The Slovaks of the High Tatras
The High Tatras National Park in Slovakia are still a local destination, and after living in and traveling through the tourist traps of Europe for the past three years, that is refreshing. However, it does make it difficult in the mountains when you need information on trail conditions, and no one speaks English, or when you point at the menu in a mountain hut after a full day of trekking, and it turns out to be luke-warm potato bread with sweet cream.
These are the campfire stories that will bring smiles to our faces one day and being able to greet everyone on the trail with the fun Slovakian greeting of “Ahoy” more than makes up for these small inconveniences.
In the Tatras, we had large portions of the trails to ourselves, and when we did pass trekkers, they were almost all Slovakian, or from neighboring Poland or the Czech Republic. The Slovakian mountain culture was impressive. We hiked for four days between mountain huts, and from the mornings when we set off, to the evenings when we set in, there were tables of people with tall pints of local beer, and short shots of TatraTea (herbal liquor) or Slivovica (plumb liquor). The mountain landscapes are beautiful, the mountain culture is rugged, and the mountain bars are open for breakfast.
This might explain the boldness people displayed pulling themselves up icy via ferrata (fixed iron climbing chains on rock walls) without harnesses or helmets. However, only solid mountain prowess explains the trail runners that breezed by us in shorts through the snow, or the climbers who rucked up to our mountain hut at 11pm one freezing night. You get the feeling people there were born in the mountains, and it is inspiring and contagious.
Trekking the High Tatras: Our Route
I flew into Krakow, Poland and caught a bus over the border to Ginger Monkey Hostel in Zdiar. There were a lot of international travelers there doing day hikes into the High Tatras, and the friendly hostel and quaint town were a perfect place from which to set-off hiking.
Day 1: September Snowstorm
On the first day we took a 12 km (7.5 miles) trail over the saddle between Hlupy and Zdiarska Vidla to the Chata pri Zelenom mountain hut (1,548 meters) next to the green lake. The trail had 1,047 meters (3,435 feet) of elevation gain, so the first section out of the forest was a sweaty-thigh-burner.
Just before we reached the saddle, an early September snowstorm blew-in, and temperatures dipped well below freezing. Unable to see any views from the saddle, we hunkered down on the trail next to some chamois grazing on the mountain side and waited for the storm to pass and reveal the views. My fingers were burnt with frost by the time we climbed down to the Chata pri Zelenom mountain hut. We arrived at 6pm, 45 minutes before sunset, and were shown to a little hobbit hole room with a mattress lined floor, were we could sleep for the night. The dining room was full, so we huddled in an uninsulated annex, and ate some disappointing dinner, and retired to the bar for cards and TatraTea.
Day 2: A Daring Decision
Breakfast was an amazing spread of cured meats, cheese, eggs and coffee, which was wonderful because we were starving and had a difficult decision to ponder. It had snowed hard through the night, and the most direct trail to the next mountain hut had a via ferrata over a peak. We did not have crampons/helmets, nor could any of the locals give us any clear advice. After a debate lasting two cups of coffee, Deb and I decided it would be best to take a longer route around the peak, and Bay set-off with a group of locals to push over its saddle.
Our route was 15 kms with 751 meters (2,464 feet) of elevation change. It started through an evergreen forest, and then climbed up to Skalnate pleso where the gondola lifts hikers up the mountain. We met Bay there, and he reported his trail was relatively easy and had some great views of the green lake, so Deb and I were disappointed in our decision.
The hike from there to Teryho chata mountain hut (2,015 meters) traversed the forest, climbed up a valley and then turned into switch backs up a ridge to the hut. The top of the switch backs were slushy, icy and steep. About half of the hikers were in crampons, and the other half had wet butts from falling into the snow. It was slow going, but our stealth led us into a herd of chamois near the top, which was a fine reward. Again, we arrived at 6pm, just before sunset.
Teryho chata was much smaller, with better food and friendlier staff. The view back down through the valley extends all the way to lights of the little towns in the lowlands, and there are a couple little alpine lakes to explore next to the hut. We loved our stay, even though we sweated through the night packed onto a small room lined with hikers and a baking pot-bellied stove.
Day 3: Surprise Via Ferrata
It snowed again at night, and we woke-up to our first perfect sunny day. Wanting to capture some of the morning light, and knowing we had a peak to summit before descending to our last mountain hut, we set out early.
We ascended some switchbacks above the lakes and sat on the saddle to take some pictures of climbers across the valley. We watched little colored dots climbing slowly up a shadowy wall. They had helmets and were moving slowly, so we guessed it was icy and it certainly looked scary (See the small climbers in pictures 9 and 10). Two other small dots even further off were etching zigzags up the back of the valley in the newly fallen snow. We surmised we would be stepping in their footsteps soon.
However, arriving at the trail junction in the bottom of the valley, we came to the alarming realization that the climbers we had been watching from across the valley, were just hikers ahead of us on our trail. They had been climbing Priecne sedlo (2,352 meters), a section of via ferrata (iron chains bolted into the rockface), which had looked to us like ropes from afar.
The trail was the only viable path to the next mountain hut, without backtracking for over a day. So, we had no doubt we would attempt it, but were unsure if there was anything we could do to manage the risk. Fortunately, as we were discussing, four Slovaks breezed by us (the last guy was in shorts), grabbed the chains and started climbing.
That was the motivation we needed to get started, so we cinched-up our packs, fastened our gloves, and grabbed a fistful of iron chain. The chains feel like they were designed in World War I to anchor ships. The rock wall is probably about 150 meters high, but it is so steep you cannot see the top from the bottom. Further, our backpacks were full, extending behind our heads, making it impossible to crane our heads back while climbing to scope the terrain above us. The route was icy, making it necessary to put your full weight on the chains, and as we climbed higher the moisture from the chains soaked into my gloves, chilling my hands.
The climb would have been a much more reasonable task on a summer day with a day pack, but the conditions and the uncertainty had me in a full flight or fight mode, and I was exhausted by the top. Over the peak, we descended into the next valley, and stopped for a beer (when in Rome) at Zbojnicka chata mountain hut. The day ended up being 11 kms with 963 meters (3,159 feet) of elevation change, ending at Zamkovskeho chata mountain hut (1,475 meters) in the forest.
Day 4: Scrambling for a Final View
Our last day was sunny, so we wanted more views from the peaks. We hiked the few kilometers back to the gondolas at Skalnate pleso and took the ski lift up to Lomnicke sedlo viewpoint. There is a fun scramble from there up towards the peak at Lomnicky stit. We stopped at a plateau offering 360-degree views of the Tatras just before the via ferrata begins towards the peak. There was no one else there besides a few climbers descending from the via ferrata. It was a wonderful last perspective on the terrain we had covered, and such a pleasure to see it all in the sun. From there we caught the gondola down to town and a couple buses back to Zdair.
Overall, the High Tatras were crowded for a mountain experience, however, once we got past the day hiker trails, those we met felt like they had put in the requisite effort to belong. It was not the serene beauty often sought in the mountains, but the iron chains and daytime drinking with locals gave it an endearing quality. I quite enjoyed my time in these mountains, and would definitely return if given the chance, but maybe next time with some crampons.
Notes for Nomads:
You need to make reservations for the mountain huts months in advance. Every night there were hikers who arrived without reservations in the evening, and they were allowed to sleep on the floor in the dining room (except for one very angry family that was turned away for some unclear but likely deserving reason).
If starting out from Zdair, Chata pri Zelenom mountain hut has to be the destination for the first night. It is a large, crowded hut, but if the sun is out, the green lake is worth seeing. Otherwise, starting from Vysoke Tatry, you could spend the first night at Teryho chata mountain hut. We all wished we had been able to stay at Zbojnicka chata mountain hut for a night, especially since there was a beautiful trail heading from there back towards the peak of Vychodna Vysoka. Either way, a last night at Zamkovskeho chata mountain hut is enjoyable (they had the best food).
Our packs were too big. We did have a lot of camera equipment, but we did not need our sleeping bags or the thermals we brought for the nights as the huts are kept quite warm. We did need gloves during parts of the hiking though, and if there might be snow, hiking poles and/or crampons are very helpful. The times on the trail signs were hard to meet, so if you are taking pictures, understand them as very optimistic estimates. We used Maps.me and Mapy.cz apps as trail guides and they worked well enough.