26 February 2019.
Step… Step… Step…
I hoist myself over yet another frozen boulder unveiling a new gnarly obstacle course of jagged rocks lying across the path ahead. A ferocious gust whips across my face drowning out my ragged breathing and sending a painful shudder through my red tingling fingertips. Gazing upward, the trail is obscured beneath a fluffy layer of snow that hides patches of slippery ice and ankle-twisting gaps between the rocks. Each step must be precise. Considered.
The weather is changing too. Unpredictable.
The warm golden light of the previous day has long since been cast off, replaced by a thick blanket of cloud, frigid cold and furious winds. A hazy band of pinkish-orange on the horizon is all that remains of the sunny glow, a worrying sign given it’s barely just gone midday.
Scaling the ridgeline slowly, I clamber triumphantly over one final rock and, unfolding beneath my feet, the majestic peaks of the High Tatras Mountains shift into focus. Rows of razor-sharp triangular crests pierce the horizon towering high above a pair of grey windswept lakes. A subdued palette of inky blue, faded orange and dazzling white.
Straddling the border between Poland and Slovakia amidst a sea of striking mountains, Rysy Peak offers up an epic panorama. Despite being ill-prepared for this sudden cold snap, this final scene from Poland’s highest peak had made the entire ordeal completely worth it.
I ferret around in my backpack for my camera and click the shutter for the very first time that day.
My exposed fingers are stinging now, like needles drilling angrily into my pulsing flesh. Though my torso is swaddled tightly, Michelin man style, in five layers of clothing, I can still picture my gloves, folded almost mockingly in a neat little ball on my bed, left behind absentmindedly as I raced out the door.
As if challenging me to outstay my welcome, a torrent of wind bursts across the summit sending swirls of white powder dancing frantically across the mountain face.
But I have no intention of sticking around for another warning. It’s time to go.
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Distance | 20 km return
Time | At least 8 hours
Starting Point | Štrbské Pleso, Slovakia, though it’s also possible to hike up from the Poland side
Altitude | Strbske Pleso sits at 1,346m and climbs all the way to Rysy Peak at 2,503m
Best Time To Go | As with much of Europe, July and August mean warmer, more stable weather, but also larger crowds. June and September offer up cooler temperatures and fewer visitors, but by October expect the first snow to start falling.
While the challenging conditions meant things went a little pear-shaped for me on the mountain, Rysy Peak is actually a fairly straightforward and incredibly beautiful hike leading past forests and alpine lakes toward the rock-strewn summit.
To reach the trailhead, navigate your way through Strbske Pleso to street ‘K Vodopádom’, walk under the red bridge and veer right. A short way along, the main hiking trail will lead off into the forest on the left indicated by a number of signs. From here, the trail is very well-trodden and signposted with clear markers at each intersection and all the way to the summit.
After about an hour of wandering through dense forest on a wide flat trail, you’ll emerge at Popradske Pleso, a beautiful deep blue lake bound by fir trees and stark snow-streaked peaks. Turning left, the path continues through the forest for another half hour before veering right and climbing through a wide bowl speckled with white boulders and low-lying scrub.
This is where things begin to get a whole lot more challenging.
Carving a line straight uphill, the trail zigzags back and forth toward the escarpment where you’ll find a pair of small lakes – Zabie Plesa – tucked away in the shadow of the mountain. From here on out, the trail is essentially a minefield of rocks until you reach the summit – some flat and well lain across the trail, others requiring a fair degree of scrambling. By late October, slippery patches of ice were already clinging to the ground beneath a light dusting of snow meaning each step was potentially the one that would land you on your arse or face.
A short way beyond the lakes, you’ll find a series of metal ladders and chains to help traverse this steep section of rock. Despite the biting cold that came with hanging on to the frozen metal, this more adventurous part of the hike was actually rather fun.
Onwards, the trail to the mountain chalet and its iconic toilet is properly lain and much easier to navigate. If the weather is chilly, stop in at the hut to thaw your hands and face but perhaps save the hot chocolate for a well-deserved treat on the way down.
The final stretch leads you to the saddle that twists and contorts in a sea of jutting rocks along the ridgeline to the summit. Be prepared to climb and shimmy your way across the rock face. In fact, it’s not until the final moment when you hoist yourself over the highest mound of sharp rocks that the final view is revealed in all its glory. The dazzling peaks of the Tatras Mountains beneath your feet. Photos of this place in summer appear to be crowded with hikers, but out of season, you’ll likely have the place all to yourself.
Start Early | At a push, the hike can be done in 8 hours, but if the weather is pleasant and you’re walking at a slower pace, making plenty of stops for photos and snacks, expect to add a few more hours onto your adventure. Be sure to leave early enough to allow yourself time to finish before darkness begins to creep across the mountains, especially if you’ll be arriving by train.
Consider Mountain Insurance | The very rocky final stretch to the summit is often exposed to violent winds, icy temperatures and lingering snow that can be a little sketchy if you’re not careful. It’s generally recommended to take out mountain insurance should you need to be rescued which costs less than €2 a day or is included with select cable car tickets for the High Tatras. Also, bear in mind that most ordinary travel insurances don’t cover you for activities above 2,000m, so in the event of an emergency, any rescue costs could leave you seriously out of pocket. Enquire at the Strbske Pleso Information Centre for more information.
Wear Proper Gear | Sure, I may have unwittingly hiked my way into the High Tatras’ first snowstorm of the year, but that’s not to say you can’t get wild weather up here at any time of year and packing the right gear is crucial. A merino wool base layer, a warm jacket and a solid weatherproof outer layer are all essential. Gloves and a scarf are also an excellent idea if you’re visiting outside of the summer months and don’t want your fingertips turning to icicles as mine did.
For my other top tips on what to pack for any hike, check this post.
Solid Hiking Boots | This is definitely one of those hikes where you’ll need a solid pair of hiking boots. The final kilometre or so is essentially one long rocky scramble and good grip and some ankle support will make things a whole lot easier. I love my Scarpa boots which are lightweight and water-resistant, along with a pair of thick hiking socks.
Take A Map | Though the entire route is clearly marked, if there’s any snow scattered across the path, it can be a little trickier to keep track of where you’re going between the rocks. For some extra peace of mind, the entire route is marked out on Maps.Me which makes it easy to stay on track.
Be Adventurous, Not Stupid | I considered turning back several times during the hike because I was seriously underprepared for the unexpected cold and conditions on the trail. Ultimately though, I felt confident enough to keep going. If the weather takes a drastic turn, it’s never worth risking your own safety for the sake of making the summit or getting a photo.
In true Sandy Feet style, I left it rather late to book my accommodation and was surprised to find that, even out of season, there were virtually no budget-friendly options left in Strbske Pleso. It’s a beautiful little resort town set right beside the lake so be sure to book well in advance so you don’t end up having to pay through the roof or stay too much further away.
Penzion Partizan | With very few options left to choose from, I ended up at this basic but economical guesthouse set a 10-minute walk from Stary Smokovec and a 40-minute train trip from Strbske Pleso. The place was a little tired and run-down but was comfortable enough, had a beautiful outlook over the mountains and served a great breakfast. Check rates and availability here.
Vila Polar | This top-rated hotel in Strbske Pleso offers up spacious, comfortable rooms with fantastic views and helpful staff. It’s set a short walk from the train station and is very reasonably priced. Check rates and availability here.
Vila Emma | Another beautifully situated hotel just a short walk from the centre of town, Vila Emma boats bright, clean rooms with excellent views and decent prices. Check rates and availability here.
Grand Hotel Kempinski | Seeking a touch of luxury in the mountains? This lavish 5-star hotel has a prime location right alongside the lake and boasts spacious, beautifully decorated rooms, winning views, an excellent in-house restaurant and fully-equipped spa. Check rates and availability here.
To reach the High Tatras Mountains, there are numerous daily trains from Bratislava and Kosice to Poprad.
From here, transfer to either the TEZ (Tatry Electric Railway) or a bus which runs up to Stary Smokovec and then travels parallel to the mountains toward Strbske Pleso where the trail begins.
It’s best to use Strbske Pleso as your base for the hike, but if you don’t manage to nab a spot there, any of the smaller villages on the way to Stary Smokovec that sit beside the train line will do just fine. Check the timetable here and be sure to pick up the TEZ pamphlet from the train station when you arrive – it’s full of useful info including the timetable, ticket prices and train routes.
If you’re arriving from or travelling onwards to Poland, Leo Express offers a wide network of services in Central Europe to Stary Smokovec and Poprad. There’s usually just one service a day, but they’re a fast and affordable option. Check rates and timetable here.