Daybreak finds us at the Gortsia crossroads, loading our backpacks with sleeping bags, clothes, snacks and water, in accordance with mountaineering protocol.
For those of us who love Olympus, this is the beginning of our favorite hike to the heart of the mountain, the Plateau of the Muses, and the high peaks. It’s a lovely route, even for inexperienced hikers who have decided that their souls – and their lungs, to a lesser extent – can take the climb, which may seem short (13.5 km), but becomes challenging due to the 1600m difference in elevation.
We start off, and the most optimistic among us predicts we’ll reach the top in six hours. Over the next hour, however, the steep slopes up to Barba make us wonder if we want to get there at all. As we go on and the trail becomes smoother, our ambivalence subsides and chitchat resumes.
Walking through the oak forest is a joy, at least until the trail gets steep again. The only thing to hope for now is the respite of the bench at the end of the long climb, an opportunity to take a break and regroup before we push on the Petrostrouga refuge.
A delightful traverse through imposing pines takes us further up the mountain. After this, the bare, treeless slopes begin, and the climb becomes demanding.
At Skourta, for the first time, we’re awestruck by the mountain landscape: rock upon rock, and sky. A panorama of mountain peaks opens up before us: Profitis Ilias, Stefani, Mytikas, Skala, Aghios Antonios and the Kalogiros-Pagos ridge.
It’s afternoon by the time we reach the narrow ridge of Laimos, probably the most famous site in Greece that gives you a sense of the void. The Plateau of the Muses will appear shortly and, in the distance, the mountain’s most celebrated spot, the site where mortals placed the throne of Zeus: the rugged Stefani summit.
Our goal – the refuge – is now within sight. Most of the photographs will be taken here, step by step until our final destination. Our mobile phones aren’t good for much else (there’s no signal up here, except at a single spot that the mountain’s aficionados call Astropyli, or “Stargate”).
At the two refuges, the smaller Christos Kakkalos and Giosos Apostolidis, we can look forward to some rest, a chat with fellow travelers familiar and not, and a fortifying meal accompanied by plenty of tsipouro (a strong spirit).
First-time mountain climbers shouldn’t plan on summiting the peak of Mytikas (2918m). There are more than enough easy summits around the plateau that will still give you satisfying climbs, including Mikri and Megali Toumba, the Profitis Ilias peak with its charming chapel, and the Portes summit, with astounding views of an amiphitheatrical cavity called Kazania.
A little lower down, you’ll find the trailhead for the return journey, the “classic” route as it’s known, which loops around the mountain and ends up at Prionia via the famous zonaria, or folds, that run along the walls of the high peaks and their steep crevices.
As night falls, the lights of Litochoro are the only thing reminding you that city life exists, somewhere. We’re hoping for clear skies and moonlight, so we can sink into the chaises longues at the Kakkalos refuge and gaze up at the Stefani summit as if we were at the movies.
We’ll watch dim shadowy clouds drift by, and indulge our imaginations – someone’s sure to say they see the face of Zeus, and even the most skeptical among us will feel the presence of the gods and the magic spell that Olympus casts upon those brave enough to climb this high.