How three men ascended Olympus for the first time

Kakkalos, Boissonnas and Baud-Bovy in 1913 / photo public domain in Wikimedia Commons

More than 100 years ago, on August 2, 1913, three men reached the summit of Mount Olympus in Greece. Perhaps others had tried it before, who would dare to prove by himself whether the gods really lived there? But the fact is that nothing in the classical sources makes us suspect of such a boldness.

It was not until the 20th century that a Swiss photographer named Frédéric Boissonnas, born in Geneva in 1858, travelled 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 he would gradually forge a dream: to climb 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 in Wikimedia Commons

The Olympus, located between the regions of Thessaly and Greek Macedonia to 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 are very close to each other within the 500 km of the area the mountain has, whose circumference reaches 150 km.

On his trip in 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 / photo public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

Both left Thessaloniki by boat on 28 July, reaching the town of Litóchoro, located at the foot of the mythical mountain at an altitude of 400 metres. There they looked for someone to guide them in the ascent, and found two shepherds, Christos Kakalos born in 1882, and Nikos Bistikos (about whom we hardly know anything), ready to accompany them in the adventure.

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

The plateau of the Muses / photo Athinavaitsi in Wikimedia Commons

On the morning of July 30 they left behind the Muses Plateau (2,600 m), ascending the minor peaks of Prophet Elias and Toumba, and exploring the Stefani base (which they called The Throne of Zeus). They descended again to spend the night in a hut near Paliokaliva, very close to where today stands the refuge of Spilios Agapitos (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 to Litóchoro. When they were near Prionia (1,100 m) they changed their minds again, so on August 1st 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 for the summit. It was a rainy day with hail, strong winds and fog. The guides carried Boissonnas’ heavy photographic equipment. At one point Nikos Bistikos, perhaps exhausted, lagged while the other three climbed. Kakkalos was ahead, barefoot, with the two Swiss following him bound with ropes, climbing through the fog.

Boissonnas, Kakkalos and Baud-Bovy / photo Boissonnas, public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

After several hours they reached a peak they called Victory Top. Believing that they had topped 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 card were found 14 years later, and today it is on display at the Hellenic Mountaineering Federation headquarters in Athens).

But when the sky cleared, they realized their mistake. Up there above them stood the real and impressive summit. Discouragement took its toll on all three. They decided to abandon and descend the steep ridge they had climbed. As they did so in silence, Kakkalos suddenly stopped. In front of him was a vertical corridor leading directly to the summit. He looked at the two Swiss and asked, “Shall we go up? The two nodded.

Boissonnas at the summit / photo Greek Reporter

Kakkalos left the heaviest photographic equipment and began the ascent, this time determined to succeed, followed by the Swiss. The night fell on them but they didn’t care anymore. At 1:25 a.m. on August 2, 1913, the three of them reached 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, redundant, 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 in Wikimedia Commons

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

Also in 1921 he took Swiss topographer Marcel Kurz to the top of the Stefani summit, being the first two men to ascend 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 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 refuge of the Muses Plateau bears his name.

Sources: Hellenic Federation of Mountaineering & Climbing / Greek Reporter / Metro / Wikipedia.