It was one of those inebriated Sunday mornings after a heavy drinking session when I distinctly remember the spirit of Zeus coming over first thing in the morning: "You are that lunatic who likes climbing, right? Come to my Throne for a drink of ouzo".
Well, it wasn’t quite like that as you could probably imagine, but the desire to climb Olympus and Mitikas was always there. The mission was planned, discussed, dropped, reconsidered, delayed, then put in circulation again, then suffered one final blow about 24 hours before departure as we discovered we didn’t have a vehicle – or rather, we had one, but with old papers that could prevent it crossing the border.
Mission Olympus was dead before it even started – we’d go shopping, stock the car with groceries and alcohol and head east towards the Bulgarian Black Sea instead. And the very thought of that turned my stomach. I hadn’t been to the Black Sea since 1994 and I have vowed never to lay a foot there again, and suddenly here we were, headed there. It was at that moment that Mira and I looked at each other: "Listen, what do you say, we give Olympus a try? We’ll drive to the border, if they turn us back, then we can always go to the Black Sea?" With that the decision was taken instantly and we were headed south to the Koulata.
Arriving at the Koulata, we crossed our fingers – it was crunch time. The plan was that if we were forbidden to leave the country, we’d drive to Plovdiv, spend the night there and head for the sea the following morning. Our car approached the checkpoint and the officer greeted us politely. He took our identity cards, smiled and waved us through. As we reached the Greek barrier, the policeman hardly even glanced at our ID cards, motioning to us that we should proceed and leave him well alone. Before we knew it, we were cruising down the E79 to Thessaloniki, sporting a mile-wide grin on our faces – Olympus, here we come! The business at the border had taken 15 minutes flat. It was 6.20pm, there was a two-hour trip to Thessaloniki and we agreed we would park the car somewhere by the White Tower, get our hands on a sufficient amount of alcohol, and get blitzed along the seafront. Entering Thessaloniki, its oriental beauty immediately immersed us, that unmistakable architecture which I have seen all over Greece, in Damascus, Syria and Amman in Jordan.
We parked on Leoforos Vassileos Georgio, just behind the statue of the mounted Alexander the Great, locked the car, got a large bottle of gin out, bought beer and tonic from the periptero (kiosk) and got down to serious business. We tabbed across the centre of town, Leofiros Nikis, embarked on the Mitropoleos square and Odos Aristotelous, and we soaked up the atmosphere of night-time Thessaloniki. Thousands of young people, women dressed to kill with a kilo of make-up and lads sporting more gel in their hair than an 80s glam rock band put together. We would do the constitutional sightseeing and photography tour the following morning and get a taste of the sights and sounds of Thessaloniki. Then we’d proceed to Litochoro (the city of the Gods) sometime in the afternoon and sort ourselves out up the mountain from there. But first things first – tonight we would let rip in the city.
Litochoro is an 82km drive from Thessaloniki on the Ethinki Odos (national road). Just four km from the sea, Litochoro has that universal beauty – it really is the city of the Gods – I mean, how spoiled can you get? It’s both a summer sea destination and an "alpine" town. All routes up the mountain lead from Litochoro, but glance around your shoulder and you see the sea gently sparkling in the sun. Glance to the other side and you see the towering summit of Mitikas at 2917m, flanked by Skolio at 2911m and Stefani at 2909m.
Zlatni Piassutsi? You’re having a laugh! From Litochoro, the mountain road swerves up to Prionia, about 18km up the mountain at an elevation of 1100m. This is where you ditch the car, take your Bergen and head up the E4 path to Refuge A (Spilios Agapitos), a lodge at 2100m and about three hours’ climbing. Nothing dramatic on the first leg of the climb to Refuge A, lush vegetation not too dissimilar to the sort of forests you would encounter in Pirin.
We arrived at the refuge at 7.25pm, left our Bergens by a table and looked about us – younger and older tourists about, and then there was Andreas. Ever experienced going into a room full of people, then your eyes cross with someone and then you instantly know that this person is spot-on? Andreas Galanos was sitting by himself, nursing a beer, all quiet. We looked at each other – he got up, came up straight to us and smiled "Yasou, file". Turns out, the bloke is an Iron Maiden fan, his hobbies are military, history and heavy metal, and he loves beer. When I used to live in Athens, I used to practically live in a heavy metal club called Revenge of Rock on Leoforos Alexandras – well, Andreas was a local there as well, and his face was familiar.
"Where are you headed, megale?" I asked him.
"I will go to Refuge Seo and see the plateau of the Muses," he said.
"What, you’re not going to the summit?"
"I don’t think I can do it, and I would never attempt doing it alone anyway," he said.
"Well Andreas, you are not alone, and you are coming up to the summit with us, mate".
"Oh, that sounds perfect then".
With that, we were at the table, sorting our route for the following morning.
Climbing Mitikas is easy – well, apart from two sections: if you take the classic route, you will scale first the summit of Skala at 2866m and from there you negotiate the precarious rock face at 60 degrees, about 50 or more metres of nerve-racking steep descent. That section is one of the most unnerving as you are doing four point contact movement along the ridge, with the 400m vertical wall of the Kazani just to your left. Once you do that, you resume the climb to Mitikas itself with only the final 20m becoming significantly challenging. Make no mistake; this is a four-point contact advance, level four scrambling at the least very much like the north face of Vihren. Then, there is the Louki route. Louki is a vicious, demanding steep climb which is considered the most difficult up or down the mountain, a place where many people have broken limbs or died.
Imagine spires of bizarre alien rock formations either side, a 60-plus degree slope, a narrow path slicing and swerving ever upward towards the summit. A relentless four point contact ascent, and if that isn’t hard enough, the descent is significantly worse. If you suffer from any degree of vertigo, as I do, and you are descending from Louki, it will become very uncomfortable; panic attacks are common. But if you have climbed before, and your fitness is good, and if you have scaled the north face of Vihren and traversed Koncheto, you will be just fine up there.
We were determined to do Louki; I craved it. However, lodge keeper Maria Zolata told us that due to the recent spell of heavy rains, there was a lot of loose rock and sleet on the Louki path – a common and lethal problem. Most accidents and fatalities occur when a climber knocks a rock out of place, which then turns into a lethal projectile as it plummets downwards several hundred metres. An experienced Greek climber with more than 100 ascents to the summit of Mitikas (according to Zolata), died just 10 days earlier on the Louki route by a falling rock that struck his helmet, killing him instantly, sending him down the abyss.
When we assaulted the summit of Mitikas, we also did it in the worst possible weather – harrowing winds and damp and visibility was down to two or three metres.
Climbing Mitikas in good weather is challenging enough, doing it in wet slippery condition, in high winds and zero visibility is just asking for trouble. We scaled Skala and then went to Skolio, the second tallest summit at 2911m, just six metres shy of Mitikas. We then retraced our way back to Skala where the descent begins for Mitikas – one of the two "extreme" sections. We had agreed that we would go down to the lodge and attempt Mitikas the following day, as it was simply too dangerous to do it now.
Besides, we wouldn’t see anything if we got up there anyway. The fog was thickening and the winds sustained, but I could not resist the magnetic pull of the notorious Skala section, though, and told Mira and Andreas to wait for me while I went down and checked out that nasty bit everyone kept talking about. Andreas followed me 20m down the steep path and then decided to wait as I went further still. You are going down at about 55 to 60 degree slope. One side, a 400m vertical drop, no rigging no cable. Plenty of "steps" where you could get a grip and place your foot, but any lapse of concentration, no matter how temporary, could be fatal. But the adrenaline rush – very rewarding indeed.
I negotiated the full descent in zero visibility as the section is not that long anyway, and then heard Andreas who kept yelling "Nick, ela re malaka, se parakalo". The guy was getting agitated, so I retraced myself up the steep slope, back to the summit of Skala. From there we descended back to Refuge A, having climbed two of the four tallest summits in the mountain, and done one of the two "extreme" sections in a single day. Right, Zeus was bedding some poor mortal lass or was having his way with Aphrodite and cast a thick fog all around so we would not be filming his evil perverted ways, thanks a lot mate.
Zeus wasn’t done playing his nasty games, however. Up and raring to go at 6.30am next morning, and the weather was appalling. There was a drizzle, while the fog and thick clouds were worse than the previous day. This was really bad news. We had other objectives on our Greek trip, and couldn’t waste a third day on the mountain waiting for the weather to lift. Mira then told me of an Argentinean climber who had ditched the Andes and come all the way to Greece to climb Mitikas. He had spent two excruciating weeks waiting at Refuge A for Zeus to stop messing about, all in vain. And as the minutes rolled into hours and the morning turned into an afternoon, we knew there was no chance of doing it. Dejected and very disappointed, we started the long descent to Prionia.
The next three days we spent by the sea, just under the mountain. With a pain in my heart I kept looking up the mountain, and never saw the summit – it was covered in thick clouds and fog. Mitikas would only appear around 6pm just before sunset when the skies over Olympus would clear up. Don’t worry Zeus, we’ll be back!