When my dream of climbing in the Tatra Mountains finally came true in September last year, it was a real dream team trip. My predominantly bouldering partner and an indoor climbing me among 8000ft tall unpredictable granite peaks was like asking for trouble.
Although in the beginning it was going quite well, we did spend eight hours on a six pitches route that can be done in under three hours. But taking into account the weather (hail storm) and the grade (5.10) and that it was our first ever mountain lead, it wasn’t bad at all, right? So we got a little bit too cocky. Six pitches were apparently not enough and we laid our eyes on an eleven pitches long arête. Graded V in the Tatra system (5.9) and on a fine, sunny day it just seemed like a piece of cake. Plus, we agreed on a reasonable plan of retreating after the fifth and most interesting pitch should anything go wrong.
As in the climbing lingo the most interesting usually means the most difficult, we decided for Andy to lead on the fifth pitch. He took the last quick glimpse at the route scheme and I gave him some tips heard the previous night in our shelter. ‘Slightly left, around the overhang and straight up later. Too much to the left and you’ll end up in the middle of a really chossy gully we want to avoid’.
Maybe it was the lovely blue skies, or maybe my startling eyes, but one is sure. Andy made it straight for the gully. When he finished the pitch I knew it wasn’t good. He should be hanging in his belay just above me, not hiding behind the arête somewhere to my left. Top roping to join him, I was petrified thinking about how bad it could get up there. And it did get pretty messy! The climbing was easy, but with hundreds’ feet exposure and protection in the form of a few rusty pitons that probably remember the eighties, it was not much fun. But it was me who was responsible for this; after all I was the one who said that climbing big routes was the best idea on earth. And with Tatras being my holiday destination since the age of three, we were kind of on my terrain. Even being a weaker climber, I still should be the one getting us out of trouble. So I led up the gully, placing only one piece of gear on what seemed an impossibly long stretch of chossy rock (at least from a boulderer’s perspective). At that moment my life was depending on one loop around a very, very loose peak and I was quite proud of overcoming the paralysing fear, digging my fingers into the soil and grabbing straws of grass growing in the cracks. That is the very tantalising effect of the mountains that I love them for; a state when for some reason I am capable of doing stuff much scarier than in the sterilised enclosure of a climbing wall.
Finally together at a comfortable belay stand, we lowered one another a pitch below to climb through the nicest rock face ever, slightly to the right from where the actual route leads, hanging in the air above nothing at all, surrounded only by the blueness and enjoying some quite difficult moves with the safety of a top rope. That was my first time to experience such exposure and being able to lead something similar is now on my long list of goals.
Exhilarated with climbing and the weather, we forgot about our plan of retreating after the fifth pitch. Also, we couldn’t really see a safe enough walk off from our stand. We decided to go up and all was going quite well until we realised it was past six. Andy started leading all the time to get us to the top as fast as possible and he did an amazing job speeding through some pretty difficult stuff in the twilight of the evening. I went first on what seemed to be last pitch, my heart pounding with excitement and anxiety. But even Andy’s speedy climbing couldn’t make up for the time wasted on the stands, tangling the ropes, faffing about setting the belays. Now I was worried we might not find the path leading from the last stand to a tourist trail that I knew well from years of hiking. Standing on what was supposed to be the top, I couldn’t see anything path-like at all. Only slabby mass of rock, grass and soil above me. I shouted down that we didn’t need to hurry no more. The acoustics played tricks on us and I could hear Andy cursing the tangled ropes but he couldn’t hear me. So when he joined me at the belay, sweaty and short of breath, I felt quite bad delivering the news. No, there is no path. No, we cannot go searching for the trail without good head torches. Yes, after twelve hours of climbing with no food and water, we have to spend the night here.
Now, an observant reader may want to ask, where the hell were your food, your water and your torches?! Well. The answer is somewhat embarrassing. We left everything at the bottom of the route, thinking we wouldn’t need it during our five pitches climb in the perfect conditions. And no, until now I can’t figure out how after so many summers and winters in the Tatras I could have done something equally stupid.
‘Let’s call the rescuers’ – cheerfully proposed Andy, looking somewhat relieved that this is where our ordeal ends. It took me some time to confess him that we can absolutely not call the rescuers. That if we did, I wouldn’t be able to look in the eye anybody from the Tatras climbing community.
Because we weren’t in real trouble yet.
Yes, we were stranded in the middle of a very picturesque nowhere some 7,500ft above the sea level and the dusk was falling fast, but what we had to do was setting ourselves up for the night and waiting until dawn.
We called the shelter and let the rescuers know we wouldn’t be coming back until the following day and that we were fine. I sheepishly asked for the weather forecast. No rain. A couple of degrees above zero. Good.
It could be worse, right? Young, healthy organisms shouldn’t have any problems with enduring one chilly night even without proper clothing. However, after quick risk assessment we decided not to go to sleep. It is easier to spot the first symptoms of hypothermia awake. And by no means can a cloudless night in the Tatras be called warm even in early September. We were lucky enough that it was dry.
After we ran out of discussion topics, we decided to sing. Sitting on the coiled ropes in an attempt to isolate ourselves from the cold rock, we sung all the songs we knew and some we didn’t know at all. But the cold was getting unbearable and the spirits were getting worse. At some point the sky got brighter and we were excited for the dawn but only a silver moon came up from behind the mountains. We made a plan for the morning and kept repeating it until almost memorising it by heart.
‘Get up. Warm up the muscles. Organise the rack. Fold one rope in half. Lead pitches of at most three points. Don’t let one another get out of the eyesight. Keep watching each other’s hands.’ After all, it’s easy to make mistakes after twenty four hours awake and we couldn’t make any more.
After some time, the detachment from our everyday lives and preoccupation with finding ways of making the situation less desperate, led my attention to my pockets. In one of them was a chap stick, one I was playing with all night to keep my fingers warm. I tried swallowing some saliva, preparing to say something silly, but I forgot the dehydration didn’t leave much of it to swallow. So I just said it.
‘Do you want some chap stick?’
‘What?’ Andy was slightly perplexed. ‘Why?’
Now I really had to say it.
‘To eat. It’s strawberry’ – I added and after a moment of hesitation bit half of the chap stick off passing the rest to Andy. And it wasn’t that bad really. Not sure how much it gave us in terms of energy and water, but at least we had something to laugh about again. Something to help pushing the impossibly slow arms of the clock forward. So we ate a tub of Climb On that I found in my other pocket too. That was more hard work. Let me just say it took us good two hours to go through one tiny tub. But it was greasy and edible and at that point it was more than we hoped for.
When the morning finally came we exercised the plan. The easy terrain above us didn’t require anything but simul-climbing but we were too tired to try anything we haven’t done before. So in about two and a half hours we stood on the ridge, blessed with another gorgeous day.
The early morning sun was warming our bodies up and topping out at eight o’clock under a perfectly blue sky was somewhat spiritual. Approximately a mile away to the West on an adjacent peak I saw two tiny figures of climbers quickly disappearing behind the ridge, abseiling for a route not accessible from the bottom. They were so far I couldn’t even tell what colour their clothing was. But seeing another human beings at that time was as heart-warming as the undeniable beauty of our surroundings. And we were alive. Although we were not in a real danger that night, enduring it made me feel really good just being, breathing and living.
Four more hours of painfully slow scrambling through the tourist trail and walking down the paths and we made it to our backpacks where water, apples and sausages awaited. After thirty hours since our last meal or drink, we started with tiny bites not to upset our stomachs. Because ahead of us was a run down the valley and to the town to make it in time to the train station and later the airport. So only when sat in our train seats, we feasted on an amazing barbecue meal purchased in town and washed it down with gallons of isotonic drinks. And then we slept.
We were lucky to be taught a lesson. The mountains gave us a gentle slap on the wrist reminding how we really know nothing. And that in itself is some pretty important knowledge. So now we’re already planning our next trip and this time the next goal is to make sensible plans and stick to them, walking off even if still hungry for more. So that the next day we can have more without spending the night sitting on a coiled rope.