MONDAY, AUG. 18 — ZAMKOVSKEHO CHATA, Slovakia
The Himalayas, the Andes, Mt. Kilimanjaro, the Alps, the Rockies. Where they rank in terms of sheer raw physical beauty has bounced around in my mind for years. The Himalayas are the most awesome, an entire stretch of 20,000–29,000-foot mountains across the horizon. Kilimanjaro, mountaineers say, has the best view. The Matterhorn in Switzerland could be the prettiest single mountain, the Andes are pockmarked with volcanoes and the snow on the Rockies makes them look like a series of giant ice cream sundaes.
But now I have to add one to the mix. Like a Big Sky Conference football team that upsets Oregon, the High Tatras today earned a place in my lifetime mountain rankings. I can’t remember a view that stopped me in my tracks since I saw the sunrise over Africa from atop Kilimanjaro in 1992. I’ve seen some great views atop ski lifts in Colorado. But I didn’t climb up the ski lift. I took a chair.
Today was different. When you use your own power to climb atop what seems to be the world, the view has special clarity. It’s like your sweat cleans the plastic film from a beautiful poster and reveals the true colors beneath it.
I had slept in a pitch-black attic/dormitory with about a dozen strangers, one of whom had his leg sticking out over the ladder that dropped us to the floor below. It’s no place to lounge in bed with a cappuccino. I was awake, packed and in the lobby at dawn. Waiting for me were Igor Hubinsky and Burra, a Slovak/Czech couple I met the night before.
My previous evening’s plan of blogging and sleep turned into a slog toward midnight with those two and two Polish women from opposites sides of the communist experience. The older one, a very fit blonde of 58 years, had a father jailed for having his own private enterprise. When the Soviets took control in the ‘40s, they not only took away his business but they threw him in prison. Today it doesn’t seem much better. She has been a teacher for 35 years yet makes only 600 euros a month. She once learned she had diabetes after she passed out in the Himalayas and woke up in a Kathmandu hospital where she stayed for 10 days. As she told her story, next to her beer lay a syringe.
Maria, her blonde, pony-tailed, hard-bodied friend, was 29 and only knows communism from what she read in books. She has an English father so her English is perfect. So, she says, is her Italian after living there for a few years. She certainly doesn’t act like a friendly East European. Her arrogance about her language skills led her to taunt me about my American accent which launched me into self-defense mode.
“Don’t make fun of my Italian,” I said as the last of my three glasses of cheap Slovak wine started kicking in. “Give me some credit for having the balls to at least learn it. How many people do you know would move to a foreign country by themselves and learn a language?”
She probably wasn’t making fun of me. But after seven months in Rome, my hyper-sensitivity about my Italian is reaching a point where I leap to the ceiling whenever someone even snickers, like a cat getting an electrical prod.
Other than losing my sweet disposition and nearly ruining the evening, we had a grand time, swilling wine and beer in a crowded basement bar. Igor and Barra were royalty. Igor, 29, is a Slovak lawyer who works in Prague where Barra is a doctor. They met in a bar in Prague and are kind of the new modern Prague couple, happy and healthy and financially flush.
They had done this hiking route before and we all made a tentative agreement to trek this morning together. This was going to be the toughest stretch of my trek. I had no idea where I was going. Then Igor pointed straight up the craggy gray mountain face.
We met this morning just as the sun started creeping over the mountain. It illuminated the gorgeous, crystal-clear lake where I could again see the mountain’s perfect reflection in the water. It looked two mountains connected at the base with one descending deep into the lake. With the wooden hut in the foreground and trekkers in various states of Lycra and backpacks, it looked like a painting you’d see in the national museum.
But this was real.
So was the climb. It started on the other side of the lake and we curled around the left side of the dark mountain. The name of the mountain is Velka Svistovka (6,722 feet), another place name I forgot 10 seconds after I wrote it down. Learning Slovak or Czech would be like putting together a jigsaw puzzle every 10 minutes, and I’d eventually throw all the pieces against a wall. Fortunately, Igor and Barra spoke fluent English from an Eastern European education that replaced Russian with English as the mandatory second language back in the ‘90s.
But words are hard to find on a hike like today’s.
The trail started switchbacking shortly after turning one corner. Up and up we went. Every turn made the Zelenon pleso hut we left behind smaller and smaller. Soon it was the size of a matchbox, dwarfed by the lake beside it and the mountains hovering over it. To the right was a vast green valley stretching as far as the eye could see. The only signs of mankind were the few bobbing backpacks slowly lacing up the mountain.
About halfway up, Igor said, “Now it starts.”
That sounded foreboding. It was. In trekking parlance, he meant, “Now it gets steep.” The rocks we were climbing like my apartment stairs were starting to resemble ladders.
“There are chains that will help you,” Igor said. “They’re not necessary. It’s not dangerous. But they help.”
I could climb rocks four feet high going foothold to handhold but even my 6-foot-3 frame would get scraped against the rock. The wrought-iron chain, however, had just enough slack that I could grab it, pull it up and pull myself over a big boulder. This went on for a good 100 feet. It wasn’t dangerous. I looked below me. If I slipped, I’d fall only about five feet. There was no exposure. To die, you’d have to get a running start and leap about 15 feet for any fall high enough to kill you. Even acrophobes would have no problem. However, that five feet could cause a lot of damage to your legs and wrists, not to mention possibly your face. It would be enough that the thought of any rescue mission this high gave me extra incentive to watch every single step as if it was my last.
In about 90 minutes we reached the top. Every step was worth it. Below me seemed all of Slovakia. I could barely make out Zelenom chata. A cloud over the sun made the lake look like a puddle. I was at eye level with some of the Tatras’ highest peaks which attract some of the best rock climbers in the world. I looked DOWN at clouds floating below the summits. The green valley far below stretched even farther. The entire landscape was a green carpet underneath a towering wall of rock. I didn’t feel atop the world, but I did feel as if I was atop Eastern Europe.
Barra was long gone. She left us in the dirt long before. I walk fast. Few people can keep up with me on city streets. I always walk as if I’m late for an appointment, which I usually am, or I have to pee, which, at 58, I usually do. I also hike at a pretty good clip. In scenery this rare, though, I downshift a few gears. Barra was a big-horn sheep. I saw her gait and she didn’t seem like much in a hurry. But when Igor and I reached the top of the mountain, he pointed up an adjacent peak about 200 feet up. It was Barra looking over the horizon. I think she had just finished knitting a sweater.
We hiked to her in 15 minutes and the view, shockingly, was even better. Slight cloud cover couldn’t keep the sun from illuminating the entire landscape like a museum’s dome light.
From then on it was all downhill. We saw the other side of the mountain range where little villages and small lakes were speckled around the forest below. Deforestation doesn’t seem to exist in this part of Slovakia. Not a single clear cutting could be seen, like the perfect haircut without a hair out of place. But Igor pointed down — way down — to a patch of land yellowish brown and curiously absent of trees. Here is where the windstorm of 2004 destroyed some of the 225,000 square feet of forest and killed two people. But in this thick forest, it was like removing some curly wool off a sheep.
The only downer was coming across a gondola station. Here is where all the day tourists pay 30 euros to take a cable car all the way to the top of Lomnicky Stit (8,643 feet), looming nearly straight up with an observatory built in 1962. Old couples with walking sticks, young couples with small children, lovers with no backpacks, they all poured into this winter ski resort for some quick pictures and a beer. I noticeably stood out with my large backpack and rosy cheeks. The bathroom sure was nice, though. It had all the modern technology. It was as bright and shiny as a laboratory. You could eat off the floor. Now Slovakia resembles Switzerland.
It was only 45 minutes to the hut where I’m writing this. It’s called Zamakovskeho chata, or, as they say here, Zmhvski, or something like that. This is paradise. I have my own private room with no roommate in the bunk above me. A big picnic area outside had about 200 day trippers eating garlic soup and goulash with big steins of cold beer at their fingertips.
But after a nap, I saw the daytrippers had all gone back to their lodges, leaving just some hard-core hikers and rock climbers. A young Czech rock climber who asked about this computer said the weather will turn bad tomorrow. No matter.
Today made my week. It helped make my life. And, if one picture turns out, it’ll make my bedroom wall.