Mountain of the Gods

Legend has it that Zeus, the most powerful deity in Greek mythology, lived at the top of the country's highest peak. Tim Salmon explores the paths to the summit of Mount Olympus

You have a car breakdown business that you want to sound substantial and bona fide, or an international athletics contest you want the world to take seriously. You want to convey the idea that there is something lofty and frosty about the manners of General de Gaulle. What is the attribute you go for? Do you choose Aconcaguan or Annapurnean? No, you choose Olympic or Olympian, after Greece's tallest and most beautiful mountain.

You have a car breakdown business that you want to sound substantial and bona fide, or an international athletics contest you want the world to take seriously. You want to convey the idea that there is something lofty and frosty about the manners of General de Gaulle. What is the attribute you go for? Do you choose Aconcaguan or Annapurnean? No, you choose Olympic or Olympian, after Greece's tallest and most beautiful mountain.

Of course, compared with the summits of the Andes or Himalayas, at 2,917m Mount Olympus is a midget. But we all know that size isn't everything. What makes Olympus special is the fact that it is heaven on earth, home of the immortal gods. Zeus and his squabbling adulterous family live up there, ordering and disordering the affairs of men under cover of cloud. For example, the jealous husband of the delectable Aphrodite, who also happened to be the armourer and smithy of the gods, snared his wife and her lover, the god of war, naked in a gossamer net as a punishment for her adultery. He then invited the other gods to come and have a look. The intended lesson of shame was somewhat lost on them, for her beauty was such that the response of the men among them, as reported by Homer, was along the lines of, "I wouldn't mind swapping places with him".

Mind you, the bit of the summit where these sort of shenanigans presumably took place, known as the Throne of Zeus, is not exactly an inviting location for such a tender encounter. It is a bristling, sheer-sided hogsback accessible only to climbers. By contrast Mytikas, the actual summit of Olympus, is within reach for strong walkers, though it is more than just a walk: you need to find hand- as well as foot-holds in the last half-hour scramble along the summit's ridge.

The classic ascent is from the village of Litokhoro on the mountain's eastern side, about 120km south of Thessaloniki and just 7km from the Aegean. This is by far the most beautiful and dramatic approach. The village is only 250m above sea level, so you have practically the full height of the mountain towering above you. The distinctive twin peaks of Mytikas and the Throne of Zeus lie well back at the head of a steep rock amphitheatre, whose depths become the long wooded Mavrolongos ravine with the clear waters of the Enipeas river tumbling and boiling in its depths below.

Though the whole massif is now traversed by the E4 trans-European footpath, which you pick up in the outskirts of Litokhoro, the standard procedure is still to drive (or take a taxi, €20 (£14) from the village square) to the end of the road at Prionia. Here, at around 1,000m, there is a car park, a spring and an unwelcoming snack bar. It is a wonderful spot with the wooded crags and pinnacles of the Mavrolongos rising above you. From this point the climb begins in earnest.

The walk along the well-trodden path to the refuge of Spilios Agapitos, from where you can look out on the glittering sea and, on a moonlit night, up to the eerie pallor of the peaks, takes nearly three hours. The welcome at the refuge (open from May to October), is warm, the food good and the company generally interesting - Olympus attracts all sorts of people and the whole place is most unexpectedly shipshape. It is, I always say, one of the best-run hotels in the whole of Greece. As with the Greek football team that won Euro2004 there is a German influence behind the scenes - in this instance in the shape of Mrs Zolotas, grande dame of the family who run the refuge. Without this application of discipline, it seems, Greek natural talent finds it difficult to rise above the level of chaotic amateurism.

For your summit bid it is best to start before dawn to beat the inevitable midday clouds. Stock up with water for this is your last chance - you have got a strenuous two and a half hours ahead of you. The first hour is steep, the path rising 600m in less than one kilometre. Then, clear of the last trees, you trudge up a long tedious slope of fractured rock and coarse turf to the skyline, where a chasm of several hundred metres opens at your feet. Rags and rolls of cloud boil up from below or curl and slither down the gullies. Wedges of eternal snow lie in the shadiest crevices. You begin to feel this is not a place to linger.

And here begins the tricky bit, the Kaki Skala or Devil's Staircase, a frost-shattered scramble along the chasm's lip. Down first, then up the slanting, grit-strewn rocks of a steep little gully, round a corner above a stomach-churning glimpse of the abyss and you are safe, on good solid rock from here to the summit platform.

Spooky and bitterly cold on a bad day, it can be gloriously exhilarating on a good one. Once I was accompanied by a stray dog from the refuge, who nonchalantly cramponed out with her claws across patches of frozen snow for a thirst-quenching lick. Another time I saw an extraordinary scarlet-winged bird, which I later learned was the crag-loving wall creeper.

As to your return, there are two possibilities. One is to go back the same way, the other is to descend via the steep but well-enclosed Louki gully. Just north of the summit, it descends to the Zonaria path that joins Zolotas's refuge with the higher Yiossos Apostolidhis hut on the so-called Plateau of the Muses. Here, at over 2,600m and beneath the Throne of Zeus, you are more likely to get a glimpse of a herd of Greek chamois than of Aphrodite unveiled.

Mrs Zolotas strongly counsels against the Louki descent because of the danger of falling rock dislodged by climbers descending above you. I like the route, because it avoids the tedium of returning the same way and leads much more directly to the second hut. You can always minimise the danger by making sure you start much earlier than anyone else.

Spending a second night on the mountain at the Yiossos Apostolidhis hut allows you to embark on the five-hour descent along the beautiful path on the north flank of the Mavrolongos ravine, rejoining the road about 5km before Prionia and thus completing the circuit.

A Greek friend, who earlier this year became one of the first six Greeks ever to climb Mount Everest, says he prefers to go up by this route. He spends the first night at Yiossos Apostolidhis, which because of its proximity allows you to go up Louki to the summit and back down again safely before anyone from the Zolotas hut has had time to get up there.

Doing things this way would also make it possible to go all the way back to Litokhoro on foot, by the path which starts at the bridge at Prionia. The path is clear and well-signed, but it takes four hours going down. Don't be deceived into thinking it is going to be all downhill. It is very beautiful and takes you past the now partly restored monastery of Ayios Dhionysios, which was founded in 1542 but destroyed by the Germans, who suspected its inhabitants of aiding the resistance, in 1943. I would not attempt to do it going up - the climb to the first refuge takes a good eight hours.

Just the other day, as I was reaching the village, a pretty brown-skinned girl asked me where the path started. I thought she might be French. She was Romanian. It was about 1pm. "Are you sure you want to do this?" I said. "It will be nine or ten o'clock before you get to the refuge. Why don't you take a taxi to Prionia?" "I can't afford to," she said. "If you wait a few minutes, you can come with me," I replied.

We talked, as you do in those unexpected encounters, telling half a lifetime's story in a few minutes. When we got to Prionia, I was concerned about letting her go to the summit alone. I tried to attach her to a group of English walkers raising money for cancer. We said goodbye. I watched her go. Before she was out of sight, she turned and blew me a kiss.

How could a chap resist? Maybe I should go too, I thought. And then a second thought: beware the Romanian connection. Once before I met a girl on Mt Olympus, a Greek with Romanian origins. I nearly killed her in a fall in a snow gully on the Zonaria path and ended up marrying her. This one's name was Martha Hell. I turned tail and headed for Litokhoro.

So beware Olympus. Rocks, gods and brown-skinned nymphs: the place needs to be treated with caution. That snow gully accident was in mid-June. Once in mid-August, on a scorching summer's day, I climbed the mountain with my teenage children. They grumbled mutinously about having to pack wind-proofs and warm clothes. As we approached the Plateau of the Muses, the temperature dropped several degrees. Thunder growled, icy rain followed, then hail, then snow. There was no further talk of mutiny.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

To Athens, fly on easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyJet.com) from Luton and Gatwick; British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Hellas Jet (01293 502 495; www.hellas-jet.com) from Heathrow and Gatwick; Olympic Airlines (0870 606 0460; www.olympicairlines.com) from Heathrow and Manchester. Even this mornth, you should be able to find a return flight for £200 or less. The only flights to Thessaloniki are from Heathrow on Olympic. Litokhoro, where the climb begins, is accessible by bus from Athens or Thessaloniki.

REFUGES

Spilios Agapitos (00 30 23520 81329; mid-May to end Oct; bed €10 (£7), food €5 (£3.50). Yiossos Apostolidhis (same number for booking; mid-June to end Sept; bed as above, food a little more).

MAP

Central Olympus 1:25,000, published by Anavasi; available from Edward Stanford, 12-14 Long Acre, London WC2E 9LP (020-7836 1915; www.stanfords.co.uk). Another good shop is Hellenic Bookservice, 91 Fortess Road, London NW5 1AG ( www.hellenicbookservice.com).

MORE INFORMATION

Greek National Tourist Office, 4 Conduit Street, London W1S 2DJ (020-7495 9300; www.gnto.co.uk).

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