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A Polish Adventure: Hiking in the High Tatras
This is a guest post by fellow travel writer Charlie from Charlie on Travel.
HIKING IN THE HIGH TATRAS
Never in my life have my bum cheeks felt so much like ice as when I was standing, triumphantly, at the top of Kościelec.
Kościelec is a mountain in the High Tatras, which sits on the Polish side of the Poland-Slovakia border. It’s so close in fact, that our couchsurfing hosts, down in the nearby town of Zakopane, told us that if you can make it to the top of Kościelec, then you would be able to throw a snowball into Slovakia.
Hiking Kościelec, especially in icy weather, is no walk in the park. The Poles recommend hiking in September when the weather is good and there are slightly fewer tourists. Naturally, in a spontaneous and unplanned trip to Poland, my partner and I were preparing to trek up through the mountains in March. In March, the hiking routes are still covered in solid sheets of ice and so there are absolutely no tourists to be seen. Except for us, we were there.
We hiked for five hours through white forests and across frozen streams, scrambled up steep slopes with only ice-slicked rocks to use as footholds, and staggered through mountain mist. At one point, the fog was so heavy that I couldn’t even see my own hand when I stretched it out in front of me. I had darted a terrified look to my partner, Luke, only to find him already disappearing into the mist like a ghost.
When we finally made it to cloud level, a small yellow painted signpost stuck out from the snow, pointing toward a quaint settlement of wooden huts with chimneys and snow covered roofs. Behind the huts, Kościelec stood tall.
My reaction, of course, was to whimper at the mountain and run into a little hut for a mug of coffee. Luke dragged me back out into the wintery wilderness. The climb turned into a vertical face of snow. We dug our hiking shoes in, leaving yeti-sized footprints behind us. Then, the snow gave way, and we stumbled and tumbled down. I fell, bum first, into a soft, snowy wet abyss. My leggings were soaked and my bum was freezing. Fortunately, we noticed a sketchy little chairlift above us. Unable to continue the climb further in that amount of snow, we clambered on thankfully.
On top of Kościelec, we overlooked dozens of mountains all capped with snow. A pink glow of sun was sinking into the pit between them, scattering a warm light across the rocky bases. We clamped hands, we had made it.
Fancy hiking up Kościelec, even after that story? Here are some directions:
Zakopane is the nearest town to the Tatra Mountains. You can get there by bus from Krakow, which takes a couple of hours. It’s a good idea to plan a few days in the town so that you can make the most of the hiking and scenery.
To get to Kościelec, grab a map and head up the road out of the town. This will take you to the entrance of the Tatra Mountains National Park, where you will need to pay a small fee at a little wooden hut to use the hiking routes.
From here, you can follow the yellow or blue trail. We accidentally took the harder of the two (the yellow one) because we didn’t follow our map properly. The small settlement on the way is called Murowaniec, so head for there first.
There’s a gondola at the top of Kościelec, which is mostly used by skiers. It’s a good way to get down if the hike up takes you a long time.
My top tips for surviving the hike
- Check the weather forecast. If there’s a snow storm, you really can’t go.
- Take a map – when everything’s a white-out you’ll regret not having one.
- Take a huge bottle of water and plenty of food – it will be hours before you find anywhere to stop.
- Wear waterproof gloves – if you can, wear waterproof everything. You’ll likely get soaked from the snow at some stage.
- Take a walking pole if you have one – I didn’t and I wish I had.
- Don’t go alone unless you’re a trekking master.
Have you ever been hiking in the High Tatras? How was your experience? What did you take?