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.
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.
It was only 350m from Refuge C to the summit, but what an elevation it was.
At first glance, the traverse looked simple, but it took us nearly two hours walking from our refuge before we could even see the peaks we were heading for.
Imagine our surprise when we saw, after turning the corner, a line of people queueing up to climb the direct steep slope leading to Mytikas.
Though it is the highest peak, our goal, like that of most of the climbers, was not Mytikas but Skolio. That is because the last 6m bit of Mytikas is a vertical rock face which would involve a technical climb with ropes.
Getting to Skolio was no mean feat either. In fact, it looked so formidable that four in our party - all seasoned walkers from South Africa - decided to quit, preferring to descend to our next overnight refuge.
That left me, and two others to plod on, half scrambling to the top because of the pebbly incline. We also had to be alert of possible stone fall from people ahead. A blustering wind added to the challenge.
After what seemed an interminable trudge, we finally found ourselves on the summit of Skolio marked by a stone pillar with a log book, where we signed our names and looked out to the spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. We had reached the peak in just three hours from Refuge C.
From Skolio, we literally slithered down a slope of loose rocks, pebbles and sand to make our way to Refuge Spilios Agapitos (Refuge A) to catch up with the others.
It was a relief to reach this best equipped and biggest (120 beds) of all the Olympus refuges set in the leafy autumnal surrounds of the national park.
The next day, we descended to Prionia, encountering numerous colourful wildflowers, salamanders and a caravan load of pack horses bound with supplies for the refuges along the way.
We also met several hikers making their way from this trailhead to the Olympus peaks.
Next to Prionia are the ruins of the ancient St Dionysios monastery. From here, the route leads all the way to Litohoro.
It was a gorgeous though tough walk, with twists and turns and seven wooden bridge crossings over the Enipeas River passing crystal clear pools and waterfalls before finally reaching Litohoro.
I flew on Turkish Airlines to Istanbul to connect to Athens, which is welllinked to most cities in Europe. Several airlines also fly direct to Thessaloniki.
To get to Litohoro, you can fly on Aegean Airlines or Olympic Air from Athens to Thessaloniki (50 minutes) or travel by bus or train (five hours). From Thessaloniki, it is less than two hours by bus or train to Litohoro.
The season for hikes to Mount Olympus is from April to October. Outside this season, you would have to bring your own tents, food and crampons if there is snow.
An overnight stay in the refuges cost 12 euros (S$19) per person with bedding and blankets provided. Food and water are available and are reasonably priced.
You don't need special skills to climb Mount Olympus but you need to be fit. The weather changes suddenly, so pack warm gear. Good walking boots, trekking poles and sunblock are also must-haves.
I walked with friends from South Africa with tour guide Thanasis Pantes of Walking Holidays in Greece.
This article was published by the Special Projects Unit, Marketing Division, SPH.
This article was first published on Jan 6, 2015.
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