This week I started an internship. Yeah I know, what the heck am I thinking doing an internship abroad, in Greece, during the school year. Why not use my time traveling or something? I get that. But from my perspective it went: I’m in Greece, at school, training for lacrosse, traveling on most weekends, keeping up with friends, I barely have free time, why wouldn’t I work for a magazine company? So that’s what I did. I’m interning as a journalist at the only English magazine/newspaper company in Athens, taking photos and writing articles (sounds a lot like this blog doesn’t it..). So this post is a little lengthy, but hopefully it will give you a good idea about what kind of things I am submitting/writing about for this internship. This ‘article’ is about my Mt. Olympus hike this past weekend and it is #unedited. Enjoy:
“And don’t touch the small orange and black animal. He is poisonous.” I never saw this notorious salamander along the stunning four-hour hike up Mt. Olympus, but our guide seemed very adamant about avoiding it. I wish I had seen the thing because now I’m not sure it’s real. Christos took every opportunity he was given to tease the group. As our guide, it was his job to prepare us, pace us, and push us through what was unknown and though he did not take his job lightly, he always made room for jokes (as any proper Greek would). Before we even stepped foot on our designated trail, Christos had told us multiple stories about human encounters with ‘mines’ left behind by pack-mules. These mules apparently walk six kilometers up the mountain every day carrying various tools and supplies to a shelter and marking their trail by the feces they leave behind. Accordingly, a man on one of Christos’ previous trips had lost his balance on the mountain trail and fallen head first into a mule ‘mine.’ Queue gasps and delayed laughter from my entire group. Christos knew how to draw a crowd.
As is customary in Greece, we had picked Christos up at a bus stop 40 minutes into our trip from the Palimarmaro Stadium in Athens to a small mountainside area called Prionia at the Enipea Springs. He was energized and excited for the hike, but warned us that a long journey by bus awaited us. The 6-hour bus ride did not fly by to say the least, but I was able to catch up on some much needed rest complete with neck pain and zero REM cycles. I had the window seat. I have long legs. I’m not bitter. Despite my discomfort, the drive was very scenic. Plus, Christos had randomly designated me as the group’s caboose for our two-day hike, a high honor in the outdoorsman world. I think I got this job because I was the only one out of thirty-two who brought a flashlight.
We started climbing Mt. Olympus from Prionia, the highest point on the mountain accessible by car/bus. Looking back, this was a really good idea because it could have taken 4-5 hours simply to hike from the mountain’s base to Prionia. While Prionia is a good pit stop for hikers (it has bath rooms, a small taverna, a fresh water spring, etc.), I’m glad it was our starting point.
The six-kilometer hike to Shelter ‘A’ (Spilios Agapitos) took my group 3.5 hours to complete. The trail, E4, was well designated and fairly wide as it is the most travelled trail on the mountain by man and mule. There were not many side paths to get lost on, so even when my group race ahead, I felt completely confident of my solo navigation skills. Christos kept referring to the trail as ‘the road’ as if it were some mountainside autobahn. And to Christos it was. The man has spent twenty years as a Mt. Olympus guide, helping groups quite literally gain perspective. With his leadership, many tourists, short-time residents, and long-time locals have seen a side of Greece that few Greeks ever get the privilege to see and experience. Since the age of seventeen, Christos has also worked on a mountain rescue squad, which sees most of its action in Mt. Olympus’ harsh winter conditions. While Christos loves to joke, the mountain doesn’t; he has seen many search and rescue missions end in the uncovering of half-frozen corpses. But, again, this is in the winter. My group hiked in the fall. Mt. Olympus Pro-tip: Don’t hike in the winter unless you really know what you’re doing.
Christos has dedicated most of his life and certainly his livelihood to Mt. Olympus. Even though he had hiked this mountain countless times and a trail like E4 was not challenging for him, I was amazed at his passion and excitement. He was in wonder of the mountain’s characteristics, respectful of its dangers, and curiously searching for something new to appreciate. His face lit up consistently and it was contagious. Inspired by my guide, I began to look up from the rocky trail and around at the incredible landscape. Sure I stumbled a few times on protruding rocks and tree roots, but the scenery was absolutely worth it. Birds, huge boulders, and steep inclines make this hike stunning, but the trees set it apart as intrinsically unique. Old pine, beech, and fir trees litter the green forest that E4 initially parades through, creating bursts of color in every direction. The size of these trees is nothing like anything I have seen in Greece; they are huge. The sheer number of trees, met with their size, will leave any Mt. Olympus hiker feeling small and humble. This hike enveloped my group in natural beauty.
Hiking, in my experience, always leads to great conversation. Something about being with people, working towards a common goal, and having an extended amount of time together engenders vulnerability. As the caboose, I felt like I had some sort of authoritative role in our excursion, so I began putting the four/five people around me in what I call the proverbial ‘hot seat.’ I asked random, thoughtful questions like, “How are you most like your mother?” and, “What has been the most challenging obstacle you have faced/overcome this past year?” My fellow hikers did not find it strange that I was asking these difficult questions, but simply took time to think through and articulate their answers. I learned a lot about my group members: one had been raised Muslim, one had recently endured the death of his best friend, one had been violently bitten by a duck, and another had once broken her ankle chasing a very average-tasting American breakfast pastry. The stories told were unforgettable, filled with laughs and hints of nostalgia. In sharing our memories, we were making new memories. I made great friends hiking Mt. Olympus.
Shelter ‘A’, aka Spilios Agapitos, sits 2100m above sea level overlooking the town of Litochoro. The shelter’s balcony is a prime spot for sunset/sunrise watching as well as stargazing. We arrived at the shelter around 8:30pm, well after dark, but before the kitchen closed at 9:00pm. The stars were unbelievable. It’s no wonder that the ancients believed gods dwelled on Mt. Olympus because the Milky Way, visible with the naked eye, appears to open right above it. If I had tried to count the stars, I would still be on Mt. Olympus now. The shelter workers may know how many stars are visible from the mountain because they spend six months at a time there (keep in mind, 2100m above sea level) and have a lot of time to count stars. They also do other things like cut wood, clean rooms, and make food. The shelter workers were very accommodating.
The rooms were as expected, cramped and cold, but Christos claimed we were, “Dwelling with the gods,” which allowed little room for complaining. Fortunately, unlimited blankets were provided so the cold was easily averted. I got little sleep because I could not stop thinking about the stars beyond the door to my room; I anxiously arose at 1:00am to see if I had missed any kind of stellar activity. The mountain air was freezing, but during the forty-five seconds I spent outside my door I witnessed three shooting stars majestically traverse a good portion of my line of sight. Satisfied, I finally slept, waking up a few hours later for the sunrise. These are the un-prescribed essentials of hiking Mt. Olympus.
The next morning, we ascended the mountain’s Skala summit only forty minutes from Shelter ‘A.’ This summit is not the highest summit on Mt. Olympus, but it is a stunning one nonetheless. I do not have much to say about the summit aside from that reaching it meant we accomplished our goal. The journey meant more to me as I saw various members of my group overcome fatigue, hunger, and mental obstacles in order to make it to the summit. One of my friends didn’t even make it because she had “emptied her tank” the day before. We all had developed some form of mental toughness along the hike and now the surrounding mountains, our new friends, and Greece below was our witness.
Then we descended. The hike down featured more rich conversation and story exchange, as time seemed to drift through the delicate fir-tree leaves we passed. Apparently, none of us had seen Zeus, but we all felt a bit wiser and more mature. The hike ended back at our bus in Prionia and my group did not hesitate to celebrate our feat by jumping into the Enipea Spring. Pins and needles can’t even begin to describe the temperature of this water, my body was numb within fifteen seconds, but the experience was well worth it. I even drank the frigid water as I sat in it. We left Prionia for Athens and arrived six hours later after saying goodbye to our friend Christos along the way. My group had bonded and friendships had developed, but we still weren’t sure that the black and orange salamander was real, much less poisonous. Maybe next time we can catch one for Christos.