The Tatras, highest mountains in Central Europe, own many specificities.
Not only they are a concentrate of raw beauty and sharpness, which gave them the nickname of "Europe's smallest high mountains", but according to the concentration of SP pages for such a small mountainous superficy, they are probably also the prettiest of the world. No Polish or Slovak SummitPoster will contradict me ! :)
But, besides these details, there are still other things which make the Tatras special, and amongst them some traditions, and one of them which in my opinion absolutely deserves this little article. I am not from these regions so there is not an ounce of chauvinism from my side, just admiration and fascination.
The Tatras, just like the Alps or the Pyrenees, have a very long history of mountain exploration, "Taternism" (Pol: Taternictwo), the same way we say "Alpinism", "Pyreneism", and so on. Very early, and for many of them more than a century ago, mountain huts were built, in order to facilitate the access to remote peaks.
At this time, it was only possible to reach and supply these places on foot, and in the best cases, when the terrain allowed it, with the help of mules.
Nowadays, in all mountains of the western world, supplies of mountain refuges (let's call them by their english official term, "mountain-huts", despite they are not "bothies" anymore) is made by land rover every time the approach allows it, and for more remote places, often by helicopter (excepted perishable foodstuff in small amounts), or in some places like the eastern Alps with cable systems.
But, for many reasons, a custom has remained in the Slovak Tatras: men-supplying of the mountain huts ("nosič" in Slovak).
And instead of making it a burden, the Slovaks "chatárs" (managers of a "chata", slovak word for a mountain-hut), have made of it a special tradition. And more: a game, a sport, a national pride !
The Šerpa tradition
The Šerpa (slovak word for sherpa, you understood it), is using a specific wooden rucksack, a strange thing which looks a bit like a high chair carried upside-down.
It is made of a little platform on which we empile all sort of things: gaz cans, packs of mineral water, beer kegs, bags of potatoes. The heaviest (if there is really something heavier than the rest) is usually placed first on the bottom. The whole is kept into vertical position by various means such as straps, ropes, adhesive tape.
Some of these rucksacks are featured with handles at the level of the hands, so the carrier can decide in any moment to use the strength of his arms to relieve temporarily his back.
The load is carefully kept into vertical position and the sherpa walks at a slow and regular pace, synchronizing his breath to the pace. It is frequent to see the sherpa accompanied by 1 or 2 other persons securing him, ahead and behind, to prevent from any bad step, because falling with such a load can be really dangerous.
Laco Kulanga, from the hut Skalnatá Chata, is the recordman of weight: 211 kgs ! But usually, the Sherpas carry around 50-60 kgs at once. The Sherpas also occasionally descend with some load, taking back the rubbish.
Men-supplying of huts is not, as some visitors may naively insinuate, due to the lack of financial means, in this part of Europe which, this is true, is not economically the healthiest. Sherpa-carrying is rather a lifestyle in harmony with the ecosystem of the High Tatras. In this mountain range already small for the amount of people who visit it every year, some endemic species like the mountain chamois of the Tatras are endangered by the simple human presence.
Huts managers do not want to put more threats on them for example by the noise-pollution generated by helicopters, and the slovak Chatárs are willing to live in accordance with the fragile nature into which they are settled.
There are many huts in the Slovak mountains, and not only the Tatras, where this way of transporting goods is used. Some of them have a stronger tradition than others.
The huts of the Tatras whose Šerpa tradition are the most famous are :
- Chata pod Rysmi, 2250m
- Téryho Chata, 2015m ("Térynka")
- Chata Solisko, 1840m
- Skalnatá chata, 1751m
- Zamkovského Chata, 1475m ("Zamka")
- Zbojnícka chata, 1960m (despite the fact that helicopter is also used, considering the size of this hut)
Some huts outside of the Tatras also have such a tradition:
- Chata pod Borišovom (Veľká Fatra), 1509m
- Kamenná chata (Nízke Tatry), 2000m ("Kamienočka")
- Štefánikova chata (Nízke Tatry), 1740m
In the Tatras, all other huts are reacheable by landrover, which is why the Šerpa tradition is not existing. Neither the Polish Tatras have something similar. Schronisko w Dolinie Pięciu Stawów Polskich, the only hut really located in high mountain level, is featured with a cable-system at the end of the driveable part of the valley.
However, the tradition of men-suppying of huts is occasionally spread in mountainous areas of other countries, for example Czech Republic, with which Slovakia formed only one country until 1993. Hungarians also perpetuate this custom from time to time in their small mountains of Bukk and Mátra. Some hutkeepers in Italy also recently started this activity, at the Garibaldi, Tagliaferri, Torsoleto huts, and thanks to them the editions of the Šerpa Rallye 2001 and 2006 could be held exceptioanally in Italy.
This leads us to the main topic. Every year, since 1985, is organized the Šerpa Rallye. Viktor Beránek, the well-known chatár of Chata Pod Rysmi, a local emblemaitc figure, is at the origin of this idea.
This is a well-known event amongst slovak moutaineers and people of the region, but without a very official structure and organisation; don't be surprised if by searching in Google, you will not find anything, neither in Slovak, just few photoblogs of past editions here and there.
According to everyone's availabilities and general tendancy of the weather, the dates are set from mouth to ear after the summer break, and the event usually takes place in middle-october. If you wish to know the exact dates, I recommend you for example to ask in the english forum of the site hiking.sk.
The rule of the event, as you can imagine, is very simple. Men are loaded with a same amount of weight, set to 60 kgs. In few cases, when snow comes too early in the season, the amount was reduced to 50 for security.
There is also a women category, where a more generous load of 20 kgs is proposed.
The route is the same for everyone, with a starting point and a destination, usually a mountain hut, where a jury and some chonometers are waiting (as well as some drinks of all natures, in addition - some of them being carried by the competitors themselves).
The fun is not neglectible part of the thing: most of the competitors try to dress in a humouristic way, and usually the whole week-end is a very festive event. No need to precise that all the chatárs and sherpas know each other, and form something like a big familly where the good mood is always the main rule !
Every year, a different destination is choosen:
2008 : Téryho chata
2007 : Kamenná chata pod Chopkom
2006 : Italy, Bergamo region, Garibaldi hut
2005 : Téryho Chata
2004 : Chata Solisko
2002 : Chata pod Rysmi
2001 : Italy, Dolomites, Taliaferri hut
2000 : Zbojníčka Chata
1998 : Chata Pod Rysmi
1996 : Chata Pod Rysmi
As mentionned before, the 2006 edition was abroad. 2007 came back to the country, but still a bit "abroad" as for the first time it didn't take place in the main Tatras range, but the neighbouring "Low Tatras". Which was indeed the best idea, as snow felt very early that year, and the event took place in dantesque conditions.
2008 was held in the High Tatras again, in excellent weather conditions, and according to many observators, one of the most successful ones so far, also the most mediatized, with many TV reporters around. For the first time, a "baby" category was even created for children willing to participate to the event, on a small distance.
In the history of the winners, we often find the same names. The most famous are Viktor Beránek (creator and winner of the first edition !), Martin Maličký (2008 winner), Laco Kulanga, Edo Lipták, Milan Juroš...
(Everyone who can help me to find informations about the previous editions and winners is more than welcome !)
As far as I know, the place & dates of the 2009 rallye hasn't been choosen yet (but give me a sign if they do). Let's hope the forthcoming editions will keep the same promises !
I would conclude it like this: the rallye is an outstanding event, a beautiful expression of the Slovak culture, a must-see for the foreigner. As for the Šerpas tradition, this is a magnificent one, from which many mountain ranges of the western world should take inspiration...
Links3 very interesting article in English about Viktor Beránek :
Various photos of past editions :
2008 edition, Téryho Chata
2007 edition, Kamenná chata pod Chopkom
1998 edition, Chata Pod Rismy:
2006 edition, Italy
2004 edition, chata Solisko
2002 edition, chata Pod Rysmi