25 years ago Greece’s highest mountain mass saw its first traverse. Back then the bikes still had racks and no suspension forks. Nevertheless, the ride across the God’s throne, Olympus, is still a mystical experience, even with modern technology.
I have no clue why Zeuss and his eleven godly pals were supposed to reside up here, of all places. The icy wind blows across the rocky desert of the Olympus’ peak with such might that my down jacket can barely fight it off. Pretty uncomfortable for a god in sandals and a light, fluttery gown. Goose bumps chill down my back again. Blasts of wind were tearing at the walls of our tent all night long. My friend Michael also seems to not have slept with all the noise from the gusts. His swollen eyes are scanning the morning sky: no clouds as far as one can see. Zeus doesn’t seem to be all too mad at us then. According to Greek mythology he chases unwelcome visitors from his courtyard with thunder and lightning. And we’re pretty close to his throne.
Vacation in Greece at the beach is something anyone can do. Definitely not something we wanted, being real mountain bikers we chose a mountain of course. Not just any mountain, but the highest mountain the country has to offer: the Olympus. The 2918 meter high massif towers into the sky like a stronghold right behind the east coast in the north of Greece. A fortress with several peaks that are almost the same height, just screaming for a traverse. Though we’re not the first bikers to answer to that call. We came across the report of the first traverse by Stefan Etzel and Christian Smolik during our research online. The two Germans went on their Olympus adventure in 1989. You can read between the lines just how much mountain biking was in its fledgling stages at the time. In order to not fall over their forks the pioneers sat on their racks for example. That’s right, bikes had racks and no suspension forks back then.
We can’t wait to see how the passages they described feel with today’s technology. But quite a few meters uphill still separate us from the descent from Mt. Olympus, not to mention that we’re taking the pioneer-route in the opposite direction. We didn’t want to take the easy way to the peak but the one that looked to be the most promising on the map. We planned on taking two days, with an overnight stay in our tent. We fought ourselves up to 2700m yesterday starting in Litochoro. The deep and chunky gravel was nasty tough and soon the wind began blowing stronger and colder. Some gusts even had us worried that we’d be blown over the edge. For safety reasons I kept looking towards the peak from time to time to make sure Zeus wasn’t standing there in his fluttery gown, sending a flash of lightning our way. We were lucky we didn’t have any bulky luggage on our backs. Mules carried our camping gear up the mountain.
Instead of calming down overnight the wind seems to have gotten a bit more wrathful this morning. It takes time for us to cram our tent and camping gear back into the bag. Finally we grab our handlebars with clammy fingers and continue our ascent. Our sight is on the Skolio peak. It’s seven meters lower than the main peak Mytikas with its 2911 meters but it’s supposed to be rideable by bike. The handlebar-wide path crosses the almost horizontal east face of the Mytikas. You basically just gently roll along the path but a careless wobble would throw you right off the god’s throne directly into the pits of Hades. I’m just imagining how the three-headed hound of hell would tear us apart as the path becomes steep. It zig-zags up the west side of the mountain. We have to dismount and shoulder our bikes. As we stomp uphill wheezing I keep looking back and smile: never ever would it come to my mind to sit on my rack and ride down this path! These guys were really tough back then.
At the top of the Skolio the summit cross greets us in the form of an octagonal stone pillar. A summit book is even attached to it. We turn the pages to see if any other bikers have signed it but the wind pulls so hard at the pages that we decide to close the book. October may not be the best month for this tour but it sure is in terms of the view. Who knows if you have this incredibly clear view in late summer. Opposing us is the rock face of the Mytikas. It stands in the wind like a huge sail made of solid rock.
In the far west the back of the Pindos Mountains breaks from the ground. This huge mountain range reaches all the way to the border of Albania with its 250 kilometers. Lynx, wolves and bears are still supposed to live in its natural park forests. If you look to the east the Aegaen ocean shimmers silver on an infinite horizon. Oh yeah, the ocean! We had it nice and warm there yesterday before starting our tour but now a descent of only 3000 meters difference in altitude separates us from the beach. We get back on our bikes, a bit stiff from the cold and the long walk. The loose gravel doesn’t really help with getting back into the feeling of riding and finding a rhythm. But our movements flow again by the time we ride under the huge stone sails of the Mytikas. Now the fun of riding really gets us psyched again.
Riding towards the Muses Plateau we pass the Refigio Seo, one of the four mountain huts on Olympus. The stone house is furnished very spartanly and fits into the sparse and inhabitable side of the mountain perfectly. We take a seat on one of the hard, scuffed wooden benches and order a “Greek coffee.“ The deep black mocca burns down our throats, sending little shots of electricity through my brain. Awesome.
As we fly down past the 2000 meter mark we dive right into a colourful paint pot after all the grey stone: the dense Greek fall forest welcomes us. We were impressed by the mountain forest on our way up already, simply because we weren’t expecting this much forest in Greece. We make our way down the forest path and only feel our own airstream. The air is suddenly warmer. It was a good decision to chose fall for this tour. In summer hordes of hikers are supposed to scurry around on the mountain. Today we only meet a handful of Greek hikers that stop us because they want to have their picture taken with us. They send us off with a “kalo taxidi“ – safe travels.
The setting sun colors the small cable breaks of the Aegaen deep blue as we reach the empty beach. We collect driftwood and make a campfire. It’d be nice if Poseidon would come out of the water and hand us a fish with his trident. But that would be too much to expect – Poseidon has his residence on Olympus as we now know.
place in Adventure Magazine issue 204
Text by Gerhard Czerner
Photos by Martin Bissig