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The day a packet of Mentos saved our lives (well, not really). Thessaloniki, Greece. November 2-4, 2012

21 Dec

ATTEMPTING to climb a three-kilometre high mountain, Greece’s highest peak in fact, with an ascent most tackle over two days in seven-plus hours – with no torch and only a packet of fruity Mentos as sustenance, is a really fucking bad idea.

Okay, perhaps not just a fucking bad idea, but a falling down-a-sheer-cliff face-and-bleeding-to-death-with-bones-protruding-from-skin bad idea, or perhaps a getting-stuck-and-dying-in-a-state-of-undress-resultant-from-end-stage-hypothermia bad idea. Notice how I mentioned dying twice there? Well let me reiterate. If you try to go up something that is very steep for a long time and has a lot of obstacles, when it is cold and dark and you don’t have any food, warm clothes or light, then you might well die.

But I don’t need to tell anyone else this, because clearly, Nic and I are the only two utter numpties who would think such a feat was a) possible in the first place, and b) a good idea.

But thankfully (or not, depending on whether you think people who do things like this should be naturally removed from the gene pool), we survived one freezing night on Mount Olympus and in actual fact didn’t come that close to dying at all… apart from the bit where we were almost eaten by wild dogs.

First of all, we didn’t really mean to climb Mount Olympus at all. We only gave ourselves one full day in Thessaloniki, the northern Greek city closest to small town Litochoro, home of the fated geographical protrusion, in northern Greece, because we had found a cheap flight from there to Rome. Of course, we meant to go out and have a quick bask in the air of the twelve Olympian Gods, maybe even go for a little hike just around the base, especially as high season had finished and we weren’t sure what, if any amenities would be available to us when we arrived, even if we wished to climb further.

When Nic mentioned to the manager of the hotel we were staying at for two nights in Thessaloniki that he might be interested in climbing Mount Olympus the next day, he just laughed at us and said it was too dangerous because we wouldn’t have enough light and it was too hard a climb for one day anyway. He advised us that if we got there early enough in the morning we might get in a few hours of hiking and then come back to Saloniki on the last bus, at around 9 pm.

So the next day we slept in.

Then on top of that, we missed the 10.30 am bus to Litochoro by about two minutes, making it after 1 pm by the time we got to the town, with an extra 18 kilometres uphill still to cover before we reached the base of the mountain.

A lady working at a souvenir shop we stopped at to ask for advice also laughed at us, saying there was no way we would make it up and down by nightfall.

A pattern was emerging.

We half resigned ourselves to just going out there anyway and having a look and a wander around, as was the original plan, if you could call anything we talked about in the last 24 hours a plan. We had been told by a few people that one refuge at 1400 metres was still open, but others told us it was closed for winter.

So a €25 taxi (the taxi driver may also have told us attempting the climb was a bad idea) and a couple of hours of hiking later, we were somehow a quarter of the way up the mountain (gorgeous scenery and we even saw a wild mountain goat!) and had been passed by a fair few people going in the opposite direction, the right direction, the safe direction – down. No one mentioned the refuge. At the base of the mountain, we had spoken to another couple, a Polish girl and Italian guy, who were also preparing to climb. They had hiking boots and a map but so far, they hadn’t passed us on the way up.

To the refuge!

A lone mountain goat.

To cut a long story short, after about three and-a-half hours we got to the refuge at half way to find it was indeed shut. Windows and doors padlocked, metal shutters, bolted up for winter shut. There was not even a small crevice or cavern for shelter in sight. Our emotions went from pure elation at the first sight of the pitched roof of the thing a few kilometres in the distance just half an hour prior, to stomach-dropping disappointment and dread when we arrived to this hopeless reality. The last couple of hours had been spent talking about what we would do when we reached half way – and in keeping with the way things had been going, we hadn’t bothered to consider what we would do if the refuge was closed.

We were also on the wrong side of daylight and as previously mentioned had clearly put a lot of thought into the trip, bringing with us our coats and little else. We had water, that roll of Mentos and a Kellog’s cereal bar, oh and two tiny key ring LED lights, one of which would fade to next to useless after the first ten minutes of use.

Seriously. WTF.

Before long the other couple caught up to us at the refuge. They had food, wind-proof mountaineering clothes and a tent. I could tell that internally, they were just shaking their heads at our stupidity. They offered us food and shelter but I could tell they were glad when we said we were going back down. They would stay the night and hopefully reach the summit the next morning.

So with the light fading and the cold encroaching we turned and left, thinking we would make it down in about half the time it had taken us to get to 1400m.

About four hours later the pitch black mountain spat us out, sans dignity and our Mentos packet, into an almost as dark car park. The last few hours had been extremely shit. It’s hard to explain, but trying to climb down 1400 vertical metres that were really hard to climb up with full light, in the dark with a key ring LED light that looked like it had come from a 20 cent machine, knowing there are vertical drops of more than ten metres less than a metre from where you are (hopefully) walking, is not particularly cool. I might have cried.

After recovering from our excitement at still being in one piece, we could see a fire still burning in the closed restaurant and some cars (presumably with people preparing to climb the next day) but the occupants were either asleep or pretending to be. 18 kilometres of unlit cliff-side road still lay between us and our salvation.

Oh and it was about 8 pm and we had a flight out of Thessaloniki the next day, for which we had not packed, nor checked in online or printed our boarding passes, which had to be done by 8am.

The decision whether or not to try to walk the 18 kilometres back to Litochoro was made for us as we could not even see the exit to the car park.

With a small (maybe large) amount of manual labour and Nic’s dedication to squeezing through the tiniest hole, about an hour and a ripped jumper later we had shelter in a small hut,the last occupants of which had kindly left us a camp bed and a blanket. We were saved!

We must have drifted off to sleep at some point, because we were awoken by the sound of a dog howling in the distance. We were woken again a short time later, but this time the dog was right outside our hut, howling very loudly. So having survived all we had in the last hours, we were about to be savaged by wild dogs. That made me very sad face.

Our hut.

After that narrow escape, we emerged into the daylight at about 7 am to find that still, no one was about. Except for a large black, menacingly barking, snarling dog (the wild dog from the night before? We will never know.) that was guarding two jewellery-adorned horses and at the same time blocking the only path to town. Albeit with a love of canines of the waggy-tailed domesticated kind, neither of us was game to try to pass this one.

If we didn’t check into our flight by 8 am, we weren’t going to Rome. But we were still stuck on the mountain and a taxi and two buses from Saloniki and another bus ride away from the airport.

Miraculously, within minutes, a taxi rolled up with some Asian tourists. We jumped in and another €25 later, we were at an Internet cafe in Litochoro, printing our boarding passes and then on the first bus back to Saloniki.

Ok, so the dog wasn’t so scary.

The rest, as they say, is history. Litochoro is actually a really nice little town with absolutely gorgeous views of the mountain. As for Thessaloniki, the one night we actually had there was lovely – we had literally the best salad I have ever tasted (one of the few I have actually eaten lately), but the City is pretty obviously affected by the country’s economic situation. We saw a lot of boarded up shops and the restaurants we passed (and the one we ate at) were quiet.

View from Litochoro.

I don’t know what they did to it, but this salad was the best!

I could say that we learned a lesson from the whole debacle, but as we came off relatively unscathed, (save my falling on my arse about 50 times on the descent and Nic’s ripped jumper) even catching our plane in perfect time – we probably didn’t.

In the air – 26 hours
Total travelling including flights, buses, airport time – about 163 hours