Slavkovsky Stit (2452m), High Tatras, Slovakia
We were on a family holiday, spending 6 nights at the splendid Aqua City hotel and leisure complex at Poprad in north-east Slovakia. It's a great location firstly because of the range of modern water-based leisure facilities which it offers for children and adults, and secondly because of the strong emphasis it places on protecting the environment. Geothermal and solar energy heat indoor and outdoor pools to different temperatures - the cool Olympic-length training pool, the warm Blue Diamond and Blue Saphire pools for fun and relaxation, and the outdoor thermal pools which range from warm to very warm!
The other great advantage of staying at AquaCity is its proximity to the High Tatras, the highest mountains in Slovakia. July has mixed weather but once the rain of the first three days had cleared we finally got a view of the mountains from our bedroom in the Seasons Hotel (within AquaCity).
At the centre of the line of jagged peaks was the more rounded profile of Slavkovksy Stit. Just to the left was the pointed shape of the highest summit in Slovakia, Gerlachovsky Stit (2654m). To the right was the slightly lower mountain, Lomnicky Stit (2634m). This could be reached by cable car from Tatranska Lomnica, and we tried to do just that on that first sunny day but it was booked up and we only got as far as Skalnate Pleso (this should be covered later in another story).
After that we had one day left at Poprad and Catriona was keen to climb a mountain, whilst the rest of the family were happy to have a last day enjoying AquaCity. The Lonely Planet guide indicated that Slavonsky Stit was the only one of the main peaks which could be reached without hiring a guide, with a marked trail leading to the summit. So that was our objective.
The height seemed reasonable (after taking account of the height of the starting point, it was "only" 1442m, which seemed strangely significant (see this page).
Even so, I was a bit anxious about whether the route was straightforward and free of any serious exposure. The map suggested it involved climbing a rocky ridge, which might be tricky in places. I checked on the internet in our hotel and only found a piece from a couple of fellrunners who had run up it and didn't report any difficulties (mind you, they also climbed the near-vertical slopes of Lomnicky Stit!). They had taken five hours, including stopping for a couple of beers on the way down!
The other complication was that Catriona didn't have her boots with her - she'd have to wear either trainers or trekking sandals. Neither sounded ideal for a rocky peak nearly 8000 ft high! But she was ready to give it a go in the sandals, which had survived various walks since she bought them in Chongqing, China, 3 years earlier. It was risky, but we decided to go ahead and if either the route was too hard or the sandals too inadequate, we'd turn back.
We had an early start, leaving Aqua City under a clear blue sky at 8.30 and driving in the hire car through the centre of Poprad, turning north via the quieter road through the suburb of Velka. Where it crossed over the line of the new motorway under construction, there was a great view of the entire range of mountains rising straight out of the plain beyond the village of Velky Slavkov. We stopped for a quite photo then carried on, joining the main road 534 to the mountain resort village of Stary Smokovec (about 8 miles, 13km, from Poprad).
There was a good car park where the main road curved left into the village and we parked there for the day for 160 crowns (about £5). We crossed the road to buy some bottled water in a small supermarket, so we each had 3x500cl. (However, this should be regarded as an absolute minimum for a hot summer's day. We really should have had at least another bottle each, as we had to drink sparingly and still finished the water in the forest before the end of the descent. We should also have taken a bit more to eat than our slices of cake.)
Starting the walk about 9.10, we checked the map and found the blue route by walking behind the Hotel Grand, past an equally grand timber church, to join a wide track leading up past the funicular railway station. We joined a few other walkers and then left them behind as we turned off on a narrower track through the forest, heading straight towards the bulky shape of Slavkovsky Stit. There was an information board and a clear blue painted mark between two white lines on the trunk of a tree. There were plenty of these markings on trees and rocks all the way to the summit - only a couple of times amongst the boulders later on did we have to look around to check our route.
It was a fairly gentle climb through the forest. "Forest" was hardly an accurate term for the first section as most of the trees had been cleared away, leaving just a few lonesome pines set against the blue sky. New trees - many of them rowans and birches - were starting to appear from the ground and in a few years would create a new and more diverse forest. According to the Lonely Planet guidebook the forests had been devastated by a massive windstorm in late 2004.
Still, it didn't take us long to get to the thicker forest on the lower slopes of the mountain, and after a steady climb we reached a junction with a red route, marked by a detailed signpost. This had taken us about 40 minutes, but we had passed several other walkers on the way. The red route was part of the Tatranska Magistrala which runs west-east around the slopes of the High Tatras.
We continued through the forest on the blue trail, which had stones and roots in places but was easy walking. Poles made of small tree trunks held up sections where the path was steeper. Ten minutes beyond the junction we had our first view through the trees to the right, over the strikingly flat countryside stretching away in the sunshine to Poprad and beyond.
We passed another young couple of walkers, and 15 minutes later met a family group at a point where the path bent sharply up to the left. We were immediately confronted by a dramatic view of the rocky slopes of Velka Lomnicka veza to the north. From here on, as we climbed westwards mostly on the south side of the ridge of Slavkovsky Stit, we would come back to the edge of the ridge from time to time to enjoy increasingly dramatic views of the mountain faces across the deep Velka Studena valley.
We soon left the forest behind on a route which ran through low-lying dwarf pine scrub which stretched for the next 300 metres or so up the flank of the mountain. The path itself became rocky, and the rocks became bigger. Some had been moved around to make a path of sorts without many wobbly boulders, but it still required care. It was quite a trudge in the mid-morning sun, with no shade now.
Two hours after setting out we reached the first real difficulty - a big sloping slab of rock which required quite a bit of stretching and hanging on, to climb across it. A man coming down remarked that it didn't get any better further up! Soon after that we crossed the crest of the ridge and the path went to the right of the line of rocks, with an unbroken slope falling away on the right into the valley far below. This was a bit airy, or even hairy, for both of us. We stopped halfway for a breather and could see that there was still a lot of climbing ahead of us, with two craggy tops and then the summit. It looked steeper than it had done from the hotel! Both of us were feeling a bit anxious and agreed that if there was much more of this it would be OK to turn back.
However, it was only a short section and the path wasn't particularly narrow. It was quite safe with care. The next section looked like a straightforward continuation of the path over the boulderfield to the left of the ridge. We decided to aim for the next top and gradually recovered our composure as we walked on. The only difficulty now was deciding whether or not to wear an extra shirt as the sun came and went behind thin clouds, with a cool breeze.
These turned out to be the only tricky parts of the ascent. The path crossed over to the right of the subsidiary summit, requiring a bit of care again, but then we were onto the broad shoulder of the mountain with just the steep scree slope between us and the summit. There were 180m to go, and it looked like a hard climb, but we took it slowly and steadily and the summit came sooner than we expected.
Then, what a view, on all sides! From Gerlachovsky Stit 4km to the west, round to Lomnicky Stit 5km north-east, there was an unbroken series of craggy peaks to admire: the entire eastern section of the High Tatras. A trail could be seen crossing the upper reaches of the Velka Studena valley, past small glacial lakes. To the south, the green countryside stretched off to the horizon, under a line of fluffy white clouds. Turning round again, we could even see through a gap beyond Javorovy Stit to the low-lying plain on the Polish Border to the north. It was quite spectacular and wonderful, one of the finest views I can remember (see the Gallery for more photos).
There were 20 or so others enjoying the spectacle. With scarcely any wind we could sit on a rock and take it easy, and take photos. The climb had taken us 3 and a half hours, about what we had expected.
It was even more satisfying after the uncertainties we had halfway up. Taking it in stages, aiming for the next top rather than thinking about the climb to the summit, had worked. And Catriona's feet had taken her there in those sandals!
There were a couple of small cairns, a small metal cross - and a metal plaque fixed to a rock. I didn't interpret this until I got back to writing this story, and then examined the lettering. Rather incongruously it commemorates not a Slovakian hero but the former leader of the Azerbaijani people, Heydar Alijev, with a date of 1985. Maybe he climbed the mountain that year - he was the communist leader of the country at that time, and became a democratically elected president after independence.
We spent half an hour on the summit before we had to start the descent. Then, immediately, the limitations of sandals became obvious on the steep gravel and loose stones as the path twisted down from the summit. We took our time, and reached the level ground below the summit safely.
From then on it was a long trek down, becoming tedious as we went back across all those rocks once again, but with more great views back down the ridge to the villages below. There were mountain flowers to enjoy as well, especially the blue ones, against the white rocks patched with green lichen.
The two tricky bits were easier on the way down as we knew what to expect, but the hundreds of rocks seemed even harder as we came down on them with our weight, rather than climbing up over them. It required more care and took longer than expected.
Eventually we left the boulders and pine scrub behind and completed the descent through the forest, retracing our steps. The water just about lasted - we finished it off at our last break in the forest, and bought more in the supermarket when we reached the village at 4.30. It had taken us the same time, 3 and a half hours, to get down as it had to get to the top. The sun was still shining, now our legs were aching, but we felt a great sense of achievement. Next stop, the swimming pool at AquaCity quickly followed by a cold beer!
Contributed by Andrew Llanwarne - August 2008< Back to Slovakia (Slovak Rep) page for links to other stories
GalleryView a gallery of further images for this story.