“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.
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.
(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.
The serenity of the moment felt like a good omen.
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.
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 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.
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).
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.
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 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.
A Night Cap to the Evening
In the dorm, friends were made. We went to dinner. More friends were made. The kitchen closed.
“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.