Europe Trip – Rome (Day 7)

We also had a private tour in Rome. We were a big enough group that we needed two vans. Our guide and drivers were really amazing. We packed a lot into one day in Rome and couldn’t have done it without our excellent drivers (our driver was Nicola, who did an amazing job).

Our drivers picked us up in Civatavecchia, the port, then drove us to The Vatican, where we met our guide. We did stop quickly for snacks and a bathroom break on the way, where I got to sample Italian espresso, which was quite good.

My Italian espresso.

Knowing a little bit about religion, I knew The Vatican was its own country and had a sense that it was big, but I didn’t realize just how big. I also didn’t realize just how ornate and ostentatious it is. We rushed through several buildings (since we had a busy agenda), but all of them contained priceless artwork: statues, paintings, friezes, etc.

A shot of the ceiling in the Vatican Gallery of Maps.

We got to visit the Sistine Chapel, but no photos can be taken inside (I followed the rules, but not everyone does). It really is impressive. I pestered our guide with questions throughout the tour and, even though we weren’t supposed to talk in the Sistine Chapel, she was whispering quietly about what we were seeing. Given its central role in electing new popes, I was interested in where they burned the ballots. That particular piece of equipment was not in there; it is installed only when the cardinals are meeting, and the piping is set up at that time as well.

From the Sistine Chapel, we went to St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest Catholic Church in the world. This, too, illustrated just how much money the Catholic Church has and started me down a path of questioning with our guide that she probably doesn’t get very often. One of the more prominent features in St. Peter’s Basilica is a set of four columns in the center of the basilica made out of pure bronze. The bronze was stolen from pre-Catholic sites around Rome, particularly the Pantheon, melted down, then used in the construction of the pillars in St. Peter’s Basilica. The Catholic Church worked hard to erase the glory of the pagan era that pre-dated it and to build up its own status at the expense of history, much like ISIS has done by destroying ancient art and monuments from pre-Islamic times.

Steve, Rosemary, Toren, and Debi in front of the four bronze pillars in the center of St. Peter’s Basilica in The Vatican. The bronze was all raided from Roman buildings, melted down, and recast here.

Another illustration of Catholic syncretism was the co-opting of the obelisks from Egypt. The Roman Empire stole dozens of obelisks, which had been monuments to the sun god, and brought them back to Rome. When the Catholic Church took over, they mounted crosses on top of all of them, co-opting them as symbols of Christianity. A very large obelisk stands in the center of the courtyard outside St. Peter’s Basilica:

An Egyptian obelisk syncretized by the Catholic Church into a symbol of Christianity, in the middle of the square in front of St. Peter’s Basilica.

I’m sure I could spend several days at The Vatican, appreciating the art and architecture. I’m sure I would also thoroughly enjoy visiting the library and archives, the bank, and a number of other elements of Vatican City that most people would find of little interest. Given my background and training, I couldn’t help but find examples of syncretism throughout Vatican City.

Our time in The Vatican was relatively short as we had lots of other stuff to do. From The Vatican, we drove to The Pantheon, which is another brilliant example of Catholic syncretism. They took a beautiful building dedicated to the Roman gods and co-opted it as a Catholic Church. The dome is a truly remarkable piece of engineering that has stood for thousands of years.

From there, our drivers and guide took us to Trevi Fountain, which is absolutely stunning. Any decent-sized city that attracts tourists should learn from Trevi Fountain – build a beautiful fountain in a central location and people will flock to it. Trevi Fountain was teeming with people, but it’s not surprising that it was given how beautiful it is.

Family selfie at the Trevi Fountain.

We grabbed some food while at Trevi Fountain as we hadn’t had lunch and still had a few more hours on our tour.

The next stop was The Colosseum.

I knew that the Colosseum was large and what it was used for, but I was still impressed when I walked in and saw the arena (sand) for the first time. It’s enormous. It could seat over 60,000 people. It’s a truly astounding piece of architecture.

Toren and one of his cousins pretending to be gladiators outside the Colosseum.

Our last stop on our whirlwind tour of Rome was the LDS Temple. Given that most of the family is LDS and the temple was recently dedicated, they really wanted to see it. Given my research interests, I was perfectly happy to go as well.

Strangely, the temple is located quite far from the city center in what appear to be suburbs. In fact, there is an Ikea right next to it. The location is definitely odd and there certainly were not as many visitors as there were at The Vatican. Even so, they have done a nice job with both the architecture and the surrounding landscaping. There are nice, understated fountains and gardens. It was very beautiful. The visitor’s center was nice as well.

We spent a good hour at the LDS temple and visitor’s center, then got back in the vans and headed back to the cruise ship.

That evening, I went to a comedy show with Steve and Scott (the twins). The comedian, who was pretty good, assumed that the three of us were gay as we were sitting together without any women around us. We didn’t disabuse him of that notion and got a good laugh out of it.

Thought on Rome… I’m definitely going to need to return to Rome with more time to explore the city. As our guide said repeatedly, Rome is a living archaeological site.

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Europe Trip – Pisa and Cinque Terre (Day 6)

Given the size of our group (15 total), for some of our excursions, Rosemary booked private tours. This also meant we got to customize our tours and do precisely what we wanted. That was the case on our third port of call, La Spezia. Rosemary arranged for a minibus and our own tour guide.

The bus picked us up early and drove us straight to Pisa so we could see the famed Leaning Tower of Pisa. I remember seeing pictures of the tower when I was a kid and thinking it was funny. But seeing it in person is different. It really is a very large tower and the angle at which it is leaning forces a double-take.

Toren holding up the leaning tower of pisa.
The obligatory “holding up the tower” photo.

The guide company had arranged tickets for us to climb the tower. The two youngest grandkids were not able to climb the tower due to their age, so Rosemary stayed with them while the rest of us climbed the tower. You actually climb inside the walls. It’s over 200 steps but didn’t seem particularly challenging.

We got to spend a good 30 minutes on top of the tower. Here’s a photosphere from the top:

Toren on the Leaning Tower of Pisa
Toren on the Leaning Tower of Pisa

I did find it interesting that where the steps are worn varies based on the lean of the tower – people move closer to one side or the other depending on how the tower is leaning and that has resulted in deep grooves in the steps as a result. If you look closely, you can see the grooves in this short video of Debi going down the stairs.

We spent another 20 to 30 minutes at Pisa, walking around the church and taking photos. We then got back in the minibus and headed back toward La Spezia for the second part of our tour.

Apparently, the place to go right now in Italy is Cinque Terre, a national park with some villages that are right on the ocean. Not being up on the latest things to do, this was news to me. Our guide had arranged for us to stop in three towns in Cinque Terre: Riomaggiore, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare. We got on the train in La Spezia and arrived in Riomaggiore in short order.

In order to make it to all three towns and get back in time to catch the cruise ship, we didn’t have a lot of time in each town. Since we hadn’t stopped for lunch at any point, in Riomaggiore, everyone decided to get food. I can go for quite a while without food and had some snacks with me anyway, so I opted instead to hike quickly to the top of Riomaggiore to see the view. I took a photosphere there:

I had to take a selfie, too:

Once everyone had food, we quickly headed down to the water and spent a few minutes there before having to head to the train station. While waiting for everyone to ascend the stairs, I bought some grapes that were amazing given how hot it was.

In Vernazza, a similar situation unfolded. Most everyone wanted gelato/ice cream. I was more interested in seeing the town. I, again, took off and climbed to the top of the town while they were getting ice cream, then headed down to the waterfront where I took this photosphere:

Once everyone else had their ice cream, they all headed down to the waterfront where we spent a little time enjoying the views and climbing on the rocks. We then boarded a ferry that took us to our last stop, Monterosso al Mare.

We had about 45 minutes in Monterosso al Mare. Debi, Toren, and I took advantage of the time to walk through the town, visit another Byzantine style church that matched Debi’s outfit, and stop by a few shops.

Debi and Toren matched this striped church in Monterosso al Mare.

We then took an alternate route to meet up with the guide that took us out and around a large outcropping that was quite scenic:

Toren with two of his cousins in Monterosso al Mare.

We ended up getting to the meeting place 10 minutes early. As we had made our way around the outcropping, I saw some stairs headed up and decided that I’d go as far up as I could in 5 minutes, then head back down so I wasn’t late. I tracked the hike back down on my watch:

As it turns out, 5 minutes was enough time to make it to the top where I found a monastery and graveyard. I didn’t have time to explore it all, but the first crypt I saw belonged to the Ferrari family, who own a large estate not far from Monterosso al Mare.

The Ferrari Family crypt in Monterosso al Mare.

From Monterosso al Mare, we took the train one last time and then met our minibus, which took us back to the cruise ship. We went to an ice skating show that night on the cruise ship. Yes, the ship has an ice rink.

One final note… I took my favorite picture of Toren and Debi on this trip in Vernazza:

Debi and Toren in Vernazza.

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Europe Trip – Marseilles (Day 5)

The second stop on our cruise was in Marseilles, France. Given that it was France, I was expecting a very nice city, like Paris. I was a little disappointed.

Our excursion was called “Scenic Marseilles” and basically involved riding in a bus around the city with two stops. We stopped once to take some pictures of Château d’If, a relatively famous fort on an island just off the coast of Marseilles that has featured in a number of stories and movies.

Château d'If
Château d’If

The second stop was at the Palais Longchamp where we had about 20 minutes to run up and look at the architecture but didn’t have time to do much else.

Palais Longchamp
Palais Longchamp

The tour ended a couple of blocks from the old port. The guide said we could return to the bus at a certain time and they would take us back to the cruise ship. Alternatively, we could catch the Royal Caribbean shuttle at a specific location, which she showed us.

A few of us opted to explore Marseilles for a few hours. We first stopped at a bakery. After getting medialunas in Argentina, which kind of look like croissants but are way better, I have been itching to try a croissant in France to see if I’m not making a fair comparison between the two breads. The croissants we had in the bakery were good, but we’re all still partial to Argentinean medialunas. However, the pizza they had in the bakery was both cheap and delicious (perhaps the best we had on the trip).

Enjoying a French croissant.

From there, we caught a bus up to see the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde, which stands atop a prominent hill in Marseilles. It’s a beautiful Byzantine church.

We spent a good hour walking around and through it.

Here’s a short video clip of the music that was being sung while we were inside:

After the church, we headed back down through Marseilles and caught the shuttle back to the cruise ship.

That evening, we saw a show (or two) on the ship. I think we actually saw one of these the night before, but the time stamps on my photos indicate that they were both this night. We saw a magic show with Hector is Magic, a Spanish magician. His sleight of hand tricks with cards were good. The other tricks were pretty easy to figure out. (Side note, while Hector is a decent magician, he’s not much of a rock climber. The next day, while in Cinque Terre, we ran into Hector while hopping on rocks in one of the small towns, Vernazza. Hector lost his sunglasses while trying to get a photo and didn’t notice. Toren saw the sunglasses fall, climbed down to find them, and returned them to him. You’re welcome, Hector!)

We also saw a diving show. The Oasis of the Seas is big enough that it has a water theater at the back of the ship where they stage diving shows. The shows were pretty good and included divers, synchronized swimmers, and slackliners.

The water theater at the back of the ship.

(Brief reflection on Marseilles. If I’m being honest, this was probably the least interesting shore excursion. I’m sure a long stay in Marseilles might prove otherwise, but it didn’t seem like there was a lot to do here. Additionally, the city seemed a bit dirty and was covered in graffiti. I kind of sound like a crotchety old man telling kids to get off my lawn with my criticism here, but I think it was the contrast between Paris and Marseilles that left me feeling like Marseilles wasn’t what I was expecting.)

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Europe Trip – Mallorca (Day 4)

Rosemary arranged for a very nice excursion while we were in Mallorca. We boarded a catamaran with about 50 other people and headed out away from the city to a nice area where there was no development, dropped anchor, and everyone got to jump in the water and swim around. The water was really clear but a little chilly. Not thinking in advance, I forgot to bring our masks and snorkels but they had some for purchase for relatively cheap on the boat, so we bought a couple and had a nice time swimming around:

The three of us on the catamaran
Where we went swimming.

We got to swim for about an hour then had lunch on the catamaran. The trip to where we went swimming took about 45 minutes. It was about the same going back. Several of us decided that we wanted to walk around Mallorca for a bit before heading back to the cruise ship. When the catamaran docked, we started walking along the main road. We eventually found a staircase leading to a small park where we took some fun pictures.

After our stop at the park, we walked a little longer than grabbed some cabs back to the cruise ship.

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Europe Trip – Boarding the Cruise Ship (Day 3)

Rosemary (Debi’s mom) arranged a transfer to the cruise ship from our hotel. Getting checked in and the luggage situated took a bit, but we were on the ship by about noon. We made our way to the buffet and grabbed some lunch, then started taking advantage of all the offerings on the ship. We were on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, which is an enormous ship with lots of offerings.

After lunch, we went to the rock climbing wall where Debi, Toren, and I (and several other nieces and nephews) all climbed the wall.

Ryan (in red) and Toren (in blue) on the climbing wall.

Most of the kids were excited to go swimming, so we got them ready as quickly as possible and let them swim for most of the afternoon.

One thing we always do on cruises with my in-laws is enjoy dinners in the main dining room. The food is typically very good and we enjoy the service. I have to be very careful not to over-eat, but it is a nice chance to enjoy good food, excellent service, and chat about our daily adventures. We got started with our daily dinners that first night.

After dinner, Rosemary had reserved tickets for all of us to see Cats, which was being performed that first night. Most of us went, but a few opted out since they had seen it before and were not keen to see it again. As a fan of musicals, I was familiar with a few of the songs and really enjoyed them, but had never seen it. Debi had seen it on Broadway but was fine seeing it again. I will admit that the first act left us all… disappointed. I’m sure the acting and singing were fine compared to other productions, but there is no coherency to the story. Toren’s intermission review was pretty accurate, “I like shows with a premise.” Almost all of the people in attendance got up at intermission; much less than half of those who were there at the beginning of the show stayed for the end. It was actually their loss. While the coherency of the play didn’t improve all that much (no one knows what a Jellicle cat is), the symbolism and meaning of the play became more apparent, there was a really good dance number, and the more well-known songs were also in the second act. By the end, we were glad we stayed and actually enjoyed the musical. Would we see it again? Meh. Probably not. But it was definitely worth seeing it once.

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Europe Trip – Barcelona (Day 2)

It was the birthday of one of my nephew’s and he really wanted to go kayaking. So, we went kayaking. I think we all were hopeful that sea kayaking in Barcelona would give us a lot to see, kind of like when we went sea kayaking in Alaska. We were also under the impression that, like Alaska, we were not going to get wet. Both of those assumptions were wrong.

We ended up renting the sea kayaks from Centre Municipal de Vela de Barcelona, which is located really close to the Olympic Park in Barcelona. What we didn’t realize is that the kayaks had holes in them so water could drain out, but that also meant that sea water could come in. We also weren’t allowed to go to the nearby beach because people were swimming there, which meant we were relegated to paddling out around a concrete barrier and then coming back. We basically got to see the concrete barrier, some buoys, some big ships in the ocean, and each other. Additionally, the water was freezing and there were really big waves on the ocean. Collectively, what this meant is that we got really wet, really cold, and didn’t get to see much. But it was good exercise. The sea kayaking took up most of the morning. We found a nice restaurant for lunch where that same nephew ordered squid (which he didn’t eat, so the uncles finished it off).

After that, we got on the hop-on-hop-off sightseeing bus and got to see quite a bit of Barcelona. I was so impressed with the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya and the fountains in front of it that I suggested we get off there. We did and spent a good hour enjoying the views and taking photos. Here’s a photosphere in front of the Museu:

The Museu really is an amazing sight with views of most of Barcelona and fabulous fountains:

I enjoyed the view enough I shot some footage of the waterfall just to keep as a loop.

A view of the museum below one of the waterfalls.
The view of the fountains from the museum.

We even managed to get a group photo:

Family photo in front of the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya

We then got back on the sightseeing bus and returned to our hotel. After a quick chance to drop off some stuff and refresh ourselves, we headed out to a nice, small Italian restaurant for dinner.

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Europe Trip – Barcelona (Day 1)

My in-laws took the whole family on a trip to Europe again (see the previous trip). This time, we flew into Barcelona, spent two days there, then embarked on a 7 day Royal Caribbean cruise with 5 ports of call: Mallorca, Marseilles, La Spezia, Rome, and Naples.

The trip started off with some “excitement.” Most of us were supposed to meet at JFK airport in NYC (on the evening of the 13th) and fly to Barcelona together. However, due to weather issues, there were big delays into and out of JFK. The family flying in from SLC weren’t sure if they were going to make the Barcelona flight, so they got re-routed through Paris. We ended up meeting Steve (Debi’s brother) in NYC and we all flew together to Barcelona, landing around 10:30 am the next day. We arrived just a little before another part of the family, so we waited for them in the baggage claim. Once they arrived, Rosemary (Debi’s mom) had arranged for a transfer to our hotel. Those who got re-routed, unfortunately, ended up getting really delayed in Paris and didn’t get in until about 10:00 pm that night (almost 12 hours later).

After we got settled in the hotel, we went for a walk. Our hotel was just a few blocks from Placa de Catalunya, so we stopped there first. Here’s a photosphere I took there:

We were all pretty hungry, so we found a nearby restaurant and tried the famed Spanish paella. It was, meh.

Spanish paella in Barcelona
Spanish paella for three. It was fine, but I wouldn’t move to Spain to have it regularly!

From there, we headed for a walk down La Rambla, which was quite nice. We stopped for some treats along the way, walking all the way down to the Christopher Columbus statue and the port. We took a different route back, heading through Barri Gotic (the Gothic neighborhood) to our hotel. Given the limited sleep most had gotten on the plane, pretty much everyone was keen to get to bed early. Toren, Steve, and I went out for food, finding a nice little Italian place that was cheap but had good pizza.

A couple of quick reflections on Barcelona…

Perhaps it was the areas we were in, but we didn’t see a lot of parks and places for kids to play. There are plazas in front of churches, but most were paved and did not have areas for kids to play.

The wide, clean streets and fascinating architecture made walking in Barcelona quite pleasant.

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WA-Mt. Rainier

Summit Date

July 31st, around 6:30 am

Party

Ryan Cragun & Tom Triplett

(plus our guides – Travis and Matt – and two other clients – Drew Herdener and Olivier Colle)

Trip Report

While I do a fair amount of hiking, mountains like Mt. Rainier are really at the upper end of the types of hikes that interest me. Given that it is snow-capped and covered with glaciers and I have only climbed one such mountain before (Mt. Hood in 2016), the most logical approach to climbing this mountain was to hire guides.

For anyone interested in hiring guides, there are three main companies that guide on the mountain: RMI, IMG, and Alpine Ascents. Since I used Alpine Ascents on my previous climb like this and had a good experience, I decided to use Alpine Ascents again. I think that was the right call as will be made clear in this trip report. I’ll note one other thing for others considering climbing Mt. Rainier with guides. Most of these companies list their hikes almost a year in advance and the hikes sell out quickly. If you’re interested in climbing Mt. Rainier, I’d strongly encourage you to sign up for the newsletter for the company you want to go with almost two years before you plan to hike Mt. Rainier. You’ll then get a notification when the hikes are listed on their website so you can book your hike. If you wait until even 6 months before the hike date, it’s likely the hikes will all be sold out.

Pre-Hike Day

My trip began with a flight to Seattle on July 28th. With flight delays and such, I ended up arriving the same time as my hiking buddy, Tom. We then hopped on the train from the airport into Seattle and finally caught a bus to get us to our hotel, the Marqueen Hotel, which is just a block or so from the headquarters of Alpine Ascents. Our hotel room wasn’t ready so we grabbed a bite to eat then headed to the Alpine Ascents office with all our gear.

We had a gear check at 2:00 pm. The gear check involved going through all the equipment we brought based on their gear list and then renting any remaining equipment we needed. Given the technical aspects of the climb, crampons, harnesses, ice axes, helmets, and avalanche beacons were all required gear (along with standard cold weather clothing and such). The gear check included some instructional videos about climbing on Mt. Rainier. By the time we had our packs largely ready, the gear check took us at least 2 hours.

We still needed to pick up some food for the next few days – mostly snacks, but also some more substantial food as Alpine Ascents provided breakfasts and dinners but not lunches on the mountain. (As one of the guides said at one point, “There are no lunches on the mountain, just constant snacking between breakfast and dinner.”) We found a nearby grocery store, stocked up, then headed back to the Marqueen Hotel where we had dinner and finished getting everything ready.

Day One

We met back at the Alpine Ascents office the next day at 4:45 am. We left our suitcases with anything we didn’t need to take on the hike at the office, put our packs into a trailer, then hopped on a van. We had 8 clients to begin with, two of whom drove themselves from Seattle to the trailhead. The rest of us rode in the van. We stopped at a bakery on the way to grab breakfast. Then, just outside of the Mount Rainier National Park we stopped to pick up our three main guides – Robin, Matt, and Travis. (Our fourth guide, Towner, was already on the mountain at Camp Muir.) For this climb, Alpine Ascents likes a 2 to 1 ratio of clients to guides.

The Paradise parking area was where our hike began and our car ride ended. Here, our guides took over (previously, other staff from Alpine Ascents had been providing us with instructions). They went over our plan for the day. We then geared up, splitting up the food from Alpine Ascents among our packs. We had one issue with a backpack (a missing buckle) that the guides were able to solve with a buckle hack. Otherwise, we seemed to be ready to go.

Ryan and Tom before the hike started at Paradise.
Ryan and Tom before the hike started at Paradise.

I will note at this point that I had some issues with the big backpack. I do a lot of hiking, but most of my hiking is day hikes with, at most, a 20 to 30-pound pack (if I’m with others, I usually carry their water as that amount of weight doesn’t affect me). The big backpack I have is a 65+10 liter pack. It’s a bit on the small end for hikes like this. I also have a sleeping bag that is a bit older and therefore a bit bigger than most and didn’t have a compression bag for it. Finally, I probably over-packed slightly on gear and food. All told, I’m guessing my pack weighed closer to 50 to 60 pounds. I had not trained with a pack that heavy and it was a bit of an issue for me.

The hike started on the paved trails at Paradise and followed those trails up until the paving disappeared.

some of our team on the lower trail
some of our team on the lower trail

It then continued on unpaved trails until we hit the Muir snowfield. Just before we hit the Muir snowfield, we lost our first hiker. One of the people on our hike had broken his ankle a couple of years before and he wasn’t sure whether he was going to be able to do the hike but wanted to try. Turns out, he hadn’t completely healed. The pain was too much given the weight of our packs and the pace at which we were hiking. He pulled off to the side and told a guide. He was led back down to the trailhead where he waited for the Alpine Ascents group that was coming down the mountain so he could get a ride back to Seattle. (Sidenote: When he called his wife to let her know, she reportedly – according to one of the guides – said, “I told you so. You’re a pussy.”)

Once we reached the Muir snowfield, we stopped and switched from our hiking boots or shoes into our mountaineering boots with a hard shell (that we’d be using with crampons) since we’d be hiking the rest of the way to Camp Muir in snow. The views of the glaciers at this point were pretty cool.

We could see this waterfall from the Muir Snowfield.

Returning to my pack issue… I was doing fine on the paved and dirt trails with the heavier pack. It was a bit uncomfortable, but not a serious issue. However, once we switched to hiking on snow, the weight really started to get to me.

We hiked for several hours up the snowfield, which, once you are on it, really doesn’t seem like it is ever going to end. We started hiking around 10:30, covered just under 5 miles (4.79 per my watch), and it took about 5 hours and 15 minutes.

With my heavy pack and the trudging in soft snow, I struggled. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a pretty strong hiker and I was one of the first to make it to Camp Muir right behind the guides. But, when I arrived, I was exhausted and, mentally, was wondering whether I was going to be able to complete this hike. Without the very heavy pack, I would have been fine. But those extra 20 or so pounds really got to me.

We arrived at Camp Muir around 4:00. We had a couple of hours to get settled into the shelter that would be our home for the night. Camp Muir is an interesting place. It’s clear that it is an established camp that serves as the launching point for most attempts to summit Mt. Rainier (in fact, RMI makes their summit attempts from Camp Muir, not the Ingraham Flats, adding an extra mile to the summit attempt). The camp sits largely on a rock outcropping that separates the Muir snowfield from a glacier, though a number of people actually camp on the glacier. There were a number of wood and rock buildings used by the forest service and the professional guide companies. There are also several toilets and a few other buildings. (I use toilets here in the sense that they are actual toilets, but, they are not the most sanitary toilets you’ll ever see or use. There are a lot of people at Camp Muir, toilet paper and wipes are at a premium, and where the human waste goes is, well, a bit of a mystery. Don’t expect 5-star accommodations and toilets at Camp Muir, but be glad you have something to sit on.)

I took a photosphere at Camp Muir that helps illustrate what it is like:

After what I thought was a fairly grueling hike up the Muir snowfield, I was happy to take a couple of hours to organize my gear inside our hut. Alpine Ascents provided some basic air pads and we were able to put our pads on top of those then lay out our sleeping bags. Given our numbers, we all basically had room to spread out a bit. Here’s a look at the inside of the hut:

We stayed in a wooden hut with shelves for bunks the first night at Camp Muir.
We stayed in a wooden hut with shelves for bunks the first night at Camp Muir.

My buddy, Tom, really can’t sit still. He somehow managed to get connected with the forest service people and was helping them install some new solar cells and wiring in a building they were working on by the time we were supposed to go to dinner.

We had really amazing burritos for dinner. At dinner, our guides went over the plan for the next day and rounded out the evening with advice on getting as much sleep as we could and trying not to wake up our fellow climbers by going to the bathroom in the middle of the night. After dinner, we all headed back to the hut and went to bed. Given the challenging hike that day, I slept pretty well.

Day Two

Alpine Ascents’ approach to climbing Mt. Rainier (in this 3-day package) is different from RMI’s approach (but the same as IMG’s, with whom they share the hut and some other equipment). On day two, after a hearty breakfast, we spent the morning in snow school, learning how to walk in crampons, how to walk roped together, how to use ice axes, and how to do self-arrests on glaciers. Tom and I had done all of this before on Hood but it was a good refresher course.

Before snow school, we made sure we had all the stuff we were taking up to our high camp on the Ingraham Flats. If we wanted to leave some stuff at Camp Muir, we could. I had already pulled out the food for the entire group, which dropped my pack weight by 6 to 10 pounds. I also left my hiking shoes and my inflatable pad at Camp Muir in order to cut some more weight from my backpack (about another 5 to 8 pounds). With that weight gone, my backpack was probably closer to 40 pounds and was a much more comfortable weight for me.

After a quick lunch, we geared up and hiked the about one mile to the upper camp at Ingraham Flats. It didn’t take very long – close to an hour. However, it did involve crossing some areas with fairly active rockfall, which was when most of us realized that this hike was pretty serious.

This was also a chance to get a sense – both by Tom and me but also the guides – who the stronger hikers on a rope line were. It turns out, there were several strong hikers in our group, but perhaps the strongest (even stronger than Tom and I), was a Microsoft employee from France, Olivier. He was less experienced than Tom and I but, physically, he was moving well and seemed quite comfortable on the mountain. We didn’t know how many people we’d have on a rope team the next day when we attempted to summit the mountain but we wanted to make sure we’d have a solid team and Olivier seemed like he’d be a strong team member.

We were also dealing with another issue. The previous two teams from Alpine Ascents had made it to Ingraham Flats but had not summitted Mt. Rainier because the route that had been established was too dangerous. Basically, a massive ice fall had collapsed onto the trail up above the Disappointment Cleaver and more ice was hanging over the trail. Teams from RMI had pushed right over the fallen ice, which really wasn’t being held up by anything and could collapse at any time. They were also walking under the ice that was hanging over the trail as well. For Alpine Ascents, that level of risk was unacceptable as it basically put clients and guides into a very dangerous area not for a minute or two (like the rockfall we crossed this day) but for about 20 to 40 minutes. That was too dangerous.

Our guides were constantly talking with other guides about the trail. We didn’t overhear all the conversations but could tell that our odds of making it to the summit were pretty low. In fact, after dinner on the first night, I asked our head guide, Travis, what our odds were of going up to the summit. He didn’t answer at first, but when I gave him some numbers, he finally nodded at around 10% to 20%. That was a bit of a downer for most of our team, but we were still going to get to go up to Ingraham Flats and potentially to the top of Disappointment Cleaver (which is a rock outcropping you climb on the way up). 

Our guides split up in the morning. Two – Robin and Towner – stayed with us for snow school training while the other two – Matt and Travis – headed up the mountain to see how dangerous the current trail was for themselves and to see if there was a way around the dangerous ice fall.

After we arrived at Ingraham Flats, we had a couple of hours to just kind of hang out. I had a book on my phone and a backup charger for my phone, so I sat and relaxed, reading and resting. Some of the other clients tried to get some sleep. I also took this photosphere of the camp, which shows just how amazing the views were there.

Around 6:00 or so, Robin and Towner called us to the mess tent for dinner. We enjoyed some turkey burgers (again, we ate pretty well on the mountain) and talked. We could actually hear Matt and Travis coming down Disappointment Cleaver but couldn’t see them. We finished dinner and were all wondering whether we were going to go up the mountain the next day. About 20 minutes after we finished dinner, Matt and Travis returned to camp and we headed out of the mess tent to hear the news.

They actually did a very good job of leading us on. Travis started at the beginning of their adventure that day, explaining that they found the dangerous section of the trail and it really was an accident waiting to happen. He wouldn’t want to cross it himself let alone with clients. He and Matt then tried to find a route around that section. They had several false starts, found an okay route, then ran into an almost vertical wall that they were able to cut some steps into, had to walk along the edge of several crevasses, and did a lot of searching, but… By the end, they had carved out a trail that bypassed the ice fall and would allow us to go the summit. It took Travis a good five minutes to get to the part we all wanted to hear – we had a safe route up the mountain. We all cheered – at least, as much cheering as you can do when you’re standing on a glacier and it’s really cold outside.

Our guides gave us the last advice of the night. Try to sleep and don’t set an alarm. They would wake us up when they thought it was the right time to start up the mountain – somewhere between 11:00 pm and 1:00 am. The idea is to make it up in the dark while the ice is solid so you reduce the risk of ice melting and falling. We all headed to our tents and tried to sleep – most of us to little avail. I know I managed to get in a few hours because the time passed pretty quickly.

Day Three

Our guides ended up waking us up around 1:00 am. We had a quick breakfast of hot drinks and oatmeal. We also found out at breakfast that one member of our group, Ford, had decided he didn’t want to continue. He was feeling okay but was realizing that this kind of hiking was really not for him. He opted, instead, to stay at Ingraham Flats and wait for us to return. One of the guides, Towner, would stay with him.

That left us with three teams – Tom and I with Matt, Olivier and Drew with Travis, and Leli and Thomas with Robin. Leli also noted that she wasn’t feeling all that well and suggested that she may not be able to make it all the way but she was going to try.

After our quick breakfast, we geared up and headed out around 1:45. We made decent time crossing the Ingraham Flats to Disappointment Cleaver then worked our way up the Cleaver. Our first break was at the top of the Cleaver at the spot where our guides had forged a new trail. We stopped there and Leli indicated that she was going to keep going but was feeling worse.

After that first break, we were off the trail all the other hikers were on, forging a new trail. Luckily, Matt and Travis have great mountain sense and had a clear sense of the trail they had blazed the day before. We could tell that there wasn’t much of a trail, so we tried to help make one as we went and Matt dropped flags to help guide us on the way back. Once we reached the very steep section that involved connecting ourselves with a carabiner to a fixed line, Leli indicated she had enough and didn’t think she could make it back down that section. Her team turned around while the rest of us continued.

The new section was a bit rugged but the more exciting aspect was that we could tell we were climbing on some pretty crazy stuff as there were several spots where our headlamps disappeared into darkness and other spots where we knew we were hiking along a knife’s edge or ridge with steep drops on either side. But, in the dark, we really couldn’t tell what we were climbing. That may have been best, since it was pretty crazy terrain, as we realized on the way down. Here’s a photo from the new section showing me on a ridge with a crevasse on the right on a steep drop on the left:

Part of the new section with steep drops on either side.
Part of the new section with steep drops on either side.

The two teams continued through the new section, then reconnected with the standard route and took one more break fairly high on the mountain. After that last break, the guides said we were going to push from there to the crater. Not knowing how far that was, we all agreed.

Just below the crater was a particularly steep section. I was just behind our guide, Matt, on my rope team, with Tom behind me. Our guides had said that we had to be able to push at a certain speed and, if we couldn’t, then they were likely to turn us around as we had to be off the mountain at a certain point. With my much lighter pack, I was able to move pretty fast. However, that last really steep section was brutal. There were three or four times on that section that I was struggling to catch my breath and it was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other to keep up with Matt. Turns out, I wasn’t the only one who was struggling to keep the pace – Tom said he did as well. But, I wasn’t going to say anything about a quick break because we were so close to the summit and I didn’t want our guides to turn us around.

It was only about 20 to 30 minutes of the grueling pace on that steep section before Matt called out that he could see the crater. Another 5 minutes or so and we dropped into the southeast side of the crater where we took a solid 10-minute break. From there, all we had to do was walk across the crater, climb up a small section of loose rock, and we’d be at the summit. Here’s a photosphere from inside the crater where we took our break:

After a 10-minute break or so, we left our heavy packs on the far side of the crater and walked to the summit (a 20 minute walk). Given the forest fires in the area, the view wasn’t amazing. And the summit really just looks flat, as you can see in the media below. It was also very windy and very cold. We stayed long enough to snap some photos then headed back to the shelter of the crater. Here’s the summit in a photosphere:

Here’s a video panorama of the summit.
Tom (left) and me (right) on the summit

Just as we dropped into the crater, I started to notice that I felt a little… funny. It was as if about 10% to 20% of my brain had shut down. I was also having a hard time focusing on anything except what was directly in front of me (e.g., tunnel vision). Given what was happening to me, it took me until we got to the summit before I realized that I was actually suffering from altitude sickness. It was very mild and I was still able to function, but not as well as normal. This was the first time I had ever experienced this. I wonder to what extent it was related to the quick rate of our ascent. We had started the day at just over 11,000 feet and had climbed to almost 14,400 feet in 5 hours. Those 3,000 feet made a difference for me. I had been to higher elevations (e.g., Mount Whitney in California) without similar symptoms. I’m not entirely sure if it was the pace or something else, but I did let the guides know that I was feeling some of the symptoms of altitude sickness as we were walking back across the crater. They both agreed with my assessment and smartly said, “Well, there’s only one way to treat that – we’ve got to go down.”

I felt like I was moving a little slower gearing back up, but once we got back on our ropes and started walking, I was able to keep up. About 20 minutes from the summit, my symptoms cleared and I was fine again.

We pushed a good pace down from the summit until we reached the new section of trail. On the new section, our guides asked us to help “kick in” the new trail so the next group from Alpine Ascents would know where to go. We spent a good 45 minutes along the new section with the guides shoveling and the clients kicking in steps and trails with our crampons and cutting what we could with our ice axes.

We stopped one more time just above the cleaver for a quick break. On a typical hike of this distance and this elevation gain (but at a much lower elevation when it less technical), I would probably consume fewer than 500 calories (I don’t need a lot of calories). To this point on our summit attempt, I had consumed 3 Snickers bars, among other snacks, which was over 750 calories (probably over 1,000 with everything else I had eaten). We were moving fast enough that I knew I needed energy. We made one final push down Disappointment Cleaver and then to our camp. Here’s our route from Ingraham Flats to the summit and back:

At the camp, the other two guides had been busy. They had dug out a new location for the mess tent as they have to move it every few weeks. It is on a glacier which is moving down the mountain, which opens a new crevasse regularly. So, they have to move the tent or it will go into the “REI crevasse” with all the other gear people have lost in there. However, we used the new tent location for something else first. Leli and Thomas were engaged and had hoped to get married on the summit. Since they had turned around, they opted, instead, to get married at our high camp. Honestly, the high camp marriage with Mt. Rainier in the background was a better location. The top of the mountain was kind of flat and, because of wildfires, didn’t have a great view. Plus, it was super windy and you couldn’t hear well. At our high camp, there was no wind.

Travis, the lead guide, had gotten registered as a Universal Life Church minister just for this. He performed a really sweet, mountain themed wedding ceremony for Leli and Thomas with the rest of us looking on as the guests. I even got to be the ring-bearer. The wedding was a great way to cap off our time on the mountain.

After the ceremony, we took about 20 minutes to get all of our gear loaded up into our packs again so we could head down. I also wrapped up my toes, which were getting blisters going down the mountain. We moved quickly from Ingraham Flats to Camp Muir where we took another break to eat some snacks, get a drink, and load up the gear we had left at Camp Muir. Most of us also took advantage of having a toilet again (above Camp Muir, you are issued waste bags; you carry your solid waste off the mountain). Here’s our route:

Our stop at Camp Muir was pretty quick. With all of our equipment, we then started the descent on the Muir snowfield. My pack was lighter than on the way up as most of my food was gone, but I was also going down the snow, not up, which was much, much easier. I did my best to boot ski with Robin as much as I could and we made very quick time down the snowfield. There are spots on the snowfield where you can even sit and slide, as Tom did:

Tom sliding down the last section of the Muir Snowfield.

We stopped at the bottom of the snowfield to change out of our mountaineering boots (which was nice, since I developed two blisters under each of my big toes coming off the summit). We then pushed down to the lodge and parking area where Alpine Ascents had a van with a trailer waiting for us. We also had some fresh clothes there (we had largely been wearing the same clothes for the last three days). We changed and then grabbed one of the complimentary drinks Alpine Ascents had waiting for us. Here’s the route from Camp Muir to Paradise:

From there, we stopped at a restaurant just outside of the National Park for a late lunch/early dinner with our crew and the guides. It was nice to celebrate with all of them what we had done. After our meal, Alpine Ascents took us back to Seattle to their headquarters where we returned our rental equipment and said our goodbyes. Tom and I had another hotel lined up for that evening. We checked into the hotel, took much-needed showers, and did our best to clean up before collapsing into our beds for a deep (but short) sleep before our early flights home the next morning.

I’ll end with some brief thoughts on the hike. This was a tough hike. Without those extra 20 to 30 pounds in my backpack, I think I would have been fine on this hike. But hauling a 60 pound pack up the Muir Snowfield did come close to breaking me and I’ll admit that. Better packing and training with a heavier pack would have helped with this. I spent about an hour in the tent the second night meditating and using positive psychology and affirmations to convince myself that I could climb Mt. Rainier with the lighter pack. This is also a pretty technical climb with some really dangerous parts of the mountain. If the route was laid out and not at all dangerous, this would be doable with crampons, axes, and helmets. But, not knowing the condition of the route, the best way to do this hike is with good, reliable, and cautious guides, like those of Alpine Ascents. RMI was willing to take too many risks. I like climbing mountains, but see no reason to take such extreme risks. What’s the point of climbing these mountains if you don’t live to tell about the adventure? 

This is definitely a hike that requires the right gear and solid preparation. It’s a beautiful, invigorating hike, but not for everyone.

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Salkantay Trek

For my work, a colleague and I decided to propose a new travel study course that would involve a combination of our interests – sociology of sport (hiking, specifically) and exercise science. Our original course proposal wasn’t approved, but our International Programs Office agreed to fund us to scout out a trek in Peru to improve our application and fill in details for the second time we propose the course. As a result, a colleague (Abe) and I spent a week in Peru in August of 2018. We spent a few days in Cuzco acclimating before heading out on the (Super) Salkantay Trek which covers about 34 miles (64 kilometers) in 3 days, ending in Aguas Calientes. The following day we took a bus to Macchu Picchu. This post is a brief summary of the trek.

We flew from Tampa to Miami on a Saturday afternoon and then from Miami to Lima that evening, arriving around 9:30. In retrospect, we should have spent the night in Lima and then caught a flight to Cuzco the next day after getting a good night’s sleep. Instead, we spent about 5 hours in the Lima airport (me trying to sleep; Abe pacing the airport) until our 3:50 am flight to Cuzco. The travel agency that arranged our trip included an airport transfer to our hotel which, unfortunately, wasn’t ready when we arrived at around 5:30 am. So, we kind of slept on couches in their lobby until our room was ready around 8:30. By that time, daylight was upon us so we went out exploring in Cuzco. We spent a couple of days in Cuzco exploring the city and the cuisine while acclimating to the elevation (Cuzco is at just over 11,000 feet). We visited some museums, tried a few restaurants, and even did a trial hike up to the Temple of the Moon, Q’Engo Chico, el Cristo Blanco, and Saqsaywaman.

Here’s the route we took:

Despite having spent a day in Cuzco, we could still feel the elevation as we hiked and knew it would take a little while to acclimate to this elevation.

In the afternoon on our second day in Cuzco, we met up with the rest of our group for the (Super) Salkantay Hike at the headquarters of G Adventures and met our guide, Ever. There were 16 of us total: 3 from the US, 1 from Canada, 2 from Switzerland, 2 from Denmark, 2 from South Africa, 2 from Wales, and 4 from England. We had a briefing session, had a chance to rent any gear we needed, and then were given duffels that would carry our sleeping bags and pads and any extra gear as we would only have to carry day packs during the day. Porters (using donkeys) would carry the duffels, tents, and food from campsite to campsite. Having just completed a serious climb of Mt. Rainier in Washington, this seemed like a walk in the park – let someone else carry all the heavy stuff and I just have to get myself from point A to point B every day. Elevation aside, I wasn’t expecting a particularly challenging hike.

On August 6th, we got up around 5:00 am, had a quick bite to eat at our hotel, then hopped aboard a bus that drove us out to the beginning of our hike (stopping for a more substantial breakfast on the way). We started hiking around 10:30. It quickly became apparent that we had different levels of hikers in our group, with several quickly falling behind. I tried to stay at the front as I didn’t want to get caught behind a slow hiker. Our guide, Ever, set a pretty good pace. About 30 minutes in, we started to have light rain and everyone donned their rain gear (for many, this was just light ponchos; luckily, I have complete rain gear for hiking – top and bottom). As we continued, we started to gain some elevation. The rain also started to get a little harder. As we got higher up in elevation, the rain started to transition into sleet. Eventually, it became snow. Basically, we were caught in a snowstorm on our way to Salkantay Pass, which is over 15,000 feet in elevation.

We continued our ascent and the snow got thicker. We stopped about an hour from the pass for lunch. The porters had set up a tent on about 6 inches of snow for us to dine in and had already prepared hot water so we could have tea and hot chocolate. They also made us a hot meal (soup and chicken tenders with rice). It was still freezing cold in the tent but we were largely out of the wind. I was generally warm with all my layers on (except for my hands in my light gloves), but there were many in our group who were much less prepared (one guy was in shorts the whole time). Additionally, one member of our group was slow enough that they had her ride a horse part of the way up the mountain.

After lunch, we continued up the mountain, eventually making it to the pass where most of us huddled behind a large rock to get out of the wind as best we could while we waited for the rest of our group to make it to the top. Our huddle reminded us of a bunch of penguins trying to avoid the cold.

A bunch of people in our group huddled together for warmth.

We stayed on the summit until everyone had made it to the highest point of our hike then began our descent down the other side. It didn’t take long before the wind died down. Then we descended below the snow line and were hiking in mud and light rain. We hiked until just after 6:00 pm when the first wave of us made it to the camp for the night just as it got dark enough to warrant headlamps. It was very cold and raining at the camp but the camp had some buildings with tin roofs (where we ate and the porters slept) and our tents were already set up. The stragglers took another 30 to 45 minutes to arrive in the dark with flashlights.

Here’s the route from the first day of the hike:

Per my watch, we covered 8.84 miles. Our starting elevation was about 12,562 feet; our peak elevation was 15,175 feet (highest I’ve ever hiked). The total elevation gained during the hike was 3,006 feet.

We had about 45 minutes to get our sleeping bags and pads set up before dinner. At dinner, we once again had warm drinks (which were a delight) and ate well. The guide also laid out the plan for the next day, which was the longest hiking day.

We went to bed around 9:00 but the hot drinks worked a number on our bladders. Abe got up to pee four times. I had to get up once, around 10:00 pm, to pee. Given the urgency, I didn’t put my pants back on and was caught in someone else’s headlamp in my underwear taking a piss. When you got to pee, you got to pee!

We were up again around 5:00. We packed up and were met with warm water to make tea and hot chocolate or coffee again. After our meal, we finished gearing up and getting ready for our longest day of hiking. Here’s a photosphere of the campsite:

Since we arrived when it was nearly dark, we really couldn’t see the amazing mountains that surrounded our campsite. In the morning, we had a few breaks in the clouds and realized just how amazing the location was. Alas, we only saw it for about 30 minutes before we headed down.

We had a lot of hiking ahead of us – all day. However, it was also all down hill. As we descended, we crossed from a high altitude mountain region into a wooded area and eventually into the rainforest. It was actually quite interesting as our guide said that we would know when we were in the jungle when we saw bamboo and palm trees, both of which I have in my backyard in Tampa, Florida – I guess I live in the jungle.

I tracked our hike from morning until we stopped for lunch (when I had to recharge my watch). Here’s the route:


We did 6.58 miles before lunch, descending about 4,000 feet.

We stopped for lunch for a bit over an hour. I made the poor decision to take my socks off to air out my feet to try to prevent blisters only to get bit about a dozen times by black flies in the 5 minutes I had my socks off. Terrible idea. My feet itched nonstop for the next three days!

Anyway, after a yummy lunch, we hit the trail again (though, at this point, three members of our group opted to take a van down to our campsite for the night). We hiked through a beautiful area surrounded by mountains and began passing plantation after plantation – corn, avocado, passion fruit, and squash were the major crops. We even stopped at one to break into a passion fruit:

We were hiking next to the Santa Teresa River for most of the afternoon. There was a road on one side of the river but people lived on the other side. In order to cross it, they built cable bridges and would pull themselves across, like the man in this video did:

Towards the end of the day, I was getting tired. It wasn’t hard hiking like the day before but we just kept going and going. We finally reached our campsite just as it was getting dark around 6:00 pm after hiking another 10.53 miles. Here’s the route:


Our campsite this night was basically at the far end of a town, La Playa Sahuayaco, and even had a small bar near our campsite (where we could get beer and pisco sours, which we, of course, got). There was also a hot shower here. We had another 45 minutes to set up our sleeping bags in the pre-arranged tents before dinner. After dinner, our guide explained that our porters would be headed back over the mountain the next day to prepare for the next group of hikers and from here on our gear would be transported by vehicle. He also explained what our hike would be like the next day – a steep climb up a mountain until we overlooked Macchu Picchu followed by a steep descent then a bit of a march to the train station where we’d catch a train to Aguas Calientes and spend the night in a hotel.

Our third day of trekking was as described. We had a relatively steep ascent up a mountain but it was definitely worth it. On the way, we stopped at one break area that had a pretty cool rope swing that allowed you to swing out over the mountain:

It was a short distance after this that we made it to Mirador Llactapata, which is an Incan ruin as well as a lookout spot over Macchu Picchu.

We stayed here for a bit then began our descent down the mountain. It was close to two hours of a steep descent. At the bottom, we crossed another rope bridge then walked for a bit to a train station where we had a late lunch then boarded our train to Aguas Calientes. After three days, we got to take a shower and sleep in comfortable beds. It was nice getting back to civilization. Total mileage for the day: 8.59 miles.

Our total mileage from the hike: 34.54 miles spread over three days.

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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.

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