The September trip
It was a couple of years ago. There was an unmistakable anticyclone moving slowly over Central Europe, and probably one of the last sunny and warm week-ends of the year. I had a ton of work, but I decided to postpone it and dedicate two days to my favorite mountains in the country. I phoned to few friends, hoping than any of them would join in, but unsuccessfully. Never-mind, I said, and on Friday night I was driving all speed to the Tatras. My destination was the border Łysa Polana, where I could undertake a hike in the most beautiful valley of the Tatras, Dolina Bielovodská.
It was already dark when I parked. I paid the guy of the car park in Euros for two days and nights, understand till Sunday and the end of my hike. I had just a duvet and a mattress in my hiking bag; no idea where to sleep, no defined plans. Phones off, I walked as far as I could, just like escaping all kind of worries in my mind, until it was completely dark. This moment coincided with my arrival to Horolezecké táborisko pod Vysokou, a wooden construction where bivouacking is more or less tolerated. I was really exhausted after a grueling week at work and felt immediately asleep in my duvet.
When I woke up, my head was really soar. I cleaned my face from the morning dew, so surprised I was there, and meditated few seconds about where I was and what I did yesterday. Everything came back into my mind, except one detail. I was bivouacking in the grass. The wooden structure had simply vanished. How could such thing have been possible ? Could someone steal it during the night. Whatever, I said. After all, I was so knackered the day before that I could have mistaken it with something else in the dusk.
As I started to walk, in a misty weather that was not predicted at all by the forecast, and made me furious about missing the silhouette of the proud peak Młynar, as well as all fantastic panoramas, I started to wonder if I didn't get lost. I hadn't seen the usual abundant paintings of the TANAP, and the trail was much more tinier than what I remembered from the trail going up this valley. Instead of a large land-rover path, just a shy single-track. Dwarf pine must grow really fast, I told myself. Strange that the park authorities left it in such state.
But sun soon showed up in the upper side of the valley. To my big surprise again, all mountainsides of the high peaks were covered with a thin snow. I hadn't seen that the evening before, and couldn't remember any snowfall during the night. Whatever. I was walking now full of enthusiasm in the direction of Polsky Hreben. I soon reached the pass. What next ? That peak ? I was feeling too lazy, and while putting on my new orange soft-shell, I old myself I would just walk down the opposite hillside, and sleep at Sliezski Dom, the refuge below. Perhaps I would return via a different route on Sunday.
I was thinking about the fact that I still hadn't met any single soul that day, quite unusual for the Tatras during such a week-end. Perhaps I missed one day in the calendar and it was still Friday ? I checked my mobile phone, and noticed that no signal was caught. The clock didn't work properly either, showing 0:00h of the year 1900. Batteries again, I said. Or perhaps the humidity during the night. That was really my day. Oh well.
At this very moment I noticed the first people of the day. A queue of four men dressed in dark, and extremely loaded, was slowly moving towards the pass. I started to move in their direction in order to exchange few words. Their dressing puzzled me more and more as I was approaching. One of them was clearly in advance compared to the others, and noticed me. He had very old boots, trousers made of Scottish tartan, a leather jacket, and rucksack looking so old that I wondered if it could be from the PRL era, or even before.
"Ahoj !" I shouted, but instead of smiling, he stared to me with a suspicious look. OK, I thought, a Pole. "Dzien Dobry !" Kind of disappointed by his unfriendliness, I tried a last greeting with "Guten Tag !", before moving away. Strange times, I told myself. Mountaineering is nowadays not as friendly as it used to be... It's all about mass consumption, I tried to convince myself, despite the clothes of the man contrasting with this thinking. I immediately forgot about this story to focus on the rest of my trip.
Weather was becoming tricky again as I was entering a sea of mist that stagnated below. Soon I lost most of my visibility and walked into a blind landscape of grass and gray atmosphere. From the moment I had crossed the pass, the trail became more and more invisible, and made me fear I lost the marks. I walked this way at least one hour, before I heard suddenly someone shouting behind me.
"Papers please !". A TANAP ranger, with the famous red fleece decorated with the edelweiss, appeared from nowhere as they know so well to do it, and was controlling me. I tried to communicate the best I could with few Slovak words. "I lost the route", I explained. As he recognized I wasn't from Slovakia, he asked me for my nationality and where I was going. Given the circumstances and the fog, he consented to avoid charging me. "You're walking off-trails, it's forbidden you know. The path is just a hundred meters below", pointing the right direction. As I greeted him, I found the trail, and one hour later, installed myself in the hut Sliezski Dom, suddenly full of noisy and colorful people. My phone worked again, and showed 3 unread SMSes from my wife asking where I was.
The second day of my hike went as fine as could be possible. Just a brilliant day, across Velka Studena Dolina, and a return via Prielom. This trip would have remained a simple entry into the logbook of my mountain trips, if the following events described below did not occur.
The Leipzig bookstore
Few months later, my wife and I went for a trip in Germany, during which we visited few towns. Leipzig was one of them, on the way between Berlin and Dresden. This city is known to be the capital of second hand bookshops in Germany and perhaps Europe. In a small street, my attention was drawn by an "Alpine Buchhandlung". My wife was wandering in the clothing boutiques nearby, so I decided to step in while waiting for her. The shelves where filled with old yellow smelly books, and the vendor, a little old man with glasses looking suspicious, asked me what I was looking for. "Just having a look", I replied. As he recognized that I was a foreigner, he pointed a corner with international literature, mostly in English. "This might interest you", he said.
Suddenly, I noticed an author name that was not unknown to me. Count Henry Russell ! What the hell could it be ? Unfortunately, what appeared to be a book was in fact damaged, and only a part of a book. The page number where it started was past the 100th page, and ended some twenty pages later. "I have no idea where does it comes from", said the salesman. By curiosity, I started to read diagonally, as I had not much time :
"The splendid books of Ramond de Carbonières about the primary limestone that tops the Monte Perdido mentioned some ouvrages of his good friend Balthazard Haquet, a French botanist that studied various other places of the world, to compare the geology. Balthazard Haquet abundantly described a mountain range that was unknown to me, located in the North of Hungary, on the border with the province of Galicia. This was on my route in the direction of the Russian Ural, and I decided to dedicate few days to it. In the rush, I had to resell my boat ticket to Sankt-Petersburg and ask my friend Sourine to accompany me on this part of the itinerary. I didn't really let him the choice indeed".
Reading this very line, a brain wave suddenly struck me. Here we are ! This is a fragment of his book about his 1861 trip, sixteen thousand miles across Asia and Oceania ! I am not a history expert but I had heard of this. Despite I have not read it, I was sure there was nothing like this in the current re-editions of this book. What a finding ! I skipped few pages about the start of the travel (Russell was never avaricious in details, this is well known...), until the page where he reached Russia. Poland at this time did not exist: Cracow was a self-independent enclave, on the border with Prussia and the big empire of the Tsar :
"I reached Krakau in the end of the afternoon, after many troubles to pass the border, which I managed to do by changing my name into Russeloff. The atmosphere in this town was very strange. On one side, military regiments were patrolling everywhere, but I managed to go to a concerto of Chopin in the evening, once we were accommodated in a hostel near the Ringmarkt, the most splendid city centre I have ever seen".
"Unfortunately, there is no other mean of transportation than horse carriages in order to travel to the Carpathians and the kingdom of Hungary, even to Budapest. I cannot imagine that these two major European capitals are still not linked, when I recall the technical achievements in Western Europe. Fortunately, a railway line is currently being built and should be inaugurated during the next decade. Traveling to the big Tatra is not possible in one single day, partly because the terrain is very hilly. Spending a night at half distance is mandatory, and most people accommodate in Neumarkt, a little village based in this location. We had to struggle with a dense traffic of carts full of goods. Our driver told us that a lot of goods are dealt in the region. We finally found a good wooden inn where the owners accepted to accommodate us for a modest sum. My colleague Sourine had the hardest difficulties to communicate with them, as they were speaking another language, sort of local dialect. In the evening, we had the visit of some Russian officers, who were informed about of arrival. They only advised us to carry guns with us for the rest of the trip, since the region was pretty unsafe lately, with a lot of outlaws lurking on the roads, on the lookout for some notables to rob. After they left, the inn owner appeared with several men armed with forks: Rakúsky ! rakúsky ! they were shouting. My colleague talked with them few minutes and all went back in order. He explained me after-while that they suspected us to be Austrian foreigners, who are apparently not well seen in the region. For apologizing, they offered us a couple of chickens to eat for the next day, which we could not refuse."
Again, I turned a few pages, as the text was full of geographic annotations about the itinerary. I had a look on my watch. It was not twelve o'clock yet, and my wife hadn't rang me yet. She must be still watching clothes.
"We reached a settlement locally called Zakopane the following day. The driver of the carriage asserted me it was impossible to take me any further due to the quality of the roads. However, he charged me teh travel with a higher amount than initially agreed. I must believe people in the region are quite greedy. As I managed to accommodate myself again in a farm where this time people welcomed me warmly, I tried to ask where could I rent a mountain guide, talking with gesture, but which they understood well. The oldest daughter went out and returned few minutes later with a man of impressive stature, who immediately declined his identity: Klemens Bachleda. His dressing was like I had never seen before. He had some sort of white woolen trousers, ideal and perhaps much more efficient than our gaiters for the snow, a very colorful jacket with many ornaments, and a curious black hat with shells and a feather. He was carrying on his belt what I believed to be an alpenstock, but the upper end being shaped as an ice-axe. A genuine invention indeed ! His skin was tanned and his face sharp, unlike the usual appearance of Polish people. A sharp eye was analyzing everything, and a sort of noble allure emanated from him. I immediately had the conviction this man was very thoughtful and intelligent. To my big surprise, he nodded when I told him my name. The people of the inn explained me that he guided a certain Englishman named Robert Townshend came few months ago, with who he abundantly discussed. Bachleda was surprised that English gentleman coming from so remote countries, could turn to be such skilled mountaineers despite their sophisticated appearance. While using his sleeping bag, something unknown here, my good friend Robert told him I was the author of this invention !
"Highlanders of the Hutsul mountains, more East, are finding it great, he added. They even wear it during daytime, opening a gap on the bottom near the feet, for walking".
I explained Bachleda I was looking forward to see the most I could from the Tatras, and possibly bag a peak that was not climbed before, in order to name it and be the first ascender. Bachleda was not sure he could lead me to such place, but suddenly remembered about a mysterious unnamed summit he wanted to climb as well, far behind the border ridge. We prepared ourselves the rest of the day, rented few mules in order to depart before the sunrise, together with two other young highlanders that would help us carrying provisions and food. We spent the rest of the evening in music. Other local highlanders brought violins as well as other instruments I had never seen, and started to sing. These people have a particularly acute sense of music. I sang few Pyrenean songs which they immediately managed to accompany with their instruments, smoked cheese and all sort of meals were constantly served to us, and so went the rest of the evening. The sense of hospitality of the Tatras highlanders is just incredible."
One more look at the clock showed me that time was passing quickly. I had to hurry up and get out of this shop. I turned few pages in order to skip names of summits, savant descriptions of panoramas, positions of rocky shelters where they bivouacked, terrible storms they encountered, and started to read as Russell and Bachleda were getting nearer to the goal:
"As we were progressing into these desolated regions that reminded me somehow the Maladeta, and despite the language problems, as we were going I was realizing how competent and professional was my guide. His knowledge of the big Tatra was just immense. The second day, we met on our way the first of the two only humans we saw during the whole trip. An old man was bent to the ground, like praying. A closer look revealed he was examining the grass, with a notebook next to him. As he noticed us, he stood up, and introduced himself : Göran Wahlenberg. Meeting him was a real pleasure, and after talking few hours, he decided to camp with us. Göran spoke a perfect English, despite a slight Swedish accent. What a fantastic night full of interesting and savant conversations. His botanic knowledge is just immense. But, to our biggest regret, he declared being to old to follow us any higher, and we had to make farewell.
At the end of the third day, Bachleda pointed an outstanding rocky pyramid, whose terrible appearance at first sight revealed some more gentle access as we got closer. Let's try this route, I asked him, and he replied me he thought the same. One hour later we were trampling the top. Bachleda humbly let me step first on it. What a great man ! Unfortunately, we discovered a cairn on top, covering a glass bottle in which was a paper, which stated: "Mór Dechy, August 13th 1873". What a disappointment, the peak was not virgin as expected ! As I meditated with my friends, a gust of wind suddenly took the paper away from the hands of the young shepherd that accompanied us. The proof was lost for ever, what a terrible loss ! We all felt guilty. But we were terribly hungry and I remembered the fried chickens from Zakopane which I had taken along. Bachleda had a local liqueur made of some plants, called Palinka, and we all had a delicious lunch on the top. I asked if it was a specialty of the region, which he denied: A customer from southern Hungary gave it to me, he replied. His name was Julius Kugy. I had the feeling I had heard this name in some scientific seminar, or opera, or some reception, without being able to remember where and who exactly. Delicous ! I exclaimed myself anyway. Bachleda repeated : pyszny ! and we understood each other mutually. "The peak has no name, still", he said with a big smile. Instead of naming this peak after myself, which would be a bit egoistic, I proposed him to name it Pysny Stit. He nodded immediately with a big smile: OK, agreed !"
The vendor from the bookshop started to show few signs of impatience. I was reading for almost one hour in his shop ! "It's almost 1:am, I'm closing the shop soon. So, are you buying it or not ?". In the same time, my phone rang. It was my wife: "Where the hell are you ?" I explained I was in the next street, and negotiated few more minutes of reading, against one more dress to try. Instinctively, I picked a random page near the end of the book fragment. This paragraph made me blench.
"This specie of Chamois was really different than all I ever observed before. But, as we were ascending the pass Polski Hreben to return into the country of Bachleda and his fellows, during a moment I was ahead of the group, I witnessed something even more surprising".
The following sentence suddenly reminded me my September trip :
"A man was hurtling down the slope of the mountain, bouncing on each possible rock, at the speed of light. He had no alpenstock, but instead of that a metallic tool that shined in the sun like a thunder-light. He was wearing curious orange clothes, so bright that it hurt the eyes. Before he noticed us, he took something out of his pocket, from which a white fire went out. The man started spoke for few seconds alone to his fire and started to run again. Then he watched into our direction and noticed me with a look of amazement on his face. He shouted few words in a language that I could not understand, and looked at me with a sadistic smile, before he disappeared as fast as he came, running and bouncing on boulders, with the help of his thunder-light. I did not want to scare my friends, so I did not tell them I met the devil."
An angry voice took me off my amazement.
- "So, are you buying it or not ? It's a bookshop here, not a library, and I'm closing !" was shouting the man.
- "I take it !", I replied, wondering how much he'll ask for it.
- "Bloody hell, just take it and disappear. I have other things to worry about than a piece of torn book, you know", he replied.
A part of original script, I told myself.. what an idiot he is... he doesn't know what he's missing, I thought, in the very moment I popped into my wife that was waiting, dressed with a new colorful jumper.
The rest of the story made me titillating until the evening, the only moment I could find to reopen it alone. But surprisingly all pages were blank ! No trace of what I had read in the shop ! Only few lines remained in the end, telling :
"Dear Summitposters, this is the first of April, and this whole story was just a fiction of my invention. I hope you enjoyed it !"
For the anecdote, this trip really took place, according to the GPS trace here enclosed, and unlike the story, clockwise. No travel in time, no encounter with ghosts. Just brilliant autumn lights. Enjoy the photos ! ;)