Tails of the Tatras Trails
When we think of climbing and hiking in Europe most of us think of the Swiss Alps or perhaps the Italian Dolomites. More recently, however, I’ve been looking further east to get my alpine fix. The Taras mountains boarding Slovakia and Poland may be 2000m lower than the French Alps but they are some of the steepest in Europe offering amazing trekking, climbing and in winter some very serviceable skiing. I wanted to see what the mountains had to offer and so this September my partner and I headed out to conquer Slovakia.
As it turns out this was easier said than done. The first obstacle we faced was simply getting to the mountains. While trains run regularly from Bratislava and Krakow flights and transfers were surprisingly expensive. Instead, we opted to fly directly to Poprad; a city which sits at the southern foot of Tatras range. The city is small and has little to recommend it beyond a gleaming modern super spa and several ancient churches and lodges in the old town. Everything else still holds the stark soviet styling of the city’s past. Decommissioned artillery welded together and set in concreted formed war memorials worthy of Hieronymus Bosch and each building was a carbon copy of the next. Upon arrival we headed to The Penzion Hotel in the old town; a beautiful climbers lodge nestled into cobbled streets complete with chesterfields, chunky tables and fireplaces complete with brandy and circumstance. It provided a very warm welcome. That is until dinner was served.
In my time I have eaten any number of strange and unusual things from snakes and bugs in Thailand to raw deer jerky in Nevada but nothing can compare to Slovakian cuisine. A congealing collection of lard, suet and grey meat seems to be the staple of almost every meal. From the cabins in the mountains to the fanciest hotels in the town every menu appeared to be a collection of pallet swapped stews comprised of “sauce and meat.” When I asked the staff what the meat was, I was told “its knee meat” and given a stare which told me not to enquire further. With four days of hard trekking ahead of us we chocked down as much as we could. Thankfully the excellent local brandy distracted us from the worst of the gristle and we were able to roll into bed baffled but charmed.
In the morning we were served our morning knee meat with vodka and black coffee and went in search of our local guide who we had commissioned to plan a route for us. I walked around the lobby where we had arranged to meet but could not find anyone who looked like a guide. After 20 minutes a thick Slovakian accent barked at me and I felt like I was facing the line at Stalingrad. I turned to see a young woman breastfeeding a tiny baby and holding an ordinance map. As it turned out Agata had planned our route that morning after leaving the maternity ward. She pointed out our route as if planning a military campaign and was very clear about certain paths. “You go here, you go here, you do not go here you die. You go here you die but you go here, you go here.” Her baby continued to feed throughout the briefing only stopping once and crying gently. Agata apologised and explained, “he three days old he not disciplined yet.” My partner and I were in awe and agreed that we were in love with this tough as teak badass. Once the briefing was done and the baby burped we bundled into a people carrier worthy of Mad Max and were greeted by Agata’s husband and seven-year-old son who were busy splicing climbing ropes and packing gear. Guiding it seems is a family affair in the Tatras. The car dropped us at the foot of our route and the gnarly family waved us a cheery goodbye. We were left alone with our packs, map and nothing but stunning forest, rivers and peaks. It was perfect.
The hiking routes through the Tatras are very well marked and the entry paths amongst the tree line are wide and winding allowing for a pleasant warm-up. As we made our way through the trees we marvelled at the difference between the eastern wilderness and the comparative starkness of the French and Italian resorts. The Tatras are still home to hundreds of native species including bears, eagles and mountain goats and though we thankfully didn’t encounter the bears, the high mountains were full of birds, insects and other animals.
The first day was fairly easy following the floor of a valley and only rising in the last few miles but those miles were a good introduction to the nature of the mountains. The Tatras are the steepest mountains in Europe and so it is not uncommon for routes to rise hundreds if not thousands of meters in a very short burst. Within half an hour we had left the tree line behind us and reached our first cabin. An unbroken chain of cabins, huts and chalets serve as a base camp for skiers, climbers and hikers and though basic, provide all the essentials of hot food and hotter showers. Our first cabin sat on the edge of a mountain lake and slept the two of us along with eight Germans and three park rangers. The language barrier made for a quiet evening but the ranger’s two Slovakian Mountain Dogs kept everyone in high spirits. The native breed is closer to wolves than dogs and make for an impressive site acting as park security, medical sherpas and mascots all in one.
We slept well with our fury guardians standing watch and were on our way by sunrise the next day. We circled out from the lake moving into the high Tatras and very quickly the mountains bared their teeth. Rain hammered at us and cloud would roll in without warning making for a tough climb within a milky haze. When the weather became more forgiving the terrain would hit us with a tricky rockfall or harsh traverse. The challenge was exhilarating and unrelenting. The path narrowed and finally disappeared leaving us bare rock interwoven with gullies and waterfalls. The route was still well marked and each time we reached a maker we revelled in the achievement. By lunchtime, we had climbed over twelve hundred meters and were met with severer looking chains embedded into the rock face. The iron route provided handholds for an almost vertical climb up a waterfall. Looking at each other we laughed. The mornings' rain had swollen the upland streams and so the water was rushing past alarmingly quickly. This is what we had come to see. This was not some saga walking holiday in The Alps this was pure adventure. Soaked to the skin and stamping feeling into our hands and feet we traversed the peak and made our way across the ridgeline. Cloud obscured everything but the lack of panoramic views was no great loss when compared to the thrill of the climb itself.
Unfortunately another climber did not share our sense of excitement. As we descended the other side of the peak we found a morose figure shivering in the snow. The weather was closing in and we were still amongst the snow line making for some icy terrain and confusing drifts that would bury route markers easily. Complete with a checked shirt and long beard the east London hipster explained to us that he, like us, had decided to try out the Tatras as a change from the norm. Unfortunately this snow blasted peak was way beyond his usual apre ski experience. The poor guy had expected mountain top bars and clubs and was hiking in gym trainers carrying only a string bag emblazoned with the batman logo. He had no food or water but had come equipped with a blue tooth speaker which he was using “to scare bears away with progressive rock.” As funny a site as he was it was clear that the guy was way out of his depth and he had put himself in real danger. He was set to go down the iron route we had just ascended and was already exhausted.
The Tatras are welcoming to all levels of climber but they are not without danger. There are chair lifts for skiing and the occasional lodge but the mountains are not developed resorts in the same way as France or Italy. The exciting wildness comes at the cost of comfort and of personal safety. All medical assistance is on foot. No med stations, helicopters or jeeps and so you need to take personal responsibility and be prepared.
Without argument, we convinced our new friend to follow us rather than push on alone and started to take him down. The fog stayed tight around us but we quickly left the snow line and were able to zigzag between route markers. We were making for a chairlift to deposit the slowly thawing weekend warrior and enjoyed moving through boulder fields and scree runs. Our progress was a little slow in our threesome but just as the fog was tightening to almost python levels a huge Bram Stoker like structure loomed out of the murk. The gondola station ran a service back down to the plains both as a short cut for climbers and also a vital escape route for our trendy friend. We waved goodbye to our walking death wish and decided to reward ourselves with some lunch out of the wind. The gondola station cafe was as expected, serving the usually Slavic range of meat and sauce. It was terrible, but after climbing waterfalls and rescuing fellow climbers it somehow hit the spot quite nicely.
After lunch, the soupy grey cloud and driving sleet were replaced by bright sun and some of the most breathtaking scenery we could have hoped for. Above us, the gunmetal grey peaks were snowcapped against a blue sky and below us, we could see the falling feet of the mountains sliding into the perfectly flat expanse of the plains below. The rest of the day consisted of a relatively forgiving hike traversing the mountains west, following the sunset until we ducked down just below the tree line to our second cabin. A moss roofed lodge straight out of a Grimm fairy tail hidden amongst the alpine pines and populated by an assortment of grizzled climbers quaffing beer and taking shots of unpronounceable liquor. We happily joined them and spent an evening swapping stories and sharing a communal sigh of relief as to the fate of our hipster friend.
The next morning we geared up and dropped nine hundred meters in less than an hour. Our trek had taken us from the northeast of the mountains over to the south face and we were now traversing west with the sun on our shoulders and nothing but sky between us and the horizon. Agata had explained to us that the second day would be steep and that the third day would be a long one. She was true to her word. Looking at the map we realised that we were looking at almost forty kilometres of trekking taking us from one end of the range to the other rising and falling a few hundred meters before finally climbing two thousand meters to transition back to the northern range. On paper, the route looked intimidating but with good paths and clear skies, we enjoyed the dense forest, mirror-like mountain lakes and scenery that would make any Hollywood location scout jump for joy.
Eagles circled overhead as we took in kilometre after kilometre and as we began the final summit of the day we felt the first spots patting us on the shoulder. A scattering of black dots began pitting the white boulders of the mountainside and soon the downpour hit as the pressure dropped like a stone. Lighting flashed and a roll of thunder made our hearts sink. Weather is always changeable in the mountains but it was amazing to see the bright daylight disappear into inky twilight and within 15 minutes the wind forced our heads down for a final push to the last summit. The rocks became slippy and a scree run sent a few small boulders tumbling beneath our feet. In good weather, the root had been hard and now it was becoming dangerous but eventually, we rounded a corner and were met with an almost biblical sight. A single break in the black cloud let a single spear of light land on the final marker. The single piece of wood marked the end of our climb and through the dim haze we could make out the tiny cabin hundreds of meters below us that would be our nights camp. We hugged and whooped feeling the weariness of the past three days fall away. The exhilaration of standing atop a mountain, lightning flashing across the sky and thunder echoing in the valley like a battle cry. We took in the awesome sight one last time and tumbled down the steep track to the safety of the cabin.
As we checked in we were treated to the best of Slovakian knee meat and witnessed another startling example of Tatras hospitality. While we sipped on a brew of Tatras Tea; a brew consisting of high proof spirits, fruit and hot water, we saw two young women stagger in from the storm. At this point, the sun had set and we had witnessed a few minor rockfalls, the sky was black with no sign of the rain stopping. The pair explained that they had not reserved a bed and that they were happy to sleep on a floor if need be. The storm had cut them off from their planned route and they thought it only sensible to retreat to the safety of a cabin. The desk clerk looked at them and asked for their reservation number. Again the pair explained their situation and again the clerk asked for their reservation number. He was not happy with these two refugees of the storm and fixed them with a hard look. The women were showing that they were nervous and for good reason. The wind was still driving at the walls of the cabin making the roof beams creak. The clerk became angry and explained that the women needed to leave. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. The cabin was easily only half full and the host would rather send two young women into an alpine storm than deviate from the booking system. We tried reasoning with him but he explained in a firm voice that “rules must be followed!” If we pushed the point we would be asked to leave as well and so dumbfounded we saw the two waifs shoulder their packs and disappear into the storm. The last communist left Slovakia in 1991 but a fanatical adherence to protocols and rules has taken longer to disappear. To this day I have no idea what happened to those two trekkers and I can but hope they made it down the mountain safely.
By the morning the sky was clear and we took off for the final summit. A relatively gentle climb in the face of the day before summiting the highest peak of the Tatras range. We left our packs at the cabin since the route would take us straight up and straight back down again. The literal load off our shoulders was very welcome and made for a pleasant stroll through the river valley followed by a meandering weave up the foothills. The occasional chain route made for some exciting scrambles and by late morning we passed the snow line and were lost in the mist. The milky cloud obscured everything and we fumbled the last hundred meters or so. We must have summited at some point but the cloud made navigation difficult. It wasn’t until we found a sign informing us that we had crossed into Poland that we knew we must have missed something. We turned back a climbed to the rise we had just come from. Checking our watch the altitude was 2659 meters. We were stood on the top of the world and didn’t know it. We could barely see each other grinning through the gloom and so opted for the decent.
Feeling glad of our compass we slowly slid down the snow-covered peak and came back to the head of the valley. As the sun broke through we could see the past few days in front of us. The U shaped valley fell to the foot of our biblical peak which we had nicknamed “God Ray.” The silhouette of the peaks cut east across the sky and as we made our descent we could make out glimpses of the far off forests. Beyond them the flood plains and grey buildings of the city. It provided that humbling feeling of scale that draws people to high places and as we moved from track to road and finally to railway line then airport benches we were already planning our return trip.