How the First Mountaineers Climbed Mount Olympus in 1913

It took a century and 25 failed attempts before the tallest peak of ancient Greece's most sacred mountain was conquered.


In July of 1913, photographer and publisher Frédéric Boissonnas (1858-1946) and author and art critic Daniel Baud-Bovy (1870-1958) arrived in the city of Thessaloniki.

The pair, both Swiss nationals, had been on a tour of the newly-liberated Epirus region, and subsequently traveled to the northern Greek city at the invitation of the Greek government in order to observe and photograph the war effort.

To make the most of the eight-day waiting period in between their two mandatory shots of the cholera vaccine, the two men decided to fulfill their long-held dream of exploring Mount Olympus.

By the late 19th century, there had already been 25 attempts to conquer the mythical mountain by numerous foreign explorers, scientists and mountaineers, yet all had ended in failure.

Among the reasons for this lack of success were the difficulties presented by the long period of Ottoman occupation of Greece, the establishment of the Greco-Turkish border on Mount Olympus (1881-1912), the need for foreign visitors to obtain permits, the absence of suitable maps and information, trouble securing military escorts and mountain guides, frequent military clashes and the many bandits that were active in the area.

On the evening of July 28th, Boissonas and Baud-Bovy arrived at the village of Litochoro, having traveled by boat from Thessaloniki (as was usual at the time). They engaged a wild goat hunter by the name of Christos Kakkalos (1882-1976) as their guide, and set off the following morning for the Monastery of Aghios Dionysios, which they reached at noon. A little while later, they followed an old trail uphill to the north of the monastery, and set up camp at a location known as Petrostrouga for the night.

On July 30th, they climbed up to the peak of Skourta, passing by the so-called “Kokkinos Vrachos” (meaning Red Rock). After traversing a ridge, they reached the edge of a plateau, which they immediately named “Prairie dex Dieux” (Meadow of the Gods).

Next, they hiked up to the peaks of Profitis Ilias and Toumba, the latter of which they named “Jacques Philippe” in honor of their assistant, and began exploring the base of the Stefani summit – Mt Olympus’ highest point. They named this peak “Trone de Zeus” (Throne of Zeus), while they gave the peak of Skolio the name “Tete Noire” (Black Head) – perhaps because the side facing them was in shadow at the time.

From the plateau, they climbed down steep scree and in two hours reached the edge of the forest, where there was a woodcutters’ hut. Their description indicates that they descended from the edge of the gully of Gourna under the Stefani ridge directly to the site known as “Kalyva” (at an elevation of 1,960 m), where today there is a small clearing northeast of the “Spilios Agapitos” refuge. It was here that they identified a route to the highest peak. A little later, they descended along the Mavrolongos ravine and the Enipeas River, to reach the Monastery of Aghios Dionysios that night.

On July 31st, the team started to make their way back down the mountain. But just a short distance from the monastery, they had a change of heart and instead decided to attempt to climb up to the highest and thus-far unconquered summit of Mount Olympus.

They headed back up and reached the site of Prionia where they made camp. There, they were battered by a terrible storm that raged through the night. The following day, despite their exhaustion, they climbed up the Mavrolongos ravine and in the afternoon reached, once again, the woodcutters’ hut, where they spent the night. The team consisted of Frédéric Boissonnas, Daniel Baud-Bovy, Christos Kakkalos, a hunter called Nikos Bistikos, and a shepherd by the name of Athanasios Katradzis, with a small child.

Before dawn, they set off in difficult weather conditions, with severe fog, hail and strong winds. After a laborious ascent through small gullies, scree and up steep and slippery rocks, they reached a narrow ridge (from their description, it seems they climbed from Kalyva directly up to Zonaria and the Skala ridge), where Nikos Bistikos and Athanasios Katradzis stayed behind.

The remaining members of the team climbed up through the mist, with Christos Kakkalos leading the climb barefoot followed by the two Swiss adventurers tied to each other with a rope.

At 9 o’clock, they reached an eroded peak which, thinking it was the highest point of Mount Olympus, they named “Pic de la Victoire” (Peak of Victory), in honor of King Constantine and the triumph of the Greek troops at Sarantaporo. The Swiss mountaineers wrote a few words about the climb on a small card, put it in a bottle, and carefully placed it under a pile of stones to protect it (it was found 14 years later and was sent to Switzerland, but today is exhibited in the museum of the Hellenic Federation of Mountaineering and Climbing in Athens).

It reads: “Today, on the 2nd of August 1913, at 9 in the morning, after having spent the night in a woodcutters’ hut at Mavrolongos, and accompanied by Christos Kakkalos, who was the only one to climb up to the top, Nikos Bistikos from Litochoro, and the shepherd Athanasios Katradzis, who remained on the ridge, we reached the top of Mount Olympus, which we named Peak of Victory, in honor of King Constantine. Mist, gales, frozen rocks”.

Yet when the weather cleared for a bit, they saw another peak, higher up, and realized their mistake. Disappointed, they climbed down from the craggy peak that they now named “Tarpeian Rock”, and began to make their return to camp.

But, as Boissonnas wrote later, in the heart of every mortal there is a spark of Prometheus’ fire. Christos Kakkalos, with his head lowered, was silently climbing down the steep ridge. Then he stopped. Before him lay the steep route leading to the highest peak. “Shall we go up?” he asked. The two Swiss climbers nodded.

It was the secret decision they had all taken earlier, each one for himself, without exchanging a word. The three of them had one thought, one heart. Without another word, Kakkalos put down the photography equipment he’d been carrying, and threw himself forward, climbing determinedly up the slippery and dangerous rocks, followed by the two Swiss men.

And a little while later they finally came to the end; there was nowhere higher to go. They had reached the summit.

It was thus that on the 2nd of August 1913, at 10:25 in the morning, the highest peak in Greece, the until then untrodden summit of Mount Olympus, was conquered by Christos Kakkalos, Frédéric Boissonnas and Daniel Baud-Bovy. This ascent, and the conquest of the summit, which they named “Pic Veniselos” (Venizelos Peak), was officially recognized in 1919 with the publication of the book La Grèce Immortelle.

Christos Kakkalos later (1932) became the first official guide of Mount Olympus, completing his final climb to the top of Mytikas (the highest peak at 2,918m) in September of 1972.

The completion of the first ascent of Olympus attracted the interest of foreign climbers who, following the publication of books by the two Swiss pioneers, began to visit Greece and Olympus. More importantly, they too began publishing works praising the incomparable beauty of the mountain and of Greece.

Since then, over 1,000,000 climbers and visitors from all over the world have visited Mount Olympus, resulting in the development of alpine tourism in the greater region of Pieria and Larissa.

Info

Christos Kakkalos (1882-1976), from Litochoro, was a lumberjack and hunter with in-depth knowledge of Olympus. After his historic first ascents to the Mytikas summit in 1913, and to Stefani in 1921, he became established as an official guide to Olympus, and led hundreds of climbers up its peaks.

Frédéric Boissonnas (1858-1946), from Switzerland, a famous and award-winning photographer, had been commissioned by the Greek government to photograph Greece. His photography books on Greece (from 1913) and Olympus (from 1919), which were published in French, English and German, made the country’s incomparable beauty known all over the world. He climbed Olympus in 1913, 1919, and 1927.

Daniel Baud-Bovy (1870-1958), from Switzerland, an art historian, art critic and author, toured Greece along with Boissonnas, writing the texts that accompanied the latter’s photography. He climbed Olympus in 1913, 1919, 1927 and 1931. His son, Samuel Baud-Bovy, who climbed Olympus in 1927 and 1931, and who learned to speak and write Greek, developed into a major researcher of Greek folk music, preserving and documenting rare material.



Read More

Santorini

Resisting Overexploitation: Santorini’s Protectors

The inspiring individuals looking beyond Santorini's easy riches, seeking to...


Health

3 Mountain Destinations in Greece To Restore Mind, Body and Spirit

Pristine nature, fresh air, great food, authentic experiences and plenty...


Editor's Pick

The Stunning Ancient Roman Villa Discovered in Amyntaio

The “Villa of Alexandros”, which was uncovered last summer, is...


Mainland

7 Reasons to Visit Vermio Mountain

Located only 70km from Thessaloniki in northern Greece, the mountain...


Greece Is Blog Posts

Hail Hydra: A Midwinter Weekend on the Saronic Isle

BY Anthony Grant

“I do.” No, there was no matrimonial interrogation...

read more >

Zen and the Art of Driving in Greece

BY Pavlos Zafiropoulos

When I was first learning to drive, my...

read more >

Autumn in Pylos: An Expat’s View of the Battle of Navarino Re-Enacted

BY Hayley Prokos

On a balmy Saturday night in late October,...

read more >