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.

The High Tatras

Cold and magnificent; dangerous and serene

Text and photos by Chris Togneri

 photo: Chris Togneri

The High Tatras, or Vysoké Tatry, are an abrupt swelling of granite rearing from the lowland Liptov and Spiš plains. Soaring to heights of 2,654 metres (8,706 feet), they are cold and magnificent, dangerous and serene - and with their challenging hikes and breathtaking views, they rival any mountain range in the world.

There is no better way to experience the Tatras than by staying in a high-altitude mountain cottage, or chata. Camping is banned in the Tatra National Park (TANAP), so the cottages are the only way visitors can stay here overnight without passing through the tourist-trap mountain resorts below.

I begin my High Tatra chata tour in the east, in the village Ždiar, for two reasons. First, getting to Ždiar is easy (buses from Poprad leave several times a day), but getting out can be problematic: heading south from the Polish border, buses are often so packed with tourists that drivers will not stop to pick up new passengers in Ždiar. Secondly, I want to conclude my hike in the west, atop the country’s most revered mountain peak Kriváň. (More on that later.)

The easternmost mountains are known as the Belianske Tatry (White Tatras), and Ždiar is the picturesque hamlet in the valley below. The trail into the mountains wends gently up a sweeping valley. An hour later, though, it splits off and shoots up a steep canyon. For two hours I trudge up serpentíny (switchbacks) lying precariously along the face of the canyon cliffs.

Halfway up, a Czech couple coming down the mountain warns of the trail beyond: “It’s terrible,” jokes a man in his 40’s. “I’ll never do that again. From now on, I’m only hiking trails that go down!” That’s the Tatras for you. Because the range is so abrupt, there are few easy hikes. But there are many extreme climbs.

At Široké sedlo (Wide Pass), in the shadow of Hlúpy štít (Silly Peak), I am treated to a dazzling display of just how dramatically the weather can vary in this small, high alpine range: the eastern slopes of the mountain are invisible, cloaked by a thick fog and hounded by swirling winds. The western slopes, however, are bathed in sunshine. The difference is stark: bright light and ghostly fog, separated by a mere matter of feet.

 photo: Chris Togneri

I bed down at Chata pri Zelenom plese (Cottage by the Green Lake), where beds cost 300 crowns a night. As the name suggests, the cottage sits on the banks of a brilliantly green lake, surrounded on three sides by a dramatic rock amphitheatre peaking over 1,000 metres above.

Like most Tatra cottages, this one is rustic and amicable. A black shepherd dog named Willie invites visitors to a game of tug-of-war with a stick that is never far from his grinning, drooling mouth. Willie lives here year round, employees tell me, and he could not be more pleased.

Up early the next morning, I step out into a brilliant day. Willie and I stroll around the lake, stick still in his mouth, squinting at the sun’s bright glare. As I head in for breakfast, Willie settles in the sunshine for an early morning nap.

From Zelené pleso I follow the red trail over a steep pass, then descend two hours later to Skalnaté pleso. This place is a zoo, a shocking contrast to the previous day’s serenity. Hundreds of tourists are milling around the small alpine lake, sun-bathing, eating chips, listening to blaring pop music and waiting in line for a 350 crown funicular ride to the top of Lomnický štít, which at 2,634 metres is TANAP’s second highest peak.

No reason to linger here. Craving a return to high-altitude solitude, I continue hiking on the red trail for an hour until green markers point the way up Malá Studená dolina (Little Cold Valley). At the top, the park’s highest-elevated mountain cottage which is open all-year-round awaits: this is Teryho chata (2,015 m).

On the banks of a small alpine lake that in mid-June is still partially frozen, Teryho offers a total of 28 beds at 280 crowns a night (add 100 crowns for breakfast). Like all Tatra cottages, they won’t turn away anyone in need of shelter. Miro Jílek, the Teryho chatár (or inn-keeper), says that hikers are allowed to sleep “on tables, on the floor... wherever there is free space.” If you don’t get a bed, though, make sure you have a sleeping bag, as Teryho provides blankets only on the beds.

 photo: Chris Togneri

In the late afternoon, with the sun setting behind the soaring stone cliffs encircling the cottage, I sit outside with my cousin, Leia, who has travelled from Italy to share in this hike. She suddenly gestures towards a little gorge 15 metres away where a kamzík (chamois), is feeding on the summer growth of grass.

Generally reclusive, Tatra chamois are rarely seen in the wilds. Yet this particular creature appears nonplussed by his human audience. For 15 minutes we follow him through the valley, his only protest being to stop occasionally and stare at me. At one point, he seems to be facilitating my departure by pausing on a ridge, thus allowing to snap a shot, and hopefully move on. “Look at him,” Leia says. “He’s posing for you!”

There are approximately 200 chamois in the Tatras. They are distinct from any other animal in the world, having developed in isolation following the last Ice Age. Tatra chamois are different from mountain goats, different, too, from the closely related chamois found in the Alps and the Carpathian mountains. The 200 found here, in fact, are the only ones of their kind in the world.

Besides chamois, wolves and lynx, a large deer population and a few otters also live in the Tatras. Plus there are an estimated 900 marmots and 50 bears.

Tatra bears are typically shy animals, but they have grown increasingly bolder as they become accustomed to the influx of mountain visitors. Just last year, in fact, a young female bear was repeatedly seen approaching tourists near Rysy peak. Because she was playful and seemingly harmless, tourists were not afraid. But then in early August, the bear attacked three hikers on separate occasions, including one woman who was bitten on her hip while relaxing on a rock. All three victims required hospitalisation.

When bears like this one become problematic to humans, they are often captured and relocated to less frequented areas of the park. If they cannot be caught, and continue to threaten visitors, they are shot. Since the 1948 establishment of TANAP, 16 bears have been captured and relocated; eight have been killed.

In an effort to minimise human impact on the bear’s territory - and to protect the habitats of other animals and endangered vegetation - 20 of the park’s higher trails are closed every year from November 1 to June 15.

 photo: Chris Togneri

After dinner, Jílek, Leia and I sit in the chalet’s dining-room drinking a cup of Teryho tea, a delicious, fruity blend with a hint of honey. I ask about the ingredients.

“It’s good, isn’t it?” he says. “My tea is like opium - once you’ve started with it, you can’t stop. But I won’t tell you the ingredients. If I did, there would be new cottages opening all over this valley selling my tea. All I can say is that it’s an old American recipe.”

Later on, angling for a poetic quote on the life of a High Tatra chatár, I cue Jílek by saying that it must be a magical feeling to awake every morning in this scenic valley, far removed from the stressful bustle of city life.

“Of course it’s magical,” he says matter-of-factly. “But just wait - in two weeks there’ll be 500 to 600 people hiking through this valley every day. There’ll be 40 people sleeping here every night. That’s way too many. At such times, I wish I had an Uzi.

“And the worst thing is that politicians often come up here. Last year [speaker of parliament Jozef] Migaš was here. The things that man says! I had to leave, I had to get off the mountain because I couldn’t stand listening to him!”

Despite that outburst, however, Jílek is a friendly and hospitable man. His comments are made mostly in jest. It’s just that the Tatras are such an extraordinarily beautiful place, locals cannot help but wish they had it all to themselves. This is, of course, an unrealistic desire, and Jílek realises that his life in the Tatras depends on tourism.

As Bibiana Jarošová, head of the Tatras Information Office, put it: “The Tatras are the pearl of the country. And the existence of the Tatra economy depends on tourism.”

There are 140 hotels, pensions, cottages or other facilities with accommodation in the Tatras, she added, providing a total of 4,492 rooms and 12,071 beds. In the summer months, they are virtually 100% occupied, while during last winter’s peak season, from December 24 to January 15, the beds were 90% occupied.

 photo: Chris Togneri

Another magnificient day dawns, and Leia and I start our hike by surprising two marmots (svište) a few hundred metres from Teryho. Then comes the challenging ascent of what must be the most dangerous stretch of trail in all of Slovakia: Priečne sedlo (Vertical Pass).

The first time I scaled this pass was last October, after a fresh layer of snow had blanketed the valley and obscured the path. Trying not to lose the trail, I stopped often to check my bearings. Each time, gazing up at the uninterrupted line of cliffs towering above, I would wonder exactly how I was expected to get out of this place.

An hour after Teryho, I learned how: chains. The final 200 metres is a sheer stone wall, so a series of chains have been dug into the granite, allowing hikers to pull themselves up. At times, you find yourself dangling over heights that with one mishap would mean certain death.

Adding to the danger was that the chains were covered in ice, and I had no gloves. Every five minutes or so, I would find a secure foothold and press snugly against the rock, blowing on my hands to regain feeling. It was a foolish thing to attempt. The High Tatras are an immensely dangerous mountain range and extreme caution should always be exercised (please see related story, page 88). Looking back, I count myself lucky that I did not become another Tatra statistic: every year, 15 to 20 people die here.

Thankfully, the weather was perfect for Leia and me, and we crossed the pass without problem. An hour later, we came to another mountain cottage - Zbojnícka - which was burnt to the ground in 1998, but has since been reconstructed.

Then it was up the blue trail, over sedlo Prielom (Broken Pass) - another stretch requiring chains - and on past Gerlachovský štít, which at 2,654 metres is the tallest in the Tatras. There are no marked paths to Gerlachovský, and hikers can only climb the summit with a mountain guide. Private tours cost 3,000 crowns, but a group of three can split a bill of 3,800 crowns. (For more information, call 052/ 442-2066, or check out

The trail then winds down a long valley to Sesterské pleso (Sisterly Lake), where Sliezsky dom awaits. Sliezsky is not really a chata, rather more like a hotel in that it is bigger and more easily accessible. I pass by, sticking to the Tatranská magistrála trail, which offers a striking view of just how high the Tatras are, and how abruptly they rear from the Liptov plain. In viewing the Tatra villages below, hikers sometimes find themselves looking just past their boot-tops.

Two hours later, at the bottom of a series of switchbacks, I reach Popradské pleso, in the Mengusovská valley. There is also a chata here, open all year, but this valley is more notable for its history of disaster. Besides being home to a symbolic cemetery with plaques commemorating the thousands of people who have died in these mountains, this valley was the site of the single deadliest day in Tatra history.

On the morning of 20 January 1974, a group of 24 grammar school students was taking skiing instruction in the peaceful valley. Then, at 10:40 am, employees at the chata reported hearing a menacing rumble, like a huge airplane flying low over the valley. When the sound vanished as instantly as it had appeared, the horrified workers rushed outside to discover that there had been an avalanche.

An enormous mass of snow had buried the students and their ski instructors, in some cases six metres deep. The Horská služba (Mountain Rescue Service) began a frantic recovery operation, pulling eleven students out alive. The rest all died.

By the end of the day, an additional two avalanches had resulted in even more deaths. Thus, the day was recorded as the deadliest in Tatra history, with three avalanches killing 14 people, mostly children.

 photo: Chris Togneri

From Popradské Pleso, I pick up the trail to Rysy, one of the most celebrated peaks in the country. Vladimir Ilich Lenin once lead a group of young students up this mountain, and it remains wildly popular today.

The scene at the top is absurd: over 100 people jockeying for space on the rocky peak. Every second hiker is smoking and flicking their butts over the edge. Several others chat on mobile phones. One woman adds to her already thick foundation of make-up.

Ironically, this crowded peak is home to the friendliest of Tatra mountain cottages: Rysy chata. The resident chatár is Viktor Beránek, a Tatra legend for his cheery, folksy ways, and for his emphasis on conservation; while helicopters supply most Tatra cottages, Beránek refuses the luxury.

“We will never use helicopters, we carry everything on our backs up to the cottage, like the Himalayan carriers do,” he says. “This is a matter of lifestyle - we try to protect nature. Helicopters are too noisy and scare the chamois and the marmots.”

While climbing Rysy, hikers are sure to see a few of the ‘carriers’ labouring up the mountain - a four-hour climb from Popradské pleso - with enormous, specially-designed packs often weighing over 100 kilograms (they haul full kegs of beer up here!). But despite the amazing labour put into operating the cottage, it remains the cheapest in the Tatras: a bed costs just 120 crowns ($2.40) a night.

 photo: Chris Togneri

I head down the mountain to Štrbské Pleso (Cleft Lake), a suffocating tourist trap with large hotels, sprawling carparks and rusting ski-jumps jutting above the trees.

As unpleasant as Štrbské Pleso may be - especially after spending five days up there - the mountain resort is a main trail hub, so it’s hard to avoid. One trail from here leads to the ‘holy grail’ of Slovak peaks, Kriváň, a mountain that has cast a powerful spell over generations of Slovaks and is still revered in national lore.

In his wonderfully fun and informative book Tatras, author Ján Lacika writes that Kriváň is the “multiple winner of competitions for the most beautiful mountain in Slovakia.” It is certainly the most recognisable, what with its curved, dented summit. Why the distinct shape? Lacika offers up an engaging theory:

“On the seventh day, God pondered over the quality of his work. He arrived at the conclusion that something was missing [so] he summoned his most skilled angel and ordered him to throw over the world another sackful of beauties. The angel adorned one country after another, before arriving at the Tatra peaks. But he underestimated their altitude and ran into one, ripping open the sack.

“Beautiful peaks, meadows, forests, torrents and lakes fell down around the rocky peaks. Marmots, chamois, deer and other animals hurried out of the sack into the mountain landscape. The mountain range, later called the Tatras, received in this way many natural beauties rarely found elsewhere in the world. The tip of the peak, which had caused the collision with the inattentive celestial flier, was thus curved. So no wonder it is called Kriváň - the ‘curved’ mountain.”

Kriváň can be approached two different ways: from Štrbské Pleso, or by the longer, steeper trail from the village Podbanské. However you get to the top, the scenery is spectacular. Because it is set off to the west of the main range, Kriváň has the best view of all of Slovakia’s highest peaks.

Scaling Kriváň is indeed an exhilarating experience. But I actually prefer another, lesser known mountain peak, also accessible from Štrbské Pleso: Kôprovský štít (Dill Peak). While hikers flock to the nearby peaks of Kriváň and Rysy, many give this mountain a miss. The view here, though, is equally tremendous - and you don’t have to share it.

But what ultimately sold me on Kôprovský was what I found at the top on my last visit: a nun.

 photo: Chris Togneri

Decked out in full habit (plus hiking boots), she greeted me warmly as I climbed over the last ridge, shrieking “Vítam Vás!” (I welcome you). Admittedly, the scene caught me by surprise (how many times have you seen a nun on an alpine mountain peak?), and I found myself staring at her with a bewildered expression.

“What’s that?” she shot back with mock indignation. “Don’t tell me that nuns aren’t allowed to hike mountains!”

Good point. And I suppose I really should not have been too terribly surprised. After all, everyone is attracted to these mountains, be they nuns, littering chain-smokers, grinning dogs or mountain men aching for a machine gun.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2002.

Make your comment to the article... (2 reactions already made)