Header Banner
"Climbing Grass in the Western (Zachodnie) Tatras" - by Mark Synnott
Article taken from The Summit Journal

It all started with a picture. I was sitting on my couch flipping through the latest issue of Alpinist. In an article by Voytek Kurtyka, I came across a photo of a scrappy looking dude climbing what appeared to be grass. What is this all about, I wondered? Most people who saw this photo probably had a good chuckle, and then never gave it a second thought. Yet, I, for some unexplained reason, became more than a little curious about this grass climbing. So I did a little research and discovered that the guy in the photo is Jan Muscat, the father of "free" grass climbing in the Western Tatras. This would be as opposed to the whole "aid" grass movement. 'Hmm…free grass,' I thought to myself. Perhaps this might be worth further investigation.

I began exchanging emails with a Pole named Artur Paszczak of the Warsaw section of the Polish Alpine Club. Turns out that he knew Muscat well. If I wanted to come over, he said, he'd introduce me to Muscat, let me stay at his house and give me a tour of the grass climbing in the Tatras.

A couple of months later, I found myself shuffling my feet at a bus stop on a frozen street in Zakopane. This trendy ski resort town, kind of like the Aspen of Poland, sits nestled below the Tatras near the Slovakian border. As the old saying goes, there are three categories of Poles: those who have just returned from Zakopane, those who are soon going, and those who are currently staying there. It was bitterly cold and the snow banks lining the sidewalk were waist high. Artur had warned me not to come at this time of year. "January in the Tatras is very, very cold and bad grass conditions. Lot's of combi," he had written in an email. I remember thinking to myself, 'come on, its grass climbing, it's going to be pretty lousy regardless.'

A few minutes later Artur pulled up in a small van and we shook hands, no doubt both thinking, 'So, I'm going to be spending the next ten days with this guy who I met over the internet.' Art spoke perfect English and turned out to be a great conversationalist, even as he gunned his little van through the narrow snow covered streets. "So, you want to climb grass in the Tatras?" he asked, taking his eye off the road to give me a knowing look. What he didn't add, but I know he was thinking, was 'dude, you have no idea what you're in for.'

The Tatras stretch for approximately 80km along the border of Poland and Slovakia. On the far eastern edge of the range, the Tatras blend into the Carpathian Mountains which extend to the southeast across Ukraine and Romania,. To the west, there is only one small range (the Sudety, located on the southwestern border between Poland and the Czech Republic) between the Tatras and the Alps. The Tatras are broken into 3 main areas: the limestone Bielskie Tatra (up to 2151m), the granitic High Tatra, which includes the tallest peaks in the range (Gerlach - 2655); and the Western Tatras, which are also limestone and up to ca 2200 meters in elevation. The Western and Bielskie Tatras have been banned to climbing almost since the formation of Tatra National Park in the 1954.

From a distance, the Tatras look like many of the ranges you find in the eastern Alps. The thing, then, that really makes these mountains unique is the fact that many of the faces, particularly between 1400 and 2000 meters, are blanketed in grass. Exactly why is a bit of a mystery, but it probably has a lot to do with the fact that the rock in the Tatras is much older than the rock in the alps. Older rock tends to be more corroded, which makes it easier for vegetation to gain a foothold. The mountains in the Tatras are also relatively low in elevation (the tallest is only 8000 feet above sea level), and in the summer the weather is rainy and humid -- ideal conditions for growing grass.

As Art explained, conditions are best when snow has melted down into the grass and then hardened into a neve-like matrix. When the grass conditions are poor, like when I arrived, you get what Art calls "combi" -- which roughly translates into "that which you can comb."

"The combi, it's a bit of a problem, really," Art explained, "because the grass needles don't hold very well."

Art lives in Warsaw but he's done well enough in the business world that he can afford to have a ski chalet in the hills outside Zakopane. His chalet sits out in the middle of a wide open field with a distant view of the Tatras to the south. The log cabin is typical of the area's unique Highlander style, with its characteristic long, steep pitched roof and hand carved doors, windows and trim. Every inch of it was built with locally harvested spruce trees. Just above the front door sits a small wooden statue of a contemplating Jesus.

Inside the cozy wood paneled interior I met Art's wife Alicja, his three year old daughter Anielka, and his three huge dogs. I was cooked from my long journey, and nervous about the combi, so I went to bed in a small guest room upstairs after only one beer.

The next morning, we headed out early to spend a couple nights up at the Sea Eye Hut in Tatra National Park. The Sea Eye gets its name from the lake above which it sits. According to local legend, this alpine lake is connected to the ocean through underground passage ways, as evidenced by its plentiful supply of fish.

"This is where everyone else has to park," said Art, as we drove past a gate in a dark coniferous forest. As one of the committee chairs in the Polish Alpine Club, Art had a pass enabling us to avoid two hours of hiking on a snow packed dirt road.

It was dark by the time we arrived at the hut, but I could clearly see the craggy outline of the High Tatra against the star filled sky. The Mieguszowiecki group -- Wielki, Posredni, and Szczyt Czarny. The biggest face in the High Tatra sat directly in front of us, the grassy, 3300-foot north face of Wielki Mieguszowiecki. To the left of it, smaller but still impressive, sat Posredni with its 1200-foot north face. Perhaps the most interesting of all the faces in the High Tatra is the vertical 1900-foot north face of Kazalnica, which is actually a sub peak of Mieguszowiecki Szczyt Czarny (Black Mieguszowiecki Peak). Kazalnica is sometimes called the El Cap of the Tatras. Back in the 60s, this dark, grass sprinkled north face was the training ground for the first generation of Polish big wall climbers. Without exception, every great alpinist to come out of Poland over the past 40 years has cut their teeth on this face. The list includes Voytek Kurtyka, Jerzy Kukuczka, Wanda Rutkiewicz, and Jan Duglosz, to name just a few.

The hut, it turns out, is not a hut, but more of a medieval castle. Four stories tall, constructed of dark stained wood, the Sea Eye hut is quite simply the biggest hut I've ever seen. There were only two other climbers at the hut when we arrived, and they were some real characters. The caretaker, Tadeusz Targalski, is a hunchback and reformed drug user. He has a good heart and makes friends with everyone. Supposedly the youngsters really love him. Jarek Caban, with whom he was playing checkers, had a severe dent in the center of his forehead. Jarek and Art, who apparently knew each other well, struck up a conversation. As they chatted away in Polish they kept looking over at me with serious looks on their faces. I had no idea what they were talking about, but I heard Jarek say the word "combi" several times. Later, back in our room, I asked Art about the dent. A few years back, he told me, Jarek fell soloing and landed on his head on a rock from fifty feet up. "It's a miracle he is still alive," said Art. Three years after his accident, Jarek traveled to Yosemite and climbed The South Seas (A5) for his first El Cap route.

I was soon snug and secure under a thick comforter, but for some reason I wasn't sleepy, probably because I couldn't get my mind off the combi. So I asked Art about his life. How had he done so well for himself? I'd always thought of Poland as a country with a severely depressed economy, yet Art was clearly better off than most people I know in the states.

"I was very, very lucky," he explained. "I just happened to graduate from the Warsaw School of Business when the Berlin Wall came down. Whereas before there were no jobs, suddenly all these multinational companies were arriving in Poland and they were hungry for Poles who understood marketing and could speak English."

Art is modest, and what I eventually pried out of him was that he got into the Warsaw School of Business -- Poland's top university -- by scoring in the top 1% on the entrance exam.

"It's different now," he went on. "People graduating today can't find work. They have to go to other countries to find a good job."

The average monthly income in Poland is about $600. Low wages act as a barrier for young Poles who want to get into climbing, because you have to be licensed to climb in the Tatras. This is a throwback to the communist era and the strict mountaineering regulations that were developed in Russia back in the 1950s. Licensing climbers was a way to limit who could gain access to the mountains.

To get the license you have to take a ten day course and pay $300. One good thing about the process is that it requires guides like Jarek, who otherwise could not make a living from guiding -- there just aren't that many Poles with disposable income. Many of Poland's top climbers make their living in this fashion.

The regulations in the Tatra National Park have recently been somewhat relaxed because the new director is a climber. The previous director didn't like the way that people were running all over the place. Among some of his more controversial bans: mountain running -- because sweat from the runners was disturbing marmots; and paragliding -- because baby goats were mistaking the wings for giant eagles, and becoming so terrified that they were hurling themselves off cliffs.

Art and I were still chatting away at 5am when it began to get light. We literally had spent the entire night talking, covering a wide range of subjects from Polish prison conditions, to police brutality, politics, communism, Russians, the gay and lesbian scene, and Art's dream of turning the Tatras into a clean climbing area where no bolts are allowed.

The tiny window next to my bunk was completely frosted over, but that couldn't hide the fact that the wind was literally howling. With the wind-chill, it had to be at least -30F. I hadn't slept a wink and the thought of crawling out from under the comforter to climb combi was about the most unpleasant thing I could possibly imagine.

Two hours later I found myself at the base of High Noon, a two pitch grade V grass route (in the Tatras, UIAA grades and M grades are basically interchangeable, but only for winter routes) that Art had chosen as my introduction to the sport. As I gazed up the scrappy, grass-sprinkled dike, I couldn't help but notice that there were quite a few sections devoid of grass. When I mentioned this to Art he told me: "Actually, the grass climbing is the easy part. It starts getting really hard when there's no grass and you have to dry tool up the rock. And it was plain to see that this wasn't sport style mixed climbing either. There are practically no bolts anywhere in the Tatras.

The rack for grass climbing is about the same as you'd take on any mixed route, with some notable exceptions. Grass needles were designed in Poland, specifically for, you guessed it, protecting grass. The needles are about 10" long with an eye on one end and a sharp point on the other (picture a wart hog with the threads ground off). The other interesting piece on Art's rack was something that he called a "one" (picture a bird beak on steroids). As the saying goes in Poland: "when you don't know what to do, hammer in one."

I boldly offered to lead the first pitch, because it was basically a snow gully leading up to the real climbing. The crux pitch didn't look too horrible, but I know from past experience that looks can be deceiving. From my belay at a detached block, Art moved up onto a 70 degree ramp pock marked with tiny pods of grass. He worked his way up by getting his tools into husks of combi which grew out of weaknesses in the granite. I don't think I ever saw him get a really good stick. More often than not, the combi would split in half when he hit it, the chunks then raining on my head. Art whaled in a grass needle shortly above the belay, then got a pin and a couple small nuts on his way up to a vertical headwall. I noticed that he looked a little bit sketchy as he this bulge.

An hour later, Art established an anchor at the lip and my rope came snug. As soon as I stepped off the belay, I knew that it was a smart move to let Art lead the pitch. Combi was everywhere, but I just couldn't get my tool to stick into it. Art had hacked a lot of it into oblivion, and on almost every move I found myself pulling on sticks which felt like they could blow at any instant. When I reached the bulge about halfway up the pitch, I knew I was in for it. Locked off with one tool in a sketchy grass pod, I reached up and removed a small TCU from a dirty flared crack -- Art's only pro for the section. I then slotted my left tool into the crack, gingerly placed my mono points on two tiny edges and pulled up into a layback. Reaching high with my right tool, I could just barely reach the next patch of combi. I hacked and hacked and hacked, but just couldn't get a stick. I knew that if one of my feet slipped, I would fall for sure. Finally, out of options, I hooked my pick over the grass clod and very sloppily brought up my feet. Amazingly, the grass hook move held and I didn't fall.

When I finally joined Art at his belay, I was horrified to see that the main piece in his anchor was a grass needle. "Don't worry, its solid," he said, bouncing up and down on it a few times to convince me. It flexed like crazy, but didn't rip. Still panting, I craned back my neck to take in the dark 2000 foot north wall of Kazalnica that loomed over our heads. Art was psyched to try and climb it the next day, but based on the warm-up, I felt almost sure we would die if we actually headed up onto the thing. 'Maybe, if I can get Art to drink heavily tonight, he won't want to go,' I schemed, as we hiked back to the hut.

I made a point to keep Art up late again, and sure enough, we didn't get out of bed at 4am as planned. With our late start, we only made it three pitches up the Spur, a classic grade VI on Kazalnica. Though technically more difficult than High Noon, the grass conditions and the pro had been better, and I even led one of the pitches and felt somewhat solid. The weather was brutal though, with high winds, snow and sub-zero temperatures. The outing only reinforced what I already knew: grass climbing is not for the feint of heart.

We had originally planned to spend another night at the hut, but when Art called his wife on the cell phone she informed him that his friend Wiesiek had just arrived at their house. "Tonight, we eat raclette and drink vodka," announced Art.

When we arrived back at his house, a snowdrift blocked the driveway. Clearly, Alicja had not been out in the car for a couple days, but there were fresh ski tracks heading out from the door. Inside it was a madhouse. In addition to the three huge dogs, there was Art's daughter, Alicja, Wiesiek, Alicja's friend Ela and her two kids, Ela's boyfriend Jacek, plus Art and I. Art and I unloaded our frozen gear by the woodstove while Alicja cracked open two Zywiec beers. The special stove for the raclette was already on the table, as were bowls of steaming potatoes, jars of pickles and onions, and numerous bottles of beer, wine and vodka.

After stuffing ourselves with raclette, beer and wine, Art poured out three shots of vodka. I'm not much of a vodka drinker, so I only took a sip of mine. Art and Wiesiek looked at me as if I was from another planet.

"What are you doing?" said Art. "You drink like a girl. It's not hard. See, watch how I do it."

Art proceeded to give an elaborate demonstration of the proper Polish technique for downing vodka shots. When he poured out my next one, I downed it like a proud Pole. A huge smile broke across Art's face. Wiesiek, meanwhile, was putting them back with military precision. Soon the bottle was almost gone.

"And what if vodka was good?" said Art, raising yet another toast. "And what if vodka was good?"

In the morning Alicja woke me up to go skiing as she had promised. "Art is dead," she said, shaking her head, as we hopped into the family van for the ride to the tram. When we got back at midday, Art was just getting up and he did not look well.

"I just spoke with Muscat," he said. "We're meeting him tonight with some of the other guys."

Muscat's house sits at the top of a big hill with a panoramic view of Zakopane and the north face of Giewont. It took us a couple tries in the car to get up the mud slicked precipice that is Muscat's driveway. As we approached the house, a young climber named Raffi literally came out of a bush on the side of the driveway. Raffi is an ambitious new comer on the grass scene, and apparently Muscat had been grooming him for his first grade VII (M7). When Jan met the three of us at the door, I had to do a double take to make sure that it wasn't Jim Donini. Muscat is 54 years old, tall and thin, with a chiseled face and close cropped gray hair. By far his most distinguishing feature are his eyes, which are Grey/blue with that sparkle you often see inside crazy climbers.

Inside, the walls were covered in bizarre, Picasso-like pencil drawings. "Muscat originals," said Art. "Jan built every inch of this house by hand," he added, noticing my admiration for the custom millwork around the windows and doorways. Sitting in front of a bright red radiator was Jan's partner Zajac, cradling their new baby. Muscat also has a teenage daughter from a previous marriage. We slid in behind a handmade wooden table and Jan poured us drinks of something mysterious from a tall blue bottle with the word Muscat on the label. Apparently Muscat is a type of wine grape, but the concoction tasted more like hard liquor than wine.

Muscat, speaking in broken English, with some occasional translation from Art, began to explain the free grass revolution which he started back in the early 1980s.

"Back in the early days," he explained, "no one really thought about free climbing in winter. We just climbed, and it was very normal to pull on gear. It was not unusual to climb five meters or more of dry tooling above questionable pitons. When you finally got in a one, of course you grabbed it. What scared us the most back then," he continued, "were the routes rated AO, because this usually meant it was too hard to free climb, but the gear wasn't good enough to call A1."

Muscat claims his early inspiration for freeing the Upper Chimney on Raptawica (M6+) in 1981 -- the first free winter grass routes in the Western Tatras -- came from the Scottish. He read about what they were doing with dry tooling up on Ben Nevis and realized that he could do the exact same thing in the Zachodnie Tatras.

Twenty-five years later Muscat is still the leading climber in the western Tatras, and his enthusiasm for grass climbing knows no bounds. Muscat brings his fingers to his lips and gave them a big kiss. "Grass climbing," he beamed, "I absolutely love it." Looking at him, I couldn't help but wonder if he was fully sane. How could anyone love climbing grass that much?

The phone rang constantly during the night. Most of the calls were from Muscat's disciples, a crew of up and coming young climbers like Raffi who look up to Muscat as almost a spiritual leader.

"Who's this?" said Muscat gruffly, picking up the phone. "Ok good. What did you climb today? Good, Good. And what was your time? Ok, good. Tomorrow, we meet at 7am."

After several calls Muscat had his troops in order for the next day. Originally, the plan was for Muscat to take me up the Directissima on the north face of Giewont. The 600 meter route is fifteen pitches of grade IV with one pitch of M6+. It was first climbed back in the 30s. Apparently it has entire pitches of vertical grass. I was more than a little relieved when Muscat disappointedly told me that it was out of condition due to avalanche danger.

At the trailhead in the morning, I was somewhat shocked to see half a dozen climbers milling about. "Jan and his troops," remarked Art, with a chuckle. I was impressed to see that some of them, including Muscat, had leashless tools -- something I've been trying to avoid. As we headed up the trail under heavy clouds, I noticed Jan keeping a wary eye out for rangers. Climbing is forbidden in the western Tatras. According to Art, it's the dream of every ranger to catch Muscat. Muscat has penned many an article in the Polish climbing press about his numerous first ascents in the western Tatras, and his brazen disregard for the rules has turned him into what he himself describes as: "the Bin Laden of the Tatras."

One time, Jan was heading up to climb a route on the Great Tower when he realized that several rangers were hot on his trail. The rangers, suspecting it was Muscat, called in for backup. Muscat was soon surrounded by 17 rangers carrying guns and walky talkies. But when they closed the noose, Muscat, and his dog, had vanished. To this day the rangers still can't figure out how he got away. "They'll never catch me," said Muscat, grinning mischievously.

After an hour's hike on a small logging road, we emerged from the forest into the Little Meadow Valley, surrounded by the towering limestone walls of the Great Tower, Zagonna Tower, Middle Tower, and Siodlowa Tower. Dark clouds obscured the tops of the peaks, but I could see that some of the walls were 2000 feet tall and covered in grass. For the past 25 years, Muscat has been the driving force behind the development of free grass climbing in this range.

"Welcome to my grass climbing paradise," said Muscat with a grand sweep of his hand. But as Muscat basked in his love for the little valley, Raffi pointed across the meadow towards a lone figure, heading our way. Raffi and the troops shot each other nervous looks as Muscat, unperturbed, set off across the field. When I caught up to Muscat, he and the ranger were sizing each other up. dziecie sie wspinac? (Are you up here to go climbing) asked the ranger.
Nie, idziemy sie przejsc. (No, said Muscat, we're just out for a hike.)
To po co wam liny i czekany? (Then why all the axes and ropes? Inquired the ranger.)
No, wie Pan, chcemy sie czuc bezpiecznie. (Oh you know, said Muscat, we just want to be safe.)
The ranger gave Muscat the eye.
Zaraz, czy Pan Muskat moze? (Hey, aren't you that Muscat fellow.)
Muscat paused for a moment, then said:
Tak, jestem Muskat. (Yeah, I'm Muscat.)
The rangers eyes widened, but instead of reaching for his cuffs he extended his hand.
Milo mi Pana poznac. Milego dnia zycze! (Great to meet you. And have a good day.)

When we arrived at the base of a 100-meter-tall cliff called Olejarnia, a single strand of 10 mil static line hung from the wall. Some of the troops set it up the day before because I had told Muscat that I wanted to get some photos.

I wasn't sure what was dicier, leading the two pitch M7 route called Small is Beautiful or jugging the old static line running over who knew what above. As I jugged into position, Muscat led the first easy pitch. Unbeknownst to me, he had decided that today it was time for Raffi to lead his first 7. Muscat pounded in a couple pins and began belaying up his men. Looking down, I could see that troops were literally coming out of the woodwork. Four more guys, in addition to the three that Muscat was belaying up, came out of the woods.

Grass climbing can be deceptively hard, as Raffi quickly found out. Although the pitch was only vertical at the start, the limestone was compact and there was hardly any pro. There were, however, small pods of grass sprinkled along a diagonalling dike. Raffi swung his coveted Grivels into the grass with authority. Often times he hit rock or the grass crumbled away, but I did notice that he got some decent looking sticks every once in a while.

By the time he was 30 feet up the pitch, Raffi had gotten one wobbly TCU in a flared pocket. It had taken him three or four tries to get it to even hang in the rock. I can say with certainty that there is no possible way it would have held a fall. When Raffi reached the base of the overhang 70 feet up the pitch, things were looking better. He had clipped two fixed pins and had also gotten a Czechoslovakian two-inch cam in a wet crack. I situated myself to the side of the overhang and began shooting as Raffi drytooled out to the lip and then completely ran out of gas.

"I pump" he croaked, as his arms unlocked and he went airborne. He soared about 25 feet, then swung into the wall with a loud oomph as all the air in his body was forcefully expelled. Absolute chaos broke out on the ledge below.

"Lower him, lower him immediately," yelled Art.

"No," yelled Muscat. "He is going back up!"

"Are you ok," I asked a shaken looking Raffi..

Raffi gave the bulge another go, but you could see that he didn't have his heart in it anymore. "Take me down," he called to Muscat. Conveniently, I was able to swing over and remove the gear on my way down. With the photo shoot wrapped up, I joined Art and Wiesiek who were a pitch up a new route that Art wanted to call A Trip to Poland, in honor of my visit.

A couple hours later, Art, Wiesiek and I ended up sharing a belay ledge with Muscat and his troops about 50 meters below the top of the wall. Art was scratching his way up the third pitch of A Trip to Poland, while Muscat was leading an M5 to our left. Let's just say that neither of these routes are destined to become classics. Once again, Art had climbed himself into a bad spot, and the possibility for a factor two fall from 20 feet out was looking frighteningly realistic.

Raffi, hanging off a separate belay a few feet away, saw me eyeing our sketchy anchor and offered to clip me into theirs too. With some creative rope clipping our two teams were soon combined into a giant web of rope that encircled the entire top section of the cliff. Art ended up lowering off, while Marcin, Muscat's photographer, rapped in from out of nowhere and retrieved the piece. All together, there were seven of us of interconnected through a magnificent spaghetti tangle of ropes.

When I finally topped out, I found Muscat, sitting on a comfy patch of grass, pulling in rope and gazing contentedly across the Little Meadow Valley. I've climbed with a lot of different people over the years, but I don't think I've ever met anyone with a greater passion for the sport than Jan Muscat. His enthusiasm was contagious, and I knew that some of it was rubbing off not only on the troops, but on me as well.

"Next time," said Muscat, offering me a seat. "You and I will climb the Directissima on Giewont."

"Yes," I told him, "I think I would really enjoy that." This time, I surprised myself, because I actually meant it.

Grass climbing is one of the scariest things I've ever done, but I have to admit that deep down, there is something irresistibly unique about it. Which is kind of just what I thought when I first saw that photo in Alpinist. It's funny sometimes, the way things work out.