“Black Skyscrapers rising from a forest”
By John Henderson
You have a lot of time to think when you’re alone, staring down at cloud cover and up at impossibly steep black peaks rising from cobalt blue lakes below. You think about the environment. You think about the exhaustion.
You think about the butterfly that followed you solo for kilometers along the side of a little-known mountain range. In my case, as I stood in the middle of Slovakia’s High Tatras, I also thought of history, my history.
I’ve hiked in the Himalayas and Andes and Alps. I’ve climbed in the Colorado Rockies.
Yet I couldn’t remember a view that stopped me in my tracks like this since 1992 when I stood atop Kilimanjaro and saw the sun rise over Africa.
From this viewpoint, smack dab in the middle of Europe, the High Tatras look like black skyscrapers rising from a forest out of Gulliver’s Travels. Each mountain is a sheer rock face as steep as elevator shafts. Snow speckles the peaks poking above wispy clouds.
Don’t feel bad if the High Tatras missed your global radar. Slovakia has been considered the country cousin of glitzier Czech Republic ever since Czechoslovakia’s collapse in 1992.
When the two new countries opened up to mass tourism in the ‘90s, Czech Republic became the city and culture destination. Slovakia became the nature destination. Americans flock to Prague, drink its beer, admire its women, then leave. Few venture past the eastern border into Slovakia.
I, meanwhile, found myself in the back of beyond.
However, the High Tatras are old hat to Eastern Europeans. About 5 million people go there for the hiking in summer and skiing in winter.
The High Tatras sit on the middle of Slovakia’s spine like a small saddle. In an area covering only about 40 x 15 miles are two dozen black, craggy mountains ranging from 7,000-8,700 feet, all standing
Five Million Visitors a year
out individually like sentries guarding the nearby Polish border 15 miles away. Snaking up from the base town of Poprad are 360 miles of trails, all as well marked as California freeways.
Also, the High Tatras have old mountain huts spaced a convenient distance apart to ensure point-to-point backpacking. Waiting for me after each day was a soft mattress, a hot meal and good conversation.
My pre-trek prep began in my Poprad hotel with a consultation from Danka, the young, very fit Travelslovakia representative. She provided me with a relief map so detailed it nearly identified bird’s nests.
She explained that I’d hike four hours the first day, four the next, five the next and three the final one. That’s not very long but much of the hiking will be at 8,000 feet and while I’m fit, I’m not hiking fit. I doubt climbing the 90 steps to my Rome apartment constitutes high-altitude training.
The trek began with a bus ride to the village of Tatranska Kotlina, a pleasant, tree-covered village known for its close proximity to trailheads and a designated Spider Trail I nearly walked down by mistake.
Once headed in the right direction, I went west and immediately ran into thick forest that rolled upward through the trees.
Through breaks in the forest, I could see green farmland and valleys below. They all grew smaller as I continued to climb.
It had rained the day before and it only took one slip to turn my nice do-everything Merrills into nothing but a mud-caked hiking shoe. About halfway through the hike, a rolling river ran below the trees. Nearby a Slovak man showed his pre-school son how to read a map. Yes, Slovakia is definitely Eastern Europe’s Colorado.
Many Families with Kids
I was not lonely. I saw many families with small children, couples in expensive hiking gear and stocky Germans refusing to wear long sleeves in temperatures that wouldn’t top 50 degrees. They were all going or coming from one of the tongue-twisting huts dotting the trails. Zelenom pleso is a “hut” in Slovak only. It’s a large, two-story A-frame building with 56 beds in double, triple and dormitory rooms.
As I sat in the crowded dining room, I looked out the window and tried to decide what’s the better view: the one to my left of window boxes filled with pink and white flowers, with a green lake in the background and a craggy mountain climbing to the sky?
Snow was on its higher peaks and a series of waterfalls cascaded down the rock. Then again, over my right shoulder was a series of picnic benches surrounded by wild lavender and the expanse of the thick green forest stretching into the valley I left far below this morning.
Life in the huts is an insight into the lives of Eastern Europeans. They are split into two distinct groups: the older ones still harboring the scars of a brutal communist regime and the younger ones who only know Lenin and Stalin from busts in kitschy communist theme bars.
One fit Polish blonde of 58 told my table how the communists jailed her father for having his own private enterprise. When the Soviets took control in the ‘40s, they not only took away his business but they threw him in prison.
Hiking with New Friends
I hiked the next day with the other age bracket. Igor Hubinsky, 29, is a Slovak lawyer who works in Prague where his Czech girlfriend, Barra, is a doctor. They had done this hike before. We rendezvoused the morning of Day 2 just as the sun started creeping over the mountain. It illuminated the gorgeous, crystal-clear Zelene pleso (lake in Slovak) where I could again see the mountain’s perfect reflection in the water. It looked like two mountains connected at the base with one descending deep into the ice-cold lake.
The trail started switchbacking shortly after turning the first corner. Up we went. We were climbing Velka Svistovka, at 6,683 feet, not the highest mountain in the Tatras but one with arguably the best view. Every turn made the Zelenon pleso hut we left behind smaller and smaller.
Soon it was the size of a matchbox, dwarfed by the lake beside it and the mountains hovering over it. To the right was a vast green valley stretching as far as the horizon. The only signs of mankind were the few bobbing backpacks slowly lacing up the mountain. About halfway up, Igor said ominously, “Now it starts.”
Looking up I could see the incline had increased but so had the size of the rocks. To aid hikers, wrought-iron chains were placed to pull yourself up. I could climb rocks four feet high going foothold to handhold but even my 6-foot-3 frame would get scraped against the rock. The chain, however, had just enough slack to grab and pull me over a big boulder. This went on for a good 100 feet. It wasn’t dangerous. I looked below me. If I slipped, I’d fall only about five feet. There was no exposure.
Reaching the Top
In about 90 minutes we reached the top. Every step was worth it. Below me seemed all of Slovakia. I could barely make out Zelenom pleso. A cloud over the sun made the lake look like a puddle. I was at eye level with some of the Tatras’ highest peaks which attract some of the best rock climbers in the world. I looked down at clouds floating below the summits. The entire landscape was a green carpet underneath a towering wall of rock.
From then on it was all downhill. We saw the other side of the mountain range where little villages and small lakes were speckled around the forest below. Deforestation doesn’t seem to exist in this part of Europe. Not a single clear cutting could be seen, like the perfect haircut without a hair out of place.
But Igor pointed down — way down — to a patch of land yellowish brown and curiously absent of trees. Here is where a windstorm in 2004 destroyed some of the 225,000 square feet of forest and killed two people. But in this thick forest, it was like removing a couple of curly cues of wool off a sheep.
It was only 45 minutes to the next hut, called Zamakovskeho chata, or, as they say there, Zmhvski, or something like that. I had my own private room with no roommate in the bunk above me. A big picnic area outside had about 200 day trippers eating garlic soup and goulash with big steins of cold beer at their fingertips.
On Day three, the projected five-hour hike was, instead, eight. The path went up a lot more than it did down, sometimes at about a 45-degree angle. Yet the views were absolutely astounding. To my right, craggy gray cliffs shot up to the heavens, their peaks shrouded by fog. Below me was a forest of trees cascading to a deep green valley bordered by lowland hills in the far distance.
Near the top of Velka SvistovkaAt 2:40 p.m., the trail’s upward arc went steep. My gait became slower. My pack seemed heavier. I looked up and saw the
zigzag of the switchbacks that mark steep inclines. And dark clouds were settling overhead. It was a 35-minute jaunt. But with each back and each forth, the valley below became more vast, more green, more powerful.
When I reached the top and turned a corner, the valley doubled in size. I could see Slovakia over about a 100-mile stretch. I was mesmerized. I couldn’t move.
I’ve seen mountain lakes under snow-capped peaks in the Himalayas and don’t remember doing this: Sticking my arms out to the heavens and, with no one around to hear me, scream, “THIS IS (BLEEPING) GORGEOUS!”
Sedlo pod Ostrvou isn’t a Russian satellite shot down by the Chinese. It’s a 7,537-foot mountain I found myself atop looking down at arguably the most beautiful lake of my life. Popradske pleso sits 1.2 miles down as towering cliffs and lush forests merge around it like hands around an infant.
I took some pictures of a Slovak couple who found new strength in their hugs as they gazed below.
At the conclusion of my trek, I thought about that world as I rested my tired legs back in the Poprad hotel with shots of Slivovice, Slovakia’s savagely strong plum brandy.
In a world where environmental concerns are scoffed at by many and fought for by others, the little country of Slovakia has become a quiet nature reserve.
As man destroys his surroundings around him, Slovakia has maintained a slice of this world that is as flawless as I’ve ever seen. Mother Nature, take a bow. Doff your crown to the Slovaks who have made the High Tatras mountain range one of the most beautiful in the world.
John Henderson moved to Rome after retiring from many decades as a reporter in Denver. Read his blog about life as an expat in the Eternal City, Dog Eared Passport, and follow his European adventures.