Summiting Olympus

Drew Shaw
6 min readJul 9, 2022

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LITOHORO, GREECE — Looking up at a mountain from the ground brings a sort of desire for a deeper connection to it, a desire to be a part of it. This is the seed of motivation that’s cultivated over the next few hours — or days — of jello’d legs pushing up an unending ascent.

I got to the bus stop ten till 8 for a ride to town center. After a few minutes, an old Greek materialized from a neighboring sand lot of broken-down cars and lingered nearby. We waited, he occasionally interrupting the silence with Greek telling me the bus was, apparently, running late. I didn’t mind, I had given up trying to read the timetable and had settled in for the next hour. After a few minutes, a clumsy bus steamed down the road. The man waved it down but didn’t get on. As I claimed a smoke-stained bus bench the Greek simply greeted the driver and walked away. I’m still baffled by why he’d patiently wait out a bus on my behalf.

from the cheap coastal hostel (12 euros a night)

The E4 path up Mount Olympus began where Enipeas Canyon ends — the small tourist-friendly town of Litohoro, 15 minutes from the northern Aegean coast. The first few hours of the trail ebbed and flowed through the trees, in and out of the gorge. Occasionally, the path peaked through the greenery and I could glance down the canyon at the Mediterranean coastline before being swallowed by the woods again.

Despite the expanding view, the trail through the woods grew progressively more irritating. While it gradually gained altitude, the repeated downhill steps back to the clear, spring-fed river at the foot of the canyon made any uphill progress feel small. Cicada calls filled the forest, occasionally drowned out by a distant waterfall.

A small catholic hut nestles next to a spring in the canyon where, allegedly, Saint Dyonosis lived as a hermit. It’s decently far from any trail entrances, but someone out there still keeps the candles lit.

Eventually, the trail arrived at Prionia, the highest point of Mount Olympus accessible by car. There was a small café and a parking lot that most summiters and day hikers use as a starting point. It’s humbling to be five hours and 900m into a hike, walking next to families of four who’ve just started theirs. I bought a morsel of bread and tzatziki for lunch, borrowing 10 cents from a Polish couple sitting behind me.

This hike gave me an appreciation for English as the two-eyed jack of languages. With so many nationalities collected in one place, English acted as the mediating tongue. Its influence allowed a Russian and an Italian to have a solid, albeit broken, conversation. On the trail, there were no “hola”s or “Привет”s or “ciao”s, only “hi”s and hello”s. It was the first time in a non-English country I was happy to be a native English speaker.

After Prionia, the stairs got steeper, birds out sung the cicadas, and rocks gradually outnumbered trees. Here, the vividness of the wildflowers started to settle in as their hues seemed to heighten with altitude. Unfortunately, the fatigue from 8 hours of uphill walking had started to taint my enjoyment of the trail. I was thoroughly dog-tired when I reached my refuge for the night.

The Spilios Agapitos refuge is the biggest and most popular refuge (mountain community dormitory) of the six on the mountain. Less ambitious hikers from Prionia trek to the refuge and go straight back down the next morning. It had a nice menu, cold showers and two cozy dining halls that seemed perfect for beer and a card game in the corner. I spent the evening watching exhausted European hikers chow down on hearty plates of spaghetti. Sleeping in a room full of 30 strangers could be worse.

Morning was crisp. I was one of the first ones on the trail. The path quickly ascended out of the woods, and I finally started to feel like I was actually on the mythical Mount Olympus. With the sun’s gold fingers stretching from the sea, illuminating the slopes and skylines of the nearby peaks, I was reminded of that desire I felt at the base of the mountain.

Eventually, the trees devolved into shrubs. I remember stopping to note the audible silence of high altitude. No birds or bugs, just a constant breeze to harmonize my footsteps. Dotting the mountain, small crusts of snow loitered in defiance of the summer heat.

Occasional distant rocks fell, upset by Balkan Chaimos. The beautiful ,endangered gazelle-type animal is native to the mountain.

At a high point, the path split into two. It presented the choice to either walk the uphill path to Skolio, the second-highest peak, or scramble to the summit, Mytikas. They warn Mytikas as a more dangerous, 45-minute scramble of rock climbing. I have the perfect build for scrambling and prefer a climb to more stairs. It was easily the best part of the hike.

The “path” to Mytikas

On summit everything makes sense. Your heartrate slows and your lungs refill with thin air. Those desires felt on the ground start to dissipate, satisfied. You realize what you really wanted the whole time was to experience the mountain; and, from the moment you set foot on the base, you were. I can’t blame the ancients for thinking gods lived on mountains, but I think what they were really worshipping was this experience. The experience of the mountain — the mountain itself — is god. Or, maybe, it’s just an image of a bigger one.

On Mytikas, I met Fabio. Middle aged, 5’8, sturdy built, tan Italian, spoke good English. He and his wife had stayed the night at the refuge, presumably a few feet away from me. His wife was waiting for him back a Prionia. He was trying to find the fastest route down from a Greek tour guide who had just helped a family summit. We talked a few minutes, and somehow decided we should hike back to Prionia together, taking a different path through the Plateau of the Muses.

On the climb from the peak, I was relieved to see his fast pace; I hate walking slow. Over the next few hours our conversation would drift between Mediterranean politics, European hiking, and Italian food. To my disappointment, he informed me that chicken parmesan is completely American, non-existent in Italy.

On the Plateau of Muses the wind came in hard over the flat limestone. It’s the only part of the mountain I labeled “cold”. We stopped at another small refuge where some young Greeks were giving each other massages and jamming to an acoustic guitar.

Fabio’s company made backtracking the woods much more bearable. Descending mountains is torturous on the knees, tending to drag the time. When we finally reached Prionia, he and his wife, Marikana, were more than willing to spare me the 6-hour hike back to Litohoro and drive me to my hostel on the coast.

This patch of snow presented what felt like the most dangerous part of the trail. Slipping on the ice would send us on a snow slide leading to a 100-meter drop, and my running shoes were not well-prepped.

After a nice hot shower, I sat down with a cold Mythos beer to edit my new portfolio of mountain photography. I woke up the next day throat swollen and head hot from fever; burning my calf muscles on the mountain wasn’t an appeasing enough sacrifice.

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Drew Shaw

Journalism and political science student, backpacking enthusiast, avid drinker of LaCroix.