Tatra Mountains are a small range, part of the Carpathians, situated at the very southern tip of Poland and separating the country form the neighboring Slovakia. They are geologically young mountains, covering an area of 303 sq miles with the tallest peak Gerlach at 2655 meters (8710 ft) above sea level. Winter usually brings abundant snow to this area, 90% of which is in the national park.
I arrived in Zakopane (elevation 800-1100 meters), my hometown at the foothills of the Tatras, on the 23rd of December. The weather was perfect (!); blue and sunny skies, majestic peaks glistening from a distance. The temperature was just below zero and the snow that has fallen earlier that month persisted. I was excited for a white Christmas at home. Sadly, shortly after my arrival the weather turned bad, really bad. Areas of high pressure from the north collided with a low pressure front over the mountains creating the worst wind storm ever, with wind gusts reaching speeds of over 100 miles an hour (not recorded in this part of Poland since 1968). Not only that this weather change eliminated all the existing snow but unfortunately it led to a substantial damage to the local forests with the estimated loss of several thousand trees.
It was quite depressing to walk through one of my favorite valleys (Funnel Valley – Dolina Lejowa in Polish) after the storm and see trees toppled in all directions. The power of nature cannot be overestimated and makes us humans feel so humble. The Funnel Vally is one of the best wild mushroom hunting grounds, especially for Saffron Milkcaps and Boletes but with such a substantial damage to the forest floor, with some trees completely uprooted, it may be a while before one will be able to pick mushrooms here again. Following the storm, many of the trails in the Tatra National Park were not passable. Park crews spent several days removing trees from the roads and trails.
The first day after the storm was sunny and warm. It was unusually quiet around with all the wind now gone. It felt more like late March or early April. All the surrounding meadows now totally bare, provided a novel spectrum of opportunities for my parent’s dog, who suddenly found himself intoxicated by newly emerged smells – the opportunities for digging. Poor mice, moles and all the other subterranean creatures suddenly became vulnerable to the relentless canine excavation.
When the mountains finally emerged from the clouds few days after the storm, my hopes were up again, as not all the snow appeared to have vanished from the higher parts of the mountain range. I consulted with some of my old friends about a destination for a possible snowshoe outing. The decision was made; we would venture into the higher altitudes within the national park and see what was possible. First, we needed to take the tram (in operation since 1936) to Kasprowy Wierch (Kasprowy Peak), one of the tallest peaks in this part of the Tatras – precisely 1987 meters – 6519 ft, assess the snow conditions up there and travel on snowshoes either to Gasienicowa Valley to the east or Goryczkowa Vally to the west. The benefit of going east was the fact that there is a great mountain lodge (called “Murowaniec”) at the bottom of Gasienicowa Valley and it would have been a great mid-trip stop. They also have the best tea with local raspberry juice there! I have done a similar route with my brother Jacek several years ago when the snow conditions were superb and it was a great fun!
While the trip was being planned in my head, few other events had to occur fist, among them New Year’s Eve party at the Witkacy Theatre. Studying the weather forecast, I realized that the best conditions for our trip might be on the New Year’s Day. Well, it was totally doable, but only if I behaved well the night before and came back home at a reasonable hour. I returned from the party around 3:30am and after sleeping for about 4 and half hours, I felt unusually refreshed and ready to go. At 9:30am on New Year’s Day my kindergarten friend Aldona and I were on the tram taking us above the clouds. It takes about 20 minutes to get to the top of Kasprowy Wierch. When we got there, we were rewarded by the magnificent scenery. Because of the very low cloud cover, many peaks were literally peeking thru the shroud of dense cumuli and the sun was shining at them from the perfectly blue sky above. Life was good! And what a start to the 2014!
We were now officially in the High Tatras. We walked around the summit area for a while and studied posted snow conditions in addition to what we could assess visually. It appeared that going west was out of the question given very thin snow coverage. The only other way was east, and we were not unhappy about it. After spending almost half an hour enjoying the vistas and taking pictures, we finally geared up and were ready to go. It was almost at the same moment when the weather turned; the nasty wind appeared from nowhere and blew over all of the low lying clouds, shrouding us in a dense fog. What do we do now? Without visuals, even with a compass, it would be sketchy to move in the rocky, exposed terrain. We decided to wait it out. In about 15 minutes, conditions improved slightly with the visibility now reaching at least 200 feet. We felt more comfortable with this given the fact that both of us have known this part of the mountains quite well as we used to ski here when we were kids.
We slowly started our descent following the traverse carved into the side of the Gasienicowa Bowl. The snow was fluffy and there were icy spots here and there. I was very grateful our snowshoes had good crampons. While descending, we reminisced on the years past, our old friends, and the time flew by. We finally reached a group of mountain lakes, typically completely covered by snow this time of the year. Today, one could easily distinguish the perimeters of each lake and a thin ice crust covering them. The high, cascading walls of Orla Perc (Eagle’s Path) above the lakes were gloomily looking at us. There was none else around; one could only hear the wind and crackling of snow under our snowshoes. We were probably another hour from the mountain lodge. We decided to take it easy and instead of following the shorter, yet steeper route, we took a more scenic detour around the lakes; down to the bottom of the valley where the lodge majestically stood among the dwarf mountain pines.
It tasted just as I remembered it form 30+ years ago…the subtle smell of raspberries was emerging from a steaming white mug of black tea with locally made juice. It was a treat indeed. Like true mountaineers, we recovered our brown bag lunches from our backpacks and we had a feast! Given the holiday season, we enjoyed some goodies only made at this time of the year such as my Mom’s game pate – conveniently sandwiched between crusty slices of the local bread. It was almost 2pm and it was time to start our return as the days were still short and it was getting dark around 4:30pm. The snow conditions around the lodge (elevation 1500 meters) were much worse than on the top and we decided to continue our journey on foot. Trekking poles were essential as the trail was periodically icy. The weather, however has improved significantly in the afternoon, and we now enjoyed the views of many peaks we summited as teenagers. It was quite a trip along the “memory lane”. Aldona is a great companion and a former scout. We have created many wonderful mountain memories together and this snowshoeing outing (first one ever for her) will be added to our special library.