Tatras Slovakia / Poland
AUTHOR: Flo Scheimpflug
PHOTOGRAPHY: Jakob Schweighofer
The wind grabbed a waft of mist the size of an aircraft carrier and propelled it up and over the edge of the ridge. That huge, floating, swirling mass was as stupefying a sight as a pirouetting hippo. Reaching the edge of the ridge and the thick, white mass, we met the light of the low evening sun. The mist kept on rising and was full of light, as if someone had turned on a switch. The next second the wind stopped. There was not the slightest motion of air and the wide snowfields absorbed every noise. Suddenly a silence could be sensed which was so expansive it seemed endless.
At this moment any talk was superfluous. At this moment there was only one thing to do: listen. The silence evoked all one needs to know about the Tatras.
NEWS FROM THE EAST
The Tatras are the highest part of the Carpathian Mountains. Four-fifths of the Tatras belong to Slovakia (Vysoké Tatry) and one-fifth to Poland (Tatry Wysokie). With a total length of 50 kilometres and a total width of 15, it's not really a giant range. The highest summit, the Gerlachovský štít (2,655 metres), hardly impresses any serious altitude freaks. The common nickname of "smallest high mountain range in Europe" underpins the impression that climbing and mountaineering in the Tatras are not really challenging but rather more of a neat pastime.
BUT THIS REPUTATION IS DECEPTIVE
The flat hinterland out of which the Tatras majestically rise is perfect for wind and weather to generate force, accelerating toward the mountains like a raging bull and hitting them at full speed. If you're smart, you will have already finished your climb and be sitting back in the valley in a snug hut, drinking the mandatory après beverage: climbing schnapps. If not, you'll find yourself sitting out the apocalyptic side of the Tatras. The Tatras are definitely not a place where you casually stop by to score some nice winter climbs. Regardless of who you are and where you are from, climbing in the Tatras is no fast-food fare. Visiting climbers are served up traditional fare that only the boldest and strongest can digest. Only those willing to invest some time in getting to know the Tatras, their peculiarities, moods and characteristics will be able to put to use their wealth of experience — and avoid the gallows when the shit hits the fan.
THE TAMED UNRULY
The Tatras are not only an arena for extreme alpinists, their wilderness also has a lovely side which can be experienced without having to battle for survival. The woods of the Tatras are full of deer, foxes, wild boars and rare brown bears, all scrounging around between Carpathian birches, beeches and white firs. Rumour has it that even wolves prowl their lonely beats in this area. The summits and ridges, enthroned above the lush forests, not only attract wanderers and climbers but eagles as well, who circle above in search of prey. When snow and ice have finally melted away from the debris zone around the ridge, some 125 different species of flowers blossom and bring colour to the rugged tundra.
There are legendary tales of a group of like-minded men who work out in the Tatras every day of the year, regardless of the season and conditions. In most other mountain regions, manpower has been replaced with helicopters and cable cars. But not here in the Tatras. Here, carrying loads has a deep-rooted tradition among the proud porters of the region. In these mountains "the last Sherpas in Europe" shoulder their loads relentlessly to supply most of the huts with the most necessary goods. The porters are built sturdily: their thighs are as thick as tree trunks and their chests are the size of a barrel. Such an extraordinary physiology is needed to carry loads — groceries, firewood, water and linen strapped to wooden frames, which more often than not weigh between 80 and 100 kilograms — uphill for several hours. "When you walk up it's better if you stop thinking. The head has to be free and then everything else will come naturally," goes an old local saying.
"The most important thing is what happens inside your head. You have to consider each step before you take it. Your head is always tilted downwards. At some point you let your body take over. Other thoughts bubble to the surface. Things that really distract you. Life and the world, mistakes you have made, beautiful moments, death, everything at once. You are swimming in thought as much as you are in the sweat of your efforts. I am not perfect by a long way. I don't have any great wisdom that I can pass on to others. I have let people down and made mistakes in my life like everybody else. But when I strap on my bags, I am making a promise. I am going to get them up the mountain come what may. In every piece of bread and every sip of beer I carry up, there is my effort. As long as I am needed, I will be there. As part of the mountain, as part of this world."
The porters of the Tatras are unassuming people who are proud of what they do, modernisation because they have been able to withstand the ubiquitous modernization. In their profession they have won the battle of men against machines. Peter Patras is 65 years old and one of the oldest porters in the Tatras: "It's like an addiction. If I don't carry for a while I get nervous."He's been doing his job for 48 years now and he's convinced that 20 years from now there will still be porters working in the Tatras.
STYLES, RULES AND GRASS
Human existence in the Tatras is about reciprocity and symbiosis. You leave your traces whether you wander the flushing meadows or are fighting ice and snow through a steep face. Conversely, the Tatras leave their marks on you. They form your views and shape your character. If you want to get to know the Tatras, you need to take some time to get closer to their people: what they do and why they do it. This holds true especially for climbing in winter, which requires mental and physical skills that can hardly be found anywhere else.
"Pure strength doesn't get you anywhere", says Michal "Mišo" Sabovčík, one of the young guns and currently one of the fittest climbers around. "Even when you are really good you need two high-volume seasons to get along with the Tatras conditions."
The Tatras are tricky and treacherous. The granite here forms few cracks; hence, placing gear is rare to non-existent. A sixth sense, plus a lot of creativity, are much more necessary than raw lock-off power when it comes to protecting climbs. Pure ice-climbing and dry-tooling blend fluidly into one another; sometimes the axes are clipped to your harness because climbing with bare hands just works better.
"And then there's the grass." "The grass?" "Yes, the grass."
There's probably no other place on earth where people climb frozen grass, but here in the Tatras it is so fundamental to the experience. During the summer, many of the steep lines are constantly wet and grass-covered. This kind of unique vertical garden is a big advantage for alpinists when it's frozen because then those impossible lines become climbable. Of course there's also a bad side: a clove hitch around frozen straw isn't really a reliable piece of protection, nor is an ice screw driven into frozen turf. The consequence is that runouts are common and none of them are short.
Skills are one thing, rules another and even if you are swinging from frozen grass blades like a cold-weather Tarzan, there are a few need-to-know facts about climbing in the Tatras.
"The first rule is: Ground up", explains Mišo. Ground up means climbing a wall in a single push. Alternative strategies like abseiling and ascending to the highpoint via fixed ropes are out of the question. To put it simply: once the decision to climb is made, it is necessary to stick to it. That is the only way to adequately rise to the challenge.
There's no doubt that this is a clean and somewhat uncompromising style which excludes any kind of cheating. In the Tatras there are no half-measures and climbing here means you are willing to earn every metre. Absolute commitment is also required as far as the mobile protection goes. Drilling an emergency-bolt is a definite no-no: "Only the first ascentionist is allowed to place a bolt. Nobody else is allowed to add anything because this changes the character of the route. Only if you accept this can you show respect for his achievement", says Mišo.
An attitude so full of ethics and respect might sound a little too rigid for some ears and one of the consequences is that compared to other spots not many foreign climbers visit the Tatras. On the one hand this is sad because the alpine atmosphere in the Tatras is mind-blowing, but on the other hand the locals are proud of this fearsome aura. The Tatras have been preserved thanks to these local attitudes and so that climbing here is still a real adventure. Maybe this is the best reason to pay the Tatras a visit.
EVERYTHING STARTS WITH A LINE. WIESLAW STANISLAWSKI
If a climber or mountaineer gazes at a wall he never only sees a piece of rock or an amorphous mass of natural matter. He sees potential lines running along natural weaknesses like cracks, corners and chimneys. In the first place climbing a wall means to discovering these hidden labyrinths. If you want to climb you have to map the terrain and think about possible ways of manoeuvring through it. If you want to climb you have to piece together those fragments of information and envision ways of progression.
In every mountain and every wall there are hidden lines. To find one of those lines at least three qualities are necessary: you have to look precisely, you have to be creative and you have to be patient because the logic of the lines is always unique and different from wall to wall. Limestone is not granite and slate is not sandstone. Even within the stone families there are morphologic differences: The granite of the Tatras is very different from the one in Chamonix, as is the one in Yosemite from the one in the Karakorum.
Many legendary climbers have found their line in the Tatras and by climbing it they have added their bit of history to these mountains. One of the biggest visionaries was Wieslaw Stanislawski.
Stanislawski was born in Lublin on November 15, 1909, and started to climb in the High Tatras in 1928. His skills in the complex terrain improved quickly and the routes that attracted him became more extreme. The higher and more impossible-looking a wall was, the more he was drawn to it. During the years from 1928 -1933 Stanislawski's ambitions became so intense they reached almost manic dimensions: He managed 105(!) first ascents, 89 in summer and 16 in winter. To honour his indefatigable vision people still refer to these years as the "Stanislawski era."
In the 1930s there wasn't much climbing activity in the Tatras, so Stanislawski was spoilt for choice. He picked the hardest and most beautiful lines he could find and solved one big-wall problem after another. Stanislawski influenced his successors not only through his creativity but through the ethics he employed. He always picked the hardest routes and never backed down. Not even if he got himself into severe trouble. His commitment was immense and he expected the same from all other climbers too.
Stanislawski was willing to make his diaries from that era available. He wrote: "In the depths of every mountaineer's heart there is fear, even if we call this fear emotion or joy of life. We all agree that it pays off to make sacrifices to this feeling. The passion for the mountains is one of the strongest and deepest, everyone who felt it knows what I am talking about. The others will never understand."
THEY CALLED HIM SPIDER
If there's only one line, the choice seems easy. But it's a completely different situation when there's a whole mountain range of many similar lines like there are in the Tatras.
What do you do? Climb a route on every wall? Climb only the hardest routes? What is even the hardest?
If you want to tap into the soul of a mountain range and find its life line, you have to listen to its pulse. Studying the topographic map of the Tatras, you will see a continuous ridge line running from the Western Tatras over the High Tatras into the Belianske Tatras: this 72-kilometre ridge contains 134 summits and towers. Even before World War I this line caught the attention of alpinists. Many expeditions tried their luck. The first one to solve this alpine problem solo and without any external support was Pavel Pochyly who was born on September 25, 1945, in Bratislava. Pochyly's skills were so extraordinary that people gave him the nickname "Pavúk" ("spider"). In the winter of 1979 Pochyly decided to stake everything on one card and head out. Alone. A small accident would have been fatal. Even 14 days after his departure no one had heard anything about his whereabouts and his friends figured he was dead. Suddenly he appeared walking out of the mist at the meeting-point. His face looked weary, his beard was a chunk of ice and his eyes were half frozen. But Pochyly was happy, he made it and became the first person to traverse the Tatras' main ridge. The feat of a century that no one had thought possible.
WHEN PAST MEETS PRESENT
Wieslaw Stanislawski and Pavel Pochyly were only two of many legendary Tatras climbers. They may have passed away but the passion that they felt for their Tatras lives on to this day.
Michal "Mišo" Sabovčík and Adam Kadlečík spent countless days in the wintry Tatras over the past few years ticking off one hard route after the other. At one point they felt the hunger for more. For something bigger. The biggest. Searching for the ultimate self-test Mišo came across the name of Pavel Pochyly and the Tatras traverse and was immediately impressed. On the other hand Pochyly's descriptions sounded much like suffering. Why would anyone do this? Reflecting on this Mišo recalled one of his own mantras: "If you always ask why you might never move." Right. Let's do it. Move! Mišo called his buddies Adam and Gabo, and they hatched plans. In 2013 Mišo, Adam and Gabo set off with 25-kilogram packs that contained everything they needed to survive for the next days. That's a lot given that they had to climb a sharp and demanding ridge line. On the other hand it was really important for Mišo, Adam and Gabo to pull off the traverse alpine-style, relying only on their own abilities and willpower, dispensing with any external support — the way the old Tatras climbers would have wanted. Three days in they started to feel the impact of the extreme cold.
"The cold was creeping slowly deeper inside of us. In the morning we couldn't feel our feet and we didn't know if they would ever defrost again. Hours later the blood returned to the limbs. It was a feeling of painful redemption as if capillaries were about to explode. Sometimes it took four hours until we were warm again", says Adam.
But it was not only the cold that severely afflicted them. The climbing also became more demanding once they reached the High Tatras, with difficulties between grades III and IV. Though these UIAA grades don't sound too hard, under these conditions those numbers lost all significance. The ridge was often loose, icy and terribly corniced. You had to climb up and down all the time, mostly on all fours. Protection was hardly possible and if the leader fell the others would have had to jump on the other side of the ridge to save him.
"We went up, down, then up, then down again and I had the feeling that we didn't really progress at all. This had nothing to do with climbing any more, this was a very anachronistic way of moving," recalls Adam.
On the fourth day Gabo injured himself. Going on was out of the question for him. From one moment to the other all logistics had to be changed, the plan had to be adapted. Gabo descended and then it was only two men standing.
During a 15-day winter traverse, psychologically devastating factors become common. The malicious terrain required constant concentration and wrecked the nerves. The cold crawled deeper into the body and killed all motivation. The wind, whose high-speed gusts felt like knives on the skin was pure torture.
The toughest part, however, was not fighting against the elements. The temperature dropped as far as it wanted to drop, the wind blew as strongly as it wanted to blow. Mišo and Adam knew that they had no influence over that. Ironically, this felt like a relief. The true difficulty was finishing the project and sticking to the plan and original inspiration. "No one commands you to follow your intentions. You can let go and descend any minute; it's not far to the valley. But to stay up is the real battle, the real challenge that is played out on a mental level. It's only you out there and you face no one but yourself."
Days came and went and Mišo and Adam continued their fight despite failing strength. It was clear to them that they had reached their absolute limit, physically and mentally. The situation remained sketchy and capitulation loomed above them like the sword of Damocles. They quarrelled and argued on a daily basis but reconciliation was never far away: "Shortly before our finish on the Kolovy štít, Mišo asked me if I wanted to give up. 'Yes,' I said immediately. But he was only kidding. 'Not me,' he said and walked on," says Adam. After 15 long days the suffering came to an end. Not a second too early because a big front was approaching. The following day weather stations measured wind speeds as high as 240 km/h. Who knows if the two would have had the power to sit that storm out?
YOU HAVE TO BE A GOOD BOY.
What strategy does one need to overcome such circumstances as these? In what mental state does one need to be to walk through a winter hell and never give up? When I asked Mišo about that he answered, "The best way is not to think about the suffering." But what is he thinking about then? "Sometimes a good beer, sometimes women," he answered.
Riffing off Mišo's metaphor, I asked, "If the Tatras were a woman, how would she look? What qualities would she possess?" It occurred to me that this question contained a certain risk. Depending on how late we were into the conversation, a lot of answers could have been given to this question - most of them not printable. But I was wrong. At first Mišo laughed but suddenly he became thoughtful:
"It would be a very beautiful woman. Beautiful and quiet. When you climb in the Tatras you must like the silence. It would also be a woman that one has to respect because if she gets mad you are in big trouble. If you want to be accepted by the Tatras you have to be a real man." Mišo paused. "And also a good boy!" Mišo put on a mischievous smile and raised his glass and everyone else on the table raised their. "Na zdravie!" We touched glasses with a loud clink. Outside it was already dark and noises had faded from the Tatras. The walls rose darkly above the snowfields and once again the silence was about to speak.
MICHAL SABOVčíK | "MIšO" | AGE 27
Lives in peaceful Spišská Nová Ves in eastern Slovakia.
HAS the major Alpine north wall trilogy (Matterhorn, Eiger, Grandes Jorasses) to his name, as well as since 2012 a first ascent on Great Trango Tower (Karakorum/Pakistan).
CAN not only handle ice tools well, but also carving tools. His sculptures stand in the symbolic cemetery in Slovenský Raj.
SAYS the Tatras traverse is the toughest he has ever done.
WANTS to be even tougher in future and complete the "Stanislawski Project" together with Adam by climbing ten of his greatest routes in the High Tatras in five days. In winter, and in one push, of course. In figures: 4,100 metres of climbing and 32 kilometres of hiking.
ADAM KADLEčíK | "ADAM" | AGE 27
IS the same age as his climbing partner Mišo, but lives in Hlohovec in western Slovakia.
HAS studied civil engineering and knows when something is stable, regardless of whether it's an office block or a frozen waterfall.
WAS more likely to be found on Europe's sport climbing walls than on hard-core alpine routes until the Tatras traverse.
SAYS the Tatras traverse is the toughest he has ever done.
WANTS to be even tougher in the near future and complete the "Stanislawski Project" together with Mišo by climbing ten of his greatest routes in the High Tatras in five days. In winter, and in one push, of course. In figures: 4,100 metres of climbing and 32 kilometres of hiking.