As long time readers of my blog will know, I run to the mountains at any chance I get. At the end of August my husband and I were able to get away for a night to the Vysoké Tatry, the High Tatra mountains. (Another weekend without children in one summer! The luxury of older children and teenage nieces and nephews.)
This time we’re off to the Vysoké Tatry, the highest mountains in Slovakia and the highest range in the Carpathian mountain system that stretches from Austria to Ukraine and down to Romania. As much as I love hiking, I haven’t hiked here much because of so many years of having children too big to pack but too small to hike far.
We arrive in the evening at Štrbské Pleso, one of the towns used as a base to go hiking from. A pleso is a tarn, a lake carved from glacial movement that leaves behind a valley/hole that fills with water. Štrbské Pleso mostly consists of hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops.
As we drive up to the village, wide swaths of hill are left with solitary trees, pines with skinny trunks, one here, one there. In 2008 a windstorm left a path of destruction behind, changing the face of the Tatras. Because there are no trees to limit the view, two prime samples of Communist architecture stick out as seen from the road below. One is a hideous inverted leaning triangle orange and white tiered affair and it commands the view from the hill over the valley below.
There are two ski jumping towers behind the lake. The Nordic World Ski Championships were held in the Vysoké Tatry in 1935 and 1970, attended by something like a hundred thousand viewers. My husband tells me that the area was set to hold the Olympics in 1984 as Czechoslovakia but politicians pulled the bid at the last moment because, they admitted, the Czechs wouldn’t be able to stand the thought of the Olympics being held on the Slovak side. The president, who was Slovak, recommended not creating a rift between the two people apart over such a matter. Of course, a rift was made, but one of resentment rather than jealousy, in this case at least.
A wide flat path rings the lake. One side of the lake is treed, except for one peeling block tower thing sticking up. The dirty-white construction contrasts with the dark green forest, in a bad way. An off-set triangular shaped hotel is on another side. And on yet a third side are the fancy hotels, some new, some old. The new ones boast huge window panes – all covered with curtains. A whole wall of windows runs the span of a sauna/spa/wellness place. While the view from inside must be fantastic, I’m not sure I would find being stared at by passersby (and there are many) very conducive to relaxing. The old hotels have been renovated, and are beautiful.
I may have opinions about architecture.
We eat at Furkotka and, while I can’t compare it with others, the meal there is enjoyable. The restaurant has a cozy atmosphere decorated with plenty of wood and antiques, and a children’s play area. I order strapačky (halušky potato dumplings with sauerkraut) with sausage skewers on top and it is delicious – and huge. Even I, with a hearty appetite, can’t finish it off. The tea is a disappointment though; for the price I’m expecting forged herbs, not a mediocre tea bag.
Starting the hike
To avoid crowds, the next morning we start out at 5:30, a tinge of pink in the eastern sky. Few other early birds are out in the brisk morning. I’m annoyed by the amount of toilet paper on the side of the trail at some parts (soap box towards the end of the post).
My husband is a climber, and points out not only peaks but various outcroppings of rock that each have their own names. I can’t retain the Slovak names and immediately forget. At one point he sighs. “Whenever I see those mountains (shown below), I just want to go climbing up there.”
Whenever I try to take pictures while hiking with my husband, I’m reminded of the children’s book, Blueberries for Sal. Sal and the baby bear sit down to eat blueberries, and then they have to “hustle along to catch up.” Good thing he’s wearing a bright orange jacket and unlikely to get mixed up on the hill.
We’re headed to Kôprovský štít, a peak of 2,363 m (7753 feet). It’s one of the few marked trails in the High Tatras that my husband hasn’t hiked yet. On the way, we pass packs of water strapped to wooden framed packs, with more water in a mini shed. “Loads are between 5-10 kg (11-22 lbs), free tea if you pack it up to Chata Rysy” reads a sign.
The beginning of our hike is the same as to Chata Rysy, where supplies are still packed up by porters. A few chalets in Slovakia still use porters to carry up all their supplies, the last in Europe. The porters carry around 70 kg (154 lbs) a trip, their packs towering above their head. We pass one resting on his way up.
The sunlight continues to creep down the mountain tops, though our hike is in the still cool valley, called Mengusovská dolina. As we near the top of the valley, we can see the it spread out below us. I feel a bit of pride as I look at the zig-zagging trail climbing up to Sedlo pod Ostrvou (Saddle below Ostrva peak) – the twins hiked up on their own two legs when they were three. If you look closely, you can see a faint line on the far mountain, just right of the photo centre.
The sun finally reaches us, bringing immediate warmth.
We crest the top of the valley, and are surrounded by a ring of craggy peaks. Little ponds are hidden in the folds of the meadow. If I could stay here, I would.
Veľké Hincovo pleso
At the end of the valley is Veľké Hincovo pleso, the largest and deepest tarn lake in Slovakia. The teal water hides the 53 m (174 feet) depth. The lake is at the base of a ridge of peaks that forms the border with Poland. As beautiful as it is, however, we don’t stay for long; a biting wind is rushing off the lake and we are cold, despite it still being summer. I’m not sure how the wind can work up to such a gust, as it comes from the direction of the eastern mountains and doesn’t have any room to speed up.
After we get out of the wind, we stop for breakfast. We’ve been hiking for almost three hours on empty stomachs. As we eat, we look at the switchbacking trail up to the saddle above. The view stretches from the rolling alpine meadow punctuated with bare rock and rippling ponds to the forest carpeted valley below to the fields beyond the mountains.
Veľké (big) Hincovo pleso on the left, Malé (little) Hincovo pleso on the right.
At the top of the saddle, my husband turns to me. “Let’s make this a little more exciting,” he says. In my slowness, I’m not quite sure what he means. My husband is not one to start bursting into song or capering about, which is all I can think of. “Let’s leave the trail and hike along the ridge.” Highschool biology class (alpine vegetation is very slow to grow) and working in a park have conditioned me to stick to the trail. “But so many people hike here, if they all start wandering around the ridge…” I weakly respond. “Pshaw,” scoffs my husband, and up the ridge we go.
The saddle is on the very left; look carefully for obedient hikers towards the bottom right for a sense of scale.
I wrote in the last post on Veľký Choč about my cautiousness of heights. Walking along the ridge is a happy medium, however. Being in his climbing habitat is causing my husband to itch to go climbing, so he can kind of boulder up the rocks of the ridge that drops off, while I mostly scramble up the not-drop-off-side.
“Naomi, come sit with me here,” I hear. I find him sitting on a small ledge that dropped off to the lake below. I hum and haw. Not one to wimp out after at few pokes though, I grit my teeth and join him. Sitting on the ledge, despite feet dangling over nothing, I feel perfectly fine. It’s standing up and moving that bothers me. Part of it is that I have an overactive imagination. As I sit, I see myself climbing back up, tripping on a rock, and falling bum first down the cliff. And I know what that sensation feels like. Hardly helpful. When I tell my husband what I had imagined, he asks incredulously, “Where did that come from?” Hmmm, I wonder.
Them little rocks is a lot farther than they look in a photo. You can see the wind streaking across the lake.
The last stretch up to Kôprovský štít is a scramble. The peak itself is actually quite pointy, like the mountain tops in a child’s drawing. Despite the lack of room, the other people already there are dancing around with their selfie sticks but nobody falls, though I keep expecting somebody to. I find a spot to sit before I take out my camera.
A group of young women hikes up. One of their companions sits on the side while the others play How Many Girls Can You Fit On A Mountain Peak. “Maja,” one calls, “come up here!” “No,” she calls back, “I’m scared!” I get you, Maja.
We started out early enough that until now, we’ve hardly seen anybody on the trail. Even as we sit on the peak, however, more people start showing up. We start back down, and the lower we go the more people there are. Many people hike as far as the lakes before turning back. Some people are fitted in the coolest of outdoor gear, others are in jeans and running shoes. Some are in shape, others are barely surviving halfway up the trail. We practically run down to Popradské Pleso.
We decide to have lunch in a little secret valley. Around the mountains are little unmarked trails for climbing access. You have to know where they are to find them and only registered climbers are supposed to use the trails with the intention to climb. *cough* During the summer months the High Tatras are so full of people, I couldn’t help wanting to rest somewhere not crawling with hikers.
I’d rave about what a lovely valley it is, but then you’ll want to go there and I’ll get in trouble for telling everyone about it. Suffice to say it’s a high valley with craggy cliffs on one side, soaring mountain peaks on the other, and a waterfall/creek running through the middle. Is that a short description of paradise?
Lunch and a snooze later, we hike back down to Štrbské Pleso, very busy in the late afternoon. My husband is training for a half-marathon and is dedicated to his training schedule – he ran around the lake for another 10 km. I, on the other hand, had a nap in the car.
Problems with the High Tatras
The High Tatras are a short mountain range, but it’s almost like all the grandeur got squished into a small area. High valleys are surrounded by multiple peaks, craggy cliffs towering above.
I’m not the only one who love the mountains, obviously. In July and August, there are many tourists in the area. A number of friends commented this summer on the sheer number of hikers. “Like a highway,” and “head upon head” were some of the expressions used. One of the more popular trails up to the symbolic peak Kriváň has a narrow section where people can only move one way; a friend reported waiting times of an hour and a half.
The Vysoké Tatry are popular not only with Slovaks but also with those from surrounding countries, particularly Czechs and Poles. Russian companies apparently own large chunks.
The only designated toilet areas are at chalets, however, which means that on our hike the only toilet was at Popradské Pleso. Between Štrbské Pleso and Popradské Pleso, on both the red and green trails, the side of the trail was often littered with kleenexes, with the occasional smell of excrement.
Part of it is missing infrastructure to deal with the numbers of visitors, but part of it is also education. Littering is a problem in Slovakia in general, but why would you go to the mountains as a beautiful destination and then leave garbage on the side? I get it, nature calls and kids especially can’t hold it. Bring a bag and put your paper in it. That’s gross, you say, but if you don’t want to deal with your own toilet paper, certainly nobody else wants to.
This problem isn’t just one of the High Tatras however, it’s an issue I’ve noticed on many popular hikes in Slovakia. When I think of a popular hiking trail near my hometown in Canada, there are outhouses at the trailhead, km four, km seven, and km eleven. Yes, someone has to maintain them, but the village of Štrbské Pleso charges parking fees and isn’t that what the fees are for? I’m more willing to pay a parking fee if I can see what the fees are going towards, i.e. maintaining the park rather than to somebody’s pocket.
Anyway, enough moralizing from me. In short: the High Tatras are amazingly beautiful, September is the best month to visit but if you go during the summer try to leave as early in the morning as you can.
Forgive my video making skills – I’ve got a lot to learn. But you get the picture.
Veľké Hincovo pleso
Malé Hincovo pleso
View from Kôprovský štít
I’m always so impressed by plants that doggedly survive at high, cold, windy altitudes with almost no dirt.