Tatra Mountains lesson – part I


Allow me to entertain you today with the first part of a rather lengthy story of failure and success. A story of how my partner and I got ourselves into a pretty bad mess. And how we got ourselves out.

It goes something like this:

Every now and then (or, let’s face it, pretty much all the time), I feel this strong craving to go back to the High Tatras. These Alpine style peaks belong to the Carpathian range and lie on the border between Slovakia and Poland. It’s a place where the nature is pure, climbers are tough and cohorts of tourists scramble through the picturesque valleys every day. And even though there is nothing wrong with the tourists, since hiking around the trails at the age of three, I always wanted to break away from the pack, become a tough climber and get off the trail. (And it must be noted that the sound of this phrase alone has got a magical aura to it, as apart from approaching the climbing routes, venturing ‘off-piste’ is, due to its dangers and environmental reasons, illegal.)

But easier said than done.

At sixteen I started rock climbing to prepare myself for the big adventure. Four years, a couple of whippers and some minor injuries later, I bailed. The following four years of non-climbing life left me with no psyche to get off the ground more than necessary for some mild bouldering. But the ever present calling of the granite walls prevailed. So, one day, completely out of a blue and being less ready than ever, I announced it was time to do some ‘proper mountain climbing’.  After convincing my partner that this was indeed a great idea, we only had to buy a double rope (Wait, when was the last time I used a double rope? Ah, never…), practice some gear operations and off we went.

To get to Zakopane, a small town often called the winter capital of Poland, it takes six hours by train j from Warsaw. Here you find yourself amidst the multinational crowd of tourists, all of them craving to find some authentic highlands spirit. But it’s more and more difficult, as the actual highlanders culture is being meticulously washed away with streams of kitsch, from horrid souvenirs to authentic-style fast food bars. Advocates of the tradition are gradually withdrawing from the tourist oriented market, no longer dressing up in the regional costume for money, but to honour their private celebrations.

So, as the quiet town of my childhood holidays is no longer there, it takes us no time to put our gear-filled backpacks on and make our way from the train station (still small, run-down and lovely, but sure to be replaced with some shiny new building soon) to the trail which leads up the mountains. Two excruciating hours of hiking remind us of the need of conditioning. Yes, we might be faster than the tourists, but the occasional ‘tough climbers’, whom we recognize by their specific approach shoes and backpacks, pass us by almost flying up the trail, chitchatting freely as they go. And our shortened breaths make it impossible to speak…

We make it to the Gasienicowa Valley absolutely exhausted. Here, a tiny climbers’ lodge sleeps thirty people in two impossibly packed rooms with one shared bathroom. The cabin is located ten minutes away from an impressive tourists’ shelter, with three floors, spacious canteen, wifi and heating. Every day (apart from the winder days when the weather makes it impossible) a hefty jeep brings food supplies, kegs of beer and whatever other luxuries you mind find yourself needing in the mountains.  But no Polish ‘tough climber’ wants to mingle with the non-climbing folk more than necessary. (You wish it were a joke, right?). Hence, we too, to choose sides once and for all, check into the climbers’ lodge.

The following morning, after a short hike to the Karb Saddle, we find ourselves standing in front of a wooden sign post. One board, pointing up Koscielec Peak, reads: ‘Attention, tourists trail extremely difficult. Beware of falling rock’. Another board, banning the access to a barely visible path running under the steep West wall of the mountain, reads: ‘Leaving the marked trail prohibited’. We walk around this very sign (my heart leaping with excitement), step into the path, and shortly put our backpacks down at the start of the Byczkowski route (V/VI-). Six pitches, that, according to the guidebook, can be done in under three hours.

We set off focused, choosing every step of the easy climb carefully. It takes us no time (or, around two hours), to get completely lost on the rock face. We don’t know where to place the gear and we don’t know where the route leads. We’ve got absolutely no idea how to make sense of the scheme we took with, naively thinking it would be pretty straight forward if read during climbing.  While we’re losing time and energy, the weather is changing. A storm approaches from the Slovakian side of the range and soon we can’t see or hear each other through the mist. I’m leading the second pitch (first lead climb in five years, first trad in eight…) and when with my nerves wrecked I get to the stand, it starts to hail. With shaking hands and water pouring down the rock, it’s taking ages to place the gear and when I start feeling movement on the rope, I realize that my partner is about to climb without me actually having him clipped in the device. Thank God, I somehow manage to start belaying before things go terribly wrong.

Once we’re on the stand together, we realize the importance of knowing how to use (and, for that matter, having) good old pitons and a hammer. So, there is no way. Or rather, there’s only one way and it’s leading up. With Andy fighting through the crux on a pitch that I would have no chances of climbing other than on a top rope, we manage to get to the peak late in the afternoon. There we traverse to the abseil stands, with which someone had mercifully equipped the neighboring route. And when we’re safe at the bottom of the mountain (sometime around eight pm) and pulling the ropes down, well, they get stuck. At this point I can tell that Andy, who thinks I managed to almost kill us both with this sandbag of a route, is quite close to killing me with his own hands. When another hour later he’s coiling the rope he just got down, I’m pretty worried he might be done for life with what he previously enthusiastically called ‘big, committing climbs’.

But, after we hike back to the cabin in the darkness of the night to ditch the gear and make our way to the big shelter for the best ever pints of cold beer, we’re both psyched for what the following days could bring.

So far so good and this is where the first part of the story comes to an end. The second part features some real trouble and some unusual benefits from bringing strawberry lip balm to the mountains. So if you want to know what the link between trouble and lip balm is, be sure to come back for the second chapter.

 to be continued…  😉


pictures courtesy of kiell.com, a faithful partner in my Tatra crime


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