Day 227 – Guests of the Gods

The home of the gods

 

After sharing some of our cycling photos in a Facebook group, a British trail runner named Owen easily convinced us to make a stop in the village of Litohuro, where he has found a great clique of mountain lovers in Central Greece.

We are supposed to be resting our cycling legs, but we cannot resist the climb up to the fabled Mount Olympus, towering over the village. Our bikes and bags stashed in his garage, we begin the ascent on Sunday afternoon. The plan is to sleep in a mountain hut before climbing up to the Plateau of the Muses and then onwards to the Throne of the Gods.

It is steep climbing, but worth it to arrive at the refuge before sunset, with a beautiful view of the ocean and the mountains to welcome us. The refuge is empty and closed for the winter. A hunting dog greets us at the door and promises to guard the shelter all night. The temperature is falling, threatening to fall below freezing, but he won’t come into the big sleeping room with us, preferring to stay outside. We gather wood and set about building a fire in the old-fashioned standing stove. Memories of Greek mythology classes in middle school haunt us. While we heat dinner, Quentin recounts tales about gods in disguise that help or lead travelers astray. Is the dog a good sign or a bad omen?

Helios with his horses

The inklings of yellow light wake us, inside the refuge. We rub the sleep out of our eyes and stretch our sore backs. The mattresses haven’t been updated in a few decades. It is still warm in the chamber from last night’s fire. We prepare our morning tea and muesli before the first rays crest the horizon.

Outside, the chill of darkness rests on the plants. Helios with his chariot of horses pulling the sun rides into view. The light splashes on the rocks, beginning to warm them, beginning to wake up the world.

Alone on the mountain, we prepare our bags to ascend to the Plateau of the Muses, where we will find Zeus’s throne. Wandering in the realm of legends and gods, the day is open to us.

There are a few routes to reach the plateau. We decided on the long way. Two nights ago the first snow fell, just a few centimeters covering the yellowed alpine grass. The weather today is perfect. Chilly, but blue skies, little wind and a big sun watching over us.

We crunch along the ridge for hours, our breathing and footsteps the only sounds. With each step we approach the plateau. At one pass, thin clouds race through, masking behind them herds of Balkan chamois. Starting at about 1200m, the chamois dot the mountainside. In a few weeks they’ll retreat down to lower altitudes and forests to pass the winter. For now they’re gobbling up the last grass of the summer and bouncing around in the snow. They are not afraid of us, two quiet humans walking by. We might be able to get a photo if it wasn’t for last night’s guard dog. He has been our partner all morning; as soon as he sees the goats, he bounds after them, chasing them straight down the cliffs. We don’t follow. For once, we’ll stay on the beaten path.

 

Fortune’s couloir

Around noon Zeus’s throne is in view. We relish being alone at the throne of the gods. To the west, crows loop and dive on the strong updrafts of air. For a few minutes we watch the spectacle, before digging into lunch.

On the way down, it’s a race against the clock. We are only equipped to spend one night on the mountain. We’re trying to scamper down to the most popular trailhead of the park, hoping to meet some other hikers and hitch a ride back into town. Otherwise it’s a 14km walk along a dead end road.

The descent is a little bit hairy, and Ashley gets stuck a few times, afraid to keep climbing down. The couloir finally leads us off the edge of the mountain and onto a more manageable trail. It is tricky to know which couloir to choose: we were warned there was one we absolutely shouldn’t take…but told it would look like all the others, in the beginning. Since the trail is so thin, it’s difficult to tell what is a goat path and what is the trail, and the Greeks are not particularly diligent when marking paths.

A few hours later we arrive at the trailhead. A friendly French couple on vacation are happy to give us a ride back to Litohuro. Our bikes await us, unaware that our legs didn’t rest a bit during these days off. Talking about it later, we quietly thank the gods for our canine guardian and for our secluded hike on Mount Olympus

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