Mount Olympus – 9,577 ft
Highest Mountain in Greece
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
November 14-15, 2014
Day 1: Drive from Thessaloniki to Gortsia trailhead, hike to Petrostrouga hut
Day 2: Climb to Mytikas summit and return to trailhead
I had just completed a 3,000-mile bicycle tour hitting country highpoints in Eastern Europe, and Matthew joined me for a few extra highpoints at the end. After climbing Mt Olympus in Cyprus we had one final mountain on the agenda – Mt Olympus in Greece.
In the summer Mt Olympus is a simple hike and scramble, requiring no special equipment, but by November the route becomes considerably more difficult with the addition of ice and snow. I had ended my bicycle tour on November 3 in Thessaloniki, Greece, and stopped in a local outdoors shop to ask about conditions on Mt Olympus. The people told me it had become full winter conditions up there, requiring crampons, ice axe, rope, and some ice/rock pro to get to the summit. Unfortunately I hadn’t brought any of this equipment, and they had nothing to rent. I did own all this equipment back in the US, though, and later emailed Matthew to tell him exactly what to bring when he flew over.
By November 14, Matthew and I had finished climbing the Spain highpoint in the Canary Islands, and the Cyprus highpoint, and flew back to Thessaloniki. We had 24 hours to climb Mt Olympus before we needed to meet up with Amanda and her mom, and it looked like the weather just might cooperate.
We immediately got in a rental car and started driving south on E75 to the town of Litochoro. Here we
topped off our food and water at a grocery store, then drove up the windy mountain roads to the Gortsia trailhead. It was raining lightly, and only an hour before sunset. There was just one other car in the small dirt lot, which wasn’t too surprising given it was a rainy weekday in the off-season.
There was a bit of uncertainty where the park boundary officially started, and we had read that camping in the park was only permitted at the huts. The cold 35F rain helped us decide to just leave the tent in the car and plan to sleep in the hut.
We packed up our mountaineering gear and sleeping bags and were soon hiking up the trail. As we got
higher the rain turned to snow, and a few hours later we reached the Petrostrouga hut. There were two hut caretakers inside, and it looked like we were the only guests. The hut was huge, with a big dining area and bunk space for dozens of hikers. It probably fills up in the summer, but not in the off season.
We set our clothes out to dry, cooked up some pasta for dinner, and went to sleep. The next morning we left the hut shortly before sunrise, and started postholing up the ridge west of the hut. Fog rolled through the mountains, and visibility dropped to 20ft as we popped out above treeline. Luckily we had GPS maps to keep us oriented, and it was easy enough to stay on the ridge.
We followed the ridge west, as clouds rolled in and out. At one point we encountered a steep icy rock band with a metal cable hanging off. We pulled ourselves up the cable, and reached the edge of a broad snowy plateau. At this point we had climbed above the cloud layer, and were greeted with sunny blue skies and our first view of the summit ridge. It was an intimidating wall of rock, with steep icy spires and lots of snow.
The snowy plateau had intermittent metal poles to mark the route, and we followed these poles to a large stone hut. The hut must have been closed for the season since there was nobody there, but the door was unlocked and we stepped inside for a break. On the walls were interesting climbing pictures of Mytikas, and some historical photos of earlier incarnations of the hut.
We loaded up on cheese and granola, then ventured back out into the snow. From the hut we traversed a large snow slope and dropped into a bowl to the northeast of the summit. We then scrambled up through the snow to reach a large cairn on the northeast ridge. The snow was just thin enough here to discern where the trail traversed along the east side of the summit. Given another few weeks this slope would turn into dangerous avy terrain, but we were just early enough that this was not a problem.
We traversed along the trail until we reached a gully we recognized from pictures as the one leading to the summit. There was a rock at the bottom with “Mytikas” painted in red, and a few rocks above had yellow and blue dots. This looked like it would be a straight-forward scramble in the summer, but the gully was full of snow and ice, and would require the rope now in winter conditions.
After donning crampons and bringing out the ice ax, I started kicking steps up the gully. About halfway up it got steep enough that we brought out the rope and tied together. I led up the icy and snowy rock bands from here, putting in an occasional cam, and clipping the odd bolt on a rock face on my left. We only had a 30m rope, but simulclimbed so the climbing actually was pretty fast.
Within an hour I topped out on the summit, and belayed Matthew up from a chain on the summit cairn. An amazing undercast spread out below us, interrupted only by the rest of the summit ridge extending to the west. A blue and white greek flag adorned the summit, and we signed our names in the register.
After an hour on the top we started our descent. Ideally we would have rappelled the route, but with a 30m rope this wasn’t really practical. Instead, I lead down placing protection along the way and we simul-downclimbed. This took about the same amount of time as the ascent, and we were soon back at the base of the gully.
We put the rope and crampons away, then retraced our footprints back to the hut, down the ridge, and back to the trailhead. We finished in plenty of time to drive back to Thessaloniki at 5pm to pick up Amanda and her mom at the airport.