Ascent to the throne of gods

Ascent to the throne of gods

Rising like the vertical wall of a citadel above the tiny town of Litohoro in central Greece is the jagged throne of Zeus, crowning the summit of Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece and the legendary home of the 12 Olympian gods.

The formidable throne of Zeus is what you would expect the seat of the mightiest of the Greek gods to be - a massive wedge of a rock soaring heavenwards. From here, the god of the sky was said to have hurled his thunderbolts to earth.

All the other gods had their own thrones scattered in palaces hidden in the many gorges of Mount Olympus, from which they would emerge to meet on the Pantheon, the highest of all the mountain's peaks and known today as Mytikas.

It was mid-September and our hiking party of seven had only a two-week window to do the climb to Mount Olympus before its four refuges closed for the season.

With a forecast of three consecutive days of clear skies, we cut short our exploration of northern Greece to drive hurriedly south to Litohoro before the onset of clouds made the climb futile.

Sun-dappled forests

Dubbed the "city of the gods", Litohoro enjoys an enviable location at the foot of Mount Olympus and its surrounding national park, right on the edge of a cavernous gorge cut by the Enipeas River.

Picturesque with traditional wooden-balconied houses and views of peaks looming over the town, it is the natural start point for visitors climbing Mount Olympus, as all of its three walking routes start from here.

Our guide, Thanasis Pantes, chose the trailhead of Gortsia, a 30-minute drive from Litohoro, as it gave us a more gradual climb up the slopes of Mount Olympus and in the midst of its scenic national park. We were the only hikers there.

Even then, we faced an ascent of 1,550m from Gortsia to reach the 2,650m-high refuge of Christos Kakkalos, where we stayed overnight before attempting the summit of Olympus the following day.

Two-thirds of our eight-hour hike from Gortsia was a steady ascent through the beautiful sun-dappled forests of beech and pine that characterise the vegetation of Olympus National Park.

Six hours into our hike, we emerged from the forests to find ourselves on a craggy ridge above the tree-line at 2,000m.

Around us, the slopes were bare save for some scrub vegetation. But from our lofty perch, we were able to enjoy panoramic vistas of towns such as Katerini to the Aegean Sea 18km away.

It was a bit of a trudge walking from the ridge to reach the Plateau of Muses, situated like a bowl encircled by the serrated Olympus peaks. But the sight of the two refuges, Christos Kakkalos (Refuge C) ahead of us, our lodgings for the night, and Yossos Apostolidis (Refuge B) on a higher elevation to the right, lifted our spirits.

Dashing about on rocky boulders was a small herd of the goat-like Balkan chamois, one of 32 mammal species that make their home in Olympus National Park.

Conquering the peaks

The 17-bed Refuge C was just next to the throne of Zeus. It was dusk when we arrived and the clouds swirling around it added to its mystique.

The accommodation was rather spartan, with dormitory-style bunk beds squeezed into a single room. The toilet block was outside, and when venturing out at night, the cold and whipping wind upped the level of discomfort. But on the plus side, the meals were delicious, though simple, and at dawn, we were rewarded with glorious sunrise views.

At 8am, we were ready to conquer Mount Olympus.

The early start was essential as we wanted to scale the peaks before any bad weather set in.

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