An Expedition for Life: Why I’m Volunteering with Outward Bound Romania

Wish me luck, Tabby urged. 

She looked at me with the composure that comes from hours of practice and a tinge of anxiety. It was the big day after all.

You don’t need it, you’ve got this, I encouraged. She smiled and walked on stage.

When I first met Tabby six months before, she was a self-assured, albeit timid public speaker. You could sense her strength of character, she just needed a little guidance and support.

She nailed the pitch and went on to raise $50,000 to build her company, Ghalani

Tabby was a special one, but her story rings true for the 60 young entrepreneurs we worked with that year. 

Startup Weekend and the formation of Zazu, The Smartest Damn Alarm Clock (Photo source:facebook.com/getZazu/)

You never know until you try

Sometimes we just need an opportunity to find out what we’re capable of. Sometimes a small experience can change the trajectory of a life

If I can pin-point one moment when things really shifted for me, it was participating in a Startup Weekend in Boston in 2010. A friend dragged me to it. I didn’t really know what startups were. We ended up taking 3rd place (and bought Indian food with our winnings).

*That video makes me cringe. But hey, the memories*

Since then I’ve been lucky to have some wide-ranging experiences, from teaching entrepreneurship in Ghana to working on a farm to growing a venture-backed startup.

This exposure has taught me one simple truth: You only learn by interacting with the world.

… And you never know where you might end up. Okay, two truths.

Gordonstoun students on an expedition in the 1980s. (Photo source: americanradioworks.org/segments/kurt-hahn-expeditionary-learning/)

Training through the sea

In large part, my thinking around education has been shaped by Kurt Hahn, the Founder of Outward Bound (OB). 

He promoted the concept of “expeditionary learning”, a model of education-by-doing and self-discovery.

His story is interesting in its own right. I’ll share a truncated version below:

Kurt Hahn was a German Jew who spoke out against the rise of Hitler. At the time, he was the founder and headmaster of the Salem School, and he made his stance clear in a letter to alumni:

“Salem cannot remain neutral. I ask the members of the Salem Union who are active in S. A. or S. S. to break with Salem or break with Hitler.”

Salem School focused on character development and Hahn led by example.

He was jailed, naturally.

Only through the appeal by British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald was he released and promptly expelled. He then made his way to Britain where he trained young British seamen who were performing poorly in the war.

His educational model is captured in the quote, “less training for the sea than through the sea.” 

He called the program “Outward Bound”, which is the nautical term to describe a ship leaving the safety of its harbor to head for the open seas.

Artist: Norman Rockwell, American (1894 – 1978)
Title: Outward Bound
Year: circa 1973

The call to action

Today, OB offers over 1,000 expedition-based programs and focuses on personal development. They work with cohorts from struggling youth to veterans to those interested in developing wilderness skills, and more. 

I first learned about OB in university while researching leadership and educational training. Their structure for experiential learning was so different (and more interesting) than my experience in class. I enjoyed science labs because they had an integrative function, but my greatest education about science came from my coops (internships) working in real biotech labs. 

When I came to entrepreneurship, I knew this wasn’t something you could download from a book, you had to go through the gauntlet. So I did.

Outward Bound Romania training program. (Photo source:facebook.com/outwardbound.ro/)

Which brings me to today

I’m committed to giving more of myself in 2019 so I wanted to find a way to use my strength (marketing) to support an organization with an important mission.

OB offers a model for education that I believe in and which has played a formative role in my own growth — without ever participating in their programming (yet!). Go figure.

As luck would have it, Outward Bound Romania had an opening so here I am in Târgu Mureș (Marosvásárhely).

I’m about to wrap up my first week and am excited to hit the “open sea” with the crew.

It Won’t Go: On Breaking Up After a Climbing Trip

I’d never wanted a vacation to be over before it started.

Maybe it was because I knew we’d be over when the trip ended. Maybe I was trying to delay the inevitable.

But we were 10 months in and things still weren’t working. 

We tried of course, but when it came down to it, you kept holding back. Something didn’t feel right, you said.

We decided it was time to move on. But not before some fun.

A two-week climbing trip in Turkey awaited. A nice way to end things after the shit that was Kraków. Let’s go out on an upswing, we thought.

Photo by the author

I knocked on your door in Budapest. 

We hadn’t seen each other since that fateful weekend. We were filled with trepidation.

I entered. You gave me a look. I threw myself into your arms. 

We moved to the bedroom and eliminated the distance between us. We fucked then held each other. Hours passed. Sometimes it was so easy.

They were good days. Then we left for Geyikbayiri.

Maybe this will work.

Budapest went well, maybe this will work. Maybe.

I repeated those words to myself like a prayer. I had a bad feeling but tried to be hopeful. My stomach began to knot up at Atatürk airport, not a good sign. 

We caught a flight to Antalya, then took a shuttle to our hostel. I’d tip the driver too much.

Photo by S

It was dark when we arrived. 

The air smelled sweet. Oranges and pomegranates wafted ripe around us. 

There was something else too, the citrus masked a pungent aroma. I breathed a sort of goat, orange, mountain air mélange. It reminded me of the farm. A memory of mixed associations: The smell of verdant life and an imminent season of change; Of the infinite cycle and of confinement. 

The bungalows where we’d stay were coupled off with fruit trees in little vistas of privacy. They were small cottages like gingerbread homes with a Turkish twist. Inside, an Ottoman gourd diffused light through shimmering gems of red, orange, and green. The lamp was too weak to read by.

That night we settled around the fireplace to shoot the shit with our new camp mates. She’d sync in with the rhythm of the place more easily than I would.

She was so god damned cool with everything. 

It was the lightest I’d ever seen her, just carefree and enjoying herself.

I wasn’t able to match the buoyancy.

Why? I didn’t quite understand.

How could she be so at ease when nothing (and everything) was on the line?, I questioned myself. I questioned her.

Photo by the author
Photo by S

We’d talk again about our thoughts on love — how we love.

She’d say, I’d rather give and receive love when it’s there. 

I admitted it sounds good in theory.

I’m not sure why it is like this for me, though. I do find the clarity of knowing things will end to be a relief. It makes it easier. 

Not that I’m happy about things ending, but it helps to have resolution.

I do wonder if I’m the one with the weird strategy, she offered.

She’d told me before that she always feels the emotional pains of a breakup months later. I wondered about the mechanics of regret and grieving.

Photo by the author

The trip would be a tug-of-war with myself.

I was frustrated as hell and felt uncomfortable with us. What we were. It was hard for me to love so freely knowing it was over. It felt pointless at times.

I wondered why I put myself in this mess.

Days passed. It wasn’t working. I needed to get away.

Away from the room, away from the camp, away from her.

We talked and I said I wanted to go for a hike the next day, to get some space to think. She misheard me and thought I was asking her to join.

The next morning, I left two hours before sunrise. Mostly, I stumbled around in the dark. My headlamp was too dim in the blackness, it made me near-sighted. I kept going off-route. 

Come on sun, rise and take me with you. I want to go fast. I want to go far. I want to explode.

In time the sun came. It shone out onto the kingdom in long streaks of color and flare. My feeble eyes tilted towards the sky. I could see a path forward. I ran.

I needed to feel the freedom of movement. 

Photo by the author
Photo by the author
Photo by S

We settled into an up-and-down rhythm.

We had a cadence of a few good days then a fight. I was mainly the instigator. She was always the more understanding one.

On one day the Slovakians went into town for a rest and to re-stock on cigarettes. Only the ear, nose, and throat doctor stayed behind.

We invited her to join us climbing, which made four. We paired off and I chose to climb with Doc. I wanted a day away from her. I felt tight and distracted. Not good for belaying.

I’d lead my hardest climbs to date.



On another day we’d hitchhike to town to buy food. We’d end up with bottles of wine from the driver’s private vineyard and Toblerone. S has her unique social charms, and conversational German. 

It was my first hitchhiking experience. We’d toast to our fortune later on.



On another day I’d surprise her by dressing up the bungalow with birthday decorations. I got her some small things and we enjoyed the morning sipping coffee and talking on the porch. I decided not to make a cake.



Yet another day I’d be cold and distant.

We’d talk through our frustrations and challenges which ironically brought us closer. When we were relaxed we found harmony in continuous laughter. At points we’d feel the closest we ever felt.

It was emotionally taxing.

Photo by the author

The days marched on.

Nearing the end we looked back and wondered where the time went.

I had been agonizing, which had made the days feel slow. Now our time was fleeting and it felt like everything was slipping through my hands.

We left camp and drove down the Turkish coast along the Mediterranean Sea, taking the D400 from Antalya to Çıralı. Three days left, just the two of us.

We each chose one activity: She wanted to go hiking, I wanted to see ruins, and we both wanted to climb.

Photo by S

We walked among the dead.

The mausoleum had fallen into the sea. The foundation was washing away and the walls now spilled into the sand. The cacophonous chambers were aired and quietly filling with empty water bottles.

I seek the ancient world because it reminds me that it was once the present. We will all topple some day.

Phaselis was a prosperous port city that passed hands from Greek to Roman to Persian and on and on, before eventually falling out of favor for larger ports nearby. The slow decline lasted until the 11th century when it stopped being of any importance. Quite a good run, though.

That night she’d tell me, When we were in the car, you were talking with Nico about something — I was only half-paying attention — I was looking at you in the sideview mirror and just felt this overwhelming sense rise up; This swell of love for you filled me.

We did love each other after all.

I pulled her close, held her. What am I supposed to do with that?, I thought.

Quite a good run, though.

Photo by the author

December first. Our last night.

We jumped into the Mediterranean naked.

We’d swam in the ocean — in December — and were all giggles and shivers over it.

Over it. That’s what we were. Tomorrow we’d both fly out from Antalya. You’d leave half an hour before me. We had separate flights because I had bought my ticket later. Because I wasn’t sure if I’d want to jet before the trip was done.

It had been hard. But I was glad I stayed.

A small part of me hoped that I’d run into you on the layover in Istanbul. That wouldn’t happen.

The ocean waves bristled with electricity, the shock absorbed us. We swam with the current then broke the circuit. The lights dimmed.

Photo by the author

We left on good terms.

We had a joke that these were the best breakups we’d ever had. Or maybe it was only me that said that.

Parting at the airport was confusing, difficult. We both admitted we felt closer, more open, more honest. We agreed not to talk for awhile.

Back home she’d show pictures of the trip to her grandmother.

I popped up on the screen here and there. She asked who I was. She said something about a complicated relationship.

Her grandmother said a few words and they both moved on. She told me she really liked her grandmother because she didn’t judge.

In Istanbul I was going through some old emails.

I can trace our time together in the flight details in my inbox. We covered a lot of miles.

In the end, no matter how far we went, we couldn’t bridge that final distance.

Photo by S

The Sweet and Salty of 2018: Reflecting on a Year of Love and Travel

“Even sweetness can scratch the throat, grandma said, so stir the sugar well.” – Ocean Vuong in “Notebook Fragments”

The thing is, I don’t like sugar in my coffee.

But, I was taught recently that a spoonful of sugar in the pot — if you do it Turkish style — makes the final product creamier, frothier, tastier. I have to admit, he’s right.

2018 had its sweet moments, but I didn’t always stir well. Sometimes the crystals tickled, other times they scratched at something deeper.

Ah, it’s 2019, you say? Tis the season to reflect on all the sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami, (etc.) of 2018 then! And if I’m good at anything it’s being in my own head too much.

This year had the added benefit of electronic journal entries to easily review (compared to past years when I swore by pocket-sized, hand-written notebooks).

What did I learn?

  • I worry a fuck ton (about money, what to do in life, what is meaningful to me, etc.). I tend to be hard on myself
  • Climbing is hella fun. Traveling is hella fun. Simplifying my life was hella chill. Pursuing what struck me as genuinely interesting was… hella cool
  • I want to build a life with someone. I seek love and connection. I want security in a relationship
  • Time spent with others is one of the most important treasures
  • When I am acting cold, there is something I am avoiding
  • I need to be more honest with myself (the easiest person to fool is, well, yourself). As an extension I need to communicate doubts and concerns more often (be more honest with others)
  • I am prone to fixate on what is not working
  • I miss building something. I long for the creativity and strategy of creation. Doing originative, self-expressive work each day is important
  • Commitment is a weakness (in relationships and projects). I’m prone to give up too soon
  • I am full of contradictions (enjoy travel and also want to be a part of communities, seek novelty and also want to build something meaningful)
  • I want to use my writing as an opening up of sorts, for myself and others; To provide a place for readers to feel comfortable exploring self-doubt, to introspect, to question, and to face uncertainty. I want the reader to feel connected, as if they are talking with a kindred spirit
  • I aim to give more of myself to others in 2019 because I feel I’m operating from a more secure and self-understand place

It may sound as if I’m being a bit salty (I forgot, you need to add the lightest pinch of salt to the pot too), however 2018 was an undeniably sweet year.

Now to you, what did you learn in 2018?

 

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Photo by the author

 

The Flying Goat Camp & Hostel: All About Community In Geyikbayırı, Turkey (Climbing Hostel Review)

The Flying Goat Camp & Hostel is the new kid on the block in Geyikbayiri. They are distinct in the area for their smaller size and communal vibe.

Heading into their second year of operation, owner Fleur Derks wanted to emphasize a hostel aesthetic. The space features a community kitchen (the first camp to do so), they organize family dinners and movie night, and encourage communing in common spaces, like the upstairs “living room” that has a fireplace along with various boardgames.

I had chosen this camp because it looked relaxed, friendly, and picturesque. It lived up to expectations.

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Photo by friend of the author

The Vibe:

We arrived at night and quickly felt at home.

The place smelled sweet, citrus and pomegranates wafted in the air. A gentle breeze rolled through. The silhouette of mountains called forth the adventure to come.

We walked through the front gate, met Fleur and Mümin (5x Turkish national climbing champ), and were handed beers. After a tour we made the rounds of introductions. Everyone from the staff to the guests were friendly and welcoming.

As far as the people, there were climbers ranging from beginner to pro, professional guides to computer scientists, and if you were going solo, it was easy to find a partner or a group to tag along with.

For our stay, we rented a two-person bungalow, one of eight or so that are lain between fruit trees like gingerbread houses with a Turkish twist.

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Photo by the author

ottoman pumpkin lamp
Photo source: Flying Goat

turkish tyling at flying goat
Photo source: Flying Goat

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Photo by friend of the author

Small details stood out, like the Ottoman pumpkin lights in the cottages, traditional Turkish tiling in the showers, and ample coffee-making accoutrement (very important). After a long day of travel, we settled in for the night.

The next day, early morning light pierced through the window. We awoke to the picture-framed Geyik Sivrisi, a 1715m bald peak that shimmered in the rising sun. We took our time sitting on the deck of our bungalow sipping Turkish coffee and gawking at the surroundings. We couldn’t wait to get climbing.

sarkit sector over flying goat
Photo source: Flying Goat

The Climbing:

Geyikbayırı has over 1,300 routes ranging from 5a to 8c+. We excitedly reviewed the guide book for different sectors we wanted to climb. We started by walking across the street.

The Sarkit sector hovers over the camp and looks on with gaping caves and classic Mediterranean limestone tufas. It’s just 5 minutes from the hostel.

All the other sectors are within a 30 minute walk. Given the breadth of climbing and terrain, you can find crags to climb in the shade at all times of the day and even in the rain.

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Photo by friend of the author

Accommodation Details:

  • 8 bungalows (for 1-4 people each). Find pricing here
  • 9-person dorm
  • 2 tents for camping (if you need to rent) + camp space (if you have your own)
  • 4 toilets
  • 3 shower stalls (with plenty of hot water)
  • Big “deluxe” common kitchen with plenty of fridge space, dry good storage, pots, pans, utensils (etc.), and stovetop burners
  • 1 soon-to-be sauna
  • Laundry service
  • Bread delivery daily (which we took full advantage of)
  • Guidebooks available
  • And free çay (pronounced “chai”, aka tea)!

main building flying goat
Photo source: Flying Goat

flying goat dorm
Photo source: Flying Goat

Supplies:

You’ll want to stock up on food as Flying Goat does not have a restaurant on site.

You could eat out each day if really you wanted, there are restaurants in the area, including up the hill in Geyikbayırı and at other camps such as JoSiTo. But then you’d miss out on half the fun of staying there. So don’t do that.

Akdamlar is the closest town and features a daily market, a larger Sunday market, and grocery stores. Geyikbayırı only has smaller bodegas.

Your best bet is to pick up groceries on your way to camp (if you catch a shuttle from the airport, for example) or to hitchhike down to town.

How to Get There:

Antalya Airport is a 45 minute drive (38 km) to the camp (& hostel). You can find the location on Google Maps here.

Three transportation options:

  1. Shuttle pick-up at the airport: Flying Goat can organize a pick-up for € 40 (for up to 4 passengers, then € 10 for each additional person ). We did this, it was simple and easy.
  2. Public Transport (from Flying Goat’s website): “Getting to Geyikbayiri by bus takes around 2 to 3 hours and the fare is around € 5,-. Take any bus from the airport to the central bus station and from there take bus 516 or 521 to Geyikbayiri. Or check the app MOOVIT for alternative routes. Missed the last bus? Catch a cab or hitchhike the last kilometers up hill.”
  3. Rent a car at Antalya Airport. It’s quite cheap: We rented a Renault Clio for our last four days of the trip (to visit Olympos and Çıralı), which cost ~ € 50.

Conclusion:

If you find yourself climbing in Geyikbayırı (you should) and you’re looking for a social place to stay, go to Flying Goat.


Will you be climbing in Istanbul? Be sure to visit Ballikayalar, the best outdoor climbing near the city, or Boulder Istanbul, my favorite bouldering gym on the Asian side.

The Best Climbing near Istanbul – Ballikayalar, Turkey aka the sweet, sweet Honey Crag! (Trip Report)

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Photo by the author

Overview

Ballikayalar (or Honey Crag in Turkish) is the best outdoor climbing near Istanbul.

It is about an hour drive from the city of 15 million and consists of over 70 routes on limestone. The lines range from 7 to 35m, and most fall within a difficulty rating of 5.10 to 5.12 (or VI to IX- in UIAA). Many of the older routes were originally climbed as trad, and now that they are bolted the line naturally follow the cracks. There are two main sectors, the Left and the Right, as in, on the Left or Right of the valley (when peering into it).

To climb here is to steep in the history of rock climbing in Turkey. Ballikayalar is one of the original crags to be developed in the country. By sheer luck, I had the opportunity to climb with one of the pioneers: Emre has been climbing here for over 33 years and has many first and second ascents to his name.We were joined by Sevki, a big wall climber who has spent time at Yosemite. Fun fact: He met Alex Honnold there… on El Cap!… While Alex was free solo down-climbing!Overall, it’s a beautiful valley with a babbling brook running down the middle. After spending nearly a month in Istanbul, this was a desperately needed respite from a city sorely lacking in nature. Oddly, Balli sits on the edge of an industrial area. Look one way and you see factories spewing smoke. Turn around and it’s nature at it’s finest.

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Photo by the author

Suggested Routes

I am a beginner and stuck to the lower grades. Sevki and Emre showed me some of the “classics”, which had been developed in 1987 (older than I am!).

Percussion: VI/VI+. Originally climbed as a trad route (by Emre and others), this follows a thin line on the inner side of a cave. It involves lean-backs, bridging your feet wider than expected, and big reach ups. It is quite pumpy.

Davul (Drum): VI+: Emre had the first ascent on this one. This is pumpy, featuring big, juggy holds, bigger reaches and a lot of lean-backs. Drum and Percussion are meant as brothers of sorts, and their names allude to the pounding your arms take when climbing them.

 

How to Get There

The easiest way is by car. Take the E80 or D100 East towards Ankara. The closest town is Gebze.Public Transport: TheCrag.com and RockClimbing.com have suggestions for how to get there by bus. I won’t pretend to give advice here since I didn’t try this myself.

When to Go

Istanbul and the surrounding area to the East has mild weather in the Winter (we had 50 F/ 10 C in late December). Reading other people’s accounts, the area is climbable year round.

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Photo by the author

We started in a corner on the Left Sector away from the sun. The closest area to the entrance of the Left Sector faces the East and was receiving direct sun when we arrived. Around the bend, the sectors stayed in the shade until mid-afternoon. It had rained two days before and the routes were still wet in the shade. The Right Sector receives sun nearly all day.

Supplies

You can pick up food and snacks in Gebze. There are several bodegas and cafes right in town.If you need climbing gear, Istanbul is unfortunately lacking in this regard. I only found two shops that sell climbing shoes (K2 Outdoor and Everest Outdoor). Atlas Outdoor had some draws and biners. Decathalon also sells some gear, but I didn’t check out the selection.

Resources:

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 and they 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.

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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

How to Survive Poland’s Most Dangerous Trail: It Starts With a Very Bad 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.