These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.



On the ridge of the Greater Fatra

By Ľubomír Mäkký

    You can see the limestone hills of the Gaderská valley from the trail along the granite ridge of the Greater Fatra mountain range. The Greater Fatra is a compact range - normally you can't see the limestone hills from the granite spine of a mountain ridge.
 You can see the limestone hills of the Gaderská valley from the trail along the granite ridge of the Greater Fatra mountain range. The Greater Fatra is a compact range - normally you can't see the limestone hills from the granite spine of a mountain ridge.
 Photo Ľubomír Mäkký

It's another warm, late summer Thursday afternoon. The weather forecast for the next three days looks fabulous and all of us have managed to get a Friday off. Over beer in the Umelka pub near the Old Bridge in Bratislava, at a table full of maps, we discuss our options for the following days. It almost looks like a preparation for a trek in the Himalayas. No, we do not really need such a detailed plan for a Greater Fatra ridge trek - all of us have already been a couple of times. It's a matter of ritual - we let go of our work stresses and get ready to enjoy our trip from the very beginning.

The Horehronec train leaves Bratislava early in the morning (6:20) for Banská Bystrica, where a friend picks us up and gives us a ride to the little village of Harmanec. We have decided not to take a car, since our plan is to start at the southwestern edge of Greater Fatra and finish at the northeastern edge - it would be close to impossible to come back to a parked car and get back home on time. Besides, the train has the spirit of independent travelling that we enjoyed so much during our university studies.

Harmanecká cave

It's about 11:00, very hot, and the first leg of the trip is not too long. We all know how the weather behaves during summers in the mountains - sunny and calm weather means a threat of an afternoon thunderstorm. We really do not feel like getting soaked right at the beginning, so a visit to the nearby Harmanecká cave comes in handy. None of us has visited this one yet and it had just reopened after reconstruction to the entrance and services area in 2005, so we are quite curious about it.

To get to the entrance, you must climb a very steep slope (elevation rise of 260 metres) through a zigzag path. After approximately 45 minutes you pay the fee (Sk140) and wait for your guide. Tours leave every hour. An English-speaking guide is usually available and the cave, like all Slovak caves, is closed on Mondays.

The Harmanecká limestone cave has an overall length of almost 2,650 metres, with 1,020 metres open to the public. The cave is renowned for its large amount of white, soft sinter rock. Many pagoda-like stalagmites and limestone waterfalls catch your eye pretty quickly. This cave is also a very important winter shelter for bats - nine species were found here. The temperature averages around 6 C, so it is a very nice cool-down in the summer. We enjoy it more than the boring commentary of our guide, who wasn't a speleologist at all.

To Kráľová studňa

    Kráľova studňa got its name from this spring, in front of the rocky Kráľova skala cliff.
 Kráľova studňa got its name from this spring, in front of the rocky Kráľova skala cliff.
 Photo Ľubomír Mäkký

After the visit, we pick up our backpacks from the guides' room where we left them before entering cave. The weather looks stable, no gathering dark clouds, so our trek can finally start. At the nearby train station (a couple minutes' walk from parking lot under the cave) we take a green trail and follow Harmanecká valley along the train tracks on a forest road. Before long we arrive at a cross-road called Veľký tunel (Big Tunnel). Nearby is an entrance to the longest railway tunnel in Slovakia (4,697 metres) between Harmanec and Čermošné.

Our path leaves the forest road and turns right into a narrow, steep and soggy valley. It takes quite a while to get through the young trees, as the trail is not very well looked after. Tourists usually take other routes more often than this one - there is a red trail going from the Malý Šturec saddle, a yellow and another green one from Lower Harmanec.

After a while we get to a clearing in the forest and then join a dirt road heading to the mountain hotel Kráľova studňa (King's well). There is nothing special about the rest of this leg - mostly forest, and from time to time some limited views. A car with supplies for the hotel stops by and offers a ride - still feeling full of energy we refuse it, although it could definitely be lot of fun to ride this ancient V3S truck that remembers the Prague Spring, if not earlier.

It's already been about three hours since we left Veľký tunel behind and suddenly we reach the tree line, and in front of us stands the hotel. It looks really bad. We could imagine at least a thousand other views that would make us less sick. Its forlorn look and monstrous architecture does not fit in with the beautiful surroundings of the thin spruce forest and grassy gently-sloped hillsides with occasional islands of knee timber. And all around the outside is messy.

    Timber planted in a chessboard pattern is designed to reduce the risk of avalanches.
 Timber planted in a chessboard pattern is designed to reduce the risk of avalanches.
 Photo Ľubomír Mäkký

Yet there is something good about this hotel - they've got beer and that is what usually counts for every traveller, whatever the other circumstances are. Despite its bad reputation, the staff are very friendly - and they certainly expect us to stay overnight. We enjoy our Martiner lying in the nearby meadow in the late afternoon sun and chat about our former visits to this mountain range. Actually, this looks like the first time any of us have had really nice, stable, yet not frying-hot weather for a hike here.

It's getting late and we need to secure shelter for the night - if the place is full, we would need to come back to the hotel or bivouac somewhere because other places to sleep are too far away. So we refill our water and bid the disappointed hotel staff goodbye. It takes about 15 minutes to get the Kráľova studňa spring next to Kráľova skala (King's cliff).

We discuss the interesting knee timber formations on the opposite hillside - it looks like a chessboard. It is supposed to help in avalanche management. The Greater Fatra, and especially the slopes of Krížna, are renowned for the biggest avalanches in the country, even though the elevation level is not too high. The reason is simple - the hillsides are not too steep, and most of the snow stays there. When the snow cover is high, blocks of it slide pretty quickly on the grassy base. In February 1924, under the eastern slope of Krížna, the small village of Rybô with its 18 inhabitants was buried in the biggest avalanche that has ever fallen in Slovakia.

Just a few paces from the Kráľova well crossroads, we make a left and follow the green trail until we see a little wooden cabin, our place to sleep. Fortunately we are the first ones to come. A nearby Slovak National Uprising memorial reminds us of the area's past. It is already getting dark, so we quickly cook some soup and eat it with bread before going to sleep.

Central ridge

Waking up before 6 a.m. might feel a little bit masochistic, however in the mountains it makes perfect sense not to sleep too late. First of all, keep in mind that around 2 p.m. the weather usually changes and thunderstorms should be expected. Secondly, the sooner you set off, the more you can travel during the day. You can also avoid crowds, and nature in the morning gives you a special feeling.

After a rich breakfast (always remember to eat a lot, so you have enough energy for the whole day) we go back to Kráľova well to refill our water reserves - it looks like another warm day and the next water source is not that close. With a fast pace we almost run up to Krížna hill - a big crossroad of many trails going in almost every direction. We take a short break to catch our breaths and take some pictures. The weather is not as clear as the day before, but it is still very nice and with the breeze and clouds, we do not expect to get ourselves caught in a storm. That would not be such a big deal though, because we are going to sleep in Chata pod Borišovom (Chalet under Borišov hill), where we have ordered three sleeping places via an SMS message.

Following the path takes us straight north with just little rises and drops over a landscape of grass. This part of Greater Fatra (Krížna - Frčkov - Ostredok - Suchý hill - Kýšky - Ploská) is known as the central ridge. It is very easy to hike and you've got enough time to enjoy fabulous views in every direction. On a clear day you might see the Low Tatras, Western Tatras, Choč hills, Lesser Fatra and Kremnica hills.

Less than an hour from Krížna, we reach highest hill of Greater Fatra, Ostredok (1,592 m). Then there is a short descent and little rise to Suchý hill and quite a steep fall to the Salaš pod Suchým vrchom (Shed under Suchý hill). We pass it without stopping.

We keep going along the red trail and pass a shed called Mandolína on the right side. I once spent a particularly interesting night there. We came with a big group and after a while we realised there was no water nearby. We knew that shepherds were in the neighbouring shed, so we sent the girls to get some milk. After quite a while they returned with a full bucket of fresh milk. We drank it from the very bucket they brought it in. It tasted fabulous, nowhere close to what I was used to.

Shortly after a hilltop called Kýšky (in some maps Chyžky) we leave the red trail for the blue one that traverses Ploská. Its name stands right for what it is - a huge, burly, flat hill. Soon we learn that it was not a good idea at all - the path is crooked with cattle hoof marks, because of a nearby spring. After we pass the watering place, the trail is in good shape and we can follow our route faster again. Before long we meet the red trail we parted about half an hour ago and easily reach the Chata pod Borišovom.

After meeting Stano, the chalet keeper, we leave our backpacks in the dorm room and have a nice beer in the front of chalet. It is not too late yet - our trip took less than five hours including numerous breaks - so we decide to run up to the hilltop of Borišov just for the fun of it. It took a little time, at least. After returning back again we take another short hike to Shed Sestričky (Twins) and run up again.

Then it is the right time for some food. We combine our food with some specialties of Stano's. They prepare very tasty food up here, indeed. What they are renowned for, however, are crazy drinks.

We tried mocrohsakčivorob: a mix of borovička and horec spirits (its name consists of both words, read in reverse order).

In my opinion, Chata pod Borišovom is one of the best mountain huts I have ever visited. It is in line with Chalet under Rysy in the High Tatras, Stony Hut in the Low Tatras, or Chalet under Náružie in the Western Tatras. What I like the most is true mountain spirit during the evenings. For a long time there was no electricity at all. Solar panels were recently installed, but only for the kitchen and to light dorm rooms. In the eating room kerosene lamps still remain - the glowing reddish light creates a great atmosphere.

Even though great tales are being told and plans for quests in distant countries are being prepared by a friendly gathering of tourists at tables laden with beer and other funky drinks, we have to leave for sleeping. It's a pity indeed, but tomorrow's route is going to be lengthy and tiring. Despite a clear sky packed with a countless number of stars, Stano warns us that the following day is not going to be too friendly. We hope he is not right this time, though we know it probably is not going to be the case.

Heading towards Ružomberok

    Kráľova skala is a prominent landmark on this route through the Greater Fatra.
 Kráľova skala is a prominent landmark on this route through the Greater Fatra.
 Photo Ľubomír Mäkký

Waking up early again, we have breakfast at a picnic table in the front of the chalet and then we are off pacing up Ploská hill. Today we have more than 30 kilometres of trekking ahead, adding up to about 10 hours, according to our map.

We follow the red trail to the hilltop, even though a green trail parts in the middle of the ascent for an easier traverse over the northern and northeastern slopes. After 40 minutes we stand at a crossroads on the hilltop - we have beaten the marked time by a third. The green trail follows downwards to the saddle under Ploská, traversing Čierny kameň (Black Stone) and over the Minčol hill, after which we enter mostly spruce forest. In the occasional clearings we can see the peak of Rakytov, one of highest peaks of the Greater Fatra (1,567 m). The ascent is quite steep, however we are still fresh and literally jump up in half the time suggested by the trail markings.

It's about 10 a.m., so it is time to have a little break for refreshments and picture-taking. The weather is changing quickly - it's almost overcast and a chilling wind blows from northwest. According to my GPS receiver's barometer, the atmospheric pressure dropped significantly overnight. Between this and Stano's forecast, we can expect to get soaked.

After an hour of hiking the first drops of rain come. The rain is very light, almost the refreshing type, so we continue without raincovers. On northern slope of Skalná Alpa (Alp of Stone) it gets really bad - we are not too happy about it, as we had expected to get to the Mountain hotel at Smrekovica before the worst came. So we put on waterproof pants, jackets, gators and raincovers for our backpacks.

In less than an hour we stand in front of the hotel. We hoped to find warm shelter, but the hotel is closed. Fortunately, the roof covers the entrance area quite well.

    Ploská is the first hill you meet on Day 3 of the hike.
 Ploská is the first hill you meet on Day 3 of the hike.
 Photo Ľubomír Mäkký

After lunch we decide to continue. The rain is still quite heavy, yet we must continue for Ružomberok. There is not much to say about following hours. Rain, rain, rain, and further we must go. It is very tiresome and around 4 p.m. we pass the crossroad at Vlkolínske lúky (Vlkolínecske meadows). We had planned to visit the UNESCO heritage village of Vlkolínec that lies just 15 minutes down the hillside, however we do not feel like it any more. Parting with the green trail for the yellow, we continue north to meet the blue one after a couple of minutes. Soon we can finally see the town of Ružomberok in front of us. We cheer up and following the red trail, we get to the train station.

Our train leaves a couple minutes before 7 p.m. - that gives us almost an hour. In a nearby pub with a glass of beer, we discuss our new experience. On the whole, we decide it was very positive, and we plan another prolonged weekend in the Lesser Fatra.

Ľubomír Mäkký is an editor of the online outdoor magazine Hiking.sk

What you need

Backpack

Pick a backpack with the right volume for your needs; however keep in mind that what you pack is what you carry through the whole trip on your shoulders. Usually a volume between 45 and 65 litres should be good. A comfortable back system pays off, even though the more comfortable, the more expensive.

Sleeping bag and mattress

As you never know where exactly you might end up sleeping, a good sleeping bag and mattress should be on your list. Even if you are sleeping in a chalet, it is better to be in your own sleeping bag than relying on the provided sheets - you never know what's crawling in the mattresses there. Your sleeping bag should have a comfort zone (not the extreme limits) of somewhere between -5 and 12 C, depending on how sensitive you are to temperatures. For the filling material, it is good to have is something high in insulation, yet lightweight - like PolarGuard3D, Primaloft or goose down.

Hiking boots

Boots should have good support for your ankles and should be waterproof. The Greater Fatra range is not a rocky mountain ridge. Instead, be ready for lots of grass and forests at lower altitudes. Make sure your boots are not too stiff.

Clothes

Like you would for most outdoor activities, dress in layers. Avoid cotton, as it is bad at moving moisture away from your skin and can get wet very quickly. Underwear and socks designed for hiking are a basic key to comfort on your trek. Always have spares in case you get completely soaked. Do not forget something warm and a waterproof and windproof layer.

Water

There are quite a number of water sources while hiking Greater Fatra ridge. But keep in mind that dehydration is very dangerous for your body so you need to make sure you always drink enough. You need to carry at least two to three litres of water and keep drinking it as often as possible - if you feel thirsty, it's already too late. A water reservoir with a drinking tube, such as Camelbak, is a good way to keep yourself hydrated and stores better in your backpack than a PET bottle.

Food

Have a selection of energy bars, chocolate and other lightweight snacks - it's great during the day. For breakfast, take something high in long-lasting energy (that leaves sweet stuff out) - some people love cereal with milk (powdered and water), others take Orava bacon and bread. If the food is high in fat, drink a lot while eating -warm tea is especially great. After you eat, take a short break before hiking. Your evening meal should be warm, a soup or something else out of a bag (dried food).

Stove and pot

The Greater Fatra range has plenty of places to sleep on the ridge, however not so many places to eat. A warm meal at least once a day is a good habit and should not be missed while hiking. Take a small, lightweight propane stove along with a pot with a volume of at least one litre.

Map

Make sure you take an up-to-date hiking map with a 1:50.000 scale and a WGS84 grid designed for GPS receivers. Even though you might have a digital map loaded in your GPS receiver, never go out without a proper paper map. Only two brands should be considered reliable - VKÚ (map No. 121) or SHOCart (map No. 1084), the first of which is the most highly recommended. It should be available in most bookstores or hiking shops.

GPS receiver or compass

In case you are new to hiking in the Greater Fatra, and you don't speak Slovak, it is strongly recommended to take a GPS receiver and load it with important points on the route, such as places where you intend to sleep or important milestones of your trek. Together with a map featuring a WGS84 grid, you won't get yourself lost. Particularly in bad foggy weather, it can be quite handy.

Other things to consider

Make sure to bring sunglasses, sunscreen and lip balm with sunscreen, a pocketknife and hiking poles in case your knees need support or you are taking a pack of more than 20 kilograms on your back.


These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2007, which you can obtain from our online shop.

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