Hiking in the High Tatras: Orla Perć, Rysy, and a Not Very Good Stay in Zakopane (Part 1)

Before Taking Flight on Orla Perć… My Not Very Good Stay in Zakopane

Orla Perć is known as the most difficult and dangerous hiking trail in Poland. According to Wikipedia more than 140 people have lost their lives on the route. For the 4.5km stretch of hiking/ scrambling/ climbing, that comes out to 31.11 people dead/ km.

Not bad.

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Much of the ridge-line of Orla Perć looked like this.

The hike itself is a ridge traverse that consists of rock scrambling, metal chains, and the occasional slick ladder. The peaks are thin and jagged, rising and falling like sharp spires. To move horizontally across the path requires ascending and descending hundreds of feet (or, like, many meters) — down then up then down then up. As a result, while the line is only a few kilometers long, you end up doing much more with the vertical movement.

The trip I had planned was to take 13 hours, consisting of 16km of distance (about 10 miles) and 3,183m (10,443 total feet) of elevation gain and loss.

I never trust these estimates and figured it would take me about 10 hours.

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The route I had planned. Source link.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

First, The Lead Up

The “Eagle’s Path” came onto my radar via S, someone with whom I have an “it’s complicated” relationship. Which is really neither here nor there.

We were on one of our upswings and decided to spend a long weekend together. We were deliberating between four days of climbing in the Będkowska Valley or hiking in the High Tatras, both in Poland.

“I’ve wanted to do Orla Perć for awhile, want to do that? It’s supposed to be pretty dangerous. But I think you can do it,” She offered.

“It’s probably not so bad, you just have to be careful. People do die every year, though.” She can be rather matter of fact.

“Uhh, are you trying to get me to have an accident?” I mean, we have had our ups-and-downs…

Logistically, the Tatras were going to be a challenge. This was high season in the mountains and rooms at the huts had been booked out months in advance (I had called and emailed several of the lodges, and thanks to internety magic (google translate) determined there was nothing available. That is zero. Zilch.). There’s also no camping in the park.

(Later, I’d learn the huts have a rule that prevents them from turning you away. You can show up in the evening and sleep on the floor, wherever you can find space. It’s supposed to be for safety in case of inclement weather, but they don’t seem to make a fuss of it. This would come in handy in a few days.)

In the end, we went to Będkowska.

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Climbing is 👍👍

We camped, we climbed, ate pierogi, had fun. Our transitory, back-and-forth relationship-thingy continued and I followed her to Budapest to stay for a few days. When the going’s good keep it going, I guess.

 

Now or Never to Hike Rysy and (Maybe) Orla Perć

Rysy, the highest peak on the Polish side of the Tatras, had been firmly on my radar since July. This was the mountain I was excited for. Orla Perć, not so much.

I only had a few free days before flying home for my sister’s wedding, and I wasn’t sure if or when I’d ever be back in Poland. It was now or neverish.

And what the hell, Orla Perć is right there, so I added it to the itinerary.

But but but #YERGONNADIE!, you say?

Well ya, but the pictures look cool.

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Let’s go!

I took an overnight bus from Budapest to Krakow and would leave for the Tatras the next day.

 

Morning Delays

Day One of the Tatras was a parade of minor frustrations.

I arrived in Krakow at 7am, groggy and achy. The bus had been light of fellow passengers and I’d wrangled the back row to myself. I was able lie down completely. Lovely! If not for the belt buckles gouging my ribs it would have been quite accommodating.

The first step was to gather my gear from an airbnb host who had been holding on to it (thank you again!). I needed to wait for them to wake up, and it was unclear when that would be.

The hope was to leave Krakow by 9am and attempt Orla Perć that day. She’d been responsive the night before and knew I was getting in early. There was a chance.

In the meantime, I wandered through empty squares in the Old Town. Tranquility emanated from huddled walls while the cobblestone streets hummed softly. On the sidewalk, an elderly sweeper gathered dust with gentle strokes from a straw broom.

Around the corner a club was closing up. There was a throng of partiers carousing on the sidewalk surrounded by a moat of cigarette butts. I felt like a grumpy old man. I sat along the Vistula River for awhile and waited.

By 10am I was arranging my pack and made it on the bus to Zakopane at 11. I’d arrive around 1pm which meant I would have to put off the long hike for the next day. Oh well.

 

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Cutesy. Photo source: sportstourspoland.com

Zakopane, You Obtrusive Impediment to Wonderful Mountains

Zakopane is a mountain resort town. It’s full of annoying tourists doing annoying touristy things like clogging up the trails and eating smoked cheese. Stuff I would never do.

That night, I’d have to find a place to stay alongside them. Yuck.

During the bus ride down, I scanned my options on HostelWorld (nothing!), made a desperate plea to a hostel on Facebook (could I sleep on the floor?), and felt disheartened by the listings on Booking.com (every place had “only one room left!”) and was expensive.

While I waited to hear back from the hostel I took a nap in lieu of making a decision.

An hour later, I still hadn’t heard from the hostel and hotel listings were disappearing. I’d be in Zakopane in half an hour.

I bit the bullet and choose a place with good enough ratings at a reasonable enough price. On the map, it wasn’t too far from the bus station.

 

A Mountain Town

We pulled in around 1pm as expected. I disembarked and made my way towards the bnb. The route zigzagged along traffic circles, up into a residential neighborhood and onto a hiking path. Interesting.

Then the rain started.

Turns out the place was located at the top of a small mountain, a 1,000 feet up (or 300m if I’m staying consistent with units of measurement). By now it was pouring and the trail was muddy. I’d get a hike in after all.

The path passed through spotty tree cover, fields and farm land. 45 minutes later, one last damp road veered to the left and opened into a clearing.

The map said this was my destination. I stared about at a chained compound featuring, seemingly, a ski lift. Huh. I walked around, poked my head this way and that then moved to an awning. Nope. Nah. Didn’t appear to be the place. No sir.

I double checked the confirmation email and, lo and behold, it listed two addresses. The Polish instructions were still unreadable. I plugged the other coordinates into me map and made like Keanu Reeves in Constantine (to get the hell out of here).

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“See you in Hell.” Photo source: comicbook.com

 

Well, I’m Bad at Reading Maps

It looked like I had to follow the road away from the lift. The rain soaked street was flagged by a procession of quaint shops and restaurants. It felt like an empty carnival. A group of kids were splattered over with neon paint, for some reason.

A few hundred meters down things didn’t feel right. I checked my phone and it was the wrong direction. Then where was this place? There was only that sharp left at the top of the hiking trail… I backtracked anyways, found a smaller trail (aha!) that did indeed head to the right, tip-toed across downed branches and came to a field clearing. Map said that a-way. I passed by cows that “moo’d.”

 

A Quiet, Quiet Place. Except for the Screaming

A mere hour-fifteen after getting off the bus I came to a three-building complex that appeared empty. There was a car in the driveway. I walked into the building closest to the road. No reception. This too appeared empty. I entered the dining room. The place was empty(!), save an open laptop and a disarray of receipts on a table in the corner.

I called out, “dzień dobry!,” and a wraith-like woman slithered in from the shadows.

“Czy mówisz po angielsku?”

“Nie.”

“Nie mówię po polsku.” We stared at each other.

But she was a professional and knew the routine. She fished some keys out of a plastic bag all jumbled and clanking with metal. I was guided to the other side of the complex where I saw shoes drying outside a door. Signs of life! On the second floor there were more booties around the corner from mine.

Ah. Home sweet home. We entered my residence, a cold room with a lot of exposed wood. I was ready for a quiet evening when… Noise! Noise like banging and screaming. I noticed. She seemed to willfully ignore the sadistic groans above.

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Cerberus was lodging above me. Photo source: protothema.gr

She proceeded to give me a tour consisting of a dirty shower stall, a kitchen counter, and the flicking of some lights this way and that. I just wanted her to leave. She made to the door and gestured concernedly about the keys in the lock and other sorts of handwaving. She wanted to make sure I understood so I nodded like I did.

Her vaporous body shuffled down the hall and slipped into the floorboards.

Finally alone, I began to take my wet clothes off to dry. The compound had been dead silent until now. The only noise was being summoned from hell directly above my room. It was a sort of thumping, cackling horror film blaring with overactive teenagers jumping from bed to bed.

This would be a good night.

 

 


Join us for Part 2, my riveting account of (actually) hiking Orla Perć!

 

Note: All photos are by the author unless specifically stated otherwise.

The Black Magic and Heart Break of Zakrzówek Quarry

We walked to the quarry and had our first talk of the end. 

She’d come to visit from Budapest and was staying for a long weekend. We’d last seen each other five weeks before and spent the ensuing time apart on separate continents. We left on good turns.


Now we were back in Krakow and a lot had changed. I hadn’t realized how much. She had no idea.


We were feeling claustrophobic in the apartment, and in our own heads.

We needed to get out.


Krakow contains several parks so we sought refuge.


The Zakrzówek quarry is rumored to contain black magic. Pan Twardowski, a sorcerer from the 16th century, made a deal with the devil for great knowledge and supernatural power. He allegedly practiced his dark art among the rocks.


Pan is said to still be alive: He lives on the moon and keeps tabs on Krakovian gossip via a spider’s thread spun down to the city center.


Zakrzówek Quarry


Today, we were trying to disentangle our own web.

We walked from the apartment to the quarry, 4km west from Kazimierez. We strode along the Vistula and atop hard concrete sidewalks desperate for fresh air.


The weather was cold, clouds hung heavy and damp. It smelled of decaying leaves, slightly sweet. Like stale black tea. Oranges, reds, yellows and dark grays were sprayed along paths and dusted parked car windshields.


At the conclusion of a few sharp turns, the quarry strode open and evoked an antediluvian fortress or a secret garden. Sheer limestone walls enclose old apple trees and a shrunken deciduous forest. The trees were lithe and thin. We walked in. I had to piss. She kept on.


Zakrzówek Quarry


To our right, chalky stains ran along the wall. It’s the closest outdoor climbing in Krakow and the cues are all over.


There were signs marking our relationship too: Difficulty fully committing to each other, a chasing of narratives and expectations across cities, countries, continents. In the process we ended up in different places and at different conclusions.


It sucks.


We moved to the long crack in the rock face and played on the limestone in street clothes and inappropriate shoes. We scaled a short traverse, the stone was slick. Climbing had been a way for us to bond. I had learned to lead climb with her.


All around it was quiet. The winter breeze rushed into the valley and swirled around the posthole quarry. It felt like a day for endings.


We made our way to the top of the rock and peered about. We sat at the edge and observed the pastel colors of fall and a sunken sky.


Zakrzówek Quarry


We talked about us and the future.

It was the first of several conversations we would have that week.


I moved away and became cold and despondent. We walked on and spoke in terse tones.


Tension was strung between us, the spider’s line might snap at any moment. I wasn’t being compassionate.


We walked around the lake. The vibrancy of the fall palette and crisp air remained fixed in view. I was moving down a hole.


“You don’t have to wait here for me,” she urged as she sat staring out glassy-eyed over the water. “I need some time to myself, since I’m not getting any empathy from you.”


I was being a jerk, detached. I was falling into old patterns. Needs were met with ice. A stonewalled heart. My gut tightened with regret. Past car crash moments flashed by. My shoulders and back tensed, the breath became shallow and rapid. It’s fight or flight.


I tried to get out of my own head, to stop the record and listen. There she was, right there, you could reach out and touch her, offer support. You could throw a lifeline.


You’re iced through.


Cold to the touch, prickly.


Why? Why do this? You ask yourself often over the coming days.