How to Survive Poland’s Most Dangerous Trail: Hiking Orla Perć (Part 2)

“Some people come to the mountains to find silence.”

Here Goes Nothing

I awoke early, excited and full of questions: What would Orla Perć be like? Am I in good enough shape? Do I have the supplies I need? Where will I stay tonight?

 

The trek was expected to take 13 hours over 16.2 km with 1,911 m (6,270 ft.) of elevation gain. I would go from Kuźnice to Schronisko PTTK w Dolinie Pięciu Stawów Polskich (the hut at the Five Polish Lakes Valley), which also has the distinction of being the highest refuge in the Polish Tatras.

Schronisko PTTK w Dolinie Pięciu Stawów Polskich
Photo source: Adam Szafraniec, portaltatrzanski.pl

By my calculation, I’d arrive at the hut around 17:00, figuring I could best the planned time by 3 hours. If it did take 13 hours, I’d be there at 20:00. Still light out.


It was too early to checkout properly, but I hadn’t paid yet.

The night before the vaporous matron had tried communicating by miming the turning of keys and performing exaggerated movements. She wanted me to do something before leaving, that much was clear.

She felt assured I understood her Polish, but mostly I had just nodded profusely so she’d leave the room. In any case, there were no lights on and no sounds to be heard. I figured Booking.com had my credit card information. The website will charge me, right?Probably.

I waved my hands wildly like the ethereal wisp of a woman had done and left.

(Yes, Booking.com would charge me).

A Good Omen?

The morning was ripe and silent. The skies had cleared. I passed slowly milling cows and attempted to coax them to me. The bull huffed, I snorted in kind, and we parted ways amicably.

Descending the path I had the feeling of an other. I was startled by jostling rock and the trampling of roots. A creamy shape appeared below. A wolf? A Great Pyrenees? I froze, it stood still. Bahhh. A sheep. A sheep?
I made my way slowly towards the animal. It was wet, nervous, and shifted in place. I cooed to it in soothing tones, but the soggy fleeced beast jumped back. It walked up the hill like it was tip-toeing around a floor of spilled tacks. Its doughy eyes kept looking back. Ta-ta, Tatras bah-bah. 

The serenity of the moment felt like a good omen.


Back in Zakopane I hopped in a shuttle bus to Kuźnice, where I would start the hike.
Yellow trail to Blue to Red, then an easy descent down Yellow to the hut. It was straight-forward, but as I learned yesterday my map-reading skills are shit. I made sure to have the route clear from the get-go.
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Trail information: mapa-turystyczna.pl/route/s8ti

 

Well, you can’t plan for the unexpected. At the park entrance we were backed up twenty deep. The attendant was present but inattentive. She had to have her cup of coffee, catch up on the daily news, iron her clothes, and finish her magnum opus, I presumed.

We waited. If you arrive earlier can you simply walk in?, I wondered. A mental note for next time.
In time she slid open the ticket desk window. Those of us who had waited patiently felt a rush of wind as a woman cut the line with assertive overtones. She dragged her supine boyfriend like yanking the leash of a supplicating canine. She gestured lividly, to no one in particular, and showed something on her phone to the park attendant. She pushed on through. She seemed like a self-entitled bitch.

On The Trail to Orla Perć

Finally, I entered the park and made like the wind. I come to nature to get away from people!, I thought to myself.

The first few kilometers are stone-paved and rise at a 30 degree incline. It is surprisingly slippery. I started strong to pass the bottlenecked parties and because of nervous energy.I wanted some wiggle room by going quickly on the easier sections, but I was also aware that I shouldn’t burn myself out so soon.

The blue trail zigzags up and through the lower hills. These are what you see from town and they obscure the greater peaks. Steady climbing carries you to a vista overlooking Zakopane. A sharp 90 degree turn from here takes you up towards Hala Gąsienicowa, a series of small buildings, including a weather station and a hut where you can grab a meal, and away from sight of the town.
Hala Gąsienicowa.jpeg
Photo source: mojetatry.pl/Zdjecia/Hala-Gasienicowa/1772

Mountains have a particular quality of scale; they look grand until you crane your head upwards to see the next one on yonder. It’s a consistent readjustment of “big” and makes you feel insignificant.

Off in the distance was the Orla Perć range. It was vast and it was high.


I packed light and moved fast: 12L bag, trekking poles, various layers, a puffy, a towel, sandals that I wouldn’t use, energy bars, snacks, and water.When hiking, there’s a bit of a game people play. You can tell those who fancy themselves a bit fit: They abhor being overtaken. When they hear you creeping up behind they speed up. Honk honk. Pull over!, I want to voice.

The elderly and families do move to the side. They know their place in the hiking hierarchy, slow-lane-right isn’t an ego thing for them.
Let’s be clear: I don’t like being passed either, but I’ll move out of the way if someone is demonstrably faster. My frustration comes when someone speeds up only because they know you’re behind them. Generally, they don’t maintain their new pace, so you pass eventually. Eat my dust. 

My companions in pace: A gabbing trio with La Sportiva boots, one young man in a green sweater and blue sweats, and another young lad using a single trekking pole. He had a self-assured comportment like that of a graduate student. We would all leap-frog each other along the way.


I took my first rest at Czarny Staw Gąsienicowy (the Black Pond).
At this point, the hiking has been steady. Czarny Staw Gąsienicowy is just over 6km from Kuźnice with an elevation gain of about 600 m or nearly 2,000 ft.
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Photo by the author

The recharge offered a long look at the next few kilometers across the water. It would be a steep ascent up to the peak of Mount Zawrat (2169 m), covering about 500 m (1640 ft.) over 1.5 km (~ 1 mile).

I started up again and bounded the rocks around the left side of the lake like the trajectory of a skipping stone. I made my way to scree patches at the base of Zawrat.Looking up, there were thin threads of water running down from the peak and one very large pile of boulders that was the trail.

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Photos by the author

The going was steep and proved to be the crux of the hike. Small steps were like knee-high step-ups. My thighs burned and calves felt squeezed as if in a mechanical juice press. Each top out of a bulge unveiled further rock afield. I’d never used trekking poles before and was glad to have my arms available to help.

Eventually the grass broke, the dirt gave way, and all that remained was cold rock that was slowly warming in the emerging sun. This section gave the first taste of the chains and scrambling to come.

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Photos by the author

The last leg was a thin path, my shoulder brushing the wall. This opened to the peak and a look at the other side of the range. Here, parties celebrated with lunch and pictures. In front and behind were steeply descending rock faces, and to the left-to-right was Orla Perć , the peak-to-peak traverse. And if you recall, the most dangerous trail in Poland.

Hiking the Most Dangerous Trail in Poland. Spoiler: I Didn’t Die

The fastest way from point A to B is a straight line, but Orla Perć doesn’t take this approach. It’s a zigzag of navigating a hundred meter down-climb, of rapid ascents across a gully to a higher peak, of foot-wide paths, and scrambles over and around boulders.

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Photos by the author

Groups were slow and some overly cautious — wearing helmets, harnesses and “clipping in” to the chains. Others pulled themselves up solely by the steel links, ignoring foot placements and juggy hand holds. This over-reliance on the protection caused a backlog and seemed dangerous to me. It’s all arms and overly showy.

The going was slow because of the chains. One long section of steel links is attached directly to the wall at two ends. It is threaded through circular bolts in the wall to hold it up. As you pull on the chain in one section it takes out the slack from the others and becomes taut. Thus, only one person at a time can use a length of chain.

I began veering off path. This maneuver felt safer than relying on the chains because there wasn’t the risk of interference from other people.
Besides, the climbing wasn’t technical per se, but did require focus amid the varied terrain, mist and wet conditions. The challenge actually wasn’t the physical demands but rather the continual attention required. One mis-step would have dire consequences.
Orla Perć culminates with a large flat bend, like a raging river dribbling into a quiet basin. The Yellow trail veers down to Schronisko PTTK w Dolinie Pięciu Stawów Polskich and the adjacent lakes, Wielki Staw (the Great Lake) and Zadni Staw, (the Hind Lake).
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Photo by the author

At the ledge, I reflected on the hike and couldn’t believe how quickly it seemed to pass, and how tired I was. I sank back to enjoy the aquamarine lakes below and savored the understanding that I was a day’s hike from the nearest town.

Yea, Great, but uhhh, Where to Sleep?

Several questions had been answered, but I still needed to figure out where to say that night.

I had two options: 1) Dolinie Pięciu Stawów Polskich which was a 1:45 hike down the Yellow Trail or 2) Schronisko PTTK przy Morskim Oku (the Morskie Oko Mountain Hut), which was another 1:45 from the lakes. Camping in the park is not allowed.

I didn’t want to have to hike another 3.5 hours.


The Yellow Trail felt like a grind after the active meditation of Orla Perć .
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Photo by the author

The descent was slow going. I was excited by the idea of food and sleep, but also aware that I may have to delay gratification another few hours.

As I rounded the last curve in the trail, I could see the hut up ahead. I motivate myself with the thought of food during endurance events and I Homer-Simpson-dreamed of a frothy beer the whole time.

Needless to say, I made it. Upon arrival, I threw my arms up and went inside for that beer of mine!


Mission accomplished.

 

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Photo by the author

Then, and only then, did I make my way to the information desk to inquire about a room. I managed the last spot in the “dorm”, a private room with mats on the floor, big enough for 16 people to lie side-by-side. Lucky me.

Well, it turns out I had nothing to worry about all along because the park has a rule: If you arrive after a certain time, or the weather is inclement, they cannot turn you away.
In practice, they don’t turn anyone out.

Any and all places are up for grabs so that by the end of the night people were crammed on top of and under cafeteria tables, lined both sides of the hallways, sprawled on staircases, and so on.
I enjoyed my mat that night.

A Night Cap to the Evening

In the dorm, friends were made. We went to dinner. More friends were made. The kitchen closed.

We moved dinner tables out of the cafeteria for a mass service but stayed outside to drink. We peered in every so often.
The night turned cold but our laughter grew louder.
Under the awning of the hut we got drunk on schnapps and Wiśniówka, a cherry-basedPolish liqueur. We debated the morality and stupidity of Chris McCandless and discussed our views on letting the thing you love kill you, vis-a-vis Whiplash.

All the benches were occupied with huddled bodies in sleeping bags trying to rest. We were a disruption.


“Some people come to the mountains to find silence,”
a man grumbled at us, before shuffling back to his perch.


“I agree,”
Piotr declared, softly yet assuredly. His demeanor was to lead with jokes which belied the seriousness of his character that poked out at times like these.

We nodded in agreement and quieted down. I hadn’t expected this uniform acceptance, but it fits with a hiker’s credo of sorts: To respect your impact on the larger context.
Laughter simmered then smoldered in the cold. We called it a night and dispersed to various nooks of the hut.
I would go from the most difficult trail in the Tatras to the highest peak tomorrow. 

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Photo by the author

 

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