In the December issue, Backcountry contributor David Rocchio recounts a trip to Central Europe’s High Tatras, located in the far north of Slovakia. Decades after any Soviet presence, all is well in the land of Dracula, and a growing adventure sports community, far off most Western skiers’ radars, has taken root. The author calls it a “frontier” where a lack of local language proficiency can leave you on your own. But with the right guide, you can get into the High Tatras, which are heavily protected in winter. Once there, Rocchio says, “You have entire mountain valleys to yourself.” Here’s the beta on how to get there.MAPS & GUIDEBOOKS:
The Tatra Plan hiking maps in 1:25,000 are perfect for exploring these mountains and are available online or in many of the sports shops and hotels around Slovak resorts. Locally, you can pick up an excellent mountaineering book, “Ladislav Janiga’s Tatry Z Oblakov,” in a revised edition for 2012. If you are a total wonk and want to know more than you will ever need to know about the region, try “Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956” and Hugh Agnew’s “The Czechs and the Lands of the Bohemian Crown.”GETTING THERE:
We flew into Vienna Airport in Austria. The High Tatras, however, are more easily reached from Kraków, Poland than Bratislava, Slovakia or Vienna, two other gateways. Kraków is about 150 kilometers, or a two-and-a-half-hour drive, from Stary Smokovec, Slovakia in the Tatras.
Lufthansa and Alitalia are the major western legacy carriers serving Kraków. Two European low-cost carriers, EasyJet and RyanAir fly to Kraków. EasyJet flies from Paris, London or Liverpool while RyanAir flies from many points in Europe and the UK. All major airlines serve Vienna, Austria, where you could tie a ski trip to an opera tour, and RyanAir flies to Bratislava. Vienna is about a five-hour drive and Bratislava is about a four-hour drive to the High Tatras.
The drive from Kraków through Zakopane, Poland to the Slovakian High Tatra takes you right through Ždiar, a quaint Slovak village, and just past the Pension Strachen, a great little hotel. The crossing between Slovakia and Poland is at Lysá Poĺana, which sits on the border near Tatranská Javorina, Slovakia.
Unless you are familiar with Central Europe and speak Polish, Czech, Slovakian or Russian, you’ll find yourself on your own on a trip to either the Low or High Tatras. But the lodging, food and beer are good and inexpensive, the touring is challenging and beautiful, and the people are wonderful. Still, there will be no chocolates on your pillow at night and few menus in English.
It’s worth noting that many of the valleys in the High Tatras are closed and protected in the winter, and they do not mess around with people sneaking in. With the right guide, knowledgeable about the region and the rangers, though, sometimes permission to enter is granted and you will have entire mountain valleys to yourselves.
A backcountry hut-to-hut trip in the High Tatras is possible, although there is currently no easy way to put one together. That’s the allure. On the Slovak side of the High Tatra Range, the starting point for a hut-to-hut backcountry trek could be in Stary Smokovec, Slovakia. From Stary Smokovec, the trip starts with a funicular ride to the small ski resort of Hrebienok, located just above the town. From Hrebienok, you can ski up the Velká Studená Dolina, or Big Cold Valley. After a half day of skinning you can settle into the Zbojnicka Chata. The lunch and tea here was hot, filling and good. You can then either keep skiing into the Malá Studená Dolina, Little Cold Valley, or explore the huge cirques all around the hut and then spend the night after another great meal.The ski from Zbojnicka Chata through the Priečne Saddle is difficult, and we had to turn back due to weather and general conditions. If you make it through, you can stay in the Terryho Chata in the Little Cold Valley at 2,015 m. Founded in 1899, its capacity is 25 beds. Or you can stay in the Zamkovského Chata at 1,475 m.
The next day, the tour rises through the Baranie Sedlo, a very steep and narrow couloir into the Veľká zmrzlá dolina, or the Big Frozen Valley, and to the Chata pri Zelenom Plese, a large, warm and inviting hut with six-bed rooms and great food and tea. We stayed in this hut.
The huts are inexpensive. At the Chata pri Zelenom Plese, for example, after stuffing ourselves on a big lunch and cake when we arrived, much drink, a hearty supper and healthy hearty breakfast, plus a warm, clean and quiet room (with linens!) just cost us €49 each.
On the last day, you can ski from this hut to Sliezsky Dom Hotel, where, according to our guide Igor, “You can have celebration of a successful trip at a warm and inviting mountain hotel, complete with a massage, a good meal and a very comfortable bed.” We did not stay there but it does look beautiful.
Experienced skiers and mountaineers can take on a tour in the Low or High Tatras without a guide, but it may be difficult. English is not commonly spoken, and, at least for now, local tourism caters to a much more local crowd. Our guides in Slovakia, Pavol Kuna (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Igor Trgina (email@example.com), are available to build a trip in the Low or High Tatras. They work independently or together. On the Polish side of the range, a British Adventure Travel tour operator, Mountain Tracks, runs a moderate hut-to-hut trip.