The High Tatras: a hike for the ages

The hike health and safety never reached…

We don’t care if you’re not fit, you don’t have time, you’re not that into hiking: just do it. We, one faux fit 25-year-old, and one not-so-fit 23-year-old, managed to clamber over these hills – and both came out of it saying it’s one of the most incredible things we’ve ever done. Think lodges in the forest, insane scenery, and plenty of rockface scaling – without a harness, helmet or basically anything to stop you from falling to certain death below. Selling it yet?

How about now?

Pre-hike:

For starters, there’s little use of you being in Poprad, so ignore the guide we have for that and just exit immediately. Take the tram and head in the direction of Stary Smokovec – one of the teeny towns in the foothills of the Tatras. Barely a stone’s throw from Poprad, you’ll encounter Nova Lesna, the first of the major towns on your way to the mountains. Then there’s Dolny Smokovec, several other similarly-named spots, and finally the ski and resort town itself. Unfortunately for us, all the lead up to this gorgeous little chalet town was in vain – because the entire place was sold out and we were shit out of luck for a place to stay at 7pm at night.

Things to look forward to

Instead, we went along to tourist information and had a friendly guide help us draw up a map of a proposed hike. Basically, the Tatras are crisscrossed with trails in every direction, so you can just choose a gradient, a duration, and some landmarks you’d like to see – and you’re solid. This would be all well and good in a situation where we hadn’t left booking an overnight lodge till 7pm the night before we wanted to start hiking, but such is life as an underprepared Kiwi with a ‘She’ll be right’ attitude, and once again we were told most of the sleeping options on the mountain were booked out. Luckily, a couple of spots on the floor of a guesthouse remained, and at 17 euro for the night we hastily accepted.

More things that had not yet happened

Back off the way we came, map in hand, we wandered aimlessly around Nova Lesna for a place to spend the night. Fortunately, this place is a glorified holiday home town and as soon as we entered we were met with numerous signs of guesthouses. You can’t really go wrong here, and we got a tidy double room with an ensuite for 11 euro for the night. A good breakfast spread was provided in the morning for 3 euro extra. However, if you’re showing up late at night and haven’t had dinner – we don’t recommend trying to food here; all you’ll end up doing is wandering though the town for 45 minutes starving, and ending up eating a good portion of the crucial supplies you’d bought for the next days hike.

The hike:

A poorly-scripted map of where we traversed

Duration: Two days

Difficulty: Hard

Jump back on the tram and head for Stary Smokovec, the coolest-named town we think we’ve ever come across, but also the jumping-off point to the Tatras. We chose a hike that began in Tatranska Lominca, so continued on the tram until that point and arrived at about 8am. While we can’t tell you precisely what route we headed up, it was certainly (maybe) yellow, and involved a strenuous morning climb that was largely unexpected. Follow the signs to chata pri zelenom plese – one of the most recognisable huts on the trail, which you’ll reach after a couple of hours.

Tatras Slovakia
Chata pri zelenom plese

It’s a picturesque spot beside a lake and a popular destination for daytrippers, so you’ll see plenty of people lazing around with a beer from the restaurant. There’s toilets, food and beverages on offer, and accommodation – if you’ve had enough for the day. Make sure you fuel up accordingly though, because you’re now off for another jaunt straight up an endless trail of hairpins – where you’ll eventually reach a crevasse with just a flimsy chain to pull you up a cliff face, over boulders and the likes. The view from here (the top, not midway up the chain. Don’t do that) is some of the best mountain scenery we’ve seen in the world. There’s also a really great rocky outcrop where you can pose for photos – facing certain death should you slip or put a foot wrong (see 1st photo we posted above). But, Instagram!

Barely have the arm strength for this guys

When you’ve reached the top of this pass, you’ll be glad to know that much downhill awaits, as you pass by Skalnate Pleso (the top of one of the chair lifts), and a number of other chalets where others are relishing the removal of their boots and a beer. But you’ll trudge on, because Zamkovskeho Chata is still an hour or so away. The second half of your first day, you’re looking back over towards Poprad and Stary Smokovec below; so close, yet so so far.

At about 4pm, you should trudge into the charming log cabin that is Zamkovskeho Chata, set amongst the woodlands. It’s got a beautiful deck, and there will be plenty of other tired hikers nursing a beer as you arrive. If you’ve booked a floor spot, that means you’ll have a thin mattress rolled out in the attic, which is full of people’s boots and sweaty clothes, but rather snug and cosy nonetheless. There will also inevitably be pillows and blankets, despite the fact you’d been told to cart both up the mountain, neither of which fit in your bag and had been stuffed in in place of vital things like a first-aid kit. We’d live to regret this in several hours when our blisters became apparent.

After a hearty meal of delicious goulash and bread dumplings (complex carboydrates we can finally get on board with), you’ll trudge upstairs to your spot on the floor and clear pass out.

Barely 7am, just conquered Everest

Then you’ll wake up at 6am and do it all again.

The start of day two is a brutal climb headed towards Teryho Chata – cause what says ‘who needs caffeine’ better than a thousand steps for giants up the side of a hill. After an hour straight up, you’ll reach the chata, and a beautiful view back over the valley. Sure, it’ll remind you that the sun has barely crept up over the horizon and you should still have your head on a pillow, but it’s also an excuse to devour two chocolate bars at 7.30am without a second thought. There’s toilets and accommodation at this hut, but no food.

Teryho chata

What remains is a sloping, and then steep climb up out of the valley, and a several-hour slog until you arrive at Zbojnicka Chata at about lunchtime. By this point, you’re disgusted at your crumpled and soggy homemade sandwiches and will throw them to the side in favour of a beer and something heartier at the hut. And then you’ll also eat your disgusting crumpled soggy sandwiches.

Lo and behold, after this pitstop you’re only headed one way: up.

This might just be the most challenging point of the entire trek. Not only is the climb essentially on a huge shale landslide, but there’s plenty of metal chains where you’ll need an ounce of upper body strength to wrench yourself up. You’ll also inevitably lose a very precious earring and spend several costly minutes, and ounces of energy, scouring the ground in vain. At the top, which is a crevasse barely the width of two people, you’ll look down and consider calling for helicopter evacuation. As you stare down a huge, gaping crevasse, you’ll see only flimsy metal rods fixed into the rock, intended on holding your entire body weight – like a climbing wall back home. The only difference is that back home you’d have a harness and helmet. Here, you just have a lot of swear words and screaming.

Though we watched many people at the brink of breakdown, both before and on this stretch of the hike, every single one of them made it down the cliff side. Take our word for it when we say it’s not for the faint-hearted – but the feeling of achievement once you’ve conquered it is truly unlike anything else.

Plus, then the rest of the day seems like a piece of piss.

While you’ve just come down quite a sharp drop of mountain, the trail then winds its way back up another one – but this short jaunt upwards you’ll do with ease. From there, you’re on a permanent descent. You’ll pass by Sliezsky dom, but you won’t stop for a beer because you’re literally a couple of hours from Stary Smokovec – which you can now follow the signs for. By now you’re quite literally hobbling, the unnecessary $500 sleeping bag and pillow at risk of being hiffed in the woods out of frustration and lack of sticky plasters, but soon – you’ll amble out into a clearing, on the outskirts of Vyoske Tatry. Turn left into the town, follow the railways, and you’re done.

tatras slovakia
Hey Mum no hands

Head straight for the nearest pub.

Bottom line: This is by far the most incredible, incredible hike we have ever done. Sure, it is largely for the bits that most people find terrifying: the absolute lack of health and safety, the challenge of the degree of difficulty, the flimsy metal rods you have to clamber over to avoid plunging to certain death… but we’ve also never felt so happy with two days of achievement. Also, we could’ve lost 5kg in 32 hours – so there’s that.

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