Chasing Snowy Peaks

February 13, 2024 0 By Viktor

Two Winter Hiking Adventures in the High Tatras, Poland

You know what they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder and after four years of basking in the Spanish sun, I was itching for some good old winter hiking action. As we were about to spend more time in Hungary this winter, I could plan a snowy-icy trip again. Our destination? The snow-capped wonders of the High Tatras in Poland. Getting there was a breeze, thanks to the trusty Flixbus line from Miskolc to Poland. (Yes, I recommend the Polish site because there you don’t lose your money if you have to cancel your ticket for some reason.)

Our first attempt at conquering those snowy peaks happened in early January, and let me tell you, it was a rollercoaster of a ride. We had this grand plan all laid out – a night in Zdiar, Slovakia, before hitting the trails to the Five Lakes mountain refuge in Poland, then across the ridge at Zawrat pass, and ending our journey in Zakopane. Well, life had other plans for us. Just days before take-off, I caught a nasty case of Covid, forcing us to postpone our trip by a day.

With one day less on our hands, we opted for Zakopane for the first night (in a dorm with eight other people but it was surprisingly pleasant). We also discovered the Zbójeckie Jadło a self-service restaurant (chain), where they weigh your plate at the checkout. Just as we were about to hit the trails, the weather turned nasty. Mild and rainy on day one. Plus, I felt weaker than ever. As a last resort, we hopped on the cable car to Kasprowy Wierch (a peak at nearly 2000 m) to give our crampons a chance. Up there it was cold enough but the heavy snowfall made sure we saw nothing. I soon realised I only had the strength to go downhill so we took the yellow trail towards the valley. A quick stop for some authentic tomato soup at the Murowaniec mountain hut, and then we kept trudging down the trails in the pouring rain.

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The next day Mother Nature decided to give us a taste of her frosty side, with a thick blanket of fresh snow greeting us in the morning. We quickly geared up for round two, despite my lingering illness. And it was totally worth it. We followed an easy trail but at last it felt like real winter. On our way back, we stopped by the cosy hut of Herbaciarna Parzenica for a hot tea and homemade apple cake – absolute bliss.

Now, fast forward a couple of weeks, and there I was, this time solo on another adventure to the Tatras. The bus dropped me at 5 pm. Armed with nothing but a backpack and a craving for some extra chocolate, I stopped by a small grocery in Zdiar before setting off on a moonlit hike to the Five Polish Lakes. Navigating in the dark with just a headlamp for company was exciting and a little bit scaring. But where’s the fun without a little bit of adrenaline, right?

One of the last houses outside Zdiar with the snowy peaks of the Tatras in the background

Walking by the highway at night isn’t the best idea. So I took the forest road instead and ended up on a steep uphill path with meter-deep snow. But then it was too late to turn back and that kilometre-long struggle took me an hour, cursing along my way. Then I chose to follow the highway until the Polish border. The border guards just smiled at me from their car as I passed by and started the quiet road that leads to Morskie Oko. It was around 11 pm when I took the green trail to the right. Around midnight I was so tired I seriously considered sleeping in an old shepherd’s hut but then I listened to my senses… after all it was minus 10 Celsius. I finally reached the mountain refuge after 1 am. The gate was open as always and hikers were snoring in their sleeping bags on the floor all around the place. I found an empty spot and tried to make the best of the remaining few hours before the place began alive again.

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The bar and the kitchen open at eight and then nyou can only keep sleeping if you booked a bed in one of the rooms. But it’s wake-up time for those who dropped in during the night. People either stand in the queue to get their tea or coffee or a hearty breakfast, or they sit down and have whatever the’ve brought with themselves. I had a coffee with my sandwich but could hardly wait to set off. The sky was beautiful blue above the mountains without a single cloud, which is real lucky. The blue sign leads up to the Zawrat Pass (two other paths fork off before towards the ridge but I’d walked them before). It rises gently at first as it skirts the lake, frozen and covered in snow in winter. Then it starts to become much steeper, especially as the winter path typically cuts off the bends. I can’t get enough of the view as it opens up in front of me and I happily walk even in the knee-deep fresh snow as I take the wrong path at one point. There are few other hikers on the top already, eating their sandwiches and just enjoying the scenery. For a minute, I play with the idea of taking a short part of the famous Eagle’s Way, watching a small group tread uphill. But then I think, safety first, and start descending on the shady side.

Leaving the sunny side behind was kind of sad but slaloming lightly past the sweaty hikers lit up my mood a bit. Then, arriving at Murowaniec mountain hut, I downed a pint of beer the Polish way, with a little raspberry syrup added. From there, it was the usual way downhill to Zakopane, only this time in snow instead of the rain. I spent the night in a simple pension, although the totally drunk owner could hardly find my reservation at first.

The following day brought another opportunity for some modest exploration as I ventured above the treeline towards Giewont. The weather was now different, a bit cloudy and terribly windy. After taking some more photos of natural beauty, I returned to civilisation. I spent another night in the Willa Orla, a traditional timber log house, beautifully refurbished and decorated, before I took the bus back home.

Some details and useful info

Distances:
First time (two days): 25 km, 595 m
Second time (three days): 59 km, 2449 m
Accommodation:
Five Lakes Mountain Hut (Schronisko Pięć Stawów), 10/10
one of the few places to experience the authentic Polish hiker-mountaineer culture, it also offers a limited menu of delicious dishes
Domek Pod Reglami, 7/10
very affordable with a bit dated but clean and comfortable rooms, well-equiped shared kitchen and huge dining area
Willa Orla, 10/10
the staff I met were really friendly and helpful, the room felt like home, clean, modern and very comfy,
the free buffet breakfast was superb, and it also offers a common kitchen area, a billiards room, a table tennis room, a playroom with board games and more
Hostel 1902, 7/10
nothing to rave about but the dorms are friendly and clean with their own bathrooms and the location is unbeatable
Willa Szymaszkowa, 8/10
an old school timber log villa with spacious rooms, a common kitchen and dining area though no staff to turn to if you have any questions or complaints
Weather and avalanche information: topr.pl

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