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Vysoke Tatry: Snow at 1700

I pointed to the three dimensional map; “How long to hike this section?”

“5 to 6 hours” the old guy in the mountain hiking information centre replied. “But the snow line is down at 1700 metres. This chalet,” he pointed to the mountain chalet we were thinking of staying in, “is at 1960 metres. And this peak,” he moved his finger to the highest peak we would have to pass, “is over 2300 metres.”

“Hmmmm,” I put my thumb and forefinger to my chin, and pushed my eyes skywards. “Well, you see, I don’t really have any hiking shoes. All I have are these,” I lifted my ankle up with my hand, showing off my every day low-cut shoes, the ones that got me safely up and down Mount Vogel in Slovenia. The old man looked at my shoes, then turned his eyes to me, doubt screaming out from his silent face. “Not so good?” I asked.

He shook his head. “Snow up to here.” Here was where he put his hand, which was just below his knee. Yikes.

“Ok, how long to hike this section?” I pointed to a shorter path to the mountain chalet, one that passed over no peaks, but rather looked to gently meander up a valley between two long ranges to the chalet.

“2 to 3 hours.”

“Yeah, that sounds more like it. Thank you.”

Bec and I were in Stary Smokovec, a sleepy little mountain village at the foot of Vysoke Tatry, or the High Tatras, in northern Slovakia. Our plan was to hike up to a mountain chalet, and taking the advice of the old man we figured we’d take the easy hike up, stay the night, then amble the same way back down.

And as I sit here now, a few hours after getting back from the mountain chalet, with aching legs and sore feet, I can say, with not the faintest hesitation, that the last two days were two of the most stunning, amazing, and damn well memorable days I’ve spent.

After speaking with the old man, we logged some internet time, and at around 5pm walked out into the street. Tiny, white snow flakes were floating down from the clouds above, landing like dots of dandruff on our shoulders – and this was in the town at just 900 metres. What the hell was going on up at the chalet at 1960 metres?

From the town of Stary Smokovec, a funicular railway takes tourists a few hundred metres up into the mountains, and to the start of our hiking trail. But bugger that, tourists we are no longer, and so we walked the 45 minutes up to the official start of the hike. Hell, what’s 45 minutes on top of 2 or 3 hours; nothing. This bottom section took us first across a barren hillside – a graveyard of trees. It seems Stary Smokovec has, during this crossover period between the summer hikers and the winter skiers, decided to log the shit out of the surrounding hills. I can only assume that in ten or fifteen years time, the place will be much more developed for tourists, with swanky overpriced hotels filling the now ugly hills. But we soon entered into the unlogged forest, and walked up a gentle slope over tree roots. As we moved further into the trees, we began to see small patches of snow hiding in the shadows. We gave a little cheer of excitement as we pointed them out to each other, with each patch growing ever bigger, until a thin layer of snow – it looked like icing – covered the forest floor. In just 35 minutes we made it to the end of the railway section, and the start of our real hike.

For the first hour we remained under the cover of the forest. Fallen trees lay like sleeping giants, a line of white covering their exposed side, and a small creek led us up to an icy waterfall. Eventually we left the forest, and walked in brilliant sunshine, dwarfed by the huge peaks rising up on either side of us. The terrain was much more impressive than what we’d seen in Slovenia; the peaks seemed more violent – jagged and vertical, with trails of snow weaving in and out of rock piles.

The path here was all snow, a couple of inches deep at first, but getting deeper all the time. And there was no way we were even close to 1700 metres. We passed over a small wooden bridge, below which flowed clear, icy cold mountain water. Icicles hung from the tree branches leaning out over the creek, dripping slowly in the sunshine. Small pine trees sat beside the path, their green branches holding handfuls of snow – it looked like christmas, even to an Australian (perversely, Australian culture is so Americanised that at Christmas time, people decorate their homes with snowmen and fake snow. Ugh). Whilst it was a beautiful site, especially as I had never even seen snow until earlier this year, and that was firstly from the confines of a train in the Canadian Rockies, and then in the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, the christmas-like scenery somehow put the following song in my head, “And so this is Christmas, and what have you done….”, for two bloody hours these two lines swam around my head. The hike was great – the song in my head was absolute torture.

Early on in the hike, I had the naive, near-masocistic thought that “wouldn’t it be cool if we were the first people to go up here through the new snow, leaving fresh footprints as we went?” When the snow got to a foot deep, the huge foot holes already in the snow, preventing me from sinking a foot down, were like presents on Christmas morning.

After another hour or two of a walking up a slight incline, the trees began to thin out, and rocks began to dominate the path, making it much steeper. Slippery, snow covered rocks, they were. And with each few minutes, a new, larger, whiter mountain peak would reveal itself in the distance, standing defiantly against the blue sky background, and we would stop to marvel at our surroundings. We pushed on over the snow-covered rocks, passed more icy mountain streams and small waterfalls visible only through small holes in the snow and ice.

On our previous couple of hikes, up Ben Lomond in Scotland and Mount Vogel in Slovenia, Bec had struck some knee problems during the descent. After an hour or two of walking down what were basically uneven stairs, her right knee had begun to give way whenever it hit a certain angle. For this trip, we had brought some pain killers with us to help her get down, but unfortunately, her knee wasn’t cooperating, and on the way up she started to get some sharp pains. Our progress through the snow was slow, especially when we came to a particularly steep section where there were no rocks, only snow about a foot and a half deep. As we struggled up, Bec wincing with pain every few steps, we passed a couple of hikers coming down, wearing identical red outfits, the guy weilding walking poles, confidently striding down through the snow. Clearly, we were a bit out of our element. And I was hating the fact that I couldn’t help Bec any further than offering words of encouragement. I could see her behind me, shaking her head and muttering under her breath. I only felt worse,too, because I was loving it. I felt like a little kid again, exploring out in the bush.

After about four hours, I made it to the top of a rise, and saw up ahead, sitting on a small hill above a frozen lake, our mountain chalet. Huge icy mountains surrounded it on three sides. I laughed. I didn’t know what else to do. It was one of the most amazing sights I’d ever seen, the sort of place that you read about in travel magazines whilst waiting to see the dentist.

We made it to the door, swept the snow from our feet, and staggered into the warm chalet. A few minutes later, we had in front of us a beer and some hot garlic soup. I reckon we’d earnt it. Afterwards, we got the tour from the sole lady looking after the place. As she walked us into the 14 bed dorm room she indicated the sink to our right, “We have no shower, only cold water,” and mimicked splashing water up under your arms.

“And is there a toilet?” Bec asked

“Yes, out the door, and to the right.”

Yes, she meant the front door. The toilets were housed in a small shack sitting on the edge of the hill. We went out for a look; 4 longdrops, cold, dark, and smelly. There was a thermometer on the front door, it wasn’t yet 4pm, but the temperature was already down to minus 3 degrees celcius, and dropping.

We shared the chalet with a group of three middle-aged guys, who were knocking back shots of whiskey and slivovic, and a couple of families – some parents and four or five kids all aged under ten. We ate dinner, a tasty mix of potatoes, capsicum, and some sort of deep fired pastry, at 6pm with just the fading outside light casting a dull grey over the room. As it got darker, two or three kerosene lamps were bought out, and by 6.30pm they were our only light. Bec and I were battling to stay awake, and forced ourselves to stay up until 7.30pm. No-one else spoke English, so there wasn’t exactly a lot we could do.

After a restless, but thankfully warm nights sleep, we rose by the light of the sun (there were no curtains in the room), dressed quickly, and ventured out into the freezing cold to watch the sun rise over the clouds on the horizon. A flaming orange line ran the length of the clouds before disappearing at each end behind the mountains forming the valley. Behind me, the full moon still shone in a pale blue sky, above mountain peaks that were lined with a purple glow. I literally laughed out loud at the beauty.

I took my gloves off to take some photos, but after a few minutes my fingers began to hurt, and once the sun became too bright to look at, I retreated back into the warmth of the chalet.

By 8.15am, we were on our way back down the valley, again in brilliant sunshine, and mercifully with no freezing wind buffeting us like on the way up. There was no sound as we made our way down, save for the crunching of ice and snow under our feet. Then, from way up in the mountains to our right came the slow creaking of breaking ice followed by a loud crak as it broke free from the rock and tumbled down the mountain. The sound raced around the valley like a gun shot.

4 hours after leaving, we made it down to the top of the railway, and gladly hopped in the rail car to get taken down the last few hundred metres. Once down, we grabbed ourselves a hot meal, took a shower, and slept.

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One Response to “Vysoke Tatry: Snow at 1700”

  1. Mark Hogan Says:

    G’day mate, hike sounded pretty amazing. Pics were great too. You’re going to have a great album when you get back. You missed the ARIAs last night. Missy Higgins and Ben Lee cleaned up, and Ben Lee used his performance to diss Anthony Callea (ths singing midget) by changing the words to his song – “They don’t play Anthony Callea on the Radio, and that’s the way I like it” – pure gold. However, the highlight of the night was Wolfmother getting nominated for a couple of awards. They didn’t win anything, but Woman was nominated for song of the year. Ruby was very excited about that!

  2. Posted from Australia Australia

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