country highpoints

Greece – Mount Olympus

Traveling all the way to Greece for a week-long colloquium for work without taking any time to do some touristy stuff seemed like a waste of a flight across the Atlantic to me. When I thought of what I’d like to do if I had a few extra days in Greece I, of course, thought about visiting some ancient Greek ruins or various museums. But then I thought about hiking. I then had the thought, why not climb Mount Olympus? When the thought initially occurred to me, I wasn’t sure what such a hike would entail nor whether Mount Olympus was the highest peak in Greece. It turns out it is the highest peak and is a hike within my abilities.

After spending a week on the Island of Lesvos for work, I caught a flight back to Athens, picked up a rental car, and headed toward Mount Olympus. I found some information online about climbing Mount Olympus, but not a lot (see here). The information I found online was sufficient to tell me roughly what to expect and where to start. But I didn’t find distances or GPS routes online (though there are maps available).

What I found was that the standard trailhead is Prionia, which is basically just a restaurant at the end of a road out of Litochoro.

A view of the restaurant in Prionia from the trailhead showing the rugged mountains in the background.
A view of the restaurant in Prionia from the trailhead showing the rugged mountains in the background.

With that information, I plotted a route on my phone and headed out of Athens. I also read somewhere that the tolls in Greece were crazy. Turns out, that’s pretty accurate. From the Athens airport to Litochoro I paid €27.65 in tolls (it’s roughly the same going back). So, be prepared with a fair amount of cash if you’re going to drive to Litochoro for this hike. (Another note: You need an international license to rent a car in Greece. You can get one here.)

Another thing I found online was that there are a number of lodges or refuges on the mountain where you can spend the night. If you’re planning on climbing Mount Olympus in a day (which would be a pretty serious hike, see below), you may not need to reserve a night in one of the lodges, but given my itinerary, I needed to do so. I arrived in Athens early in the morning (around 8:00 am), made it to the Prionia trailhead around 2:45 pm, and knew I wasn’t going to summit that day. So, I booked a bed in Refuge A for that first night (and possibly a second, since I didn’t have a good sense of how long the hike would take). Most of the refuges have websites (Refuge A and the others).

Just as I arrived at the trailhead it started to rain. I stayed in the car for about 30 minutes getting my pack and gear together. And since I don’t climb big mountains without bringing raingear, I also donned my raingear and put the rain cover on my backpack. However, just as I got out of the car, the rain stopped. I kept my rain pants on for about 20 minutes but then took those off as well. It was humid but actually quite beautiful just after the rain.

Me at the trailhead just after the rain stopped.
Me at the trailhead just after the rain stopped.

As noted, I wasn’t sure of the distances but had seen that the hike from Prionia to Refuge A (Spilios Agapitos) took one person 4 hours. Since the refuge doesn’t allow people to register after 8:00 pm, I knew I needed to get there fairly quickly. As a result, I pushed my pace a little bit and didn’t stop for many photos along the way. I also turned on the hike tracking app on my watch so I’d have a better sense of what the mileage actually is.

On one website I saw that about 10,000 people attempt to climb Mount Olympus each year. That’s a big enough number that I didn’t expect the hike to be all that rugged. It turns out, the elevation gain on the hike is pretty impressive (about 1,000 feet per mile) and the trail is pretty rugged (not everywhere, but most of it is quite rugged). This part wasn’t so rugged but very beautiful:

This is part of the very pretty forested area on the lower portion of the hike.

It took me just under 2 hours to travel the almost exactly 4 miles from the Prionia trailhead to Refuge A. Here’s the route:

And here are some additional stats from my tracking device:

 

As this screenshot shows, the distance was 3.93 miles (basically, 4 miles) and the elevation gain was 3,670 feet, which I’m rounding to roughly 4,000 feet. In other words, 1,000 feet of elevation gain per mile, which is pretty substantial elevation gain. You can see some of the ruggedness of the trail in the photo below (which also shows the E4 trail markers that you follow all the way to the top of Skala):

Me in front of an E4 trail marker and a particularly rugged portion of the lower trail.

About two-thirds of the way to Refuge A it started to rain again, lightly. I ended up putting my rain jacket back on for the last third of the hike. I arrived at Refuge A around 5:00 pm. Never having stayed in a lodge like this in Europe, I wasn’t quite sure about the protocol. But the owners were nice and helped me get checked in and settled. It was €13 for a bed for the night. They also had lots of food, snacks, and other supplies. The refuge has a bunch of beds in various rooms (I was in the biggest which had about 20 beds in it), two dining halls, places to store gear, and restrooms. The water is ice cold and the toilets are holes in the ground.

The toilets at Refuge A are like those in Japan – a hole in the ground. You squat over them.

It’s not a 5-star resort, but it works well as a refuge. (I later realized how they got all the supplies up there – donkeys.)

Once I got to the refuge and got settled in, I realized I had quite a bit of time (lights out at 10:00 pm). I had planned for this and brought a book on my phone to read. I ordered a drink and hung out in one of the dining rooms reading. Around 7:30 I ordered dinner (the portions are huge, so I ordered about half of the regular size). They technically have wi-fi in the refuge but it wasn’t working. They also have outlets so you can charge devices if need be. I was able to get a cellular signal in one spot outside by a tree (everyone seemed to know where the one spot was) so I could let my wife know I was fine. Otherwise, I just hung out and read until it was time for bed.

Knowing I would be in a room with a bunch of other people, I brought earplugs. It was the right choice. Several people were snoring. With my earplugs in, I couldn’t really hear them. I also brought some Zzzquil just in case and popped a couple of those in to make sure I could fall asleep. (FYI, the refuge provides you with blankets, but you’ll need your own sheets. I found some lightweight sheets on Amazon that I brought with me.)

I set an alarm for 6:00 am the next morning which is when the lights come on. It turns out, I didn’t need it. A bunch of people were up right at 6:00 getting their gear ready to go which woke me up as well. I quickly packed up, ordered some yogurt and honey and a banana for breakfast, wolfed it down, and hit the trail. (FYI, if you plan to return to the refuge after going to the summit, you can leave stuff at the refuge. I didn’t think I was going to so I took all my stuff with me. This would be a nice way to drop some weight from your pack, like my flip-flops – which you need in the lodge as boots have to stay in the lobby – my towel, and sheets. That probably would have cut about 5 pounds out of my pack.)

Two other guys were headed out about the same time I was. They actually beat me to the trail while I was stretching, but I quickly caught up to them and they let me pass. From what I could tell, the people hiking to the summit from the lodge were generally pretty skilled hikers. The two guys I passed did a good job of keeping up with me over the next mile or so as I ascended toward Skala (the third highest peak in Greece and the launching point to Mytikas, the highpoint). I didn’t see them much after that point. I made it to the summit of Skala around 8:45. I had been hiking in fog for much of the time, but just below the summit of Skala, the fog broke and I had generally clear skies but clouds below me. On the summit of Skala I got my first real glimpse of Mytikas.

This is the view of Mytikas from Skala. The fog was rolling out just as I got to the summit of Skala.

Here’s a photosphere from the summit of Skala:

Not knowing how long the clear skies would last, I quickly swapped out my helmet for my hiking poles, slipped on my gloves, and started following the red blazes over the Class III section of the hike.

The red (and often yellow outlined) blazes are pretty close together, which is good when there is fog.

I had read that this section is a rock scramble that is somewhat technical. That is an accurate description. There are several spots where you are, in fact, climbing or descending near vertically. However, most of this section is not particularly dangerous and primarily requires slow, careful stepping, with about 1/3 of the time using both hands and feet. Follow the red blazes carefully and you’ll be fine. There are anchors in several spots for ropes but they are never really required. My sense, however, is that this section of the climb would be an ideal location to practice using ropes and harnesses for those who are new to technical climbing.

It took me about 30 minutes to get from the summit of Skala to the summit of Mytikas. There is one spot that is a false summit about 2/3 of the way there. Don’t make the mistake I did and get up your hopes until you see the flag waving on the top of the summit.

This photo shows one of the blazes with the false summit in the background.

I arrived around 9:15. There were clouds below me but no clouds around me, offering me pretty clear views of Skala and the surrounding area. I had a quick snack then shot some photos and videos.

Me on the summit of Mytikas.

Here’s a photosphere of the summit:

My tracking device indicated that it was about 2 miles (2.1) from Refuge A to the summit of Mytikas. It took me about 2 and a half hours to traverse that distance.

Here are the elevation and distance data from my fitness tracker:

I didn’t stay long before I headed back to Skala. As I did, fog started to roll back in. I ran into the first group of people attempting to make the summit behind me about 2/3 of the way back to Skala. It was a group of four and two solo hikers all working together (all were from the UK I believe; I’m fairly certain I was the only person from the US in the refuge the night before). One woman had gone only about 100 meters from the summit of Skala before she turned back. The steepness of the area freaked her out and, knowing her limits, she didn’t want to go any further. I mention that only to illustrate that this hike really isn’t for everyone. It’s steep and somewhat technical. Don’t be overconfident as it is a serious hike.

By the time I got back to the summit of Skala, the fog had rolled back in and I could no longer see Mytikas. I swapped out my helmet and hiking poles and headed back down the trail. I made pretty good time going down. I stopped once to put on my rain jacket as it started to sprinkle below the summits. I also stopped at Refuge A for a snack and to air out my boots for a couple of minutes. I had told the owners of Refuge A that I might stay a second night depending on the time it took to climb Mytikas and the weather. But, given that everything had gone well, I opted to hike out that day and go do some other stuff in Greece. I tried to target arriving at the Prionia trailhead at 1:00 pm but missed it by about 10 minutes.

I did stop regularly to take more photos and even some videos as the hike is quite beautiful. This shot shows how steep the mountain is (and the fog that seemed to be ever-present):

This photo shows the mountain is steep and you are regularly shrouded in fog or mist.

There are also a couple of water fountains on the hike like this one:

Presumably, you can drink the water. I didn’t. But I think it is supposed to be clean.

I restarted my tracking device on the summit of Mytikas to get a sense of exactly how far it is from Prionia to the summit.

Here is the rest of the data from my fitness tracker:

Basically, it’s about 6 miles from the trailhead in Prionia to the summit of Mytikas. It took me 3 1/2 hours to descend from the summit to the trailhead.

Some final thoughts about the hike…

This was a more rugged, demanding hike than I originally thought it was going to be. I figured the trail would be pretty even and well-worn. The trail is generally pretty clear (not always) but it is quite rugged. The elevation gain is pretty substantial (over 6,000 feet total). And the technical section at the end to reach Mytikas is serious. Even though it doesn’t require ropes, it’s not an easy section, especially if there is fog or it is raining (I probably wouldn’t do it in the rain). This is not a pleasant day hike for someone without experience. This is a grueling, 12-mile round trip hike for experienced hikers. You should budget plenty of time for bad weather and the possibility that you’ll have to turn around and try to summit a different day.

I did leave Mount Olympus with a greater appreciation for why the ancient Greeks would have believed that is where the gods lived. During the two days I was in the vicinity of Mount Olympus, I never once saw the mountains without clouds covering them. The idea that the gods live on a mountain shrouded in clouds makes a lot more sense to me. Mount Olympus is nearly constantly shrouded in clouds. I also can’t imagine ancient Greeks trying to climb Mount Olympus. I’m sure they were rugged and tough, but if they only had sandals or primitive boots and not a lot of experiencing climbing at those altitudes, it seems unlikely they would have ever climbed to the top. I think I understand why mountains were so mysterious and mystical now – they were impenetrable fortresses literally shrouded from view. Today, of course, we can penetrate those shrouds but that would have been virtually impossible 2,600 years ago.

country highpoints

Ireland – Carrauntoohil

I’m always up for a good hike, and it often turns out to be a great way to see places most people don’t see.  One of the places people recommended I visit in Ireland was the Ring of Kerry.  As luck would have it, the tallest mountain in Ireland, Carrauntoohil, is within the Ring of Kerry.  I did a bit of searching and learned about an alternate route, the Coomloughra Horseshoe, which starts from a different place than most people who hike Carrauntoohil and makes a loop that tops the three tallest mountains in Ireland, Carrauntoohil, Caher, and Beenkeragh.  I was hoping to do the complete Horseshoe, but was also paying very close attention to the weather.  The route between Carrauntoohil and Beenkeragh involves a climb over a razor back ridge that seemed like a bad idea if it was raining or cloud covered.

I got up early, had a hearty breakfast of sausage and eggs at my B&B, then headed to the trailhead.  No one else was parked at the trailhead, but I assumed some others would be coming along later.

I had okay directions from several websites, but knew I had to do some route finding along the way.  Alas, the clouds were still hanging quite low when I started the hike and, by the time I reached Cottoners River dam, I was in the clouds and could only see about 50 feet in front of me.  I knew roughly which way I was supposed to go, so I headed that way and tried my best to track my route on my GPS.  Here’s a short video of what it was like hiking on the lower part of Caher before I crossed the vegetation line and was hiking just on rocks:

I eventually made it to the top of the first mountain, Caher, and was quite impressed with the elevation gain and ruggedness of the mountain.  It was turning out to be a fairly challenging hike. Plus, the humidity in the clouds led to condensation all over me:

Me at the Caher summit with condensation on my hat.
Me at the Caher summit with condensation on my hat.

Unfortunately, at this point, I had the crazy notion that the trail turned slightly on its way to Carrauntoohil.  Not sure why I thought that, but I got off the actual trail and spent about 30 minutes wandering off the horseshoe before I realized I was off the trail.  Thanks to Google Maps and my GPS, I got back on track and headed toward Carrauntoohil.

Just as I reached the summit of Carrauntoohil, about 30 minutes after I regained the trail, I noticed two individuals on the summit – two Russian-speaking priests in full priestly garb performing a ceremony that included chanting, praying, reciting, reading from books, and so on.  No one else was on the summit, and I’ve never experienced that on the top of a summit.  It went on for about 10 minutes after I arrived and I didn’t really know what to do, so I just kind of sat there, waiting:

After they finished up, I confirmed that they were priests, then took a few pictures as the sun had finally broken through the clouds.

On the summit of Carrauntoohil.
On the summit of Carrauntoohil.

I spent about 20 minutes on the summit, then, because it was still very cloudy, I opted to go back the way I came rather than try the razorback.  It was so cloudy I immediately took a slightly wrong turn and headed down the standard route.  I hiked for about 30 minutes before I realized my error and had to hike back to the route I had taken, which added another 30 minutes or so to my hike.  Once I made it back to the trail, the clouds started to break and I finally started to get some nice views of the area.

Near the summit of Caher once the clouds broke.
Near the summit of Caher once the clouds broke.
The valley below Carrauntoohil once the clouds clear.
The valley below Carrauntoohil once the clouds cleared.
A panorama of the three peaks.
A panorama of the three peaks.

The rest of the hike was quite pleasant and I finally passed a few other people on the trail.

After the hike, I headed back to the B&B, showered, rested a bit, then went to the Killarney Golf and Fishing Club for a delightful dinner of fish and chips:

Fish and chips at the Killarney Golf and Fishing Club.
Fish and chips at the Killarney Golf and Fishing Club.

Here’s my route from the hike:

 

country highpoints

United Kingdom – Ben Nevis

After the prior day’s travails, I slept in pretty late for me – 9:00 am.  I was debating whether or not I should hike Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the UK, given the poor condition of my heels, but this was the primary mountain I came to climb. Physically, I wasn’t sore from the previous day’s hike.  The only concern was my heels.  I had bought some medical supplies at the grocery store the night before, so I bandaged up my heels the best I could, geared up, and headed out.

There are two trailheads for Ben Nevis.  One is where people can pull up in their cars.  The second is across from the Youth Hostel in Glen Nevis.  Since I was in the campground, I walked up to the Youth Hostel, and started the trail from there.  I started hiking at 10:30 and made pretty good time, despite having to pass many people who were never going to make it to the summit.  As I have seen on some of the more popular mountains I’ve hiked, there are lots of really unprepared people trying to climb these things.  Families with three kids, all under 8; elderly people in tennis shoes with no hiking experience; young people in tank tops carrying a gallon of water in their hand; etc.  The trail is two miles up to the first ridge, and the climbing is pretty steep.  Once you make the ridge, you get a nice view of a lake:

view from just above the first ridge; pretty lake and greenery (click for larger version)

The first ridge is about half way – about 2.25 miles of the 4.5 mile hike.  The day I climbed Ben Nevis, I was in the clouds from here on.  There was a nice waterfall just past the lake:

waterfall just past the lake

Here I am just after making the ridge:

here I am just after making the ridge

From here it’s another 2.25 miles of climbing.  The vegetation stops just past the waterfall and it’s a rock tumble the rest of the way.  The trail is clear, but rocky for the most part.  I summitted around 12:45 or 1:00.  Here I am on the summit:

me by a summit marker; notice the ice crystals in my hair

The wind was blowing pretty hard at the summit and the fog and light rain combined to wet then ice my hair.  The summit was actually packed with people.  There was a Muslim youth group climbing the mountain that day and they must have had at least 50 people in their party.  Several of them would periodically throw their arms up and say something in Arabic; I’m guessing it was some sort of praise of Allah.

Given how cold it was and the fact that there was no view, I didn’t stay long.  I shot this quick panorama, ate my customary orange and a granola bar, then began my descent:

the summit in clouds (click for larger version)

The summit is actually pretty interesting since there are 2,000 foot cliffs on one side.  On a clear data, they would have been cool to see.  All I got to see was this:

sheer cliff of 2,000 feet

This is near where I ate my orange.  I was probably five feet or so away from a 2,000 foot cliff.  There was also a little snow here and there.

The descent went quick and I was back to my campervan at 3:00; the whole hike was 4.5 hours.  You can see the route here:

After I got off the mountain, I took a shower and inspected my heels.  They didn’t appear to be any worse for the hiking, which was good, but they were still quite raw.  I met some of my neighbors at that point.  It was actually kind of funny when one of them asked me if I had climbed Ben Nevis.  I said yes and she responded, “Oh, you must have gotten up really early.”  I laughed and told her I started at 10:30, which she didn’t believe.  I snapped a few photos of the mountains near the campground later that evening and saw people still descended Ben Nevis as late as 9:00 pm (it stays light until about 11:00 pm in Scotland and the sun comes up just after 4:00 am).  Here’s a foothill of Ben Nevis, which is about twice as tall as this:

Ben Nevis foothills from Glen Nevis campground

After I cleaned up, I headed into Fort William for an early dinner, then came back to the campground where I spent the night.