A Path Obscured

VelkaFatra01

Veľká Fatra National Park, Slovakia – September 2014

No matter how much thought I put into preparing for a walk in the wilderness, there’s always something that I miscalculate. I should have worn my raincoat instead of the fleece. Listless raindrops tumble onto the canopy above. Drowsy percussive music that keeps time with my pace. The trail before us is straight and climbs relentlessly up the mountain. Hiking trails in Slovakia are brutal. There are rarely switchbacks to soften the ascent. Anyway, I prefer a hard, steady climb to a repetitious, winding stroll. The peak at the top is called Ostrá, which means sharp. The fog was so thick that we were unable to see the peak as we rode into Blatnica early this morning. The others on the bus, schoolchildren and mature ladies, headed in the direction of the other peak, whose name means round.

VelkaFatra02

We are alone on this trail. Two women with the same name. Birthdays one day, but many years apart. She grew up not so far from here, but she knows almost nothing about the wilderness. I take the lead, searching out the yellow arrows that mark the way. My steps are short and steady. We only wander off course once, for a couple of minutes. I spoke to her about bears. What we need to do if we see one. I try to speak loudly as we walk, to let them know we’re here. Just as you’re supposed to do. I end up talking to myself. She is too out of breath for conversation. I spot a bear track on the trail and quicken my pace. “Wait!” she gasps. “I have to stop.” I pause and scan the forest. My heart pounds, but not from exertion. What will I tell her mother if something happens to her?

VelkaFatra05

The forest falls away behind us. The rocky ridges are enveloped in fog. The trail up ahead falls off the end of the Earth. Any words that we speak are muffled. She crouches down by a rock, exhausted. I stand on the edge. The view from here must be magnificent in good weather, but somehow I don’t feel cheated. A wave of euphoria washes over me. I want to spread my arms wide and howl. I turn to her and say this. She glares at me in reply.

“This can’t be the peak,” I say a few moments later. “I’ve heard there’s a chain we need to use.” I peer into the fog, but all is obscured. The only thing to do is to continue forward. All will be revealed when it is time.

VelkaFatra06

We move forward with cautious steps. I look back over my shoulder and contemplate the trail we have traversed. The effort made and perils avoided. I turn my gaze forward. The hardest part remains. A vast sound emerges from the obscurity. The wind of high places. A shadow appears. An ominous blade slicing through the mist. We halt and gasp. It is just in front of us. But then it is shrouded again.

VelkaFatra04

The trail narrows along the last ridge. My backpack catches on the rocks, throwing me off balance. I take it off and toss it ahead. The dirt path becomes a rock wall. The chain disappears into the murk. Up there somewhere. I take a deep breath and grasp the cold metal. My shoes slip on the rocks, which are slick with condensation. After a couple of tries, I shake my head and step back. My mind is filled with clarity rather than disappointment. A reward is uncertain and the risks are many. Sometimes it’s better to wait for the right moment to reach for the top.

VelkaFatra03

54 thoughts on “A Path Obscured

    • Thanks! I suppose some would have been disappointed by such weather, but I liked it. I haven’t been hiking in the Slovak Tatras yet. Hope to do that this year. I’ve avoided it, because I prefer lesser known trails such as this one.

  1. The path looks superb but you can keep the bears. Intriguing that conversation should put them off, you would have thought the reverse – “is that dinner I hear” 🙂 Great misty images.

    • Haha. Yep, after I saw that track I was a bit rattled. Wish I had taken a photo of it, but I just wanted to get out of there. I’ve never heard of anyone being attacked in Slovakia, but it happens in Romania, and there’s always a first time. Before we went I read up on what to do about bears, and they say the best thing is to let them know you’re coming so they’re not spooked and have time to move away. They prefer not to meet us, either.

  2. What a beautiful, non-tourist way to explore a country. I have an ancestral connection to this area, hope to see it up close and personal one day. Love your adventures, thanks again for sharing. ☺

    • Hope you do make it over this way some day. You will love it.There is so much to see here in Slovakia and most of it is still off the mainstream tourist radar. I’m so fortunate to be able to live here, at least for a little while.

  3. Risk versus reward. A powerful subject and one that you demonstrated beautifully. I especially appreciated the way your integrated generational concepts and differing opinions. BTW, I love howling at the moon!! Just ask my neighbours!! 🙂

  4. Wow! Lovely misty pics. Glad you didn’t go further. Perhaps on a clearer day but do you ever know if it will be clear when you start off?
    Bears! Hard for me to imagine.

    • The good thing about this trail is that you aren’t obligated to go to the peak to continue on. You can just walk around it and pick up the rest of the trail. I check the weather for days before a hike, but mountain weather is unpredictable. The rain was only for a short while and it tapered off to drizzle quickly. If it had been heavy I probably would have given up.

  5. For people like me there’s probably no right moment for such a track. I feel giddy and dizzy simply looking at it from here. Powerful piece of writing though. I wondered from start to finish if you were going to get to the top. I am relieved you erred on the side of caution.

    • Thank you. When I was up there, I had a second of vertigo when I wondered what the view was like without the fog. There are some trails in Slovakia that I won’t even attempt. I love the invigorating feeling of a hike to the top, but clinging to a chain so that I don’t fall off a precipice is not my idea of fun.

  6. Sometimes Lake Michigan “falls off the end of the earth “too ( do you remember ?)…Julie this is such a beautiful post written and photographed … I’m always so grateful to know about your journey , mysterious and grand as it is ! Hugs xxx

  7. I think that I can feel the emotions you had on this hiking excursion, at least a little bit as I have just returned from a tour in the fog and in a surrounding similar to yours! Thank you, Julie, for your beautiful description.😄

  8. “I spoke to her about bears. What we need to do if we see one.” Answer: Run faster than the other person. 🙂

    Your climb reminds me of Mt Warning in Australia, which I’ve climbed. The last bit is a steep rock climb using a chain, but it’s worth it. There, my concern was snakes, not bears. I used to take a big stick and thud the ground repeatedly in front of me.

    • You’re not supposed to run from bears, young man. FYI. It’s the worst thing you can do. I think the view in clear weather is probably worth the chain part, but we would have climbed up there only to be enveloped in fog. I’d be paranoid about snakes and spiders in Australia. But at least you can (probably) outrun a snake.

  9. What a trek and well done for getting as far as you did! I can’t imagine what it must be like to run into a bear regardless of how well I might know the drill, which I don’t at all. Happy walking!

    • I kept going over the drill in my head, but wondered if I could stick with it if it came down to it. Bears often do a “bluff charge” at you and then turn around at the last second. You’re supposed to just stand there rather than run. However, it’s extremely rare to run into a bear, so I’ll probably be wandering around up in those parts again.

  10. When I see such drifting weather imagery on mountain ways, I think of “Wild Mountain Thyme”, “O’Sullivan’s March”, “Across the Blue Ridge Mountains”, “Brigadoon”, “Ailein Duinn”, and perhaps a few more, each song different in nature, but they paint my thoughts. The trail you trekked looks to follow a splendid ridge-line. Mountain weather is such a fickle friend, often thinking on it when ever I hear the story of Marni Sheppeard and Sonja Rendell, or the tale of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates.

    Places of song, poetry, and times to wait.

Comments are closed.