Nikos Koutsoupas frowns as he watches a pigeon flying toward the rising sun that's slowly illuminating the craggy crests of Mount Olympus.
"The sun will be very hot today, so we have to go fast to get up high before the heat of the day," says the tough mountain man and our guide to the top of Greece's highest peak.
We leave the village of Litochoro at the base of Mount Olympus, long before most residents have brewed their first pot of coffee, for a two-day trek will take us through dense forest and up steep, rocky paths before we reach the mythical home of the Greek gods.
Litochoro resident Christos Kakalos first led two Swiss guides to the 2,919-metre summit in 1913. In 1937, the area was made Greece's first national park. Now about 6,000 people – about 50 of them Canadians – climb it every year.
Even mere mortals don't need special climbing experience, but being fit and having a head for heights helps, says Nikos.
He sets a steady but relentless pace through the forest of beech, oak and cedar trees which cloaks the mountainside. I soon realize the problem with training in Ontario is that you reach the top in 20 minutes. This, it's clear, is going to take hours – four of them, in fact – until we reach 2,100 metres and our overnight stop, the Hellenic Mountaineering Club's refuge Spilios Agapitos, which has been run by Maria Zolota's family for more than half a century.
Her father Costas took over as warden in 1954 and one of her favourite childhood memories is climbing to the peak with Kakalos when he was 93 and she was about eight. "He was an amazing man," says Zolota, 37, in near-perfect English, checking in more than 100 guests who will spend the night tucked under thick blankets in the refuge's bunks.
Over the years, the refuge has hosted more than 72 nationalities, but Zolota, who switches back and forth between half a dozen European languages, is thrilled that climbing Olympus has become popular with her fellow Greeks.
"Now Greek families with children come to climb Olympus," she says.
Meals include Greek salad, hearty bean soup and red wine on the refuge's patio – a remarkable feast made possible by mule train.
We set out for the summit in the pre-dawn on a path that is well trodden but unmercifully steep. Within an hour we clear the tree line and step out onto a mountainside with views to rival the best of the Alps or Rockies.
Two hours later we're at the summit, staring at a panorama as breathtaking as the altitude.