Tuesday 14th September 2010
Weather/Conditions: Darkness and clear skies, leading to sunrise and cumulus building on the peaks. Inversions ever-present. Some wind at the top, no rain and some thicker mist at the very end at the cloud continued to bubble up.
Distance/Ascent/Time: 9.5km / 800m / 6h 55m
Accompanying: Craig and Dougie
The alarm rang and I switched it off quick as not to disturb the others sleeping. I felt terrible - death warmed up - and could have gone back to sleep that moment if it were not for Craig's feet hanging over the side of the top bunk. He's up. Better get up... I moved across to the window and looked upwards: "There ain't a cloud in the sky." I said aloud for the others to hear and with it, we proceeded to make a racket hauling gear from our room into the hallway. The mountain was calling and the good weather and Craig and Dougie's discipline in getting out of bed meant I was prepared to make an effort too.
My energy reserves were taking a battering and god did I feel effects and dehydration of yesterday's hangover. It was punishing but also no reason not to make an effort because at the end of the day, alcohol's a pathetic excuse to stay in bed. The clock hit 3am and we continued packing, trying to get out as soon as possible. I packed my last items, kept headtorch to hand, and at last we made moves downstairs, through the dark restaurant, and from the warmth to hut to the cool mountain air. The sky was alight with stars - a beautiful scene indeed, but I felt real bad. I wondered if I should appreciate it more.
Up the Trail in Darkness
Outside by 3.10am, we spent a couple of minutes finding the right path then started up the trail leading to the high valley above. Into the dark mountains, we left the lights of the hut behind. I stayed at the back, content to let Craig do the leading. Still feeling rough, I just put my feet in Dougie's footsteps. I counted on feeling better later on, and hoped the effort would be worth it. The ascent was steep but didn't seem so bad in the dark. At the front, Craig continually kept an eye out for the path and stayed on the look-out for the orange markers, indicators that we were on the correct track.
As we arrived in the hanging valley, the path turned vague as it passed by the first of the valley's two lakes. Unable to see the lake in the darkness, I simply thought we were crossing a very wide river while neglecting to acknowledge the lake's existence. Such is the problems of navigating in the dark. We continued upwards with the knowledge that the trail hugged the left hand side of the valley. Substantial snowfields covered most traces of a path and it became a challenge just to stay on course. We found ourselves on a steep snow bank having not seen a marker in a while and became convinced we'd strayed on steeper ground. We went back on ourselves, then figured we were actually on the right track and re-climbed the height we'd lost. Twenty metres beyond our first high point we found a marker. On track after all.
We weren't safe for long - the path faded again. We followed traces here and there and looked for tracks in the snow that seemed to be going in the right direction. Knowing we should be hugging the left hand side of the valley, we climbed up to some tracks. Dougie got there first: "Guys, these aren't human tracks". Craig and I arrived. They looked more like bear tracks, with paws and print, perhaps 15cm wide.
S**t. Feeling a bit freaked out, we backtracked and continued to try and locate the way. We rounded another corner and with my head down on the track, Craig told me to look up - evidence of the path? No - glimmering in the round glow of our torches was perhaps a metal tripod standing 7 or 8 feet high holding what was maybe a light. Feeling freaked out by the bear (?) tracks and frustrated at losing the path, this was messing with us again. It seemed plain weird; what was it doing here? Somewhere, we started calling it Apollo 13 but it looked more like Sputnik.
Under the false impression we were on track, we headed up the valley into a dead end, the gully ran into rocks. Dougie and Craig went up the snowfields first (I needed to stop for a #1) but it looked hopeless anyway - the ground leading to the top of the valley looked much to steep to traverse across. I wondered whether to follow them up because it looked wrong. I followed anyway only to soon turn around. In the darkness, we were frustrated and in the air hung the awkward silence when everyone wonders if they should go down, yet no one seems willing to poise the question first. We could be back in a warm bed, get a couple of hours sleep then go for breakfast. It was tempting.
But dawn was also breaking gradually, then in a matter of minutes the light on the mountains grew until we could see the world around us again. What was inky darkness and streaks of dim snow, only marginally lighter than the black rock, were all real again. The stars faded to blue sky. We could see our path, and quite importantly, a path at the head of the valley. Even with the soft snow that we sunk into and fell around in, we thought that if we connected up all the rocky patches and dodged snow, we could make it to that track at the top with relative ease and use that to get us to the summit ridge.
It's all good in theory. With the light fully restored, we marched up to the headwall and spotted a gully that seemed to offer the way to the ridge. Craig and I reckoned it was the way, but Dougie wasn't so sure. Craig climbed first, punching footholds into the wet snow. Dougie followed on and I went up last. I saw all the avalanche debris below us and wondered if avalanching snow would be a problem. I told myself the internal tension in the gully would keep the snow together, if such a thing existed.
Dougie thought the route wasn't right, although I was quite sure - it seemed the only way let alone the 'wrong' way, which implies there's a choice. Craig climbed high into the gully until it was easier to climb the chossy rock and grass on the left hand wall. He did a couple of intricate moves onto the rock, moving himself out onto the face, which was when I heard a rattle. Stones were falling. Craig, not meaning to do so, was sending them down at me and all I could say was 'be careful'. Stupidity comes out of our mouths when out of control of the situation. Pebbles landed at my feet. I started to think this was silly, maybe not the route at all - just a gully much to steep to be safely climbed, at least in these thawing conditions. It was made worse by the fact that in the entire week in Poland, we hadn't carried axes and today was no exception.
Then faster than I could process what was going on - I heard, and felt, a great thump - as one rock from above struck me dead on in the ribs. Registering the seriousness, I said "Guys, guys, this is f***ing crazy." Then, "Lets go down."
Afterwards I realised it might have been a good thing to have had this, because it made me turn around.
Craig had to jump into the gully to get off the rock wall and therefore back out of an otherwise completely committing climb. I started down first, facing inward and punching into the snow with my boots to make a ladder of secure footholds. Nerves were jangling, I hoped one of the others wouldn't slip above or they'd take me out too.
Back in safety, I smelt the sweet smell of lets-just-go-down. But Craig decided to check out a line further left of our silly gully. I didn't hold out too much hope now but there was no harm in trying. After that nervy gully ascent I was also suddenly very hot, wearing a fleece, jacket, hat and all the other cold night time necessities. The sun was up now, and while we'd been in our gully it had been shining the most beautiful colours across the peaks, turning previously black austere walls into comforting shades of ochre and orange. I stripped off to nothing (up top...) then continued with a t-shirt.
Craig shouted down, announcing he'd found the chains - what a relief! It changed everything again. And when I climbed back up, the snow wasn't such a problem and the chains were clear of snow. Sometimes I'd found they make life more difficult as you swing around on them, instead of keeping a solid, stable grip on the mountain, but generally they seem to help.
Summit Ridge and finally the Summit
Once we hauled ourselves up the chains, we emerged onto the summit ridge, the actual summit seemingly in striking distance. Initially there was mostly fog, then it began to shift and views opened out to the north.
Craig and I arrived first, Dougie came up in a couple of minutes, and then we headed off up the ridge. It looked pretty knobbly, though I had faith that the markers and an obvious path would keep us on track. It turned into a mini Aonach Eagach, with a few ups and downs, and each with their hands-on sections. We were not on the ridge crest (the ridge was so contorted that a crest hardly exists anyway) but on the northern side, where snowfields had to be crossed, the exposure cranked up a notch. Then when we finally arrived underneath the summit directly, I made our last navigational error. The track actually climbed easy northern slopes to the west ridge from where we would be only metres from the top but with the path under snow, I ventured onto the north ridge where the ground was loose, and exposure tremendous. The east face dropped off a long way - I wasn't sure how high the drop was (measured later as 400m before the gradient eased). This gave me cause to be concerned and then I realised that of course there are no markers here, no path! It must have been elsewhere and that came as a relief.
Craig and I looked down at Dougie who was standing beside a path half-hidden in snow, leading to the west ridge. We could see it from our high perspective and got him on the right path. We retraced our steps then three of us walked up to the west ridge. It had that 'summit feel' now. Having persevered through many trials, we treaded the last steps to the cairn and basked in the glory of finally being here. I felt pride and joy completely disproportionate to the modest 5kms we'd gone.
The smiles came out with the knowledge we were finally on the summit. Views were partially obscured by cloud, but we were at the top end of any patches and there was permanent blue sky above our heads, as well as the sun shining, diffuse through strands of cloud. What a strange feeling to be on our own hard-earned platform in the sky, any evidence of ground obliterated, feeling elevated from Earth itself. It was almost unsettling but at least we didn't have to ascend anymore. For me, comfort lay in the knowledge that there was no more 'up' - no more walking away from safety - only a return.
After ten minutes on top, with rounds of pictures but no food to celebrate, we began descending. I didn't let my guard down, knowing we had some slightly technical bits to do. Though on descent they all seemed easier and quicker then on the way up and we arrived back at the top of the chains pretty quickly. When we were all back, we shared a crushed Mars bar found in my rucksack and off we went. The Mars bar wasn't much but it took the hunger pains away.
Craig went down the chains first, then Dougie and myself last. Having got down the chains and the headwall snow slopes, I began relaxing when when ten or fifteen minutes later, I stepped onto a boulder which skidded out from the wet snow underneath, sending me flying on my arse, the cheek landing squarely on a pointed boulder. I shouted and swore, (At Craig too - oops) but even through flood of pain it would be fine. I just couldn't sit on a chair properly for a couple of days after and for all the times to fall it could have happened, was when the climb was sealed, the difficult parts over and done with.
Continuing descent and meeting a couple other people on their way up, light fog came into the valley and obscured the mountains. We remarked how obvious route finding was in the light and laughed at our mistakes in the darkness. Feeling smug at our early arrival on the mountain when fog for all others was setting in (we earned it!) we headed down the steep path back to the hut and missed breakfast by five minutes.
There was mist down at the hut too We'd made the right decision to get up so early. For all the difficulties beginning to climb in the early hours had been all worth it because we'd seen the mountains in their most spectacular conditions and could now remember the beauty, the sensory overload and adrenaline. It wouldn't overboard to include the worlds fear, wonder or exhilaration the heights. We earned feeling smug at having got the day's best conditions. To satisfy the hunger in our stomachs (for food, our mountain-fix was satisfied!), we bought drinks at the hut, ate chips, soup and sausage, until I found I could manage hardly any of it.
Once we'd pampered ourselves enough, we left the hut and began the walk southeast back to the road. I began to realise profoundly that our holiday was finally coming to a close and felt a hint of sadness that we were leaving the most beautiful of huts in such an enormous location. As we walked back through the trees and in the mist, I guessed I would come back here.
And when we finally reached the road, we took two buses back to Zakopane, then the two hour bus to Krakow where we met the rest of the guys who, without having to climb a mountain, had travelled back earlier in the day. We got settled in a hostel Krakow's main square and while they went out for a meal and drinks, I slept endlessly. I was knackered. Harbouring a cold, the 16 hour day had pounded my system.
As with most hardships endured among mountains it was worth it all. Just look at the pictures!
(0.00) 3.10am Zelene pleso Hut
(4.00) 7.10am Summit ridge
(4.50) 8.00am Jahňaci štit
(6.55) 10.05am Zelene pleso Hut