Centuries Later, Finally Touched by Mortals
At 2,918 m., Mytikas is the tallest peak of Mount Olympus. Steep and spiny like a dragon’s back it is suitably intimidating, considering it was once thought to be the home of almighty Zeus. Any attempts to reach it in the 19th century proved unsuccessful. Foreign explorers who undertook climbing expeditions to the top were not only facing the perils of Nature, but also the threat of bandits and warriors—the so-called klepths and armatoloi—who used Mount Olympus as their hiding place. As far as we know, until the beginnings of the 20th century, the “Throne of Zeus” remained untouched by humans.
“Nevertheless, in the heart of every mortal burns a small part of Prometheus’ fire,” wrote Frederic Boissonnas, the Swiss photographer and explorer who, with his fellow countryman, writer Daniel Baud-Bovy, set out to fulfill a lifelong dream of reaching the summit in the early hours of August 2, 1913. Their guide was a local hunter of wild goats named Christos Kakalos.
When the three of them arrived at the first bastions of the upper ridge, Boissonnas and Baud-Bovy tied themselves with their mule’s rope to follow Kakalos, “who climbed like a wildcat through those steep, slippery rocks that are covered with treacherous screes, which are ready to roll into the depth of the chasm.” Close to reaching their goal, all fear left them—they became bold, even reckless. Finally, they stepped onto “that inviolable and formidable peak.”
It was a primary longing for unattainable altitudes that opened the way to the top of Mount Olympus, and today it is estimated that over 10,000 people attempt the feat annually, though most of them end their journey at Skolio, the lowest of its summits. But it is worth remembering that the ones who paved the now well-trodden tracks that lead to the top were shepherds, hunters, and woodcutters, who scaled the mythical landscape to sustain their families and make a living. Those were the true guardians of Mount Olympus, and the most famous among them—and perhaps one of the last of their kind—was Christos Kakalos. The man who first set foot on the top of Mytikas and who came to be known as “the conqueror of Olympus,” reached the summit one last time in the summer of 1972, at the age of 93, almost sixty years after the historic climb. He was escorted by Kostas Zolotas, the then manager of the shelter “Spilios Agapitos,” which Kakalos helped establish back in the ‘30s, and Zolotas’s three young daughters, one of whom was still a toddler.
When they reached the top, he told them, “I wish you my years and my tenacity. I am glad that I am leaving Olympus in good hands.”
Indeed, the mountain shelters at Olympus and the people who operate them offer essential hospitality and support to the thousands of mountaineers who make their way to the peak each year. The one named after Christos Kakalos is situated on the south rim of the “Plateau of the Muses.” It remains open year-round and has a spectacular view of the glorious summit that rises above it.