Sorry… no pictures of bruises, wounds, injuries and blood in this text, we are not that kind of guys.
Brade: Why don’t we go fishing instead?
Jck: Next time. I don’t have the fishing rod...
“Ravioli” and other disastersMartin’s Route is widely regarded as one of the most honorable classic routes in the High Tatras. Its extraordinary length – almost 2 km – as well as the historical aspect make the ridge an interesting goal. We knew we would need at least one place to camp en route and there would be no water other than what we could carry from the valley floor or obtain by melting snow. We were well-equipped and our backpacks were quite heavy. After a short sleep in the car I felt more tired than enthusiastic about the forthcoming climb. After 5 hours of ascent, we finally reached Polsky Hreben, the beginning of our route.
The beginning of our trip showed us that there’s a bright side to every disaster. Thanks to the so called ‘Velka Kalamita’, which literally means ‘The Great Calamity’ in Slovak, a hurricane that had flattened most of the forest in this part of the High Tatras, great views can now be enjoyed at dawn. The Poprad basin with the ‘big- city lights’ contrasted with an almost black and grim ridge of the Nizke Tatry.
Our goal was hidden from sight – such things also have advantages. The massif of Gerlachovsky Stit is really huge and Martinovka runs along over half the length of the ridge so we didn’t stop after every few steps to discuss any ‘variants and possibilities’. We focused on a quick approach, leaving any doubts to be solved on the spot.
In other words, we weren’t prepared for a park ranger requesting to see our permits. In the Slovak Tatras, all trails above the huts are closed after October 31 but we thought that an early start would let us avoid any problems. Wrong. 200 metres above the hut named Sliezsky Dom we met a ranger. I had a valid permit but Brade didn’t. I was getting a little bit nervous as the argument went on and on... ‘Shit, now we’re gonna climb down!’ But after a few minutes, Brade and the other guy started to talk about the rock routes in the surroundings: ‘That’s a good sign.’‘Have a nice day,’ and we walked away: up!
,,Let’s have a break!” WTF?! I looked into my backpack and found something that should definitely not be there. Had I brought a 1kg can of ravioli up to this place by mistake? I couldn’t believe my eyes but it was a good excuse for my being slow on the ascent. Such mistakes should be corrected quickly so the consumption was fast. These are some of the advantages of packing in the dark. I checked out my backpack once more to see what other useless stuff I was carrying and was finally relieved, having made sure that the spare wheel was still safely locked in the car’s trunk. What a relief…
We weren’t prepared for cans. Brade solved the problem with a piton and an ice axe. Except for its weight, the ravioli was great and the tasty, hot meal raised our morale. The route ahead was shining in the sun and looked inviting: a long ridge, several ups and downs with a grand finale - the highest summit in the Carpathians. After a short chat with two tourists we’d met at the pass, we geared up, left the marked path and entered the magnificent granite world of the High Tatras.
Now it was time to enjoy the climbing. The weather held fine, and the route consisted of attractive scrambling over solid rock. The granite, covered with green lichen, is amazing here – plenty of opportunities for natural protection. We were simul-climbing using mainly the crest or flakes of rock near it as belays. Lots of natural, relaxed scrambling along the ridge line. We kept holding a coil of rope in one hand to shorten the distance between us. When it was steep or exposed, we dropped the coils and executed a standing hip belay.
That part of route was pure fun. The exposed ridges of Velicky Stit, a panorama of almost all the High Tatra peaks with the imposing towers of Lomnicky, Ladovy, Pysny and Prostredny Hrot on one side and the beautiful queen of the Tatras, Vysoka, on the other. Brade felt great in that terrain: dry and solid rock, exposition - I was following him while my thoughts were focused on the next part of the route: it didn’t look so nice. ‘But, come on, everything will be fine - Radek will lead, I won’t sweat a lot - that’s what climbing should be about’.
The route was spectacular and the views were stunning. As we were getting higher it was getting colder and grimmer. We had passed Litvorowe Sedlo, the last possible escape point and were moving across the dreaded east face of the Zadny Gerlach massif. We were climbing a little more slowly than usual because of the icy conditions on the shady rocks. The route continued up steeply and then…
Shit happensWelcome to treacherous terrain! The rocks in the middle part of the route below the ridge line were shaded and snow-glazed. The snow patches were dotted with hard firn or ice but its overall amount was too small to use ice gear constantly. With terrain like this, the deadly reputation of the Tatras is well deserved. We were simul-climbing cautiously, heading for the cairns. It was nearly impossible to follow the regular route under these conditions. Route finding was problematic because this part of Martin’s Route is rock scrambling plus a huge lot of mixed snow and rock climbing. It is "mixed" in the old sense of the word, UIAA II-III with nearly endless possibilities of gaining height and you never know which variant is the right one. This is what I consider to be classic mountaineering.
Our attitude toward mountaineering can be called classical. The old routes, from the beginning of the 20th century, which run over the most prominent and obvious rock formations are the ones we look forward to climbing. Martinovka fits in perfectly. Its logical solutions with straight on sections and several problematic parts make for great mountaineering in all its variety.
This part, despite being a bit chaotic, gave us loads of fun. We discussed the variants, trying to make our route as logical and short as possible so as not to get into serious difficulty. The time pressures were growing rapidly, but still allowed us to savor the wildness of the area.
The route contoured through unbelievably shady and complicated terrain with many exposed ledges. In fact, the entire ridge felt perfectly solid except its east flank, there were plenty of loose rocks around. We didn’t climb straight up the face but traversed along the ridgeline below it. Some exposed and unpleasant icy scrambling and we were soon on the ridge line, discussing our situation in the fading rays of the setting sun. It was high time to find a proper bivy spot. After nearly 5 hours of climbing, I gave up leading as we needed to be climbing faster. Jck took off quite fast and it was obvious he had great energy reserves. It was getting dark so I was urging him to leave the east slope of mixed ice and rock and get back to the crest.
Ok, lets say that: I’m not a good rock climber, I wasn’t very keen on leading after almost a whole day of climbing. I thought, damn, why me? He had been doing well leading all the time. Such changes can be bad. I don’t like it, but well... maybe he deserved it, maybe I should take over to let Brade climb a little less focused and concentrated? Lack of assertiveness may result in deadly consequences…
We were simul-climbing through steep but routine terrain. Jck had managed to climb a nasty vertical icy chimney and traversed a few meters left onto an airy ledge. I had some problems getting out of the chimney and had to make my way back down to try again. It is still not entirely clear to me if it was a slip or a misstep but I lost my grip, with both my left hand and leg. I got turned round, my face toward the airy space, as I was beginning to fall. “Fuck!!! Jaaaaacek!” I screamed. We were off belay. Damn, I had hoped he would keep the rope round a flake of rock or figure out something else. I was helpless. The distant rocks down below were getting closer. Everything turned cold black and white. And this whistle of the fast moving air… I heard the metallic sound of an ice axe as my backpack hit the rocks.
The Rocky Horror (picture show)I surprisingly found myself standing on a small ledge trying to diagnose all of my injuries at once. My right hand was badly bleeding and my trousers were torn below my left knee. I couldn’t find any more visible signs of the fall I’d just taken. My legs and right hand were in great pain but luckily none of them was broken. “Aaaaaaachhhhhhh!” my sore body made an uncontrolled hissing noise. I couldn’t see Jck but I was able to imagine his face at the moment. He stood at the other end of a ten meter long piece of rope, with no belay between us. We were halfway along one of the longest routes in these mountains, had less than half an hour of daylight left to find a proper bivy spot on an airy ridge and I was hurt… we were in trouble.
It was just a second. Maybe two. But it felt like it lasted 3 hours. When I heard him scream I slowly looked left, then right, then again left – just like kids before crossing the street. Luckily, my primary school teachers had taught me that rule. But not exactly...they hadn’t told me to look straight ahead...Just next to my nose, I spotted a little flake. Perfect for illusory protection, I thought, but better something like that than nothing. I slowly put the rope around it, clung to the wall and tried to make it feel stable. ‘If this doesn’t stop the fall I will follow Brade head down to quickly reach the bottom of the valley. When the rope tightens, I will see what happens, now wait Jacek, wait, there’s nothing else you can do. Come on, how long can it last? It’s getting a little boring...’ And suddenly! Nothing.
I yell up to Jacek: “I’m ok!!! Ledge!!! …mmmm ok but without any belay! Put some pro!” He’s out of view above me at least 7 meters higher. Pain shoots through me. My legs are numb, my hand has been cut, the wound is deep and irregular. I’m sucking my blood as I can’t figure out any other rational way to stoop bleeding. The first aid kit is in my backpack but I’m not in the mood to balance on this snowy ledge to reach for it. I’m trying not to be chaotic as I know I’m in shock. “Don’t look back, don’t make it more difficult, don’t search for bloody marks on rock, relax, nothing bad has happened, you are safe,” I heard my inner voice.
Inch by inch
(At that moment I had no idea that due to the hard landing I was an inch shorter. I had an unpleasant feeling in my neck but the pain passed away the next day. I regained my regular height after nearly two weeks. I also had no knowledge of the giant bruises on my legs and my knees bleeding till the next evening. My right hand looked really bad and I was worried how I’d be able to climb with it. I had so many aches at the same time I couldn’t decide which one was the strongest. I felt like a little puppy caught by the neck with a Doberman’s claws, having been shaken furiously and then left unharmed to die of fear. I felt so small on this ridge and so lucky we were still alive.)
I made the sign of the cross and started to climb the same slabs and chimney once again. It could not be harder than UIAA II-III. I reached the ledge where Jck was standing on its other side and we talked a little. After about fifteen minutes of scrambling along the route, we arrived at a small niche. We had to prepare the place for our bivy, then dressed my wounded hand, cooked a meal, drank plenty of tea and felt asleep in absolute darkness… at 6 pm. The good thing about climbing in winter is the day is short and you don’t need to climb very long hours.
’At last! No more climbing today.’ I felt really happy. Radek looked a little bit depressed but everyone would be in his situation, I thought. I took some photos, lingered about the food and finally got struck by this terrifying realization: Oh no! 12 hours in such an uncomfortable place!
You’re right: I’m a slouch.
Till dusk to dawnCrawling into my sleeping bag I realized for the first time just how painful every move was. I was sitting next to Jck, my legs inside my backpack to keep warmer, and watching the full moon. The next part of the route was covered in silvery shadows and looked rather difficult. My thoughts drifted in the wrong direction and I focused on listening to my fatigued body instead of the wind. I did my degree at Medical Academy so I was sure such a fall should result in some serious internal injuries… I was determined to find them. I decided not to take any painkillers to be able to read any worrying signs. “Crazy! Stop it.” I finally said to myself. Luckily, the night air grew cold and soon we both fell asleep in our niche.
Many an hour had passed but it was still dark. The night was 14 hours long and our small capsule of life on this giant ridge was not very comfortable. We were quite well protected from the wind but had to sit in weird positions. I was able to only have one leg relaxed, the other one had to be bent because there was not enough room for both feet between the rocks. I was forced to change my position every quarter of an hour. The pain was returning to my left knee, and then a similar sensation was starting in my right knee, and on and on like this, all night long. My legs were getting numb but it was not as bad as Jck’s predicament.
My main thought: He’s ok, so we had to focus on the route. ‘I swear I won’t be leading again’. Repeating that sentence made me forget about my biggest problem. Three inches long, half an inch wide, sharp. A small rock, placed directly between my thighs and loins. No chance of removing it, no possibility of changing position. A whole night with something between the buttocks...ouch!
We didn’t sleep too much; the dull 14 hours seemed to drag on for an eternity. The stars traversed over our ridge as we changed our body positions. The wind was getting stronger and colder in the morning, the air was brisk and the occasional snowflakes were melting on our faces. I had enough time to think about my family and other things left down there. The rapidly growing image of the base of the wall and the whooshing sound of air was still very fresh and clear in my mind’s eye. Each time I was closing my eyes I got that feeling of helplessness while trying to stop myself falling down into the cold, black and white void.
Mamma I’m coming home
To my surprise, I woke up in fairly good shape but needed some time to get myself together and start to act. My muscles had contracted and the pain had grown worse. The first rays of the sun helped me to move. We were a little late. One liter of hot tea, one power bar for two and we were ready to go: “Should we retreat?”
There was no escaping the fact that this was a real predicament. I was not able to move my right thumb in almost any direction, the same went for holding things bigger than 2 inches across but I still could hold the rope and belay. In a word, I didn’t have a climb-ending injury and could move without any trouble in spite of the pain. Thank God we were both alive, and we had another day of climbing in good weather ahead. We knew the rest of the climb would be more time-consuming and demanding than what we had done the previous day. The rocks covered with a thin layer of ice the evening before were dry now but there was a lot of hard snow and ice between them.
“I’m not leading, no no no no not today; I just want to get out of this place.” (Now I know how a wounded and trapped animal feels.)
‘You’re leading,’ said Brade.
It wasn’t a question, it was a statement.
I thought, ‘NO! Now I’ll show you that I can be assertive!
‘Ok,’ said Jck...
After the night break we started out along the crest, crossing some terribly exposed areas in high winds and passing one narrow col after another. Each pass was separated by a long traverse across the north-east face, fairly unpleasant under these conditions, or the dreadfully exposed edge of the ridge. There were severe problems with communication because of the complicated topography and strong wind. I was climbing with no gloves on so that I could feel the rock better. I was trying not to use my right hand and not to quit. I couldn’t panic so I took each step carefully, one by one, and focused on following Jck who was trying to do his best to help me. Damn, I was being so inhibited that morning.
Martin’s Route is almost 2 kilometers long and runs along the north ridge with many traverses on the flank in the shadow. The ledges were loaded with hard snow and tricky ice, which slowed our progress. In such uncertain terrain, we were forced to move slowly but gradually gained altitude anyway. Jck led across the snow carefully, often without an ice axe. I was getting cold waiting at belay stations as he was making his way through the difficulties. I had put almost all my clothes on, even the facemask and gloves. (It was absolutely freezing in this shadow and wind.) My climbing was a kind of deep trance. Every move was cautiously analyzed in order to be made in the safest and optimal manner. We were still having difficulty in finding the right way. Once we drifted to the ridge’s edge where Jck had to take off his backpack, while making his way across a steep slab, as it was too difficult to do with the load on. It was his day. He obviously was having more fun than me, enjoying the long airy crests of medium difficulty and high exposure.
I was really scared on that pitch. I’d climbed up to the ridge – the wrong way!- climbed down, traversed a few meters further and reached the ridge once again. The smooth slab above me on the right - no comments, so toward the left. After another few meters, no way. I returned to the ridge and tried the slab. Too difficult. I was really confused so I decided to make a belay here - that gave me several more minutes to figure out what was next. ‘Maybe Radek will take the lead now?’ He reached the belay and gave me the gear he’d collected while following me. Ok...
I was shaking: Fear or cold? Never mind. Took off the backpack, thought about “I don’t know what to think”, made several quick moves and...done.
We arrived at what many would consider to be the crux under those snowy conditions. It looked difficult but not impossible. We had to put on ice gear to climb safely a few mixed pitches. It was a combination of nearly everything you may want to find in the mountains: traverse, climbing down, a little overhanging step with small cracks ideal for placing tools, 55-degree snow, slabs and an exposed ridge. That was also what I’d really been craving for… my right hand was much more useful while using an ice tool. I had greater control and believed to be safer using ice gear. I was sure that after doing such a mixed pitch I would become more self-confident. And it was the end of just following Jck. I started to think differently; I started to climb after him. The cracks and holds became friendlier and mountaineering was as fun as it had normally been before. But getting to this point had taken me about 3 long hours of kind of over-cautious climbing. Doubtless, the route presents just medium technical difficulties although it is very long and at times it is hard to find the way. The moves are simple, but snow, steep terrain and the unavoidable bivy spice it all up.
I must say that despite all the problems and the fact that I don’t like rock climbing that part of the route was really nice. I noticed Brade get more confident, which made me stronger. The snow, ice, rock, ledges, cracks, slabs, chimneys – all these elements began to look logical to me.
It took us three more hours of climbing to reach the summit of Zadny Gerlach. It was worthy of the effort… The view from this lofty and isolated summit is spectacular. The weather was perfect and we were able to clearly see the last part of our route. If we had decided to climb the last two pitches, it would have led to a second bivy, so we descended from Tetmajer’s Pass, via Wala's Couloir. We reached the tarn named Batyżowiecki Staw, down in the valley, in absolute darkness. It was about 5 p.m. when we had our first rest during the day.
Descending by Wala's Couloir is very misleading. From Tetmajer’s Pass it looks really easy, the peaceful floor of the Batizovska Valley seems to lie very near. I thought: ‘Ok, 20 minutes, and it’s over.’
After 20 minutes, I was still in the upper section of the couloir, trying to find my way over smooth rock and barely seeing Radek who was proceeding much faster.
The day the accident took place I decided not to climb anymore if I got out of this in one piece. The next day while we were sharing thoughts on our way to the car, I changed my mind and decided to have a rest from climbing for some time. One day later, when we were exchanging photos I asked, “When?” I know we’ll be back in the mountains pretty soon because almost all my wounds have already healed. I remember well that we didn’t do the last section of Martin’s Route so there’s some unfinished business there. It will be my left hand’s turn.
Completing Martinovka is near the top of our original ‘must do’ list. I guess, maybe, it still ranks second. On SP, you can also find a TR on our number one.
- Yatsek for correcting the text and infinite patience.
- Park ranger for indulgence and valuable clues
- Mooliczek and Igi for pissing us off with SMS text messages like: ‘We have a beer, you don’t!’