkos

September 2016

Our trip starts in Livadia, a small cute town one and a half hour north of Athens. With a river crossing the town from side to side and a small ancient-like amphitheater near the river springs, Livadia is certainly worthy of a visit, especially during summer/fall festival time when there is open air concerts and theater plays. Let’s not forget that Livadia is famous for its souvlaki!! So if you are traveling north from Athens and making a short diversion is not a problem, it is a nice stop to have a lunch or dinner.

Our second stop is in Raches, a small village next to the sea, where you can have delicious seafood at Xhristos’ ouzeri “Το Γιουσούρι”. We are spending the night in Raches, waking up early in the morning at 5:30 and heading for the Mountain Olympus National Park. We have a 2-hour drive ahead and the weather does not look welcoming for a long hike, but everybody is ready for this adventure, from the 9-year-old to the 70-year-old one. Our youngest team member is 9-year-old Stefanos, and his father Georges is accompanying him. Together with his uncle Tassos and grandfather Dimitrios, three generations are climbing Olympus. Tassos’ cousin Malvina is excited and nervous for her first, yet quite a strenuous hike. Our pharmacist friend Babis, carrying with him every potentially useful medicine and emergency kit, and the astrophysicist Jeff, who is an experienced climber, are also ready for an amazing hike.

We are first arriving at the information center at Prionia station where we will buy maps and leave one of our cars for the way back. Our actual starting point for hiking is Gortsia, which is 6 km away from the information center. Since there is no water source along the way, each of us is carrying 2 liters of water and 3 sandwiches in our back-bags. At Gortsia, we are parking the other cars and starting our hike through a misty pine and beech forest. For the next 6 hours, we are walking in the forest through the clouds. The early September is good to avoid hot weather but risky to have stormy weather. However, we are informed that there will be no serious storm but from mild to mid-heavy rain and maybe, towards the top, some wind, though not very fast. We should be able to make it.

The flowers are already gone but we walk through a beautiful beech (Fagus) and Bosnian pine (Pinus heldreichii) forest mixed with European yew (Taxus baccata), field maple (Acer campestre) and prickly juniper (Juniperus oxycedrus). Bosnian pines are native to the mountain- ous areas of Balkans. I had prepared a four-page vegetation guide for this trip but under current weather conditions, nobody is really looking at the plants.

Anyway, the flowers are already gone and it is difficult to identify some of the species just from their leaves. Nevertheless, every now and then some interesting mushrooms are drawing our attention. So I am hopeful that our next ascend will be in early summer, in order to discover all those beautiful Olympus flowers.

Due to its isolated location, on the borders of Thessaly and Macedonia, Olympus has a unique vegetation, including Mediterranean, central European and Balkan mountain species, as well as lots of endemic ones. The Mediterranean zone, starting from sea level and extending up to 700 m, is mainly Mediterranean maquis dominated by the Kermes Oak (Quercus coccifera), prickly Juniper (Juniperus oxycedrus), white oak (Quercus pubescens) with some small deciduous trees of European nettle tree (Celtis australis), european cornel (Cornus mas), judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum), etc. Above 700 m, you start to see the forest of black pine (Pinus nigra), Macedonian fir (Abies borisiiregis) and beech (Fagus). In between, it is possible to see Eurepean yews (Taxus baccata), scots elms (Ulmus glabra), field maples (Acer campestre) and greek strawberry trees. (Arbutus unedo).

Photo Gallery

Above the beech and black pine zone, from 1300 m up to 2100 m, Balkan mountain forest zone is dominated by the Bosnian Pine (Pinus heldreichii). This zone is also full of beautiful violets (V. delpinantha) if you go earlier than September. Also, below the cliffs, white flowered Cardamine carnosa and Saxifraga glabella may be found. Another common plant is Geranium Macrorrhizum and Carduus tmoleus with pink flowers that we have the chance of seeing.

Above the forest zone, the Balkan alpine vegetation starts with several plant communities that are growing on rocks and cliffs. The most common one we see all along the hike is Saxifraga sempervivum and Saxifraga scardica. However, we cannot really differentiate them because they do not have flowers at this time of the year anymore. One of the most interesting species we see is sedum album with white flowers.

While we are reaching closer to the refuge, the weather conditions are going worse and since we do not have high- quality waterproof clothing we are starting to get wet and cold. Every step is getting harder and steeper and we are passing some dangerous parts. Under those conditions, everybody is a little bit worried and our hands are frozen, so we only took a few photos in the last three hours. The wind is getting stronger while the rain and the cold are reaching our bones, and we are only able to see a few steps in front of us because of the mist. Finally, the Giant of the Balkans is showing its mysterious face to us.

Despite all those hard times and a little bit of fear and stress, we are making it to the refuge. 13.6 km in 9 hours – the last three hours felt like a whole day- in bad weather conditions, however, the most memorable and exciting hike we have ever done. Now it is time to dry our clothes in front of the old style wood stove, eat our pasta and drink hot chocolate at 2700 m while thunders are shaking the ground.

The refuge called “Giosos Apostolidis” at 2697 m has the capacity to host up to 80 people. The refuge is named after its founder Giosos Apostolidis who died in a climbing accident in Easter of 1964, on Mytikas summit. It is operating from early summer to fall, providing delicious food you need after a hard hike. During the rest of the year, the front part of the building remains open to provide a safe place to spend the night with your own equipment and supplies.

During the hike, we use a smartphone application called AlpineQuest and it has all the trails so no worries about getting lost. You can track how long you walk, what is your speed, where you took a break, duration of your stops, elevation difference, etc.. It is pretty advanced and gives very detailed statistics. Since the battery of my phone worked for 9 hours with only this application open, we were lucky but you should know that there will be no chance of charging your phone at the refuge so it is necessary to have an external battery to charge your phone overnight. At the refuge, they have electricity through a generator but it is only for cooking and necessary reasons and they are closing it after 10 so you should also have headphones.”

Next morning we do not see anything outside since we are still completely in the clouds but it is windy and clouds are moving fast while the blue sky sometimes showing itself through small holes in the sky. Will Zeus let us enjoy the way down? Before starting our second-day hike, we take a success photo in front of the refuge. Everybody is smiling so far

On the way back to Prionia, we are choosing the other route which is a little bit more dangerous at the top but shorter. This part is a little bit scary because for a few kilometers we have to walk a very narrow path while the left side is a very deep downhill so there is no option for falling down. Careful steps and the beautiful view of the seat where Zeus is sitting and endangered goats of the Olympus.

For a while, we are not very different from the deer and goats but slowly it is being less dangerous and we start seeing the blue sky which gives us some moments to take photos to freeze some memories. In one of those, we see a group of wild goat watching us at the skirts of the summit of Olympus Mytikas where we will climb in our next visit. These wild goats (Rupicapra) spend their time in the alpine zone between July and December and go down to the borders of forest from January to June. It is a native species in Balkan countries but declared as endangered in Greece. The major threats are poaching and disturbance by tourists. Knowing that we took a few photos from far away and continue to our hike.

The first national park of Greece is Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece, second highest in the Balkans, which has got its status in 1938. Since it is an important ecological site UNESCO declared it as a biosphere reserve in 1981 and the European Community has declared it as one of the most important bird areas of the European community. Mount Olympus is also in NATURE 2000 European Network as a Special Protection Area. As being a national park, the visitors should respect the rules and should not uproot the plants, should not destroy any nests or damage the rocks or walking paths by making shortcuts which are causing soil erosion.

One of the memorable moments in this gorgeous mountain hike is the time I take a photo of Tassos and his father. The second time that a father and son are climbing Olympus. After 20 years stepping on the same route maybe even same stones and rocks, seeing the same view that is not changing over thousand years. This time, there is also a grandson in the team. This should be a family tradition from now on and I look forward to coming back here with our kids in the future.

Half of the way down is through the forest zone and with a better weather condition and easy paths. We start to look around to see plants and different flowers and mushrooms are showing their faces. Mushrooms are not really showing their faces from their hidden corners but Georges knows all their secrets and happy to show us them.

After 12 km, 7 hours we are back at the visitor center, where we will have a goodbye coffee and then everybody is ready for the trip back home with a sweet pain all around our body but with the happiness of experiencing Olym- pus. This was the best hike in my life with amazing people and look forward to having our next hike with the same team. I will finish with my greetings to my dear team members whom we shared this memorable experience. I will also remind you that there are still many forests to wander through and many mountains to cross…

Written by Gozde Saral

* Special thanks to Michel Grenon for helping to identify the flora species.
* Special thanks to Giorgos Zacharopoulos’a for identifying the mushroom species.

This article is also available in Turkish and Greek.

Photo Gallery.