I pointed to the three dimensional map, “How long to hike this section?”
"Five to six 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.
"Hmmm," 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 old man looked at my shoes, and then turned his eyes to me with doubt screaming out from his silent face. "“Not so good?" I asked, knowing the answer before I finished the question.
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 liked it gently meandered up to the chalet via a valley between two long ranges.
"Two to three hours."
"Yeah, that sounds more like it. Thank you." We would still have 200 or so metres to climb through snow, but how bad could it be?
My girlfriend, 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, take the advice of the old man and go the easy hike up, stay the night, then amble the same way back down.
After speaking with the man, Bec and I walked out into the late afternoon. Tiny, white snowflakes 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 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 into the mountains, and to the start of our hiking trail. Inspired by the bright sunshine that washed down from the clear blue sky early the next morning, we decided to walk the 45 minutes up to the official start of the hike. What’s 45 minutes on top of two or three hours? Nothing.
The bottom section took us first across a barren hillside, a graveyard of trees. It seemed Stary Smokovec had, during the crossover period between the summer hikers and the winter skiers, decided to log the shit out of the surrounding hills. We had grave thoughts of ten or fifteen year’s down the track, of a place much more developed for tourists, with swanky overpriced hotels filling the now barren, ugly lower hills. We later learned that the trees had been felled almost a year earlier by Mother Nature during a vicious storm.
Beyond the stumps of trees, we soon entered into the surviving pine 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’s Julian Alps a few weeks prior; 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 scene, especially given I had never even seen snow until six months earlier, 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-masochistic 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 single line of huge foot holes already in the snow that I was able to track, preventing me from sinking a foot down into the icy powder, were like presents on Christmas morning.
After another hour or two of walking up a slight incline, the trees began to thin out, and rocks soon dominated 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, naturally, we would stop to marvel at our surroundings. We pushed on over the snow-covered rocks, past more icy mountain streams and small waterfalls visible only through small holes in the snow and ice.
On our previous couple of hikes, to the peaks of Ben Lomond in Scotland and Mount Vogel in Slovenia, Bec had struck some knee problems during the descent. On those occasions, 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 brought some pain killers 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 to use as steps. The sharp rise of 50 feet or so was covered only in snow about a foot and a half deep. As we struggled up, Bec wincing with pain every few steps, we passed a hiking couple coming down, wearing identical red fleece outfits. The guy was wielding high-tech walking poles, confidently striding down through the snow, mocking us with his fancy equipment and boots that kept out the moisture and stopped toes from going numb. Clearly, we were a bit out of our element. And I hated the fact that I couldn’t help Bec beyond offering words of encouragement. I could see her behind me, shaking her head and muttering under her breath, as she struggled with each step. I only felt worse, too, because I was loving it. I felt like a little kid again, exploring out in the bush.
About five hours after beginning, 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 earned it. Afterwards, we got the chalet 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."
That’s the front door, folks. The toilets were housed in a small separate shack sitting on the edge of the cliff. We went out for a look, four long drops, cold, dark and smelly. There was a thermometer on the front door; it wasn’t yet 4:00 p.m., but the temperature was already down to minus three degrees Celsius, and dropping.
We shared the chalet with a group of three middle-aged Polish men, who were knocking back shots of whiskey and slivovic as though they were college students finished with their final exam. Also staying the night was a couple of families; some parents and four or five kids all aged under ten. We ate dinner together in a small room with views of the darkening peaks. It was 6:00 p.m., and the fading outside light cast a dull grey over the room. As it got darker, two or three kerosene lamps were bought out, and by 6.30 p.m., they were our only light. Bec and I were battling to stay awake, and forced ourselves to stay up until 7.30 p.m. No one else spoke English, so there wasn’t exactly a lot we could do.
After a restless, but thankfully warm night's 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. Again, 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 from the cold, and once the sun became too bright to look at, I retreated into the warmth of the chalet.
By 8:15 a.m., we were on our way 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 crack as it broke free from the rock and tumbled down the mountain. The sound raced around the valley like a gunshot.
Four 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 (another 45 minutes on our feet would be 45 minutes too many). Once down, we grabbed ourselves a hot meal, took a much-needed shower and slept like giants.
From David Hogan's BootsnAll blog, The Fanta Pants Diaries.