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.

A Dangerous Beauty

In October 2001, I got off a train in the Tatra mountain village Starý Smokovec and asked a local for directions to the Tatranská Horská Služba (Tatras Rescue Service). On assignment for The Slovak Spectator, I was seeking out the rescuers to inquire about a hiking death that had occurred the previous day.

"I also had a friend who died here. It was two years ago," the man said. "It is such a pity, it happens here all the time. He went out hiking on a sunny morning, but then a storm struck. When he didn't return, we called the rescue service.

"They found him the next day. He had fallen down a cliff from a trail that even a child could navigate... when the weather is good."

Deaths in these beautiful, but dangerous, mountains are far more common than one might expect. The High Tatras are an abrupt protrusion of stone rearing out of the Liptov and Spiš plains; their sheer ruggedness is one reason why tourists flock here year-round. It also explains why the mountains are so hazardous.

But their danger goes largely unnoticed. Until, that is, people die. Like the man I was reporting, one Štefan B., 55, who died October 15 when he fell 100 metres down a cliff in the Zelené Pleso (Green Lake) valley. He was the 15th High Tatras casualty of the year.

"This is nothing new; every year 15 to 20 people die in the Tatras. This year is no different," said Pavol Kuna, a rescue worker for the Tatras Rescue Service in Starý Smokovec.

"This is an alpine climate and the weather can and does change very quickly," he continued. "But people don't realise that. They see that the mountains cover a relatively small area compared to the Alps, that they are not as high as the Alps, and they think that they can go out less well-prepared than they would were they in the Alps. They don't believe that anything bad can happen here.

It's a common way of thinking among visitors. But it is a big, often fatal, mistake."

Since 1990, 167 people have died in the High Tatras. Kuna said that the biggest factor was the often volatile weather at higher elevations.

"There can be sunshine one minute and a blizzard the next, even in the summer," he said. "The High Tatras have extremely dangerous weather. I cannot repeat this enough."

"People often have a false sense of security here because there are no glaciers," added Tomáš Petrík, another rescue worker. "Without the permanent ice, hikers think they don't have to be as prepared as they would be in other mountain ranges."

Since Tatra tourism took off in the late 19th century, hiking and skiing deaths have become so common that a 'symbolic cemetery' has been established near the Popradské Pleso alpine lake to commemorate the lives of those who have died here but whose bodies have often not been recovered. Erected in the 1930s, the cemetery is home to dozens of wooden crosses and 250 plaques mounted on natural stone. A poignant memorial in the silent woods, it also serves as a warning to the living.

Petrík and Kuna said that deaths in the Tatras occur year round. Hikers and skiers should always check weather reports before heading into high country, they said, and they should always be prepared for violent and unpredictable storms.

"There can be a sudden explosion of bad weather on any day," Petrík said. "If the weather changes, just turn around and go back down the mountain. Or head immediately for a chata (mountain cottage) and wait for the storm to pass."

Other safety tips: always stick to the trails, and take a first aid-kit, an updated map, and a mobile phone if you have one.

In an emergency, call the mountain rescue service at 052 442-2820, 052 442-2855, or 18 300. All of the mountain cottages have telephones, and the rescuers are all trained in English and German.

"The Tatras cover a small area," Petrík said. "But they are very high and very dangerous. These mountains can kill you as easily as any others. You have to prepare for the High Tatras as you would for the Alps."

- Chris Togneri

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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