My ascent of Mount Olympus, September 1998
My ascent of Mount Olympus, 19-20 September 1998

by Bryan Hollamby, January 1999

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As you (and my cats) can see from the photograph on the left, taken before setting off for the weekend jaunt, I am no mountaineer (!!) in the real sense of the word, ropes, buckles, dangling from a rockface with thousands of feet of empty space below me, but I am very proud of the fact that I have climbed Mount Olympus, Greece’s tallest mountain, its main summit being at 2917 metres above sea level (a.s.l.), or 9570 feet. I didn’t reach the main summit, whose name is Mytikas, preferring to go for the nearby Skolio, which is six metres lower, at 2911 metres (9550 feet) a.s.l. My reason for this choice of summit was that the last section of the climb to the Mytikas summit involved clambering around a dangerous-looking rockface, with the distinct possibility of slipping and disappearing into a chasm which probably went at least a thousand feet down, which did not fit in with my immediate plans for my future... This, it appears, was the spot where many people have been killed over the years, and I wasn’t intending to add to that number…!

Saturday 19th September 1998

The weekend trip was organised by the Kilkis Mountaineering Club (Oreivatikos Syllogos Kilkis in Greek), of which I am a fairly recent new member. The club organises frequent excursions to mountains around Northern Greece. We set off from Kilkis by coach at seven in the morning, heading via Thessaloniki, where we picked up some more punters to bring us to a total of 33 people, for Prionia (1100 metres/3609 feet a.s.l.), the highest point accessible by motor vehicle on the Litohoro side of Mount Olympus. The coach journey took about three-and-a-half hours, and so we arrived towards eleven.

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Everyone kitted up for the stiff walk up to the refuge where we would be staying overnight, at a spot called "Balcony" (Balkoni in Greek), which is at 2100 metres (6890 feet) a.s.l., and which must have taken its name from the fact that through the valleys you get an excellent view of the Aegean Sea coast below Litohoro on a clear day. Sadly, the weekend we went up the mountain was dominated by fog and on the Saturday continuous drizzle, and we were therefore deprived of the views, which must be stunning. The walk up to the refuge, then, was hard-going, especially in places where the mud was a problem. Initially, the path leads up through heavily wooded land, which is very attractive, but as the path gets higher and higher the trees go from being a wide variety of species to more of the coniferous variety. It was interesting to see places along the path where flood waters at various times of the year have swept huge tree trunks down the mountain, especially ones which have died in the forest fires which have plagued Greece during much of the summers of 1996 to 1998. The path is well-trodden and has logs pinned into it to act as steps, which meant that quite soon the calf muscles were aching with all the step-climbing. The majority of people we met going up or coming down the mountain were foreigners, Americans, German speakers, and people from ex-Yugoslavia.

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I was glad to have those mountaineering sticks with me... About half an hour into the climb (below right)

I had packed plenty of chocolate, but found that over the weekend I only really consumed a Mars Bar and one chocolate bar. The refuge provided hot meals at a reasonable enough price given that it was either that or nothing. Most of the party partook of the delicious fasoulada, which is bean soup and Greece's national dish, not moussaka as many holidaymakers would think. Piping hot, it worked wonders, especially when accompanied by retsina wine. In the afternoon and evening we gathered around the blazing hearth, where piles of clothes were hanging drying - it was one wet weekend! We pretty much had this room with the fire to ourselves, so it was good to congregate there and have a laugh over a drink of retsina and a bowl of soup. Some of our party were lodged in rooms inside the main building of the refuge, I was in an out-building.

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Some people's clothes fell into the fire - including my socks - which was unfortunate but provided a laugh... The sleeping accommodation was basic - bunks and blankets in an unheated wooden hut - but by the time we got to the refuge after three hours' solid climbing and a few quarts of retsina anywhere would have made a good place to sleep!! The accommodation was mixed sexes, so this made for a few interesting moments when it came to changing out of our wet clothes! I had taken great care in packing my knapsack to ensure that my fresh clothes would stay dry during the initial climb to the refuge through the drizzle, so I wasn't overpleased when I put my waterbottle down on my nice dry sheets and clothes only to discover it then proceeded to leak half its contents over them...! And as there was no heating in the dormitory, it meant that I ended up sleeping in damp sheets after all...

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It's not often one gets to sleep with five women at once! No wonder I am smiling. (right)

Sunday 20th September 1998

The following morning we woke a little later than planned, and hurriedly made ready to make the final ascent to the summit, some 800 metres (2624 feet) higher than the Balkoni refuge. By about eight o'clock those of who had decided to go on up to the summit were assembled outside the entrance to the refuge and we set off. To say that this part of the climb was arduous is to be putting it mildly. I have never known my legs to ache so intensely. A number of times I was almost persuaded to throw in the towel and turn back, but the thought that I had come this far spurred me on. The weather was dry, at least. During the night I had ventured out from the hut to the toilets without my glasses, therefore missing what was described to me as an absolutely stunning display of stars in the night sky, which was a great pity. I take a deep interest in the night sky, and have only occasionally seen it in its true glory, when the nearest ambient light is distant. On the island of Tilos in the southern Aegean earlier in September I was privileged to see the Andromeda Galaxy, the most distant "object" visible to the naked eye, 2.7 million light years distant.

The climb to the summit took three hours - virtually the same length of time as the climb from the coach to the refuge. The path was extremely steep in places, and after a short while we passed the treeline and were progressing slowly and achingly across scree and bare rock. As we got nearer the summit first small patches of ice then widespread snow appeared on the ground.

From heavily wooded terrain we went into cloud and bare scree

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and then out of the cloud and into snow near the peak.

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The route across to the Mytikas summit (right)

When the party reached a certain point, a decision had to be made as to who wanted to tackle the main summit, Mytikas, and who would go to Skolio. The reason for the need for this decision was that any who headed for Mytikas would have to take the hazardous route over the "Skala", which involved clambering along the rockface, as I mentioned before. We all took a look at the route across the rock to the summit, which appeared briefly every so often as the clouds parted around it, and some people took the decision to tackle it. The rest headed for Skolio, the summit lying about twenty minutes' climb to the west and some six metres lower than Mytikas.

By this time, it was a case of walking through the snow, and it was decidedly chilly. Nevertheless, this was compensated for by the fact that you looked out across the top of the clouds, and this helped to bring it home to me just how high up we were.

Upon reaching the summit, it was photo session time. The summit was marked by a small concrete post on which, one assumes, at some point there must have been a sign of some sort, as there was a hole in the top of it. We spent some twenty minutes up there, gazing at the views when the clouds deigned to reveal them. Then we had to begin our descent.

The two-hour descent was not without its difficulties, though, and I found that after a certain time my left knee was beginning to ache worryingly. It has always been a little prone to stress-related pain, so I was worried it would cause me problems - I still had the descent from the refuge once we had returned to it, and that would take another couple of hours.

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Some of our party at the Skolio peak, I am in the bottom row, on the right

It was good to get back to the refuge and see how the others had done, those who had tackled the Mytikas peak. The rockface clambering hadn't been at all dangerous, I was told, but I remain to be convinced! A celebratory beer was in order, and then a good plate of soup and a glass of retsina.

Then it was time to make the final descent to the road, where the coach was parked. It was on the way down that I had my only fall of the weekend - a sudden depositing on my backside in the mud provoked laughter from my friend Sakis Marandidis, who insisted it was the retsina's fault!

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A celebratory beer back at the refuge... (right)

When all our party had made the final descent to the coach and loaded their gear, we set off for Kilkis again, dropping off some punters in Thessaloniki.


Well I enjoyed it immensely, for one! It was good to do something totally different from what I normally do. It was also stimulating to push my body to tackle something which it was fairly unprepared for. I do a fair amount of walking around town, but have done nothing like this before, and my muscles complained (and ached for five days after the weekend). Some of our party had completed the climb in other years, but I am not sure whether I would try it again unless I was in much better physical shape. Nevertheless, the idea of climbing to the summit of Olympus on a clear Spring day is tempting - the views from there must be truly awesome.

Finally, I'd like to thank the Kilkis Mountaineering Club and the people who I climbed Mount Olympus with for giving me such an enjoyable weekend.

Oh, and my mobile phone worked at 9500 feet - I called my parents in England...!

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