Monday, August 30, 2010

Keeping My Promise on Gerlach Stit -- Barely!

I made a promise that I wouldn’t climb up anything that I didn’t feel I could climb down. But I forgot to consider what might happen if the rocks I had climbed up became wet before I came down.

That oversight made the descent off Gerlachovsky stit, the highest point in the Slovak Republic at 2,654 meters (about 8,000 feet) a bit more than I bargained for. Those metal rungs in the overhanging rock and the chains bolted to the cliff face were not so easily negotiated in a snowstorm that swept in over the summit on what up till then had been a nice late-August morning.

Suddenly, the warning in the guidebook that Gerlach was not to be climbed without a rope-carrying guide made a little more sense.

I had come to Strbske Pleso, a quaint little mountain town in the High Tatras region of Slovakia, to climb the highest points in both Poland and the Slovak Republic. The Polish high point, Rysy, at 2,500 meters, sits literally on the border between the two countries, but the standard hiking route is from Strebske Pleso on the Slovak side.

Nancy and I had come to Poland for the World Masters Mountain Running Championships only a couple of hours northwest of here over the weekend. The intent was for both of us to run the five-mile uphill-only course, but since I have been nursing too many leg injuries to count, I decided not to race. A good decision, since the course was brutally steep and a cold, unrelenting rain fell throughout the Saturday morning race. It was about all I could manage just to hike up the course to the finish line – well, actually, I never saw the finish line, as I was advised to stop at the restaurant one kilometer shy of the summit – the top of the ski area where the race finished was shrouded in a thick, impenetrable fog created by the incessant rain.

It’s beyond me how some of these runners – one of them 80 years old – managed to run this course, but they did. Nancy ran a spectacular race – her first since turning 50 the week before – and was in line for a podium finish when she roared by me in third place in her age division at the hut with 1.5 kilometers to go. But the final track up to the finish was on a mud-splattered ski slope and she was stopped dead in her tracks by a previous finisher trying to pick his way down from the top who slammed right into her. Moments later another woman sped past her and Nancy was relegated to fourth place for the second year in a row. It was disappointing seeing her train so hard for a medal and then having it slip away in such fashion.

By the time I hiked back down to our hotel at the starting line, I was soaked to the bone and near hypothermic … so were many of the runners who finished the race in just over an hour, but had to wait another hour and a half, in some instances, for their drop backs – and their warm clothes – to arrive at the finish. But this posting is not about criticizing the Polish officials for a poorly organized race. After all, everyone seemed to leave happy, though those Europeans were well-insulated from the cold by the time the final medals were finally handed out well after dark!

The next day, Nancy and I headed back into Slovakia and to Strebske Pleso. We had a few days until we had to be in Kamnick, Slovenia, for the World Mountain Running Championships that will be held this Sunday. Nancy is on the World Mountain Running Association’s board and one of the U.S. coaches for the two senior and two junior teams that are to compete in the world championships.

The weather was a little better when we arrived and we found a great, modern hotel not far from the Rysy trailhead. The Hotel Crocus gave us an incredible room for less than 100 Euros. This place was so modern that not only did we need someone from the front desk to come up to show us how to turn on our futuristic stove, but he had to come back up a while later to show us how to turn it off! Stupid Americans, he must’ve thought!

I immediately headed for Rysy, which the guidebook said was a 4.5-hour ascent. I made the roundtrip in that time, but then again, I’ve never found hiking times to be overly accurate. The hike up took me first to Popradske Pleso (or lake) and then turned north and then northeast up a series of switchbacks on a fairly routine trail to the Chata pod Rysmi hut at 2,250 meters. Being a Sunday, there were hundreds of hikers on the trail and dozens more at the hut when I arrived – only to be met by a full-scale blizzard. And this was August!

The final ascent to the summit was a bit tricky on wet rocks and with so many others scampering and sliding about, but I made it to the saddle between Rysy’s two high points, one of which is in Slovakia and the other of which is the high point of Poland. The Polish summit was a few meters lower than the Slovakian one, but seemed to attract just as many of the ascending climbers, many of them probably like me – a peakbagger in search of the white cement post with the red top marking the Polish high point. I had someone take a couple of pictures of me and then I immediately headed down, as I wasn’t particularly prepared for snow in August!

I got back to the hut and found its deck completely filled with hikers enjoying a snack or some drinks from the store at the hut. So I continued down, meeting a guy from Longmont, Colorado, on my way, and limping back to the hotel in the late afternoon. Seems my sore left heel was acting up again from all the foot-pounding from the very rocky trail.

Nancy wasn’t particularly pleased with my decision to climb Gerlach stit the next morning … not after she heard from someone at the information booth next to our hotel that you could only climb the Slovakian high point with a paid guide. I explained to her that my guidebook said that anyone who was a member of a mountaineering club could climb without a guide – which was later confirmed for me by Michael at the front desk – and that since I was a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club, I qualified.

Now, I can imagine how silly me flashing my AMC membership card would have been had a guide stopped me on the trail and demanded to know what I was doing there without a guide. Well, silly if he knew that any couch potato with $50 can fork it over to the AMC and become an official “mountaineer.” I’ve seen AMC members who have had to be rescued off Mount Monadnock!

But no one was likely to see me anyway as the most accessible trailhead for Gerlach stit is from the tiny village of Vysne Hagy, which is not the same town the guides take their clients out of. Though they might have run into me after the two trails converge at Batizoske Pleso, the tiny lake just below where the real climbing was to begin.

I had to take the train from Strebske Pleso to Vysne Hagy and it left at 6:43 a.m. – on the dot! I was running out of the hotel to the train station next door just in time for the conductor to check my ticket and pull away. These trains in Slovakia are modern (you should see their roads! Spectacular in comparison to ours) and they run on a tidy schedule. I got dropped off at Vysne Hagy about 7 a.m. and the trailhead ran right past the station, up a side road and then disappeared into the woods. It climbed steadily and eventually topped out amongst the stunted high-alpine fir trees – I think it’s called krummholz – that would remind you of any hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Once at the lake, I sat down and had some of the breakfast the hotel had prepared for me, which I had grabbed as I dashed for the train. An apple, some bread and an orange juice box hit the spot and then I hit the trail, which wound around the lake and headed up a waterfall toward the towering headwall that was still in shadows even at 8:30 a.m. The guidebook said there is no set trail up this waterfall, which was right, but you could see where others had climbed before and it lead directly to the solid rock wall of Batizovske Zlab! There was a narrow chute running up from the bottom at a near-vertical angle and as I got closer I could see a series of chains hanging down from above that were to be used to climb up the craggy cliff face.

Once above this section, you continue to scramble for a while until a second set of chains is met to get you up an even nastier stretch. Above this came the rungs hammered into the rock face – some at least 100 years ago – that you climbed like a ladder up and over a protruding overhang. Now at least you were in a gully, but the severity of the ascent did not slacken. I climbed up this gully, switching from side to side to follow the path of least resistance, until after an eternity I topped out in a chute and stared over the other side into a gray, shapeless abyss!

It had started to snow again just before I reached the summit, with the unexpected storm rolling in from the north over the top of the mountain while I still was looking back into relative sunshine. I knew I didn’t have a lot of time to waste, so I scanned around for the summit, and then I saw it. About 100 meters away in the swirling fog I could see the apex of the mountain – a four-foot high metal crucifix embedded into a stone slab sticking straight into the heavens!

To get over to it required some scrambling over the ridgeline and the very edge of the abyss to my right, which could easily have been a drop of more than 3,000 feet.

I made my way up the final push to the summit and found a metal box bolted to the side of a rock which housed the best register book I have ever seen – it was even hardbound! Usually, you have to dig around under a rock or a cairn to find a PCP tube wired with a nut to a rock and then when you unscrew the cap, the register “book” is just a wet, soggy rolled up notebook from Staples with a pen that won’t write crammed in the spiral webbing. I gave the book only a quick scan for anyone who had signed in English, but could find none, so I logged in, put the book away and then peered out at the crucifix like I was Indiana Jones in the Last Crusade looking across the “leap of faith” chasm in the final scene.

The crucifix was at the end of a 10-foot-long catwalk that was roughly two feet wide with exposure dropping away on both sides and the summit marker cemented to a one-foot-square block which constituted the entire summit. I swallowed hard and eased out to the crucifix and grabbed hold of it like it was a life preserver. Nothing was going to pry this thing from my hands. I swung around and actually stood up on the block – just for a second – before I quickly sat down and snapped off a few self-portraits. That done, I figured it was time to get off this mountain!

Starting down I immediately noticed another series of chains that was supposed to have guided me to the summit … I had missed them by going up the right-hand chute instead of the left when the chute suddenly split about 50 meters from the summit. I rappelled myself down these 25 meters of chains and back into the chute I had climbed up – a steep gully that was now glistening with wet rocks from the snow that was falling. I had to be extremely careful as I picked my way back down this gully, knowing that one slip was going to result in a fall that would leave me far from rescue.

Then, of course, there were still the ladders and long sections of chains down below to deal with. I got to the rungs, which were extremely slippery, and backed my foot off into nothingness in search of the next rung below. Since they weren’t exactly lined up, this took some doing and some care not to slip. But I made it down past the overhang safely to hear some voices not far below me – loud and concerned voices at that. I envisioned that it was a guide and his reluctant client deciding to bail rather than try to ascend in a snowstorm, which was now abating.

But when I turned the next corner and could get a good look below me – careful not to dislodge even a pebble – I saw no one, and never did come across the source of the voices. Maybe they were in a parallel chute … or a parallel universe. Who knows?
I made it down the next sketchy series of chains by rappelling again and thought I has home free. But I had forgotten that the first climbing I did after leaving the waterfall was a series of chains, and to my dismay they were now entirely wet and hard to hold as I arrived at the top of a 50-meter section that separated me from safety. With knees knocking, I rappelled off this final section and let out a huge sigh of relief when I touched down at the bottom of the cliff face.

From here, it was an easy hike back down the edge of the waterfall to the lake and from there another hour and a half back down the trail to Vysne Hagy to the train station – where I arrived just in time to see the next train for Strebske Pleso pulling out of the station. Damn efficient Slovakian trains!

Turns out the next train didn’t come for another hour, so I hunkered down in the now steady drizzle and staved off the shivers until it finally arrived 60 minutes later right on schedule. Soon I was back in Strebske Pleso, safe and sound despite perhaps the most adrenaline-pumping climb I’ve ever done.

Well, at least I kept my word. I didn’t climb anything that I couldn’t climb down. I had to!


  1. Epic! Great account... Bummer that you couldn't race, but you still got in some dangerous fun.

  2. Great! I'm planning to go there in a while, so reading this is like a brain warm-up exercise :)