There was nothing pedestrian about the hike and the landscape we encountered in northern Slovakia last month, except that the only way to see it was on foot, of course.
I first heard of Slovakia’s High Tatras mountains in July of 2015, when a fellow blogger penned a compelling personal account of a hike to Veľké Hincovo Pleso. Her descriptions of both the physical trek and the restorative power of nature resonated with me. It was my introduction to both her and this relatively unknown trekking area, and I resolved then and there to do this very hike someday. In a way, our driving trip around central Europe 26 months later was planned around hiking this one little trail.
We arrived at Strbske Pleso, close to the mountainous border with Poland, after a few days in western and central Slovakia. We had already begun to absorb some of the wild roughness of this country’s natural beauty. Its smaller roads cut through dark forests of evergreens, but a drive up multiple switchbacks to our hotel and a late afternoon stroll around Strbske Pleso itself (pleso means tarn, or mountain lake, for those who don’t do crossword puzzles!) brought home the towering and glowering nature of the area. It was raining more than it wasn’t and when it did cease at times, there was a low-hanging mist and a deep chill in the air. We gazed out the front of our lodging to a valley far below, but at this point we had no idea what jagged heights lay behind the hotel.
The morning of the hike, we rose to a miraculously sunny day – quite cold and crystal clear – but I had a new obstacle to overcome. Stomach trouble the night before had left me depleted, and I was plagued with a sharp headache and weakened limbs from the sickness and lack of sleep. But there was simply no way I was giving up the chance to take this hike on the only sunny day the area had seen or was likely to see in well over a week. I forced down a piece of toast, filched a roll and some cheese from the breakfast table for later, and donned every layer of hiking-appropriate clothing I could find in my suitcase.
We set off with husband J’s idea that I might only make it to Popradské Pleso, the first mountain lake on the route and about an hour and a half up the trail. Truth be told, even before I felt so debilitated, the map of the hiking trails had intimidated me; our ultimate goal lay near the highest peaks of the range, and there was a disconcerting amount of snow on steep-looking ridges on every drawing I consulted.
As we got underway, I had moments of doubt that I’d even make it to Popradské Lake, but as I have on so many treks in the past, I put one foot in front of the other until I fell into a rhythm and pushed my discomfort and worries into the background.
Somehow, even with my slowed pace and frequent camera stops, we made it to the trail junction in less than the posted time. Motivated to keep going by that surprising discovery and a deep drink of water, I insisted that we press on, passing a sign that said we had just a few more hours to Veľké Hincovo Pleso. No problem, I thought, even though I knew that the next phase would involve steeper slopes, fast-flowing streams to cross, and a jumble of rocks to climb. Two hours was nothing to me; I’d taken difficult treks that chewed up ten-hour days, and I repeated them day after day for weeks at a time in some pretty precipitous parts of the world.
Well, I was about to be humbled. Shortly after the turn, we were clambering over muddy tree roots and then a rock-strewn path, both of which felt nearly vertical to my wasted body. I begged J to go on ahead; he hikes fast and usually has no qualms about ditching me. But today he refused, saying there was no way he was leaving me alone when I felt weak and dizzy. I’m not much of a trail talker to begin with, but now I was dead silent, summoning all my energy stores for the next steps, steps that quickly became higher, sharper, and more irregular.
We began to cross several small streams, two with wood bridges and one an easy hop, skip, and jump on the rocks. I was relieved; the fording with a rope over a fast torrent that Julie had written about was no longer here! So what was that sound? That sound of churning water ahead and above, that sound of voices and shouts. My heart sank as we rounded a bend and saw it: a rough and tumble gush of water over half-submerged, jagged rocks – and no rope. People were tottering across, many plunging at least one boot into the rapids.
I was done, I thought. I have great balance and I love a good rock hop, but I was exhausted and suddenly paralyzed. I stood on the near bank, staring and shaking my head. The longer this goes on, I scolded myself, the more wobbly I was going to be. The key to rock hopping is an agile quickness; the more you waver, the shakier you get. J stopped halfway on the biggest, flattest rock and held out his hand. I have to admit it; I am a hiking hard-ass, and I wanted none of that wussiness. I made a few perfunctory, dismissive motions, but I finally hopped in, grabbing his hand, and we scampered the rest of the way across.
J said again Do you need to turn around? There’s still a long way to go, and then we have to get down.
NO, I snapped. I’m not quitting. Spit out as if it were the most terrible word and idea in the world.
How did you end up like this? He laughed and shook his head.
Like what? Competitive? You know I’ve always been this way.
I was thinking stubborn and hard-headed …
That I was. Am. I was getting to that lake today.
The next 75 minutes were arduous, and we walked in silence, J surging ahead and then checking behind him, me talking to myself in the sternest terms and ducking my head every time he looked back. The toil was relieved by the most astounding vistas – sweeping panoramas of the Mengusovská Dolina (Valley) behind us and neck-craning views of the crests on the border ahead.
At ten minutes before noon, a descending hiker said 5 minutes! and all of a sudden the trail leveled out and we were walking into the bowl that holds the largest and deepest tarn in the Tatras.
It was uniquely exhilarating, in some ways the most satisfying “summit” I’ve ever reached. I pumped my fist, J slapped me five, and a rush of energy propelled me out to the glacier-carved pool to fully absorb the arc of sharp peaks standing guard. We had the place nearly to ourselves for a few moments. I sat down alone on a boulder, finished my sandwich, ate a small square of chocolate, gulped as much water as I dared, and stood up.
And then we went down. It was an ordeal, and it took even longer, including a stupid mistake that cost us 45 knee-destroying minutes at the end. But I prefer to end this story at the high place, on a high note, in the High Tatras, by far the highlight of my two-week trip.