A dated tale of adventure from before the age of closed borders and quarantines.
I impatiently paced back and forth in the narrow corridor of snow that the lip of the cabin’s roof had provided. In the open doorway of the wooden hut stood two people: my friend, Mateusz, and a member of the Tatra Mountain Rescue Team. They spoke in hushed tones in a language I could not even begin to comprehend. After many minutes of me trying to look care-free, the conversation between the two came to an end. Mateusz came over to me, and the door closed. I waited for him to speak; he already knew what I was anxious to know. “What do you call the thing with the skull and two bones making an X beneath it?”, he asked. “A skull and crossbones?”, I replied. “Yes, thats it! That is what the man used to describe the snow conditions for the day.” I hung my head. It seemed that my decade-long dream of climbing frozen turf in the Polish Tatras would remain just that – a dream.
We discussed what our next move should be. The avalanche report issued everyday by the Tatra Mountain Rescue Team showed moderate, a two on the 1-5 scale. Not that high, but as I once heard someone say, “If you had a moderate chance of getting your ass kicked at the bar tonight, would you still go out?” Not having beacons or any of the essential safety equipment for traveling though avalanche-prone terrain anyways, it was all a moot point. The only question that really remained was if there was any climbing that we could access without traveling through such dangerous territory. That’s what we went to go find out.
A decade prior, from the warm comfort of my then employer’s house, I flipped through an old issue of Alpinist Magazine. A short story towards the beginning of the publication caught my eye. A man, wearing an over-sized, fuzzy bomber hat, stared mid-swing at divot of grass, ice tool poised to strike as soon as the camera shutter closed. I was taken. This didn’t look like the standard winter climbing fare. I read on. The location was the Tatra mountains, in Poland, and the style was frozen turf climbing. Due to the rather porous rock that makes up the area, huge, near-vertical mountainsides are often covered in a thin layer of soil and grass. In the summertime, these plants are bonded to the mountain with little more than their roots. During the winter, and especially the spring, it is a different story. The freeze-thaw cycle bonds these dirt clods tight to the mountain, or so climbers hope. Using mostly standard ice climbing equipment, one ascends the mixed face of bare rock, snow, and frozen turf, oftentimes many hundreds of meters in length. Unfortunately, in the area with the highest percentage of frozen turf coverage, the Western Tatras, climbing is forbidden. Fortunately, the Polish High Tatras also offer turf climbing, providing a fairly even mix of rock, snow, and turf per pitch.
It was March of 2019, and I was off to Austria for a friend’s wedding. Ever the schemer, I was all-in for trying to stretch this trip to cover as much of Central Europe as possible. I recalled from an earlier exchange of emails with a Tatra local that the best month for turf climbing was March (maximum freeze-thaw). Coincidentally, I had just made a new Polish climbing friend a few months prior during my time in Argentina. Things were looking promising. Some messages were swapped, plans were drawn up, and before I knew it, all systems were a go.
After the wedding, I took some time to visit with friends before heading to the Tatras. While I was languidly walking through the foothills and apple orchards of Moravia, a serious storm was blowing across much of the European continent, blanketing the area with major amounts of precipitation. Unfortunately, the Tatras got slammed by this, bringing heavy snowfall and significant winds to the range. The conditions were too bad to even attempt to climb, and I was put on stand-by. My three-day Tatra climbing blitz just turned into two.
The next morning I found myself at the central train station in Brno, frantically trying to reach my friend Mateusz. A bus, Poland-bound, was leaving in 4 minutes from a stop a half a kilometer away. “Dude, can we climb?”, I asked when he finally answered. Through the broken connection came his reply, “I think there is a good chance, but I cannot promise.” Decision time: try to catch the bus to Poland, or head west to Germany for a couple days of drinking beer? I hung up, and with my 50 lbs (23 kg) pack, sprinted for the bus.
It was a long journey from Brno to Krakow and onto Zakopane, where we spent a short night in a hostel before getting an alpine start. The mountain huts had all been reserved, so we had to start from town. A taxi took us up to the start of the hiking trail, and we began our hike by headlamp. Dawn came slowly as the inky black turned to lighter and lighter shades of blue. We reached the hut just as others were waking up for their days of skiing, hiking, or climbing. There we got the bad news about the conditions.
At the base of the mountain cirque where we had hoped to climb was a big and broad lake. Mateusz knew it would be safe to walk at least to there. Coming so far, I was prepared to give up goal of climbing for the sake of safety, but I did want to at least see the mountains in their full form. We left the hut and started up the hill. Reaching the lake we saw a few other parties, some skiing, some preparing to climb, and some just taking photos. We, as objectively as we could, evaluated the situation. Peak by peak we went across the cirque, crossing them off our mental maps as too dangerous, given the avalanche conditions. It was not the walls themselves that was the issue, but the hundreds of meters of avalanche-prone snow slopes beneath the faces that denied us entry.
Towards the end of the right-side, we came across a smaller sub-peak that had potential. There was only about 50 meters of snow between the lake and its base, and almost all of that was low enough angle to be deemed safe. After much vacillation, we decided to go for it. We would take it one step at a time, and if we saw any of the warning signs of an avalanche, we would get the hell out. 20 minutes later, we reached the base.
Our route was three to four pitches long. Mateusz was familiar with this climb, as he had done it before as the final test for his alpine climbing course. Now it was my turn to be tested. The route was pretty ideal for a first-time Tatra climber; it started off relatively low angle and then got progressively steeper, each rope length more difficult than the last. I was very hesitant on the first pitch, and quite honestly, a bit terrified. The turf was not at all as I had imagined. I was expecting deep dirt and hero ice axe swings that buried the blade up to the hilt. What I had instead was a blend of snow and dirt that went from few centimeters thick to only a few millimeters. The thicker parts were filled with hidden stones that would cause your ice tool to ricochet off should you hit one. The gear placements were non-existent. Slowly, cautiously, I made my way up, one steeper step at a time, taking long rests on the lower-angled spots in between, and searching desperately for gear placements. Eventually, I reached the end of the first pitch.
As the climbing continued, move by move my confidence in the turf improved. I learned that less swing often results in more stick, and that ice tools are never as good as a proper hammer for nailing glorified tent stakes half way into frozen turf for anchors. We reached the top of the climb and I took in the views. It had been a while since I had seen a place that felt so wild and rugged, a place that made me feel so vulnerable.
After returning to the base of the climb, we made our way back across the lake, and down the hill to the hut. Posted was the following day’s weather forecast; it looked grim. A huge warm front was on the way, and it would bring above freezing temperatures to even the tallest peaks in Tatras. With that, we knew our time in the hills was over.
That night, I once again found myself waiting at a bus stop, wondering if I should get on. Mateusz and I could stay where we were and try skiing at one of the resorts the next day, or we could head back to the lowlands, hope for a sunny day, and take our chances sport climbing. Risking it for the biscuit, I boarded the bus.