The High Tatras!

Trip Start Jan 03, 2008
Trip End Mar 14, 2008

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Flag of Slovakia  ,
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The train ride to Stary Smokovec was beautiful, out from the rolling hills of Slovakia into the foothills of the Tatras, it made my lunch of bread and peanut butter that much more enjoyable. Stary Smokovec is a town at the base of the mountain - much of a starting point for adventures in the Tatras, a resort if you will. Very nice hotels and ski shops everywhere, I had to prepare myself to spend a bit of extra money on accommodation for a night to rest easy for the trek of the following days. I first headed to the towns tourist information center where a very helpful English speaking woman told me everything I needed to know about the Tatras. I referenced affordable accommodations and she said she had a phone number of a local family that would be willing to provide me a bedroom for the night for as little as 10US dollars. Sure enough, I was all about cheap accommodations.
This town is situated on an incline, gradually gaining altitude the further toward the mountain you go. The house I was staying at was right at the base of the mountain - trekking my pack uphill was enough exercise on my thighs for one day. I arrived at the house where an old lady who said absolutely nothing was waiting for me in the street, I was to slowly follow here back to the house. It was apparent that the couple, with many years of life experience, did not speak a single word of English but I was greeted warmly with a nice cup of warm tea to settle in. The elder man and I communicated through pictures, pro-nouns and hand signals to exchange information. Later I went back to the tourist info site to gain more information on the Tatras. Apparently in high altitude alps, weather conditions can change dramatically and in an instant, this key was first to be warned followed by an example. Supposedly on average 20 + people die a year hiking that Tatras in the winter, and just 2 individuals a week prior to my arrival. These unfortunate two were victims of the sudden drastic change of weather and froze on their way to the summit. I left the office with maps of my route, a forecast of the weather, and hiking insurance to cover the cost of technical assistance in case of an avalanche or the helicopter ride to the hospital.
That evening I browsed all the ski shops in the town looking for anything that would help me stay alive up there for the next couple of days, everything was well overpriced for the concern of my well being, if worse comes to worse, I will insulate myself with bread. Considering my accommodation was so cheap, I justified a steak dinner for myself at night before I relaxed and watched a movie on my PC that I picked up for 2US dollars in Bratislava - It was a tear jerker.
It was now morning, well rested, it was time to get ready for my hike. The man that hosted me greeted me with hot tea for the morning and we arranged that I would leave my pack in their house while I was in the mountains for an additional 2dollars! So, I packed my water, chocolate, bread and extra clothes in my smaller backpack and headed for the footpaths at the base. The beginning of the hike was ridiculously muddy, not as cold from the lack of altitude, I was walking through mud for about an hour -  however with the beautiful surroundings of pine, I paid little attention to the mess I was getting in. About an hour up, I reached the top of the ski lifts for skiers on the mountain, there was snow everywhere at this point and from the constant motion and the sun beating down, I was down to just a sweater.
The hike up through the canyons of the snow covered foothills through pines, streams, and waterfalls - it was irresistible to snap a photo at every winding turn of the beaten trail. It seemed as though each one of these weaving turns put me at a different vantage point offering a spectacular view of the peaks of mountains I was trekking towards, every time I looked up, it was as if it was a new mountain I was seeing for the first time all together. I passed one chata on the way through these pined valleys, (a chata is a cabin to provide food, shelter and over night stays during treks to the mountains.) Very ambitious and excited to keep climbing altitude, I kept on course.
The next leg of the trip left the pines well behind me - altitude was so high that all vegetation was lost and was just snow covered rocks from here to the summits. It was much colder at this point and with the distance of the flora seemed as though I was distancing myself even more from life on earth. I stopped and ate some oranges that I packed at intervals to provide myself energy and used these opportunities to keep putting layers of clothing on for my warmth (I skipped that whole bread insulation idea).
It was freezing now and I have been trekking for hours in these valleys toward the peaks of the mountains - I am near the summits and the path ahead of me was where two mountains merged into each other. I passed a single sign, that gave me some relief I wasn't utterly lost up here that said 'Teryho Chata' with an arrow pointing forward. This chata must have been behind a rock because I didn't see where I could possibly continue my trek. Still enjoying the view, I continue to look up to the peeks that are in reaching distance and found what looks to be wooden poles on the farthest left hill. I hadn't seen these before because the weather up here was very foggy, I was situated right in the clouds for some time. When I waited for this fog to clear I walked toward these wooden poles and realized they were at 100meter intervals all the way UP the hill. I knew what had to be done.
I noticed some sign of footing in the snow covered over by snow from previous passer-bys and stayed on their trail. It felt as if it took a good 2 hours to hike up this steep incline, with the air getting thinner and an innumerable amount steps, I was taking a stop to breath every 25meters. Once I reached the top, the plain was flat for 50 meters an continued with more gradual inclines, ones less as dramatic as this I had just conquered. Still making forward momentum, the fog cleared up here and provided breath taking views of these summits - I was well over 2,000 meters above sea level. I passed about 3 different mountain goats up here grazing on what seemed to be dead vegetation and was not bothered by my presence, these goats must have knew I was completely out of my element and out of my mind to be up there. I honestly was a bit frightened when there were two instance of a large pop - much like a blast of thunder followed by the roar of snow coming down a nearby mountain. Each time I heard this pop, I looked all around for the avalanche. I did one last excruciating climb to find my Chata I was going to stay at for my duration of the high life.
I walked through the front doors of the chata into the common room to find to my surprise about 15 other individuals up here. I was not greeted at all while walking in this chata surprisingly. I figured with a community of fellow hikers, climbers, and other extreme sports that brings us together - there would be a warm welcome of hot chocolate and singing coombya over a fire place. Instead I walked silently to the open booth in the corner while everyone enjoyed the comforts of their company. I was the only solo hiker up on the mountains that evening - I ordered a hot plate for supper and read a novel for most of the night. It was apparent that nobody up here spoke a word of English which made means of trying to communicate a bit difficult. However having this time to myself to read, bust out my sewing skills (yes, my travels have been hard on my fabrics) and enjoy my solitude which gave me a very unique experience.
The nights on the hill top of the Tatra mountains are freezing - one would certainly freeze outside in the night. The bunks in the chata's were not amply heated either, I was provided 5 blankets if I needed - I needed. My hike down, I wanted to hike during sun rise so I woke at 5am, at several of croissants to gain my energy and listened to the crisp chilling wind apply pressure to our cabin - I knew it was going to be freezing the way down and may have been a little out of my head to do something like this - knowing the great dangers that happened just 2 weeks prior. However at 6am, the sun was just peeking over the hill tops to provide enough light to see my feet on the ground. The wind was blowing so much snow everywhere that visibility was in arms length. Dressed to the 9's I geared up and headed down the hill in hopes once I got to a lower altitude the mountain sides would block the wind and clear up my view. The hike down that horrible incline was treacherous and extremely slippery. Up here there were no foot trails to follow because the snow that was blowing wild had covered up all once visible tracks.
Sure enough, no more wind and a great visibility to watch the sun rise across the peaks above me. The hike down was much more quick - I only wish I had the same supply of food rations I went up with and a harmonica I bought in Eastern Europe. The hike down was wonderful to say the least. Half way down I found my back pack unzipped on my back - it wasn't until gathering my stuff back at Stary Smokovec that I noticed my amazing plastic portable French press that I use every morning and my baseball cap would be left behind in somewhere in the valleys of the Tatras. I was ready for a nice warm hostel and the bustle of city and constant travel once again. Next stop for this train, Krakow, Poland.
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