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