Limp with me, Olympus
This time I am not walking but limping. As a result of my Achilles tendon injury, which I only made worse by playing football a couple of days before this trip, I was really hoping to complete this one.
I was sitting one day, bored to death, in a family flat in Luxembourg and decided to call my brother to see if he was interested in some climb. Kristjan, my brother, told me to come back to Croatia and make the KPP trail that starts at the mountain lodge that he is running in Vojni Tuk, Croatia. However, I really needed a “proper” mountain to get above the clouds, to ensure that the Luxembourgish no sun life would be exchanged with blue skies and the sun’s warmth. It was then when it occurred to me…Olympus!
With the cheap flights from Vienna to Thessaloniki, affordable hotels, it did not take much to persuade my brother to take on this challenge.
Just with the school breaks, I have arranged with my wife to see her parents in Slovenia and cheer the little ones with something. So, on our way “down”, we made a stop at Lego land, the fantastic world of plastic.
Although, I have to admit that I also had fun there compared to Disney land, where I will never go again for sure. These theme parks are nothing but annoyance, charging admirable ticket fees to spend a day primarily standing in queues. I call them fun parks with no fun whatsoever.
Yet again, I’ve been driving between Luxembourg and Croatia for almost five years, an 1100 km drive that I became tired of driving in one go. Therefore, I always try to find something amusing to cut our driving in half and for a sleepover.
On Sunday evening, I met with my brother at the gas station in Ptuj, where my wife had left me. He found me there sitting on a pavement drinking a beer that had to be a coffee in the first place. We didn’t see each other for almost two months. Usually, we celebrate our gathering with any sort of alcohol, so we stopped at the first gas station in Austria and bought a six-pack of “Good, Better, Gösser”.
We agreed that it ain’t so good, but it does the trick. Anyway, as I was exhausted from my drive from Germany and then driving from Ptuj to Vienna, we went directly to our hotel and went to sleep. I really needed that.
The following day we woke up early and went to walk through Vienna. It was All Saint’s Day, and the Vienna centre seemed deserted entirely, with everything mostly closed till 10 a.m.
From the moment we exited the hotel, I was limping. Kristjan was making funny remarks on how I intend to climb Olympus in that condition. I just briefly commented, “Well, you know me.” We laughed about it and decided to find a nice place to have breakfast. To our surprise, the Covid cheks in Austria were more strict than anywhere else I’ve been in this Covid era that we are living in. In some way, it seemed to me that we were living in a state of war. Some identification is regularly required, and the social segregation between the vaccinated and those not is becoming apparent. However, after the fiasco I had at Charleroi airport in Belgium a month ago, I took precautions to get my results on time.
We had our breakfast at the charming traditional place close to the St. Stephan square. Kristjan did his Covid test for free to board the aeroplane, and I was limping the whole way. We had Wienerschnitzel and a large pint of beer for lunch, and it was time to get to the airport.
We came to the airport several hours before our flight, but the parking fees there were between 90 EUR and 150 EUR for five days that we needed to stay in Greece. So we agreed that spending this money on a nice dinner is better and drove about 4 kilometres to some village where we left the car. Then, we took our way back on foot while carrying all the equipment. My brother claimed that it is a “filter” for me, but honestly, I would have preferred to order a taxi service. Nevertheless, at least 90 EUR were saved. And I really think that most of the people passing us by with cars or bicycles thought that we were immigrants.
We had very little time at the airport as our time window shrank, and I could not buy a bottle of whiskey at the duty-free shop, the supply that I needed to have on every ascent. But, yet again, some seniors found us when arranging our bags to meet the weight requirements and gave us four beers as they thought that we were indeed the right kind of guys for them. We did not have time to drink them. It felt stupid to search for other people to give them over or just throw them in a bin. So, we decided to put them into check-in luggage and hope they don’t explode while handled by baggage personnel. So, we went for the boarding and nicely flew to Thessaloniki.
After landing, our experience took a side turn. Firstly, I had to be tested at the airport, even though I had a valid PCR test. Afterwards, we had an unpleasant experience with the rent-a-car agent where we reserved our car. Unfortunately, there were a series of mistakes between the agency and the rent-a-car. This miss-communication was not our responsibility. Still, that guy at first blamed it on us.
Furthermore, Kristjan’s credit card could not be charged for the deposit that was an astronomical 800 EUR for the car that is not even worth that much. Again, no cooperation could be expected from that aggravated guy with no sense of customer service whatsoever. I offered my card, which he refused as the card needed to be of the reservation holder, and he refused to take a cash deposit, stating that he is not a bank.
An unfortunate start for Greek hospitality.
It proved that one of these beers came in nicely to lower the frustration while waiting for the taxi. Anyway, we lost that day reservation, cleared the card issue the next day and returned for the car. Still, we have lost 40 EUR for taxis and one day of the car rental, but we agreed that we are still lucky if it’s the only negative thing that will happen on this journey.
Additionally, we had a lovely night in Thessaloniki. I don’t exactly know where, as the hotel receptionist directed us somewhere in the vicinity. Still, after two bottles of Bordeaux, a very nice pizza and friendly service, everything seemed on the right track again. Oh, and I learned to say thank you in Greek…”Efcharisto”. The only expression I have learned before is “How are you?” in Greek “Pos eisai?”. Pronounced posise, in Croatian, sounds like saying “For titties?”, so I was keen to say it to everyone, everywhere. Just couldn’t fight that inner child, and it was amusing every time.
The room we got in a hotel did not have separate beds, and the receptionist apologised for that, but it has always been the same case in the last couple of years. So we have started making fun that when we get separate beds, we will have to join them together.
The following day, I stood up and went to the window to catch a glimpse of Thessaloniki. Then, I removed the curtains and thought to myself, “Well, I just may be in Kabul”.
In my subjective opinion, Thessaloniki was definitely the most unattractive place I have ever visited. Luckily, it was just a transit destination, so we moved on for Litochoro. And Olympus appeared.
Just a 90 km drive brought us to lovely Litochoro.
Our plan was to get our supplies there, spend a night at some private accommodation, and start very early (around 4 a.m.). We did arrive quite early, so before going to our accommodation we found a highly recommended restaurant, Meze Meze, but it was closed for some reason. Fortunately, we drove to the roundabout in the village centre. We had the best lamb chops with grilled mushrooms and Greek salad in Erato restaurant. The owner was very communicative. We discussed how Italian tourists are mostly the ones who will complain a lot, rarely leave a tip, but certainly give your property a very lovely “1”, no matter what kind of service you are providing. Hmm, it seems that for Italians, if it’s not Italy, it is not good.
With the excellent service at the restaurant, all of our expectations about Greek hospitality were met in the Mythic Valley accommodation. Unfortunately, as we took our time, we ended up getting there quite late, even if it was only 200 metres away. However, the owner had sent us the codes, so we entered the property without formal check-in. We started to pack our bags for the ascent, and the lovely owner came to greet us and then realised that we wouldn’t be there for breakfast. A couple of minutes later, she came back with a huge bag full of homemade stuff to take with us. When the packing was done, we went to the local store to get the supplies, including some bread, salami, cheese, olives, tuna paté and tuna salad. We also bought some energy and hydration beverages, and I certainly did not forget about that bottle of whiskey. I was delighted to find the last bottle of Glenfiddich. The same that did the lovely job when previously climbing Slovenian highest peak Triglav. I still have to write that one.
Because we flew to Greece with Ryan Air, we were limited with our cargo even if we took 20 + 10 kg of additional luggage. Yet again, we did not have any ropes or trekking poles. So I have decided to visit a local store to buy a headlamp and at least one pair of trekking poles to assist my limping. When we arrived at the store, there was this friendly lady, probably an owner, Monica. She was in the middle of a discussion with some other couple. I overheard her saying that the climb to Mytikas (the 2917 m high summit) is risky because of the snow. She repeated several times that if they find it inaccessible, they should not do it. When she was free, I came with what I needed and asked probably the same questions. Monica first asked me if we had a rope, and I replied that I did not expect to carry one for the Class 3 ascent. After a couple of minutes of discussing the route and the best approach to Mytikas, we have agreed on Skala — Mytikas crossing, with her repeating several times that we have to do it and that it is stunning. We did get utterly different advice, but frankly, I think that the other couple enjoys their meals a little bit more than we do. Hence, the pieces of advice differ. We promised to keep in touch with Monica and to send her some photos about conditions up there and went for very nice gyros just across the shop and ended up for a couple of Fix beers on the same old square. And back to our bed. Yes, again, a double bed.
We slept for maybe four hours and woke up before the sound of the alarm set for 4 a.m. A climbing day excitement is always an early call. So we took our bags and drove for 30 minutes to reach Prania. There, we were met by a pack of dogs, not even realising at the time that these dogs would be our guides all the way to Refuge A (Agapitos, 2100 m).
The climb to Prania was more of a hike with well-maintained trails, but concerning my injury, it was painful. At that time, I realised why I had started climbing. The 2P!. Pleasure and pain. I think that most of the time, most of us are not aware of our bodies, and pain is an excellent reminder that your body is there, one with your mind. And I find that great pleasure comes with perspective when bringing yourself to the secluded places while testing your boundaries. Anyway, we were still quite heavy, and we took our time to enjoy the beauties of Olympus.
At one moment, a couple that was heading up reached us. In fact, these were the owners of Refuge A, which I was in contact with several weeks ago. They wrote back to me stating that the refuge would be closed for winter just the week before our arrival. Our brief e-mail communication advised me that Petrostruga and Apostolidis refugees have emergency rooms available, but everything will be closed. Apostolidis refugee was also suggested by Monica. However, the owners told us that they are just going up to Agapitos because they forgot about something and to contact them once we are there. They thought heading for Apostolidis was maybe not the best option concerning the conditions. I felt that it was nice how everyone cared and was keen on advising for the best options.
After a while, we have reached Agapitos and found them there.
However, before I continue, I must say that a while back, my decision was that if I plan something, to always follow up with it because accepting advice has often shown as going against my own will and judgment. But, yet again, it was the first time we were there, and I thought that if someone could offer better advice, it would certainly be them. So, instead of pushing for Apostolidis, the owners suggested going for Antonios. Additionally, our guide dogs left us on our own from Agapitos.
Antonios was another shelter, used as a research station, which would bring us to 2800 m. But it was a challenging and, at places, exposed climb as most of the path was covered with frozen snow with winds exceeding 50 knots for the last 200 vertical meters. Luckily, we had crampons, but I thought we were well played and fooled for some reason.
It was just a feeling, but I thought to justify that maybe the other route would be even worse. Finally, we reached Antonios, and we were lucky that we were there, but the whole place was just dirty, ruined, and deplorable. There was a gas heater there, with large gas bottles lying everywhere, but unfortunate for us, all the bottles were empty. And this is why a bottle of whiskey is practical. At least it is full! So, with our JBL playing, a bottle quickly running dry, we turned poor old Antonios refuge to the place of laughter and fun. And again, heavy backpacks provided with a decent dinner. It was close to zero degrees, but we did sleep well.
The following morning we had breakfast and already hit the trail in Skala’s direction to make the crossing. We found another dog that was either following us or leading to our next destination. It was an easy day. We could enjoy the sights as we were walking or would stop for a cigarette. It was even warmer outside than it was inside of the Antonios.
Until, 1 p.m. we were at Skala. Unfortunately, the entrance to the trail was covered in snow, so we took a couple of minutes to discuss if we should quit, as we did not have any ropes or ice axes. We were really close to quitting but quickly made a decision to give it a go. And it was a correct decision. We carefully went around the soft snow and found that the rest of the trail was partially covered in snow and not too tricky. However, particular caution should be considered because the fall on any part would undoubtedly lead to serious injury, potentially death. It really seemed like a long way down if you slipped or fell. The climb itself wasn’t challenging, the attention for loose rocks was always required, and we were up in a couple of minutes.
Mytikas, the ancient summit of the old gods.
We did it!
From Mytikas, the view was fantastic. We could see everything that we passed with the whole Olympus surrounding us. Also, nearby, we could see Apostolidis refuge without a trace of snow or wind. Still, I have decided not to be angry because everything was just perfect at that moment. But the lesson is learned, only trust sources with the latest information. Because in the period since the last people were up, the approach from Antonios proved to be more complex than the one from Apostolidis would be.
Since we started from Agapitos and until our return to Skala, we did not cross paths with other climbers. So we really had this experience only for ourselves, and this is rarely the case. Sometimes you climb somewhere, and it seems as you were in your town’s park or some really public area. But Olympus was just beautiful. Apparently, around 10000 people each year climb Mytikas, so we were fortunate to have this moment there without big crowds and fuss.
We started our descent around 3 p.m., just when some group of climbers came there, heading all the way to the Prania where we left our car. The guys that came had our two dogs from the first day, and one of the dogs decided to descent with us. The return was excellent at first as we were happy to climb the Olympus. Still, as the night was approaching, we had to hurry, and it was difficult for the legs, even with the knee suspensors.
Finally, in the pitch black, we returned to Prania, just thinking about two remaining beers waiting in the car, the one’s seniors gave us in Vienna. So we’ve sat there for a while. Having our beer, with the whole pack of Prania dogs by our side. We said goodbye to them and headed back to Litochoro before our flight back home.