I arrived in the High Tatras on August 8 and stayed three nights. It had some of the most incredible trails I have ever seen.
No, this isn't some politically incorrect email about how stupid Slovakians are. I would never generalize

OK, no more Polish jokes. Promise.

This tale is about MY FIVE stupidities (and my Mr. Magoo Lucky Factor that partly made up for them).

Stupidity #1: not knowing where I am

Despite the warnings of the ranger who said that I'll get lost and never find the way, I went way off the trail to seek some adventure. I got it.
You know you've been traveling too long when you get off a bus and have to ask someone, "What city am I in?"

I had told the attendant at the bus terminal in Krakow, Poland that I wanted to go as close as possible to the High Tatras in Slovakia. As usual, the person who sells the tickets at this international city didn't speak a foreign language.

I hoped I got my message through by saying "Tatras" and "Slovakia" a few times, but when I got off the bus I really wasn't sure where I was.This is where I slept: between a rock and a hard place. It was a small cave. I was above the tree line so there was no place to put my tarp.

Magoo Factor: I turned up in the right place.

Stupidity #2: fumbling the camcorder

You're not supposed to camp in the Tatras, but it's easy to do if you follow these steps:

1) Get way off the trail: I cut across a tough mountain range to enter an enormous zone without any trails.

I woke up to the next morning to this view. When trying to film it I dropped (and broke) my camcorder, watched my sleeping bag roll down the mountain and rip, and then I ate glass. All and all, a great morning.

3) Wake up at dawn: That's when my troubles started.

I woke up and was surprised by what a sharp grade I climbed. (I spent 20% of my 3 days in the Tatras using my hands to get around. Getting off the trail doesn't help.)

After packing up my stuff, I had to climb this wall.

"I would hate to slip here and fall down. It's a long way down...." I thought as I reached for my camcorder in my pocket.

Somehow the camcorder took on a life of its own and jumped out of my hands as I stood over the cliff.

In slow motion I said, "Noooooooooo....."

But it wouldn't listen.

Climbing up this rock face was challenging because the rocks were extremely brittle. Luckily nobody was behind me to receive all the rocks that tumbled down the mountain.

I watched it do somersaults, back flips, and a half twists with corner pike all the way down the mountain.

It was quite spectacular. I was so impressed I almost cried. OK, maybe I was crying for other reasons....

Although I was there in the middle of summer, it was cold at the high elevations.

Stupidity #3: fumbling the sleeping bag

I was despondently stuffing my sleeping bag and thinking, "OK, I gotta put this in a place that's pretty secure because everything here is at an incline. This looks good over here...."

It stayed there. For about 2 seconds. And then it also took a life of its own. And rolled away. All the way down the hill.

Because of its loft, it bounced MUCH farther than the camcorder.

The mystical clouds in the High Tatras were mesmerizing.

To give you an idea how far it fell, it took me 20 minutes to retrieve it and come back.

Magoo Factor: Despite the sharp rocks and the incredibly long fall, the stuff sack only got a minor tear.

Stupidity #4: eating glass

This was part of the trail. Grab the chain down (or up). It was late at night. Nobody there. The chain freezing cold. I had no gloves. My hands were so cold they were numb, making it hard to grip the chain. But if I fell, my body would be unhappy.

Lamenting my precious peanut butter and my woes, I sat down and decided to eat it anyway. After all, I hate seeing good food go to waste.

As I was eating it I thought that maybe this wasn't such a bright idea. After all, there could be shards of glass in the peanut butter.

"Nah...." I thought and carefully worked around the glass as I spread it on my bread.

I was chomping away when suddenly I heard a "CRUNCH!"

Another precarious part of the trail (see chain).

I spit what I thought was the bad portion and swallowed the rest. Hey, I was hungry.

Magoo Factor: I felt very minor pain (I think it was psychological) for about 5 minutes afterwards. Otherwise, no internal bleeding. The glass tasted good! Just like peanut butter!

Stupidity #5: abandoning the belt clip

That night I was again stuck above the tree line when the sun set. I found two big rocks and set up my tarp just in case it rained. On cue, the moment I got under the tarp the sky lit up and thunder roared.

I met a group of Spanish hikers here.

That was a lonely night on top of another craggy outcropping. The lightning storm just added a bit of drama.

The next day when I changing from pants to shorts, I didn't transfer my cell phone belt clip. I left it behind. Idiot.

I didn't purify the water.

High Tatras: best backpacking ever

Despite my misfortunes, I adored the Tatras. I have never experienced such an amazing backpacking in my life. They brought back many memories:

  • THE MAJESTY of the Tetons
  • THE JAGGED EDGES of the Ansel Adams Wilderness
  • THE ALPINE VIEWS of Yosemite
  • THE HUTS of the White Mountains of New Hampshire
  • THE DIABOLICAL TRAILS of Maine
All backpackers are supposed to stay in the cabins. But I didn't. Instead I spent some a couple of thrilling nights above the tree line. One night was in a cave. The second was when I ran out of daylight near a mountain summit and I set up the tarp between two big rocks. That night was a wicked thunderstorm which was especially dramatic with the silhouette of the craggy, evil mountains looming over me.

The trails were insane. They've managed to blur the line between backpacking and rock climbing.

Many trails required you to use a long metal chain to go up or down the mountain. Lose your grip and you're history.

Bring gloves if you hike here. The cold metal numbs your hands. Which is the last thing you need to have happen when your life depends on your grip. At least once person dies in the Tatras every week.

This photo is about priorities. When we backpack, you can only carry the essentials. For most people that means things like a sleeping bag, clothes, and food. For this Slovakian, it was a keg of beer.

Abundance of TP

In Belarus I wished for more toilet paper, but in Slovakia I wish there were less... on the trail. This is the only stupidity I found Slovakians doing.

I asked a Slovakian why is there so much toilet paper on the trails. She blamed the "tourists."

"OK, this is a national park lady, we're all tourists," I told her, "So can you be more specific? Why don't they pack it out?"

Despite my misfortunes, the High Tatras was probably the best backpacking I've ever done.

An 18 year old man said the Slovakians are also to blame. Having visited their small local parks and seeing TP everywhere, this guy may be right: this is also a Slovakian tradition.

The stupidest thing I saw was this outhouse near the summit of a mountain. It did not contain the waste, but just let it all fall down the steep mountain gully. With a little rain all the toilet paper and shit just roll down the mountain into the pristine water below. Brilliant.

Pity, because it is a perfect place otherwise. They call it the biggest little mountains in Europe. They're only 7,500 feet high (about 2500 meters), but they look and feel much higher. I just wish the territory were a bit bigger. You can see almost everything with three days of vigorous backpacking.

Pit stop in Trencin, Slovakia

After several days, I finally got a shower and headed to Bratislava, the lovely and charming capital of Slovakia!

It was a cute town on my way to....

Bratislava

Another well-preserved old town in Eastern Europe. I'm surprised I'm not sick of them yet.

Although Bratislava was wonderful, the highlight of Slovakia was the High Tatras. See them when you go to Krakow, Poland. It's about 2-3 hours away. But don't go to the Polish side of the Tatras. Most believe the Slovakian side is the best.


August 17, 2004

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