Once beyond the last straggling stands of the forest we are in arid semi desert conditions with the fanged peaks of Metaxa ahead of us and the broad sweep of Kastro, another of the peaks of the Olympus range to our left. There are deep swathes of snow still in the gullies of Kastro, not many, but enough to show how difficult these mountains can be earlier in the year. You have to wait until June or after for the snows to have cleared enough to make the mountains safe for ordinary hillwalking.
Dan and I wait for Dimitri who is having difficulty with the temperature and the height. We’re now approaching 9,000 feet another thousand to go.
The flies which are so much part of life in the forest, attracted there by the mountains of mule dung left behind by the pack trains, accompany us on our upward journey, clotting around the sweat on our faces and generally making life miserable. We are above the tree line, not yet at the snowline but obviously still within the bluebottle line.
The temperature is already in the top thirties and rising, Dimitri is not in his thirties and isn’t rising – well he’s rising, but gradually like soda bread. Dan as befits a young chap full of testosterone, lox and bagels is set fair to run to the top. I plod along at my usual pace dripping with sweat and wild haired, cursing the fact that I didn’t have time to get my hair cut before I left and realising that I now look like Ben Gunn on Treasure Island, the madman who spends his life looking for a bit of ‘Christian bread and cheese’ – what’s Pagan bread and cheese I wonder?
The farting burping Germans who turned last night in the mountain hut into an unwanted but spectacular son et lumiere are gaining on us. Dan and I wait for Dimitri to catch up and the Fahrtenwaffe zoom ahead of us towards the Cauldron and Kaki Scala. I had hoped the flies would follow them but they don’t, they prefer us sweating English types.
I should explain here that Mount Olympus is really a massif of several interesting peaks, that look down into something called the Cauldron. The Cauldron is a huge corrie fifteen hundred foot deep and fringed at its south western rim by the fangs of Mitikas, the main peak of the massif, some ten thousand feet above sea level. The ascent of Mitikas – or Metaxa – as I have renamed it in honour of the brandy – is described as a Òmoderate scrambleÓ in the Cicerone guide to the Greek Mountains. This otherwise excellent book, part of that otherwise excellent stable of books overseen by the otherwise eminently sane Sir Walt Unsworth is remiss in only one respect. A moderate scramble would to me describe something of reasonable difficulty, with say three points of contact with reasonable stable rock at all times and minimum exposure. Anybody following the route that Dan and I took to the summit will see from the teeth marks on the rock that our interpretation of ‘moderate scramble’ is different to the guidebook’s.
When we get to the rim of the cauldron Dimitri lies on his belly, peers over the edge and looks at the way we have to go and says ‘No’. This I decide is a pretty brave thing to do because any fool could say ‘Yes’ and then go on to climb beyond their ability. Which is what I do because the next couple of hundred feet are pretty hairy and consist mostly of holding on to things and trying to be brave.
The route is named in the guides as the Kaki Skala. This is translated in some books as Poor Staircase. The true translation is Shitty Staircase – and in case you think I am making this up – it’s there in black and white on the maps. To get to the Kaki Skala we drop down off the Cauldron rim onto a bit of a crumbly arette that then brings us to a traverse of several hundred yards of bad rock with a five hundred feet drop beneath us. There are two bad steps where we crawl round the fangs of Metaxa and at these points we have a drop of five hundred feet on one side and fifteen hundred on the other. On the first of these Dan freezes on the rock and I have no alternative but to climb round him and lead him on.
After the second bad step we are in a broad gully with great slabs of rock and, every so often a clump of bright green grass. Our tortuous way up this ‘moderate scramble’ is marked with splashes of red paint put there by the Greek Mountaineering Club. I send Dan ahead so that I can keep an eye on him, telling him to follow the red paint marks. I then notice that he is going all over the place scrambling erratically and climbing into impossible situations. I tell him to stop where he is and take over the lead. I ask him what the hell he is doing not following the red paint marks and he tells me he is red green colour blind. He has been following the tufts of grass. What am I doing climbing Mount Olympus with a red-green colourblind junior rabbi? I ask myself.
I lead up some smooth slabs with poor holds that look as though they will be more of a problem on the way down. By now I can see the Greek flag on the summit and realise that we are going to make it – the first Joint Jewish Lapsed Catholic Manchester Olympus Expedition scrambles out of the gully and we hug each other, drink some water, eat some chocolate, look at all the holes around us and decide that it is no wonder the gods decided to live here. There is no sign of Zeus. we ask one of the other gods and he says that Zeus has probably gone off in his swan costume to give Leda another seeing to.