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Mid-grade rock climbing in Polish Tatras - prepared and written by Tony Grant.

The proliferation of indoor walls and climbing shops these days have made climbing accessible to virtually anyone in Europe. Whilst there are clear positive aspects to this, such as the vast amounts of information available and the conveniently well-established infrastructures in most mountainous areas in Europe, there are some acute side effects too. How many of us have been frustrated to arrive at the foot of a route and find ourselves in a queue; or wasting time stuck behind a line of parties on a popular climb? How about the sheer expense of visiting certain premier regions, like the French or the Swiss Alps?

It is often forgotten, however, that there are still a lot of high-quality climbing venues and mountain regions out there that do not receive the same amount of attention as the Alps or the Pyrenees. The Polish Tatras is just such a place. Any search on the UKClimbing internet forums will show how many people are asking questions about the Tatras, and just how little anyone seems to know about them. At present there is only one guidebook on the region in the English language, and it only covers hiking and gentle scrambling. There is a clear need in Britain for information on the Tatras.



Of the many reasons to visit the Polish Tatras, these are a few:


Price
Poland is still a relatively cheap country, both to travel to and to spend time in. Train and bus fares are much cheaper than the UK and Western Europe. A bed in any of the PTTK (Polish Tourist Authority) lodges in the Tatras will cost no more than L5 a night. Food in the supermarkets is low-priced on the whole, and Zakopane has high-quality and reasonably priced g?ralskie (highland) restaurants. A two-week Tatra climbing course with the PZA (Polish Alpine Club) costs the equivalent of about 2 or 3 days at Plas Y Brenin or Glenmore Lodge, and there are a lot of very experienced Polish mountain guides who charge much less than guides in the Alps. This might all change within a few years, now that Poland has joined the European Union, so now is definitely the time to start going over there.

Tranquillity
Although the main valleys do get busy in the high seasons, there are still remarkably few foreigners wandering around. It is rare to have to queue for a route, and there are many remote mountain crags on which you will find yourselves alone.

Character
The Tatras are Alpine in character. The foothills around Zakopane consist of grassy Alpine meadows, with a distinct highland culture of their own. The High Tatras are rocky and wild. There is everything from easy scrambles and ridge walks, like the renowned Orla Perc (Eagle's Nest) via ferrata, to multi-pitch rock at all grades, through to serious and committing big walls, like Kazalnica (the Pulpit) on Mieguszowiecki Wielki. Unlike the Alps, though, the Polish Tatras do not rise above 2499m (the summit of Rysy), and so you can find big adventure without the hassle of acclimatisation and AMS. With new flights being established from Britain to Krak?w airport, there are serious opportunities for short climbing breaks, or even just long weekends.

Easy access at low cost


Three outstanding valleys in the Polish High Tatras:
The Morskie Oko Valley
This beautiful lake is situated at about 1300m at the limit of Poland's share of the High Tatras. There is a small bunkhouse with room for about 30 people, and the more famous lakeside lodge, with comfortable pinewood rooms and a stunning view of the lake and the great cirque of mountains forming its southern rim. From here there is easy access along the red marked trail to the popular summit of Rysy (2499m), Poland's highest mountain. This area is also the testing ground of Polish mountaineers, featuring the longest and most committing buttresses and walls in the country. Here you can climb on Zabi Kon, Kazalnica, Mieguszowiecki, Cubryna, Mnich and many others. The climbing around here tends to be in the higher grades, and to get the most out of the area you should be comfortably operating at UIAA VI or above. Visit Climbing Europe link for complete information about Moko Valley and climbing topos.

The Valley of Five Polish Lakes
This is an absolutely stunning valley, and a favourite amongst many Polish hikers. The remote lodge is situated on the shores of Wielki Staw (the largest of the five lakes), and is the only lodge in the Polish High Tatras that cannot be reached by jeep track. Consequently all the supplies and food for the hut have to be carried in on foot. Unfortunately, there is little rock-climbing around here, apart from the routes in Pusta Dolinka (Deserted Valley), a small hanging valley that is home to the south faces of Zamarla Turnia, and Kozi Wierch. These can both be accessed within a couple of hours from the other side of the ridge though, and that is where most climbers stay.

Gasienicowa Valley
This is the northernmost area of the High Tatras in Poland, and is home to the Orla Perc ridge, which stretches from Kasprowy Wierch in the west, to Krzyzne in the east just beyond the Granaty (Grenades) massif. There are three places to stay. Firstly there is the Murowaniec lodge, which has rooms for between 2 people and 10 people, as well as a restaurant and bar. Next is the PZA campsite area 15-20 minutes' walk down the jeep track towards Brzeziny. Finally there is Betlejemka, the pretty wooden bunkhouse belonging to the PZA. This is actually the PZA climbing school building, where the Taternik mountaineering courses are held, but they allow people to stay in the bunkhouse accommodation upstairs for a small fee if there is room. This is where most climbers stay, and is a great place to get information and beta on routes.

The Gasienicowa Valley (find it at the top left corner of the High Tatras map) is far and away the best area for the mid-range climber, and so that is the area I shall concentrate on here.

Access to the valley is on foot from Kuznice (a 10 minute bus ride out of Zakopane), up either the blue or the yellow marked paths. It takes anywhere from 55 minutes (fast) to an hour and a half (leisurely). The two trails meet up at a fork about 15 to 20 minutes short of the lodge. In the summer months the paths will be quite crowded, but most of these people are just walking up to Murowaniec hut for a slice of Szarlotka (apple cake), or to look at the Czarny Staw (Black Lake).

The valley itself is split into two main areas; East and West Gasienicowa Valley. They are separated by the Koscielec ridge, running northwards from between Swinica and the Zawrat pass, through Zadni Koscielec and Koœcielec, down to Maly Koscielec before dropping to ground level just before the Hala Gasienicowa area, where the lodge is situated.

In the East valley there is a stunning lake called Czarny Staw, which is reached in about 30 minutes from Murowaniec along the blue trail. This lake is surrounded on three sides by mountains, starting in the East at Z?lta Turnia (Yellow Crag). This half of the valley contains many long buttress routes, most notably on the Granaty mountains. It also provides access to two major passes into the Five Lakes Valley, Kozia Przelecz (Goat Pass) and Zawratowa Przelecz (Zawrat Pass). The West valley is more open, and less rugged. There are several smaller lakes and extensive areas of dwarf pines. This side gives access to Swinicka Przelecz, along the black path, and Kasprowy Wierch at the far western end. This mountain has a popular ski piste in the winter, with a small chairlift servicing this southwestern side of the mountain. The west face of Koscielec features some of the best rock climbing in the area, from UIAA III upwards.



Mid-grade climbing routes in Gasienicowa Valley


Orla Perc ridge
This via ferrata scramble can be done in a day, although it can feel long and tiring. No specialist equipment is needed if you stay on the marked route along the ridge. Starting from the summit of Kasprowy Wierch, follow the red trail markings along the ridge, using iron chains and ladders if necessary. Guidebook time from Kasprowy over to Krzyzne is about 9 hours, although it can be done by a fast party in less than that.

Swinica mountain
1. North Pillar - (10 pitches UIAA IV) A striking 500m buttress leading right to the summit of Swinica. A classic winter outing, and a worthy route in the summer.

Koscielec mountain
1. Gran - (3 pitches UIAA III) A continuation of the ridge from the pass between Zadni Koscielec and Koscielec. Can be done moving together, with ample gear placements. A nice way to reach the top of Koscielec after a longer route.
2. Gnojka - (3 pitches UIAA III) A pleasant outing, although popular on the courses, so it is often busy.
3. 114 - (10 pitches UIAA IV/V) A classic line up a ridge on the east side of Koscielec. The name comes from its number in the W.H. Paryski guidebook.
4. Stanislawski - (6 pitches UIAA V) A deep cut gully with an interesting grade V start. A classic on the west face of Koscielec.
5. Sprezyna - (3 pitches UIAA VI) One of a handful of routes named after their first ascentionist, nicknamed 'the spring'. Another classic on the west face of Koscielec.
6. Dziedzielewicz - (4 pitches UIAA VI) West face.

Zadni Koscielec mountain
1. Zalupa H - (3 pitches UIAA II) A beautiful open book corner, with plenty of holds and protection. This makes a scary route in winter due to verglas and the thin snow covering that accumulate up it.
2. 100 - (10 pitches UIAA IV+) A classic outing up the eastern buttress, well-protected with easy pitches interspersed with trickier ones. The name also comes from W.H. Paryski guidebooks.

Zamarla Turnia mountain (south face, accessed via Kozia Przelecz)
1. Lewy Wrzesniacy - (4 pitches UIAA V)
2. Aligator - (4 pitches UIAA VII-) One tricky move around the overhang at the top of the first pitch, but it can be aided on in-situ gear if necessary.
3. Prawy Wrzesniacy - (4 pitches UIAA VI) An outright classic on this stunning granite slab.
4. Klasyczna - (6 pitches UIAA V) The first grade V route put up in the Tatras. A fantastic outing involving good route finding skills. It is very easy to go off route and end up on the neighbouring Sayonara, the hardest route on the face!
5. Sayonara - (6 pitches UIAA VII A2) A fierce route taking all the major roofs up the line to the left of Klasyczna. It can be aided on in-situ pitons if necessary. This route gives awesome exposure.
6. Motyka - (3 pitches UIAA V) A superbly aesthetic line up the right hand edge of the face, involving an exposed traverse at the top of the first pitch; a local classic, although tricky in bad weather.

Granaty mountain
1. Srodkowe Zebro - (9 pitches UIAA IV) Straightforward but enjoyable buttress on the left side of the Granaty peaks. A good first route in the area, and an excellent mixed route in winter.
2. Prawe Zebro - (10 pitches UIAA IV+) A more aesthetic line, with more difficult pitches. The headwall at the top gives fantastic exposure at an easy grade (II/III). In-situ chain anchors provide an easy abseil descent from the top.
3. Filar Staszla - (10 pitches UIAA V) The most classic buttress route in the area. The crux pitch is a series of physical moves up an overhanging corner, with in-situ pitons. Three pitches in the middle could be linked, moving together to save time. A great route with varied climbing.
4. Zleb Dregera - The major grade V gully next to Staszla. The crux famously involves a bridging move, facing outwards.

Wierch Pod Fajki mountain
1. Zebro Czecha - (4 pitches UIAA V) A classic winter buttress route that offers worthwhile climbing in the summer. The grade V crux chimney is a classic.
2. Gran Fajek - (UIAA II ridge) Legend says that in the old days, whomever traversed Gran Fajek could have his pick of the women in Zakopane! This is a very atmospheric traverse in a big mountain setting.

Kozi Wierch mountain
1. Filar Leporowskiego - (8 pitches UIAA V) Slightly loose near the bottom, but a lovely route to the top of the highest mountain that lies fully within Polish borders.
2. Filar Poludniowy - (10 pitches UIAA V) Aesthetic buttress route on the south side, with its crux on the third pitch.



Tony Grant is my best friend and climbing partner. I believe that Tony in his 27 separate visits to the Tatras over a period of 5 years has become the best Tatras expert of entire Anglo-Saxon world.

For the last 3 years he has been living and working in Bangladesh, Baku and Tokyo. Together with his wife Marta they are appreciating the beauty and diversity of Himalayan nature and Asian cultures. Tony is continually building on his international climbing experience at the same time developing his professional teaching career.




These are just a selection of the many routes in the Gasienicowa Valley area. The west face of Koscielec, in particular, has dozens of routes at all grades, and is a favourite face amongst local climbers.

There are certainly bigger and more difficult routes elsewhere, most notably around Morskie Oko Valley, but for mid-grade climbing I think the Gasienicowa Valley is second to none. Taking into consideration the other factors, such as price and accessibility, it is a serious wonder that the place is not overrun with foreign climbers. So, do yourself a favour. Next time your annual leave comes around and you're planning your next climbing trip, hop on a budget airline to Poland and leave the crowds behind.

Summary:

  • Tatras offer a weather reliable, far from being overcrowded, budget climbing alternative
  • There are many attractive valleys for hikers and ski touring enthusiasts
  • Most of the High Tatras with their Alpine character are on the Slovak side
  • Ease of travelling, the cultural interest and the cost of flight encourage to fly to Poland