Tuesday, 22 April 2014

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.

Enipea Canyon
The river
Clear pool
In the final 3km, the path winds its way up 1000m of ascent to refuge ‘A’ which nestles just below the tree line at 2100m, perched atop an outcrop in the forest. We could just make it out in the clouds looking up from below and as the trail petered out just a few yards in to the first real snow, it became apparent that no-one had visited this place for at least a month, perhaps far longer, the hordes who climb Olympus each year are clearly mostly summer visitors.

Reassuring information
Signpost in the forest
Refuge in the clouds

We set up the tent on the hut platform and ate and melted several litres of water from the snow. As the sun sank behind the mountain, the temperature dropped dramatically and the clouds cleared. The twinkling lights of Litochoro seemed very distant and the sea and sky seemed to merge together in a blue haze.

Distant lights

That night was very cold, but gave way to clear blue skies in the morning and with much lighter packs we set out, climbing at first through the woods before finding a way to cross the steep gully separating us from Chonderomesorachi, the ridge leading up to Skala and Skolio. At this time of the year, the snow has already melted from the south side of this ridge, exposing grey limestone scree, but mostly we walked on snow, up away from the trees. To the south, a group of snowy, remote 2500+m mountains, and ahead a heavily corniced ridge carrying us North towards Skala and Skolio.

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


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.

Shrine of St. Dionysus
The E4 path
The final hour or so back to the sea passed quite quickly, we were barely aware of the guard dogs, though on the descent of the canyon we noticed many things that we had been too exhausted and working too hard to see on our way up.

At the entrance to the park
Olympus dwarfs Litochoro

The final walk to the sea
Back at the coast

The receptionist at the campsite made us fruit tea, and failing to find an open bar or taberna by the coast, we ate some of our supplies and went directly to sleep, aware of a very hard job well done, but frustratingly not quite finished. Olympus will call us back, but whether we shall walk the entire length of the canyon again remains to be seen. There are easier approaches to the hill that would allow more time to be spent on the mountain itself and easier routes to the summit, though the harder looking, more technical ways, of which there look to be plenty hold more appeal. We shall return, and perhaps we shall meet the man whose path we crossed on a motorway bridge about 1km from the shore who had ridden his laden mountain bike there from Venice, through the Balkans and had allowed himself three days to cover the 450km or so to get his flight from Athens; he certainly seemed excited by our adventure, as we were by his.

Free of cloud
Provisions: 'Squeeze and Tap'