Culture

How three men ascended Olympus for the first time

More than 100 years ago, on August 2, 1913, three men reached the top of Mount Olympus in Greece. Perhaps others had tried it before, who would dare to check for himself if the gods really lived there? But the fact is that nothing in the classical sources makes us suspect such an audacity.

We would have to wait for the 20th century, when a Swiss photographer named Frédéric Boissonnas, born in Geneva in 1858, traveled to Greece for the first time in 1907. His intention was to look for unusual landscapes to boost his career.

In the following years he would return again and again, and there, little by little, a dream would be forged: to crown the abode of the gods, the highest point in Greece, the Mytikas peak of Mount Olympus.

The two summits of Olympus, Stefani on the left, Mytikas on the right / photo Juergen Weidner on Wikimedia Commons

It should be clarified that Olympus, located between the regions of Thessaly and Greek Macedonia in the north of the country and about 80 kilometers southwest of Thessaloniki, has two peaks: the aforementioned Mytikas (2,918 meters) and Stefani (2,909 meters). Both very close to each other within the 500 kilometers of area that the mountain has, whose circumference reaches 150 kilometers.

On his trip that year, 1913, Boissonnas arrived in Greece accompanied by his friend Daniel Baud-Bovy, also Swiss and born in 1870. Baud-Bovy, a writer and historian, had been director of the Geneva School of Fine Arts for five years.

Frédéric Boissonnas / public domain photo on Wikimedia Commons

Both left Thessaloniki by boat on July 28, arriving in the town of Litóchoro, located at the foot of the mythical mountain at an altitude of 400 meters. There they looked for someone to guide them on the ascent, and found two shepherds, Christos Kakalos born in 1882, and Nikos Bistikos (of whom little is known), willing to accompany them on the adventure.

The next day they began the ascent, reaching the monastery of Agios Dionysos, located at 820 meters of altitude, at noon. From there they went to Petrostrouga (1,940 m), where they spent the first night.

On the morning of July 30, they left behind the Plateau of the Muses (2,600 m), ascending the smaller peaks of Prophet Elias and Toumba, and exploring the base of Stefani (which they called Zeus’ throne).

The Plateau of the Muses / Athinavaitsi photo on Wikimedia Commons

They descended again to spend the night in a hut near Paliokaliva, very close to where the Spilios Agapitos refuge stands today (2,040 m). Something must have happened that night because they decided to cancel everything and go home, so the next day they began the descent towards Litóchoro. When they were close to Prionia (1,100 m) they changed their minds again, so on August 1 they turned around and returned to the cabin in the middle of a strong storm.

On the morning of August 2 they left the cabin in the direction of the summit. It was a rainy day with hail, strong winds and fog. The guides carried the heavy photographic equipment of Boissonnas. At one point Nikos Bistikos, perhaps weakened by fatigue, fell behind while the other three climbed. Kakkalos led the way, barefoot, with the two Swiss tied with ropes behind him, climbing through the mist.

Boissonnas, Kakkalos and Baud- / photo Boissonnas, public domain on Wikimedia Commons

After several hours they reached a peak which they called Victory Top. Believing that they had crowned Olympus, they wrote a few words on a card and put it in a bottle that they placed under a pile of stones to protect it (by the way, that bottle and the card were found 14 years later, and today it is exposed in the headquarters of the Hellenic Mountaineering Federation in Athens).

But when the sky cleared they realized their mistake. Up there above them loomed the truly impressive peak. Discouragement took its toll on all three. They decided to give up and go down the steep ridge they had climbed. As they did so in silence, Kakkalos suddenly stopped. In front of him was a vertical corridor that led directly to the top. He looked at the two Swiss and asked we climb?. The two nodded.

Kakkalos left the heavier photographic equipment and started the ascent, this time determined to succeed, followed by the Swiss. The night was upon them but nothing mattered to them anymore. At 1:25 a.m. on August 2, 1913, the three crowned the highest peak in Greece, the abode of the gods. Christos Kakkalos, Frédéric Boissonnas and Daniel Baud-Bovy became the first three men to reach Olympus, the mythical, excuse the redundancy, Mytikas summit.

Since then, more than 10,000 mountaineers each year have followed in the footsteps of the two Swiss and the Greek, but most barely reach the mythical summit.

Christos Kakkalos / photo Boissonnas, public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Kakkalos returned in 1919 and 1921. In September 1927 he successfully guided a group of 105 climbers to the summit.

Also in 1921 he led Swiss surveyor Marcel Kurz to the top of the Stefani Summit, being the first two men to climb it. And in 1931 he returned to the Mytikas summit with Daniel Baud-Bovy and a group of climbers.

In 1937 the Hellenic Mountaineering Association named him the official guide of Olympus. In the following years he accompanied all those who dared to climb: climbers, geologists, botanists, politicians, artists, tourists… Kakkalos climbed Olympus for the last time in 1973, when he was already 91 years old. He died on April 12, 1976. Today the Meseta de las Musas refuge bears his name.


Sources

Hellenic Mountaineering Federation / Greek Reporter / Metro / Wikipedia.


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