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A snowy hike from Poland to Slovakia

My transatlantic flight landed early on Easter morning in Frankfurt and I had about six hours before I flew to Katowice (Poland) from Hahn Airport (smaller and nearly an hour from the city center). Still, it was enough time to explore Frankfurt, of which there didn’t seem terribly much to do or see in what seemed a modern, business oriented metropolis. And, being Easter Sunday, there was nothing open at all. It was a fairly forgettable couple of hours in the misty spring weather. Once landing in Katowice, the connecting one hour shuttle to Krakow was late to depart and so by the time I arrived at my hostel, I was jetlagged, tired and hungry and unfortunately in a dorm room with roommates who were not jetlagged, not tired but probably hungry because they debated for an hour about getting food. At some point, I eventually fell into a deep sleep.

My first full day on a week’s vacation and I planned to visit the site of one of humanity’s worst atrocities. A visit to Auschwitz is not how any vacation should begin but it fit my schedule. In fact, taking the more expensive high speed train (the ticket agent didn’t understand why), the trip was less than ninety minutes.


pic: ryarwood/flickr

Auschwitz will make a different impression on different people but I can only say that I am very glad I went. It is reminder of one of the low points in human history and gave me real perspective on how fortunate my life has been. I also took the shuttle over to Birkenau, the less famous but much larger sister camp a few miles away. Less remains at Birkenau and there is no formal exhibit but the sheer magnitude of the place left me bereft of fitting words.

Because of the high speed train, I was back in Krakow for a late lunch (sausage from a street stand) and set about enjoying the city. It has the largest town square in Europe and each of the octet of feeder streets are worth wondering. At the center of the Square are the Cloth Hall (selling much more jewelry than cloth) and the Town Hall, aptly enough. The Square was filled with locals and tourists alike and is great spot for shopping, eating or people watching. Just beyond the Square, the castle and Jewish district of Kazimierz were enjoyable sights.

I boarded a morning bus south to Zakopane, a city that serves as a gateway to the Tatra Mountains. In my hour there, I felt a strong connection to the outdoors with nature trails, camping stores and tours for hire. I instead boarded a smaller bus (van, really) that led further south to Polanca Polonia, a parking area less than a mile from the Slovakia border. But Slovakia would have to wait for Wednesday, as I began a 5 mile hike from the parking area towards Lake Morskie Oko. I left with a bit of trepidation. It was late afternoon by the time I set out and there were probably less than three hours of daylight remaining. And despite being nearly springtime, patches of last winter’s snow now hid under shady trees. But above all, I was hiking towards expected accommodation. There is a hut perched on the shores of Lake Morskie Oko and in all of my research, it appeared to be open year round. I didn’t find a good way to call and ask so I hiked with the strong belief that there would be a place for me to sleep. The alternative, in the dark snow covered Polish woods, was less than ideal.

No cars are allowed past the parking area; you can either hike or take the horse drawn sleigh up to the Lake. At age 26, there seemed no reason to opt for the sleigh and the hike wasn’t terribly difficult; it was along a gravel road for the most part. But about halfway up the trail, the patches of snow in the woods had evolved into genuine snow cover and I ditched my indoor soccer shoes in favor of the hiking boots I was now glad I had packed. Closer to the lake, a thick fog descended and obscured the distant scenery. I reached the hut in just ninety minutes and underneath the tall mountains, it was already getting dark. The lake was still frozen over and the snow depth just off the trail was probably in excess of a foot. The hut did indeed exist and had just a few guests that night. They even had a kitchen from which I ordered a simple pasta dinner. I passed half an hour speaking to a kind, middle aged Polish gentleman who was hiking for a few days. It was too dark and foggy to really grasp the hut’s location but by the next day it would be obvious that outside the window of my $9 room was a vista worth ten times that amount.

The sun woke me early, probably around 6 am. After the obligatory recollection of where exactly I was waking up, I strode quickly to the window to see where exactly I had hiked to. All I saw were mountains, blanketed in white, shooting nearly straight up. The hut was perched at one end of the ovular lake, near a softly flowing stream. The scale of the mountains was humbling and the location remains the most beautiful place I have ever been. Before I hiked back down the trail (and to Slovakia), I wanted to explore a bit. A smaller pond, Czarny Straw, was about 1000 feet higher in elevation. There was really no need to find a trail; I just hiked about one quarter of the way around the lake’s edge before heading up the moderately steep slope. The late season snow was fairly soft and my boots dug in nicely. After less than an hour of climbing, I reached Czarny Straw. I didn’t have the confidence in mid April to set foot on frozen Lake Morskie Oko but I believed more in the stability of the smaller pond. Walking out on the ice, the mountains shot up even more dramatically. If I could tunnel through them, I’d be in Slovakia in less than half a mile. I tried to imagine how it would all look in June, with the lake sparkling in the sunlight and the mountains awash in green and grey rocks rather than parchment white snow. The vista from the plateau created by Czarny Straw, out to the frozen Lake Morskie Oko, the hut a mere dot in the distance and everything dwarfed by the snow covered mountains is a sight I will remember until my dying day. Unfortunately, that day nearly arrived prematurely.

Lake Morskie OkoIt was time to head back and walk to Slovakia. I retraced my path and arrived at the top of the section I had walked up. I put a foot forward but paused and withdrew it. How exactly would I walk down this snowy incline? It was a thought that never crossed my mind on the hike up and I quickly appreciated the descent was not going to be simple at all. Mindful of slipping, I sat down and dug my hiking boot’s heels into the snow and it held firm. I put the other foot forward and shifted some weight down and it did not hold. I began to slide, slowly at first but then gaining some significant speed. I frantically dug my gloved hands into the snow almost as fiercely as I dug my heels in. Neither provided enough friction to slow my acceleration. The snowscape ahead was mostly open but there were a few larger pine trees and rocks that would be a problem if struck. After probably twenty terrifying seconds, my digging heels (and the lessening slope) finally won. I had slid about halfway down the slope, a distance of a few hundred yards. At a safe location, I took stock of any injuries. My shin was scrapped with ice burn and my thin gloves rather shredded. But otherwise, miraculously, I was uninjured. I’ve thought back to how much worse it could have been—broken bones or even sprained ankle—and how the solitude I appreciated near Czarny Straw could so easily have led to hours of agony until my cries for help were heard.

I returned to the hut, not quite appreciating how fortunate I had been. I packed my belongings and hiked the five miles back down to Polanca Polonia and an additional mile to the Slovakia border which I walked across and caught a bus on the other side (they don’t have a pictorial passport stamp for pedestrians; I was treated as an automobile). On my hike down, I was passed by one of the horse drawn sleighs with two couples on board, huddled underneath warm wool blankets and sipping hot chocolate. After a brief delay, they noticed my backpack and recognized I had hiked some distance to be where I was and they gave me a warm genuine applause which I was happy to accept.

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