• Danik Bates

Hiking in the Higher Tatras

Updated: May 7

October 2nd 2011 - It has been a long day working in the city. Up in the early hours, seeing all the drunks coming out of the bars in my local town, onto a train where other people like me had to get to the city to get to their places of employment, all sleepy and moaning. Disembarked at Kings Cross station and I jumped onto my bike to cycle across the city to my station at Marylebone, diverting myself off the main road into Regent’s Park to see the sun rise, all the early people running and cycling around the park. It was a cold crispy morning, with the temperature rising, I am now fully awake. I did a long shift at work before heading home, quickly got myself sorted and then I drove off to the cattle shed airport of Luton where I boarded my WizzAir flight to Warsaw in Poland (Not Walsall near Birmingham, UK, but they sound exactly the same). I always had some sort of problem with this airline in the past but this time boarding was quick, the flight left early, I had one of their modern aircraft and I had a life jacket underneath the seat this time (compared to my flight from Kiev a few years ago). I felt safe now, my mind at ease and nothing to worry about, I fell asleep whilst the sun set and the plane headed east over the towns of Stevenage and Braintree before flying over the North Sea towards Poland.

After a comfortable landing and a quick exit out of Warsaw airport, it was time to head into the city. It was 23:00 and there were no more buses into the centre (well, I couldn’t tell as I can’t read Polish at the bus stop and there was no one about to help me), so I caught a taxi where like all my other taxi journeys in Poland, the driver loves to cut corners, speed and use his horn down the main highway despite there being no other cars on the road. Still, he got me safely to the main train station where I had to wait two hours before my train to Zakopane departed. The plan is to get the train which departs at 01:43, do the eleven hour journey hopefully getting some sleep and then meet my friend from my workplace, Anita at the train station where straight away we do some light hiking trails (after getting refreshed of course).

Before the train departed, I needed to buy tickets for the journey (which was done with ease), but had to find some beer (to knock myself out and make me go to sleep for the journey) and some food for breakfast in the morning. After walking around the maze underneath Warsaw Central station (which is getting a major refurbishment due to the football championships taken place in the city in 2012), and around the side streets, I managed to find a small shop which was opened for twenty-four hours, so I managed to buy six cans of beer, which usually does the trick for me to get to sleep. Leaving the store, some middle aged man approached me speaking English but looking completely out of it, asking me for money for beer. Usually I would reply and say something nasty but I gave him the look of confusion, said nothing, crossed my arms, looked him up and down and walked away like a typical Parisian man who doesn’t want to know. I still needed food so I kept walking around and under the station I managed to find a small shop with food in it. The girl asked me what I was looking for and I replied ‘breakfast!’ She gave me a confused look and understood that I had a long train journey ahead of me. The food I brought consisted of three bread rolls, a chocolate bar and some Jaffa cakes plus a bottle of water.

I waited at the train station for thirty minutes (after checking out my emails in the local cafe), with the wind blowing through the main concourse, I was getting frozen very quickly. In the end I had to crouch down in the corner next to the staircase trying to keep warm but this didn’t help with the main departure screen saying my train was ten minutes delayed. My mind wasn’t clear, I had been up nearly twenty hours now and I was not so looking forward to the train journey ahead. All alone, no one to talk to, all I wanted to do now was to get to my destination in southern Poland. I am stuck in this god forsaken city. My views of Warsaw are not that great, the history of the city has been written and it’s not the locals fault (Warsaw Uprising during the Second World War springs to mind). Looking around the place is so grey and dull, all concrete and that terrible building known as ‘The Palace of Culture’ nearby looks so unhealthy even when lit up at night, all glowing in purple.

Downstairs I went underneath the street level where the platforms were located and about fifty people were waiting for the same train as me. The train consisting of seventeen coaches at least rolled in but I was told at the last minute to run from one end of the train to the other end (which is a very long way and virtually the whole length of the platform) as the train splits into two at Krakow, one end stays in the city and the other end of the train goes all the way to the final destination of Zakopane. Boarded the train and walked up and down the coaches looking for a quiet space on the train without much luck so I went into a cabin of eight seats which had two Polish men in their 30’s, shaved heads, slim, and wearing t-shirt with blue jeans with an old Polish woman sitting across from me who started to talk to me. I didn’t have a clue what she was saying, I even asked her if she spoke Russian or German but without much luck. So we all talked in one language which was the language of drinking beer. What a great way to make friends, I thought. The train pulled out of Warsaw Central station and before the end of the platforms another drunk Polish man in his early 20’s opened the cabin door and collapsed (whilst laughing) in the seat next to me. We all welcomed him with a can of beer and we all had a great time for the next hour. The drunk spoke very little English, French and Russian so this eased me into a state of relaxation, which I think the beer helped a little.

After all the cans of beer were empty, one of the Polish guys got a bottle of something out of his bag and poured this orange thick creamy substance into a small cup for me to have a shot off. My face all scrunched up and my muscles went into a state of shock which got a few laughs around the cabin. Then I had another and another before crouching up into my corner of the cabin, all drunk and very sleepy. During the night, I kept getting woken up by the usual things, the noise of the wheels underneath the carriage, the ticket examiners shaking me just to look at my €5 ticket and the drunken man next to me dashing in and out of the cabin for toilet breaks and smoking a cigarette out of the window in the corridor before crashing out on the floor in the cabin, all stretched out like a cat who can’t be bothered to do anything with his life.

I woke up a few hours later when the sun’s rays were shining on my face. I looked around with one of the biggest headaches I have ever had in my entire life. The old Polish grandmother was gone and within a few minutes, the two Polish men who welcomed me were very welcomed (but never caught their names), shook my hands and made tracks. This just left me and the sleeping cat (the other drunk who came late into the cabin at the start of the journey) on the floor. I stood up, opened the window to get some fresh air into the cabin but then I had to suddenly rush to the toilet at the end of the carriage. After nearly breaking down the door as it was stiff, I bent down on my knees and vomited into the toilet bowl with my eyes closed. I felt a splash back, what was going on? I opened my eyes and noticed that the toilet was blocked with toilet paper, other kinds of paper, other people’s vomit and waste and after testing the flush to get some running water in there, which there wasn’t, the vomit which I just added to this beautiful arty design had just overflowed onto the floor. After a few minutes, I left and headed back to the cabin where I saw the sleeping cat now fully awake but looked so out of it as he was also very hungover. After a few words (and him also getting another can of beer out and started drinking that as it was his cure to get rid of his headache), he departed to which now I was all left alone again in the cabin.

The train rolled through the valleys of southern Poland with the terrain slightly getting higher and higher, beautiful villages with alpine chalets passed with no signs of people, cars or life in general. It was all very pleasant. I kept my head out of the window for at least an hour to clear my head, enjoying the view before rolling into the last station of the line, Zakopane, where my colleague and friend from Marylebone, Anita, welcomed me with open arms and off we went to the hotel so I could quickly get refreshed, hopefully get rid of this hangover and get out into the mountains for some ‘light’ hiking.

October 3rd 2011

Anita from work is a small, slim girl, slightly older than me by a few years; 5ft7, with short darkish hair and bright sparkling eyes who is also a manager and works alongside me at Marylebone station back in London. Born and raised in Poland, Anita is very bubbly in character, always smiling and very strong minded. This always makes a good combination for the few days of hiking ahead and for me, a great person to go hiking with; we both got the same characteristics. I have known Anita for a few years now and always got along with her but I didn't really know her not that well outside work so this should be an interesting trip to get to know each other, a team bonding trip I called this.

As it was now after lunchtime, we only had a few hours of sunlight left so a short hike with some caves on route was planned. I let her plan the hikes, the days etc, as she knows the area and this meant I don’t have to think as much as I usually plan trips. It made a change to let someone else take the lead and Anita did this brilliantly. Straight away she led us to the minibus station and within ten minutes we had arrived at our destination.

We arrived at the entrance of Dolina Koscieliska which is a national park to the west of Zakopane. It was very quiet, not many hikers about as it was now out of season. With Anita’s map, we wasted no time and walked along this gravel track straight into the heart of the park. The road was fairly flat, as it was going through a valley with high mountain ranges rising up on both sides and tall pine trees overlooking us, blocking out the bright sunshine. We took a turn to the left a few minutes later and started climbing up a stony trail with huge rocks acting as steps. At the top of the trail was our first destination, Mrozna cave, (the cold cave) which has a constant temperature of 42.8F, regardless of what time of the year. There is one path through the cave which is around 1870ft long, with electrical lighting showing us the way. Cold, damp in places and crawling down on knees in places which meant I got dirty, which didn’t bother me in the slightest. Anita was amazed with the place, never letting her smile go away, I never knew anyone to be so bubbly and excited about going through a cave before. I been through many caves before, ones in Slovenia, England, Spain etc, so being underground is just something I do, but to see her smile all the time and be upbeat about getting mud on her knees, dirt on her back and even my camera failing to work didn’t dampen her spirits.

We then headed back onto the main trail route through the heart of the park and then turned off again a few minutes later, crossing a bridge where a fast flowing stream was underneath us, gushing away. Up another steep trail and we landed up in an area known as the Krakow gorge. Here lies steep limestone walls above the valley and in parts we had to use the chains which were attached to the walls to climb up the gorge. After a while at the bottom of the gorge, we came across a steel ladder which after a short climb, marked the beginning of the steep route towards the next cave known as Smocza Jama (which means Pit of the Dragon). We met another young Polish couple where the female was struggling to climb into the cave whilst her partner was doing all the best to help her. After a while he approached Anita to ask if we had a light and she did, she came prepared and had a wind up torch. They let us lead the way and away we climb into the cave, heading upwards all the time. We had to use the chains provided and towards the other end of the cave (which opens out back into the gorge), it got very steep, but Anita and I were fine. I didn’t climb out of the other end of the cave as I was keeping an eye on the other couple. The girl was having so much trouble climbing up; even her partner behind her couldn’t do much or give good advice. I said I will come back down and assist but they didn’t want it even though she was really struggling. After five minutes she eventually got out but Anita and I knew that her partner was pushing her too much to complete the trail and maybe she was out of her depth. We left them in peace and headed back into the heart of the valley.

After a while it was time to take another trail of the main trail which leads up to two caves which were located near one another. The first cave we did was the Raptawicka cave which was a little bit tough getting to the entrance to, as once again we had to pull ourselves up the solid rock which was steep by using chains which were provided. Then at the top, we had to climb down a steel ladder which leads us to the heart of the cave. A flash light wasn’t really needed here as a lot of sunlight was pouring through the entrance above us. It was huge but nothing much to see to be honest. Anita was worried about bats but none was to be seen.

Back up the ladder and down the cliff, we walked further up the trail to the entrance of the Mylna Cave, which is one of the largest in the Tatra Mountains and is one of the most difficult to cross. We both went inside and found out it was so easy to get lost in this cave, to which finding the markings for this 984ft trail was difficult. At some points of going through the caves, we were walking (or crawling) on all arms and legs, pulling through small openings on the route with dirty muddy water going onto our clothing, or our backpacks getting caught by the rocks above us. We needed a flashlight all the time as it was dark and no natural light was visible. After a while, about fifteen minutes from starting out in this cave, we both decided to turn back as it was getting more dangerous and we needed a better light. After managing our way back to the entrance, we left the cave disappointed but vowed that if we come back here, we will conquer it. It was the only slightly dampened thought of the afternoon but we tried not to let this get us down.

Further up the trail we stopped off at a lodge known as Hall Ornak, which is 1,100meters above sea level. It is a hostel for hikers who want to stay in the building so they can have early starts on the hiking trail and also consist of a restaurant, cafe bar, and toilets etc. We had a good cup of tea here and drank this outside on the table with benches. We were the only one’s outside as it was getting a bit chilly but we had a great time talking away, whilst feeding a bird and a dog some bits of bread which they enjoyed.

The sun was quickly setting and it was time to hike back to the entrance of the park which took us around forty five minutes. It was a clear sky and with the sun set, the sky turned slightly purple and pink in colour, whilst all the mountains and trees around us were all in darkness. By the time we finished the trail, the half moon was above us, shining its white glaring light on our backs, sending a chill up my back. We managed to get a bus back into Zakopane where we stopped off in a restaurant on route to the hotel to have meat dumplings which was excellent and a beer, whilst a group of men dressed in traditional costumes played local instruments with local tunes. I was all relaxed now and was ready to sleep, so I thought. After getting back to the hotel and refreshing myself once again, I had trouble sleeping all night. In total, I managed to get around two hours of sleep, which wasn’t the best preparation for the next day of intensive hiking ahead.

October 4th 2011

An early start today, the alarm on both of our cell phones went off and I looked across the room to her bed, to see Anita’s face if she was awake and of course she was, she looked back, without words, the look in our faces said it all, we both knew that a good day’s hiking was about to begin. After getting ready, we took a minibus to Morskie Oko which is quite a distance away from Zakopane and lies high up in the Tatra Mountains to the south.

Disembarking from the bus and entering the park, we had a nice steady ascend on a nice smooth gravel road towards Morskie Oko. We both picked up the pace and did a ‘power walk’ towards our destination. There was not much of a view from the road as on both sides there were trees overlooking us but eventually we could see the mountains around us. The sky was grey and dull but soon as the sun warmed up, the clouds cleared to give us a nice sunny blue sky.

I saw the building at Morskie Oko in the far distance and after two hours hiking, I knew I needed to give my feet a rest for a little while and grab a nice cup of tea. I didn’t really know the first major sight on today’s trip was to be found here, so when we both got to Morskie Oko, I looked to my right and it was one of the best views I have seen for a lake in the mountains in my entire life. It was wonderful. The reflections of the surrounding mountains on the lake, not many people about, birds flying in the distance and ducks making love on the shores, it was nice.

We went inside for a while to warm up and the cup of tea was nice. I started drinking tea without milk on this trip and I now prefer it. We sat at the table, looking out of the window, seeing the beautiful view. Even though we needed to rest, Anita’s face read that she wanted to get back outside as soon as possible as there was so much to see and I am sure when she looked at me as she saw I had the eye of adventure within me.

Back outside we took our time, doing some wonderful scenery photography and enjoying the quietness around us. The water was clear, fresh and a pleasure to put over my face to swipe away the sweat. It really did refresh me. Walking around this lake was one of the highlights of my journey so far. I really do love being outside and enjoying nature. All around, the leaves on the tree were turning orange and crispy; autumn was coming in, fish in the lake swimming around and not a soul to be seen in sight. It was like me and Anita had the whole lake to us. It was marvellous.

It was time to make a move up to the mountain so after forty minutes hiking up some stony steps, we came up to another lake in the mountains which overlooks the lake we were just at. It was fantastic but at first the views of this lake weren't as great, but as I found out later hiking up the mountains and looking back on both lakes, the views were amazing. It was an unbelievable experience, one which I will not forget in a hurry.

From the upper lake, I kept looking up to the peaks of the mountains in front of us and kept asking Anita which one is Mountain Rysy, which is the highest mountain peak in Poland. We couldn’t quite see it as there is another mountain peak in front of it, known as Niznie Rysy (2430m) covering it. It is weird as this mountain is seventy meters lower and also looks like that this peak is higher than Rysy itself.

Then the challenge started. From the upper lake, we climbed steps made out of big rocks and boulders and the further we went up, the steeper and more dangerous the terrain became. Whilst during this, I tried to do my usual burst of singing up in the mountains even though I am such a terrible singer but I was out of breath straight away and the thin air up here didn’t help. So no singing today which was probably a relief for Anita. After an hour it was time to use the chains provided which were locked into the mountain side and we spent another hour pulling ourselves up to the next level, in some places swinging from one rock to another. I let Anita take the lead as she is smaller than me, so if there were any big steps, I would give her a leg up, or if she slipped I could usually grab her and use my weight to stop her falling any further. (I always seem to put other people around me before myself, I am so caring!). At one point, it got tiring but we both had to stop for around thirty seconds to catch our breath. At one point I checked my pulse and heart beat to make sure I was ok and I was around 100 beats per minute (average is 72 b.p.m).

The summit was in sight, one last push was needed up the last set of chains and then we did it! We were at the summit of Mountain Rysy (2499.2m) and we sat on a ledge (and celebrated with a ham roll, Jaffa cakes for energy) and water (cup of tea for Anita). We didn’t have much time up here as it was already the middle of the afternoon and it took us around six hours to reach the summit, but we did spend a lot of time in Morskie Oko around the lower lake. Anita spoke to a few other hikers on the way before we reached the summit and found out that the descent down the mountain was a lot easier and quicker on the Slovakian side and at the bottom there is a local bus service which would take us to the nearest town to connect with another bus to Zakopane at 18:30. It was 15:20 now and we were told we could get to this bus stop in over two hours thereabouts. Time was not really on our side now as we knew the sun would set in three hours time, so after our short rest at the summit, it was time to head down and we took the advice of the other hikers and crossed the border into Slovakia.

The descent was a lot easier than the Polish side with more of a path to lead us all the way down. Anita was struggling a little because of pains in her knees but she did remarkably well to get to the bottom of the mountains, where’s me stupidly at one point (whilst using chains to get down this rock), slammed my back and left leg into the side of the rock, therefore making a lot of pain and a few cuts and bruises which didn’t really affect me. My mind was so focused on getting us to that bus stop that I managed to push the pain to the back of my head.

We managed to get to the bus stop with about five minutes to spare and by this point, the sun was behind the nearby mountains to the west and the dark clouds came over us and the night sky was in full swing. We waited a few minutes but no bus came. There was no one else about apart from a few locals who jumped onto a train which came along and whisk them away back towards the mountains. Then it was silent and the look on Anita’s face was worrying. She knew we were in trouble but I knew we weren't and tried to rest assure her. Then a car came along, Anita stopped it, spoke to the female driver and she spoke good English. In the next few minutes she offered us a lift to the nearest town which was about 10km away. I was sitting in the front passenger seat, being quiet, recouping from the ten hour hike of the day and this worried Anita even more as she thought I was really pissed off with her. How could I be pissed off, I was having the time of my life, this was an adventure. We were lost in the middle of Slovakia, didn't have a clue where we were going, everything in darkness, and how could I not like this? I had a few plans in my head circling around my head at the time, planning the next move if we did get stuck here in Slovakia. Do we get a taxi or find accommodation for the night? Hiking 21km was not an option back across the mountains!

We came into a town called Dolny Smokovec (in Polish – Dolny Smokowiec), and the driver noticed a bus in the bus station. She parked the car alongside the bus and we found out that this was the last bus to Zakopane (on another route) for the evening and we made it with a few minutes to spare. I was very grateful to the driver and gave her the biggest smile ever and the typical English wave, whilst Anita went the full length and gave her a hug! We sat on the bus, happy, exhausted, hungry and an hour later we arrived back at Zakopane for a quick refreshing shower and we headed back into town for a fish meal to celebrate.

October 5th 2011

This was the last full day of my visit to the mountains. I had trouble sleeping again during the night and felt so cold most of the time. I spent most of the night looking out of the window at the mountains in the far distance with the moonlight shining on them, then writing postcards, watching television, and listening to other hikers making their breakfast in the kitchen before I decided to wake Anita up around 07:30. She was shocked (and a little bit worried) that I had been up for most of the night but I told her not to worry and also replied that the weather was excellent for another day’s hike in the mountains.

Within an hour we were back on the bus to Dolina Koscieliska national park, and started to hike up the main trail for a short distance before taking a turn to the left which made us go up this very steep trail up the mountain side. After nearly two hours hiking, we reached the summit of the mountain we were climbing (which I have to admit, I can’t remember what it was called). Anyway, at the top, it was time to chill out, so after sitting down and looking into Slovakia with amazing views, I laid down in the grass, all relaxed, loving the sun rays on my face amidst the sharp cool crisp air. We still had five hours to do the next part of the hike before the last cable car down the mountain departed, so we had plenty of time. This is the start of the Czerwone Wierchy’s route which goes over several peaks, including the mountains of Czerwone Wierchy, Adamice, Ciemiak and Krzesanica (I hope I got it right). The views were stunning, some of the best I have seen.

Anita had a few problems with her knee at this point and was finding the going tough, but with encouragement and support from me she had the determination to get to the cable car station. We had a few difficult hours to get to the finish but we shared the pain, the worries, the excitement, the relief and acted very well as a team. I won’t write in detail what happened on the Czerwone Wierchy ridge, but I am sure she won’t forget this in a hurry (piggy-backing with two rucksacks comes to mind).

We made it to the cable car station with about thirty minutes to spare and the joy in Anita’s face could be seen. I have never seen her so happy and relieved and within minutes we were heading down to the valley of Zakopane in the cable car.

I had a few things to do and sort out before sleeping this evening but when it came to sleeping, I think I had about two hours of sleep before I had to get up at 03:30, as I had an early train to Krakow to catch. Anita made sure I was up as she knew that I had to get to work back in London that afternoon and it was Olga’s (my wife) birthday, so if I missed the morning flight from Krakow, then everything will not be good for me.

I said my goodbyes to Anita and made my way to the train station whilst on route, I saw shooting stars in the clear dark sky. The perfect way to end the perfect trip. I boarded the 04:16 train from Zakopane and the journey took over 3h30 to get to Krakow Glowny (central) station but still I couldn’t get any sleep.

This trip was amazing and one of the best I had, not just because of the mountains and the views, the food, the culture, but because of achieving something which I haven’t done in years, reaching the summit of around eight mountains in two days, climbing through caves and also providing the support, skills etc to Anita and hoping that I gave her the strength to get through the pain, the anger and the difficult points in our journey.

Click here for my hiking blogs of the Lower Tatras in Slovakia

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