Tatry 2007

The tallest and most dramatic mountains of the Carpathian mountain range.

The Carpathians are an enormous mountain range. They extend in a semi circle beginning on the opposite side of the Danube from the Alps in the Czech Republic, passing through Poland, Slovakia, and Ukraine, before finally ending in Romania. In general, they are relatively small, typically between 1000 and 2000 metres in height. The exceptions are in Romania, and in Tatry (Tatri(h) - also incorrectly known as Tatra).

Tatry are an offshoot to the main Carpathians, nestled in the middle of the main ranges running through Poland and Slovakia. Tatry contains all of the highest peaks in the Carpathians. The weather in Tatry is affected by two colliding air currents, and is quite unpredictable. It can easily change from blazing sunshine to thunderstorms more than once a day. Still, we visited in August, when the weather should at least give us enough time each day to do the walks and climbs we wanted.

Originally, Tatry was on the border of Poland and Hungary, with most mountains having names in both Polish and Hungarian. Then after Slovakia was invented, Stalin took a large part of Polish High and White Tatry, and made it part of Slovakia (the border used to follow the main ridge of the mountains for almost its entire length, now it only follows about half of it). New names were created in Slovak. As a result, the only traditional names that still exist are in Polish. Because of this, and because my guide was Polish, I shall only provide Polish names where possible. I will also attempt to provide pronunciation guides for the names, as most non-Polish speakers have trouble with even the most basic Polish spellings. The name Tatry (Tatri(h)) is a plural name, and is not intended to be used in its singular form Tatra, the same way as scissors, trousers and pants are all always plural. Although the name is often translated to Tatra, that is not the correct name. Tatry is, so that is what I will use.

Tatry are divided into three sections; Tatry Zachodnie (Tatri(h) Zahodnye - Western Tatry) to the West, Tatry Wysokie (Tatri(h) Vi(h)sokee'e(h) - High Tatry) to the East, and the much smaller Tatry Bielskie (Tatri(h) Bee'elskee'e(h) - White Tatry) to the Northeast. Western and White Tatry are both made of limestone, while High Tatry is made of granite. The difference in style is quite obvious.

The Tatry mountain ranges are covered by national parks in Poland and Slovakia, and the rules of the parks are much stricter than our own. There are several official trails that cover the parks, and visitors are not permitted to leave the trails at any time. Almost no houses or roads exist in the parks. Camping or sleeping within the parks is prohibited, except at designated shelters, whose doors are always open (or not, but more on that later). Open fires are always prohibited. In Slovakia, you must also have insurance to use the trails. Failure to abide by the rules will lead to you being led off the mountains, and perhaps also being made to pay a small fine if you are caught.

There are some exceptions to the rules; there are a few extra trails (but not many) that official guides are allowed to use. Qualified alpinists and cavers are allowed almost anywhere, and may also camp. However, they must be officially trained and certified first. There are still some areas where even they are not allowed, such as strict nature reserves. Examples would be the areas used by hibernating bears, as well as the foothills of High Tatry. In Slovakia, going off trail is still not permitted unless the route is a minimum of alpine grade 3.

It is not hard to find routes of this grade. Tatry has some of the most serious mountaineering on the planet, despite the modest heights of its mountains. It does not have any of the permanent snow caps or glaciers of the Alps, but it has the same sort of true alpine landscape. It was used by many of the Himalayan explorers as a training ground, and has places where the alpine climbing grade is higher than the official scale can grade. The highest single wall in Tatry is 900 metres. Not bad for an area with the base at 1000 metres. Permanent installations are not permitted when climbing, so even though pitons can be used where nothing else will work, they must be removed afterwards.

This trip was intended to be two weeks living wild in Western and High Tatry, including some time on the Slovak side. In theory, my British caving club membership entitled us to be treated as cavers, but we never checked on this, so please do not rely on it without checking for yourself. My companion was a veteran alpinist with 16 years of experience but no qualification. I was in good hands, and you must ensure that if you are to undertake such a trip, that you are too. Since this was the first really serious walking I had done since completing my physiotherapy for my knee injury, so we were going to take it "easy" (for some value of "easy").

Visiting Tatry is recommended, even though it is virtually unknown outside the countries that it intersects. For most visitors, the shelters are the best bet. However, you will need to be able to understand the highlander dialect of Polish. English is not an option. The Highlander dialect is to Polish as the Scots dialect is to English. Learning normal Polish as a second language may not be enough to understand the Highlander dialect of Polish.

Zakopane (Zackopa'ne) is a small town on the very edge of the Tatry mountains. It has been converted from a highlander town into a tourist destination, filled with a billion little shops, stalls, and restaurants. Zakopane is absolutely swimming with tourists, about 3'000'000 each year. 97% of them seem to be there only for the theraputic mountain air, as they never leave the town (why they go there instead of any of the other tourist towns is a mystery). The remaining 3% head into the mountains. 90% of them go no further than the shelters (20% of those also go to Giewont, 20% of them also go to the Morskie Oko lake). The remaining 10% (10% of 3%) go to the proper mountains. A mere 0.1% of them (0.1% of 10% of 3% = 0.0003% overall) do what we were doing, and live wild - a total of about 10 people per year. Numbers totally unverified and unverifiable.

The incompetence of many of the tourists is quite astonishing. They seem to have no concept whatsoever of how to be safe in the mountains, or what clothing is appropriate for the conditions. Of course, there are no strict rules, but the following is a simple guide; if you think a walk in the mountains is a good time to have conversations by phone or SMS, a place to drop empty coke cans, if you think you can start a 7 hour walk 5 hours before dark, or if any of the following describes something you are wearing:

... get off the mountain! And yes, in case you are wondering, these are all things that we saw people doing in Tatry, even the high heels.

This may seem a little elitist, but if you had seen these people, you would understand why I say it. These people are why the rules of the national parks are so strict - not to prevent us from enjoying ourselves, but to prevent tourists from being a danger to themselves, or from damaging the landscape. In the mountains, there are levels of respect, just like there is an etiquette about allowing people to descend before you try to ascend using the same path, and saying "Cześć" (Cheshch) or "Hei" to people you pass (the person descending or moving faster says it first). Generally, you respect everyone whose level is the same as yours or above. You may also respect those below as long as they are properly equipped. That's simply the way it is. The levels approximate to:

  1. Alpinists
  2. Cavers
  3. People living wild (like us)
  4. Rock climbers
  5. Backpackers with proper equipment
  6. Day trippers with proper equipment
  7. Packpackers and day trippers without proper equipment
  8. Giewont tourists
  9. Kościeliska and Morskie Oko visitors
  10. People who never leave Zakopane
  11. People who visit Morskie Oko by horse cart

On the very first day of the trip, before we even reached Tatry, my camera suffered a fatal failure, so we were stuck sharing a camera for the remainder. I was not familiar with the shared camera, so while it is capable of taking excellent pictures, I do not have the same control over it as I would with my own camera. Please forgive any limitations caused by this.