Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Stormy Slovakia

In July 2015 we were fortunate enough to be invited along to an annual trip to a cabin in Podbanské, Slovakia by some old flatmates. The cabin is in a thick pine forest and the area is what dreams are made of; crystal clear springs bubbling up from the ground; berries of the rasp-, straw- and blue- varieties covering the undergrowth, ready to pick; and a wild freedom, away from electricity, hot water and noise.

One of the days we attempted to climb a mountain. This is the story of that day.


Witches country.
It started as a hot, sticky day. We had awoken with thick heads. The previous night we had all seemingly forgotten about our planned adventure and we had not gone to bed until the early hours of the morning. Choosing to instead sit around an open fire, drinking, telling stories, cooking meats and cheeses on sticks and when it was sufficiently dark, bathing naked as a group in a chilling spring a hundred meters away.

Dense from our hangovers we managed to pull ourselves together enough to go for our planned 10ish hour hike. We didn't really know the correct path to where we were going, but with a direction in mind, the 9 of us set off through the Slovakian forest. Tall pine trees surrounded us, shading us from the hot sun, wild blueberries blanketed the ground. We walked in the direction of the mountain we wished to summit, looking for symbols on trees to guide us to the correct path. 

Picking wild berries

We came across a clearing, where the trees had fallen from the heavy winds. Wild flowers colourfully covered the tree remains, with death springing new life. From here we could clearly see the gorgeous mountains around us and I saw the first glimpse of where we were headed – a clear mountaintop far in the distance. The sun hit us and we were instantly reminded of our sins from the previous night, as the sweat poured out of us, traced with alcohol.

After an hour of walking we found the correct path, regrouped and stopped in the shade for some sweet relief. From here, according to the map, we would have a 3 and a half hour walk uphill through a rainforest to the summit. The sounds of a stream only 50m away, but unreachable through the terrain teased us with the images of being cool. Above us, clouds had started to form in the sky and we heard the distant rumble of thunder.

Wild flowers and ancient mountains
Around 45minutes into our ascent light rain sprinkled down on us, the relief was bitter sweet, as the temperature plummeted. The thunder was drawing closer, the rain heavier. A few of us deciding that a 4 hour hike on a hangover is still a decent hike, turned around, we didn't want to be caught on a mountain top in a storm. The muddy path we had walked up 20 minutes before had turned unto a stream with frogs, who were happily splashing about in search of food. Seeing this confirmed in my mind that turning back was the right decision even though the rain had ceased.

As we returned to the bare foot hills, the sun came out and soon we were once again too hot to function, our clothes began to dry. The clear sky did not hang around however. Soon we were surrounded by ominous dark clouds and rumbling thunder. As we entered the ground level forest, the heavens opened, and they opened wide. Pouring buckets of freezing rain on top of us. Soaked to the bone, I sang the song in my head that always comes to mind in such situations 'just keep swimming, just keep swimming, you can do it, just keep swimming'.

Map checking
Our journey outbound had not been a straight one, so coming home, in a forest of winding paths and similar style cabins was not going to be an easy one. We followed a straightish path which ended at the main road, we hid in a small wooden hut to regroup. Where to from here?

We resolved to follow the main road back to the cabin. The rain was still heavy, there was no footpath, the visibility was low, the lightening, thick and fast, and the wind, oh the wind. We soldiered on. By this stage I was soaked, freezing and anxious. With each crack of lightening and car racing past, my panic levels rose. With each gust the pine trees bent to impossible angles, groaning and creaking in the wind. In the distance we could hear trees falling. Just keep moving Fairypants, just keep moving, I repeated in my head, you will get through this. The wind blew hard. After fighting for too long, a tree just on the other side of the road could no longer withhold. The tree let out an agonising creak and fell to the ground, covering the road, spraying us with pine needles. Having narrowly missed being hit by a falling tree, my anxiety levels went through the roof. 'Get me out, get me out, get me out' screaming through my head, I hurriedly requested to the others that we make a pit stop in a road side bar 100m in front of us.
Jonas and Lubka 

We were not the first to have this thought. Huddled under a tin roof with no walls, were hikers and cyclists who had also been caught out. The rest stop cum bar had no indoor area – aside from a toilet, which someone suggested to me I could go into to be warmer. The times to see the best in humans are in times such as these. Everyone there was happy and smiling, despite being soaked, frozen and essentially still outside. The mateship was strong, even if we couldn't speak the same language.

Realising the windows were still open in the cabin, 2 of our group hiked off into the rain to get home. Deciding that I had faced death enough for one day, Tom, one of our Slovakian friends and I waited for the rain to finish. As the sun began to shine again, we set off, discovering (of course) that after hiking for hours in the pouring rain, we had stopped within a 10 minute walk of the cabin.

That evening we made fires, shared stories, cooked meals, drank wine and eventually when it was sufficiently dark went for an evening swim. The circle was complete for the day, although this evening I was feeling slightly more grateful for being alive.  

The last day in the mountains, with about half of the group.