Excitement levels were inordinately high as the bus left the city and headed for nature. Its a refreshing homecoming to depart the uniform and artificial sprawl of buildings for the expanse of trees that extends just as far, yet with such greater beauty. And what better way to accentuate this splendid scenery than with a challenge?
Back in Tacoma, where I go to University, Mt. Rainier looms in the distance, visible and majestic from nearly everywhere. It rise up to over 14,000 ft from sea level unbelievably quickly, dominating the horizon with little effort. Mt. Olympus on the other hand, is nearly invisible. Just 3 kilometers as the bird flies from the sea, and less from the town of Litochoro which itself is nearly on the coast, the mountain itself sits behind a series of hills , so you don’t get the treat of gazing upon the awe-inspiring rock until you’re nearly at the top.
Being just 3 kilometers from the sea means that there is little approach on the hike, it is pretty much straight up the whole time. Its a 32 kilometer hike (just over 18 miles) and have over 3000 meters (about 9500 ft) over elevation gain. It is all steep, and rocks are stuck in the trail all over the place – mind you – it is a mountain. Most people choose to drive up to 1200m, skipping the first 12km of the hike and instead going straight up the steep part. Most people also spend the night before there summit approach in the refuge 4 km and 900m elevation from the top. We did neither.
It definitely seemed a tough proposition, but we were up for it. Our one question was why we couldn’t find a single account of anyone doing what we were doing – the complete 32 km there and back from Litochoro to the summit. Throughout the day, we were to find out why.
Even with our early start time of 8 am (impressive I know for college students), it was already 80 degrees with high humidity. The first 12 km went up and down and up and down, always steep, always hot. We reveled in the beauty and the challenge, savoring the effort, high heart rates and perspiration. After a week of relaxing on the beach, it was fitness time, and since we are crazy people, it was enjoyable.
We made great time, covering the distance in about half the time the book said this section took. We felt strong but the effort had definitely taken its toll as we sat down to lunch, cramming carbs and protein and re-hydrating to the max from the fantastic natural spring. The crowd at the parking lot was quite the hilarious mix, 30 russians of low fitness levels hiking together in a rowdy fashion, a group of nearly 40 English high school students nearly all too cool for school and your scattered tourists. Nearly no one looked like true outdoorsmen or mountaineers. The only evidence we showed though was our strong legs, both of us wearing small daypacks and running shoes. But our spirit made up for our minimal gear – and minimalism is a blessing.
The second section for us, which is the first for most hiker’s was super gnarly. 4 or 5 kilometers with 800 m of vertical gain, it was a straight uphill chug, relentless in its slope. We made it in two hours, proud of our effort but in desperate need of a break. The section ended at the refuge, where we saw some more serious looking climbers. The called us crazy and we agreed with them.
By this elevation, there’s only 16 percent oxygen in the air, compared to 20 percent at sea level. It doesn’t sound a huge difference, but it makes a big one. We were getting winded quicker and recovering slower. The push into the refuge had taken all our might, but we felt that our oreos and stretching did the trick, so we made our way up the last section – about the same amount of vertical gain over a shorter amount of trail. Aka steeper. And with a continuously dwindling supply of oxygen.
Anything we gained by resting seemed quickly lost. After 500m of hiking we hit the first section of steep switchbacks covered in loose rocks. It felt like a crawl. Heart rates were uncontrollably high and legs felt like heavy tree trunks, invariably rooted to the ground. But we chugged along, because we are strong, and had a mission.
Seconds winds came, and they passed, as we made our way slowly along. The progress was worrysome, and the thought of altitude sickness lingered in my mind. Taking a breather we speculated our tour around criteria for the first time – any signs of altitude sickness, or five o clock if we were a few hundred meters from the summit. Making it back home before dark was important.
It turned out we didn’t need these because Zeus made our decision for us. Just before the last ride at 2500m that leads up to the summit the heavens opened open us in an absolute fury. The temperatures dropped and the sharpest hail every cascaded down us. Wearing nothing but shorts and light sweaters, we made the smart choice and headed down the mountain, disappointed yet nonetheless thrilled with our feat.
The hike down was no easier than the hike up it was so steep, and the soreness that was to last a week began to settle in to our “old man” legs. The hail turned to rain then stopped with a glorious rainbow just above the refuge. We missed the summit, but it was a considerable consolation prize. Deciding that it most definitely wasn’t worth it to try one more time, we headed down to the heat of the valley, the comfort of beds and warm food.
Were we too cocky? No. We made a bold goal, and rational decisions. Bold but not stupid was our maxim for the day. We could have made it up, we could have died trying. Mother nature is to be respected. Plus, we now have an excuse to head back to this mountain paradise.