Greece is full of monuments of the classical ancient period. They are all ruins, some of them in better condition, some of them in worse, remainders of the past glorious ages. But if there is one monument that still stands alive and intact in its beauty, it is Mt. Olympus. Of course it is not a monument in the strict sense, but it’s surely a natural and cultural identity which people used to refer to as to something extraordinary from the antiquity, throughout the centuries and continue until today.
I began my mountaineering life there on the mountain of the Gods. The city of Larissa where I have spent my high school years, is only 80 km away from the foot of Mt. Olympus. This was the preferred destination of my climbing instructor and also later when my companions and I became self-sufficient climbers, we used this truly alpine area as our playground. Whether hitch hiking, on scooters, by train, sometimes partly even on foot and later on with our own cars we were always seeking the opportunity to get back there and live a new adventure. The bonds became so strong that when years later I stood on the summit of another iconic mountain, Mt. Everest, I decided to communicate this connection between my climbing cradle and the highest point on Earth in the title of my documentary film, From Olympus to Everest.
Mt. Olympus rises straight from the sea to an altitude of 2.918m and is considered as one of the highest peaks in Europe in terms of topographic prominence which in other words means that it has by far the highest peaks around and has extraordinary views. The topography of the mountain range gives you the unique opportunity to begin your climb right from the beach after a refreshing morning bath or in reverse, to dip your sour feet in the sea after spending a few days on the harsh surface of the mountain. Mt. Olympus was worshiped in the antiquity as the residence of the twelve Olympian Gods. Their ruler was Zeus, and some of the most renowned gods are Athena, Apollo, Aphrodite and Dionysus.
With so much history on its shoulders starting with the references in Homer’s verses from 800 BC, who would be the first humans to visit the mansion of the Gods, became a real question in modern times after the birth of Alpinism. Mt. Olympus was first climbed in 1913, admittedly quite late for European standards when all the peaks of the Alps had been successfully climbed decades before, but there were three main reasons for this. First of all, mountaineering as a form of sport was virtually unknown in Greece until the beginning of the 20th Century. Of course you could meet people in the mountains, but it was mostly men who were there only for survival purposes, such us shepherds, hunters, or monks. The second reason was that people were quite superstitious as for entering such a sacred area, and the third reason why Mt. Olympus was climbed late, was the presence of armed outlaws living in the mountains, the notorious “Klephtes”, who robbed rich people in the valleys or kidnapped them in order to demand ransom while hiding back in the forests. There were cases where foreign explorers got involved in such incidents and the news that spread abroad held back any experienced climbers from visiting Mt. Olympus for many years. One of the locals who spent a lot of his time up high on the mountain, was the young goat hunter Christos Kakalos from the tiny village at the foot of the mountain, Litochoro. He knew Olympus better than anybody but he would never dare try to climb the rocky, as he believed unscalable summit region. In August 1913 two Swiss explorers arrived in the village with the romantic goal to become the first men to ever visit the Throne of the ancient Gods. Not strangers to Greece, Frederic Boissonas and Daniel Baud Bovy, were well known cosmopolitans that had already spent two decades exploring and taking pictures of every corner of this mysterious country which was at the time almost unphotographed. Regarding those journeys, the world class photographer Boissonas once said: “Where others saw only monument and ruins, we have discovered a lively people and a flourishing culture”. When the two men asked local people whether anyone knew the paths to the high plateaus of the mountain in order to get access to the summit, everybody pointed at young Kakalos. But Kakalos could not have imagined that the steep rocky region would ever be climbed by man. “Only the eagles can reach the summit!”, he said to the newcomers. But Boissonas and Bovy were experienced climbers with many ascents in the Alps, and they were prepared to try hard. Five adventurous days later they were standing on –what they thought was- the summit together with Kakalos holding the flags and taking pictures. But the weather was bad and the fog was so thick that they could see nothing around. As they were ready to descend, the fog dispersed and to their surprise they saw a dark steep vertical formation opposite them. Wrong summit they were standing on! Impossible to climb the main one this time! Disappointed they started to descend but the feeling of defeat was unbearable for Kakalos. He silently figured out what had gone wrong and when they reached the col he prompted the two Swiss men to follow him. “Now or never!” ,he shouted and went towards the main summit, and the Swiss followed. About an hour later their dream had come true. They had reached the highest point of the mountain, known today as Mytikas.
The two Swiss men, with their love for Greece and the knowledge of the alpine techniques combined together with the spirit and the determination of the young Greek Kakalos, have made the perfect blend for what shall remain in history as the first ascent of Mt. Olympus. What they didn’t know at the time was that their ascent also signaled the beginning of mountaineering on Olympus and in Greece generally. Hikers and mountaineers of today have much easier access with marked paths, secured routes and shelters available, but in their mind they can still follow in the footsteps and in the spirit of exploration of those three brave men.
Written by Pavlos Tsiantos