Dwelling among the Gods
Follow Justin Brendel as he embarks on an uplifting alpine adventure of Olympic proportions, complete with shooting stars, donkey “mines”, and powerful new friendships.
“And don’t touch the small orange and black animal. He is poisonous.”
I never saw this notorious salamander during our stunning four-hour hike up Mt. Olympus, but our guide seemed very adamant about avoiding it. I wish I had seen the thing because now I’m not sure it’s real. Christos took every opportunity he was given to tease the group. As our guide, it was his job to prepare us, pace us, and push us through what was unknown and though he did not take his job lightly, he always made room for jokes (as any proper Greek would). Before we even stepped foot on our designated trail, Christos had told us multiple stories about human encounters with ‘mines’ left behind by pack-mules. These mules apparently walk six kilometers up the mountain every day carrying various tools and supplies to a shelter and marking their trail by the faeces they leave behind. Accordingly, a man on one of Christos’ previous trips had lost his balance on the mountain trail and fallen head first into a mule ‘mine.’ Queue gasps and delayed laughter from my hiking group. Christos knew how to draw a crowd.
We started climbing Mt. Olympus from Prionia, a small mountainside area at the Enipea Springs and the highest point on the mountain accessible by car/bus. Prionia is a popular pit stop for hikers (it has bath rooms, a small taverna, a fresh water spring, etc.), but looking back, I’m really glad it was our starting point because it would have taken about 4-5 hours simply to hike here from the mountain’s base.
The six-kilometer hike to Shelter ‘A’ (Spilios Agapitos) took my group 3.5 hours to complete. The trail, E4, was well designated and fairly wide as it is the most travelled trail on the mountain by man and mule. There were not many side paths to get lost on, so even when my group race ahead, I felt completely confident of my solo navigation skills.
Christos kept referring to the trail as ‘the road’ as if it were some mountainside autobahn. And to Christos it was. The man has spent twenty years as a Mt. Olympus guide, helping groups quite literally gain perspective. With his leadership, many tourists, short-time residents, and long-time locals have seen a side of Greece that few Greeks ever get the privilege to see and experience. Since the age of seventeen, Christos has also worked on a mountain rescue squad, which sees most of its action in Mt. Olympus’ harsh winter conditions. While Christos loves to joke, the mountain doesn’t; he has seen many search and rescue missions end in the uncovering of half-frozen corpses. But, again, this is in the winter. My group hiked in the fall. Mt. Olympus Pro-tip: Don’t hike in the winter unless you really know what you’re doing.
Christos has dedicated most of his life and certainly his livelihood to Mt. Olympus. Even though he had hiked this mountain countless times and a trail like E4 was not challenging for him, I was amazed at his passion and excitement. He was in wonder of the mountain’s characteristics, respectful of its dangers, and curiously searching for something new to appreciate. Inspired by my guide, I began to look up from the rocky trail and around at the incredible landscape. Sure I stumbled a few times on protruding rocks and tree roots, but the scenery was absolutely worth it. Birds, huge boulders, and steep inclines make this hike stunning, but the trees set it apart as intrinsically unique. Old pine, beech, and fir trees litter the green forest that E4 initially parades through, creating bursts of color in every direction. The size of these trees is nothing like anything I have seen in Greece; they are huge. The sheer size and number of trees will leave any Mt. Olympus hiker feeling small and humble.
Hiking, in my experience, always leads to great conversation. Something about being with people, working towards a common goal, and having an extended amount of time together engenders vulnerability. As the caboose, (and the only one of us who had packed a flashlight!), I felt like I had some sort of authoritative role in our excursion, so I began putting the four/five people around me in what I call the proverbial ‘hot seat.’ I asked random, thoughtful questions like, “How are you most like your mother?” and, “What has been the most challenging obstacle you have overcome this past year?” My fellow hikers did not find it strange that I was asking these difficult questions, but simply took time to think through and articulate their answers. I learned a lot about my group members: one had been raised Muslim, one had recently endured the death of his best friend, one had been violently bitten by a duck, and another had once broken her ankle chasing a very average-tasting American breakfast pastry. The stories told were unforgettable, filled with laughter and nostalgia. In sharing our memories, we were making new memories. I made great friends hiking Mt. Olympus.
Shelter ‘A’, aka Spilios Agapitos, sits 2100m above sea level overlooking the town of Litochoro. The shelter’s balcony is a prime spot for sunset/sunrise watching as well as stargazing. We arrived at the shelter around 8:30pm, well after dark, but before the kitchen closed at 9:00pm. The stars were unbelievable. It’s no wonder that the ancients believed gods dwelled on Mt. Olympus because the Milky Way, visible with the naked eye, appears to open right above it. If I had tried to count the stars, I would still be on Mt. Olympus now.
The rooms were as expected, cramped and cold, but Christos claimed we were, “Dwelling with the Gods,” which allowed little room for complaining. Fortunately, unlimited blankets were provided so the cold was easily averted. I got little sleep because I could not stop thinking about the stars beyond the door to my room; I anxiously arose at 1:00am to see if I had missed any kind of stellar activity. The mountain air was freezing, but during the forty-five seconds I spent outside my door I witnessed three shooting stars majestically traverse a good portion of my line of sight. Satisfied, I finally slept, waking up a few hours later for the sunrise.
The next morning, we ascended the mountain’s Skala summit only forty minutes from Shelter ‘A.’ This summit is not the highest summit on Mt. Olympus, but it is an exquisite one nonetheless. The journey meant more to me as I saw various members of my group overcome fatigue, hunger, and mental obstacles in order to make it to the summit. We all had developed some form of mental toughness along the hike and now the surrounding mountains, our new friends, and Greece below was our witness.
Then we descended. The hike down featured more rich conversation and story exchange, as time seemed to drift through the delicate fir-tree leaves we passed. Apparently, none of us had seen Zeus. But we all felt a bit wiser and more mature.
Back in Prionia we celebrated our feat by jumping into the frigid Enipea Spring. My body was numb within fifteen seconds, but the experience was well worth it. My group had bonded and friendships had developed, but we still weren’t sure that the black and orange salamander was real, much less poisonous. Maybe next time we can catch one for Christos.