Of the twelfth first winter ascents on 8000m mountains so far achieved, ten of them were by Polish teams. That's some record, even for the nation that produced men like Jerzy Kukuczka, Krzysztof Wielicki and Andrzej Zawada. It's as though the Poles have a special gene for winter mountaineering, which the rest of the world somehow didn't acquire. So what better place could there be to learn winter mountaineering?
My friend Don and I had been working in Warsaw for a couple of years, and were members of the University of Warsaw Alpine Club. That gave us the 'in' we needed to Betlejemka, the 'Glenmore Lodge' of the Polish Tatras; and being foreign nationals conveniently allowed us to bypass the usual requirements to get onto the Winter Tatra Mountaineering Course (Kurs Wspinaczkowy Zimowy). The Tatras are not an easy place to get to climb if you're a Pole. The TPN (Tatra National Park) boasts an impressively low accident rate amongst visitors to the Park, and one way this is maintained is by making Poles go through a series of PZA (Polish Alpine Club) courses before allowing them to climb off the tourist trails; from crag climbing, to the summer Taternik course (multi-pitch rock and mountaineering skills), through to the real nuts and bolts, the winter Taternik course. This was our goal, and we were thrilled when the e-mail arrived from Bogdan, the head of the Betlejemka school, telling us that there were two places on the February intake with our names on them, the first foreigners to do the course.
We spent the remaining few days before the course sorting out our gear, lining up the compulsory medical examinations to determine us fit to climb, and arranging the best insurance policy we could find in Warsaw; a dodgy skiing policy obtained at the travel agency from a woman who couldn't speak a word of English, but assured us that the policy covered roped up activities in winter. Feeling less than inspired by this, but full of anticipation about the course, we boarded the night train to Zakopane on the Friday night, and did our best to get some sleep.
The train reached Zakopane at about 7am. We walked out of the station in the chill morning, and crossed over to the bus station, where we hopped on the Kuznice bus as it was leaving. Ten minutes later we were at the entrance to the Tatra National Park at Kuznice. Straining under our rucksacks we made our way up the blue trail through the forest. In the summer this trail is heaving with overweight families heading for the Murowaniec hostel for a beer and a slice of szarlotka (apple cake), but in the winter you are the only ones. After months in Warsaw, the silence is overwhelming and the air pure, and as you move higher there is an increasing sensation of leaving the world behind. After about an hour and a half we reached the area that was to be our playground for the next few weeks; Hala Gasienicowa. We dumped our sacks against a wooden bench outside Betlejemka, and went in to meet Bogdan.
Betlejemka is a wooden hut, sparse and basic on the inside, and pretty from the outside, in the 'Witkiewicz' style that predominates in the Tatras. The ground floor houses the chief's quarters, the instructors' room, and a cramped vestibule area with shelves for wet boots, a gas stove for boiling water, and a bench that provided a communal chatting area whilst waiting for water to boil. Upstairs is the bunkhouse, complete with about 9 bunk beds and two tables. The place is a den of climbing gear, wet ropes and dripping clothing. Conversation is generally kept to a hushed murmuring, as there is almost always someone in bed recovering from a climb. This noble sentiment seems slightly absurd though, accompanied by the incessant clumping of boots and creaking of the old wooden floorboards as people clamber over rucksacks and piles of climbing gear to get to their bunk. On a warm sunny day, with the windows flung wide, the bunkhouse is a paradise and there can be no better place to while away a few lazy hours, intermittently dozing off and waking for cups of tea. However, when the weather is against you, and you are confined to home with zero visibility and sub-zero temperatures outside, cabin fever sets in remarkably quickly.
Weekends 1 and 2
Bogdan greeted us and took us into his office for a chat, then showed us our bunks. After unpacking, we ambled downstairs to meet our instructor. Krzysztof Treter was instantly likeable, tall and easy-going, with a beguiling laissez-faire manner and a big smile. In conversation over the next few weeks with him, I managed to piece together a climbing CV that read rather like Chris Bonnington's; Central Pillar of Freney, American Direct on the Petit Dru, Scottish Route on the Eiger North Face, an attempt on the north side of Everest. He had spent three years as an instructor at Plas Y Brenin in Snowdonia, and had an accomplished Scottish winter record. We liked him enormously, and are still in touch. After procuring a pair of axes each and a rack of pitons and ice screws for us, Krzysztof told us to get some sleep, as we had an early start the next morning.
After a freezing strip wash (Betlejemka has no hot water facilities!) and a hasty breakfast, we headed out to Czarny Staw (Black Lake) along the blue marked trail. The trail contours along the east side of Maly Koscielec, past the grave of Mieczyslaw Karlowicz, one of the founders of the TOPR rescue organisation, who was killed there in 1909 by a small avalanche; a stark reminder that we were entering avalanche-prone territory. It felt strange to walk straight across the middle of the lake, having snaked along the path around it so many times in the summer. It was frozen solid, and would remain that way until late March. On the far side of Czarny Staw, to the right of the Staszla buttress on Granaty, there is a safe snow slope that the instructors use for self-arrest practice, and teaching snow belays. We spent the day practising snow seats, snow bollards, axe belays and self-arrest. These were the preliminary skills we would need before we could set out onto any proper winter routes. Despite the thermometer reading of -20C when we had left the hut that morning, the day felt warm and relaxed, and in the afternoon we headed further up to Zmarzly Staw (Frozen Lake) below the Orla Perc (Eagle's Ridge) ridgeline, to practise our crampon work on a small ice step. Krzysztof showed us how to ascend relatively easy angled ice with just one alpine axe, and then we headed for home as the sun dipped behind the Koscielec ridge and the temperature began to nose dive. We felt we had learned a lot on our first day, and were eager to get out the next day and do some climbing.
The next morning was slightly warmer, which Krzysztof assured us was good news for the snow conditions, as it would help to consolidate the recent falls. As we left the hut, though, we were hit by the sledgehammer of the Halny wind. The Halny blows up from Slovakia, accelerating over the Orla Perc ridge, and blasting down into the Gasienicowa Valley with a fury that generally puts pay to any climbing plans for the day. We decided to try our luck though and keep going as far as the lake. When we got there we were in horizontal snow, and the wind chill was severe. We came across another group from the course, and huddled together in the middle of the lake awaiting orders from Bogdan on the radio. All the other groups had turned back, and soon enough the radio call came through instructing us all to return to Betlejemka for a day of lectures. As the others drifted away Krzysztof asked us what we thought. We said that the prospect of a day of lectures in Polish held very little for us really, and that if he didn't mind we'd just as well stay put for another hour or so and see what happened to the weather. We agreed to walk as far as the other end of the lake and shelter from the wind for an hour. When we got there we found ourselves out of the wind, and carried on up to Zmarzly Staw.
Once there we drank some hot tea and geared up while Krzysztof set up a top rope on an icefall next to the lake. He made us climb it about 7 times each on top rope, first with no axes, then with one axe, then switching hands, and finally with both axes. We both appreciated this, and when he asked me if I fancied leading it, I felt confident. It was a lovely pitch, about Scottish 3, and I placed 3 screws and 2 snargs on the way up, belaying at the top on a snarg and a pair of equalised axes. Don followed up, and then we quickly got down and headed for home. We had found communication a problem once we lost visual contact, the Halny wind swallowing any sound as soon as it left our throats, and decided that a system of communication through tugs on the rope would make sense in future. We had also had our first experience of temporarily losing the sensation in our hands, something that we were to find a lot in the Polish winter. When we got back to the hut, in the fading evening light, we felt flushed with pride over our first ice climb, as the others were making tea and cursing the decision to head back.
In the Tatras they use a sliding scale to indicate the degree of avalanche danger, from zero to five. Five means that there are avalanches occurring as we speak, and the TOPR rescue guys put a ban on leaving the environs of the huts. The following day it was level five, after a day and a night of fresh snow, and Bogdan forbade anyone to go out. We spent the day resting, and digging the hut out of the snow that threatened to bury it. The next day things had not really improved, so we all went out to a safe low-angled snow slope towards Kasprowy Wierch, and spent the morning learning to use avalanche transponders. We used the PIEPS model, and all took turns to try and locate a transponder buried in the snow. Don and I both failed to 'save the life' of the stricken transponder on our first attempt, but got the hang of it eventually. After that we dug a 'hasty pit' to examine that year's snow pack. Things were looking bad for the spring, as the bottom layer (the first snowfall of the winter, back in September) had failed to bond properly with the ground, and cohesion within the layers was generally not fantastic that year. That meant that gully climbs were to be avoided, and we were to stick to buttresses and mixed ground. We dug a snow hole, just for practice, and found the exertion generated welcome heat in the body, and were surprised at how warm it was inside.
That night we were told that the next day would show no improvement in the conditions, and so it was agreed that an evening of vodka and Polish folk songs was required. The two standout vodka drinkers on the course were definitely Jarek and Rafal. Jarek was a stout bald-headed fireman from the lake district in the north, and Rafal was his climbing partner, drinking partner and best friend. They were inseparable, and Rafal used to refer to Jarek affectionately as 'grubasku' (fatty). We discovered that the instructors had nicknames for most of the students on the course. Jarek was 'beczka' (the barrel), and Rafal was 'czlowiek bez glowy' (the man with no head) on account of the state of drunkenness he would quickly get himself into. It was a fantastic night, and there was something surreal about sitting on a wooden bench, surrounded by 10-foot snowdrifts, in -20C, drinking vodka shots.
The next day we all got up with thumping heads except Jarek and Rafal, who were fresh as daisies. We spent the morning with Krzysztof, learning about winter navigation and route planning, and consulting Peter Cliff's book. In the afternoon we had a crack at getting down to Zakopane, but were shouted down and forced back after about 600m by an angry TPN guard on account of the snow conditions. The following day saw more snowfall, and Bogdan took the decision to shut the school down temporarily and postpone the course. We managed to get out and back to Zakopane along the jeep track to Brzeziny, and made our way back to Warsaw in a fug of disappointment. It had been agreed with Krzysztof, however, that we were to return every weekend for the next 3 or 4 weekends, and finish our remaining time with him around our work schedules.
Five days later we returned to Zakopane feeling rested, and keen to do some climbing. It was a beautiful clear night, with a full moon. We decided to do the walk-in without using our head torches. The moon gave the trees a ghostlike silvery glow as we picked out way up through the forest, and when we emerged from it onto the broad ridgeline the stars threw out enough light to pick out the silhouettes of the high Tatras in the distance, jagged outlines draped in a blanket of snow and ice. Looking back we saw the lights of Zakopane town below in the valley, and again felt that sensation of leaving it all far below and heading up into wintry isolation. When we arrived at Betlejemka we found the place almost empty, apart from a few instructors who pass the winter there.
The next morning we left the hut early with Krzysztof and headed briskly across the lake to an area where the instructors practice mixed climbing with their students. It is a steep slope of mainly frozen turf, with a few rock moves near the top. The Tatras are quite similar to the Scottish highlands, in that there is a lot of frozen turf in the winter, which offers confidence-inspiring placements for warthogs. I lead the first pitch, hammering in 3 warthogs on the way up to the rock, and a nut near the top. Don took the next pitch, and was given the perfect opportunity to try out a snow bollard anchor at the top, seeing as there was nothing else on offer. After a lunch of hot tea and chocolate, we moved over and up to the foot of the Srodkowy Zebro (Central Rib) on Granaty. I had climbed this grade V- buttress the previous summer, but it looked like a very different affair now, plastered in snow. Generally the routes in the Gasiencowa Valley contain in-situ pitons at intervals, as the guides and instructors prefer to leave them in than have people continually place and remove their own. Looking up now I figured we would probably not be able to find the pitons now, or they would be iced over. This would give things more of a Scottish feel.
We stamped out a platform, and put our crampons on. Then Krzysztof shot up the first pitch of grade II rock without a rope, and called to us to follow. We both found this extremely nerve-wracking, and felt very vulnerable up the last steep 10 metres. When we arrived we set up an anchor, involving placing two pitons together back to back in the same crack, and tying them off with a clove hitched sling. We clipped our axes and the rest of the gear into the anchor, fixed the rope, and abseiled down. We planned to return the next morning and climb the route, as the light was already beginning to fade.
The next day was overcast and cloudy, and the thermometer showed - 12C as we left the hut. Arriving at our fixed rope we jumared back up to the anchor and prepared to climb the route. Don and I alternated the lead, with Krzysztof following the leader up on his own. He had climbed these routes a hundred times, so did not feel in the slightest bit anxious. I lead the first pitch, and quickly discovered how tiring it is to have to clear the snow from the rock before every move. As protection I used a couple of nuts and a hex, a warthog and an in-situ piton. The climbing turned out to be varied and mixed, stretches of nervy rock with intermittent patches of frozen turf. Next Don lead up a grade III chimney. As we moved higher and higher up the buttress our sense of exposure increased, but so did our confidence in the fact that we were doing okay. On the next pitch I lead a variation on the summer route, heading up a grade V chimney with 3 nuts for protection. The weather was getting increasingly cloudy, and we began to feel quite isolated up there. At the next belay disaster struck. I had unleashed one of my axes whilst trying to place the pick in a crack to get a good anchor placement. Deciding to try something different, I let the axe drop, thinking it would hang in its leash. I was gutted as I watched it clatter down a gully to my left. As it was snowing, the axe had to be retrieved before it got buried, so we all abseiled off, got the axe, and accepted the fact that there was not enough day left to jumar back up and finish the route. I felt dejected as we trudged back to Betlejemka, feeling I had let Don down, but he quickly dismissed it as one of those things. We had enjoyed the climbing that day, but still felt that we were moving too slowly up the route. On several occasions while belaying we had both lost the feeling in our fingers, and had to repeatedly hit our hands against the rock to stimulate the blood flow.
Weekends 3 and 4
Over the last two weekends of the course we focused on implementing what we had learnt. Don an I, we lead four following mixed routes:
- The Prawe Zebro (Right Rib) on Granaty a 300m buttress of UIAA III grade
- Zebro Czecha (Czech's rib) 3 pitches long with a 5 m chimney crux of the route, at UIAA V
- The Polnocny Filar Swinicy (North Pillar of Swinica), a striking 600m buttress at UIAA IV, and a renowned classic winter outing in the area. It is perhaps the best classic winter route in the Gasienicowa Valley
- Gran Fajek at UIAA IV (the Pipe ridge) due to its outline from below.
It is said that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, any man who traversed Gran Fajek had his pick of the women in town! Unfortunately when we finished it the sun was already setting, and after snapping some pictures from our new viewpoint, we decided to forgo the local ladies, and head back to Warsaw. The last 200m of the descent to the lake involved a glissade on our backsides, which gave us the last thrill of the day.
When we said goodbye to Krzysztof at the railway station we all felt sad that it was over. It had been an unforgettable experience for Don and I, and we felt privileged to have spent so much time with a climber like Krzysztof. In 27 separate visits to the Tatras over a period of 5 years I feel I got to know them quite well, but I couldn't help feeling as we boarded the Warsaw train that winter is what really makes them the 'Polish' Tatras.