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Value winter courses in Polish Tatras - prepared and written by Tony Grant

Of the seven first winter ascents on 8000m mountains so far achieved, six of them were by Polish teams. That's some record, even for the nation that produced men like Jerzy Kukuczka, Krzysztof Wielicki and Andrzej Zawada. It's as though the Poles have a special gene for winter mountaineering, which the rest of the world somehow didn't acquire. So what better place could there be to learn winter mountaineering?

This article features:
  • style and ambience of Polish huts
  • calibre of guides on courses
  • winter weather conditions
  • vodka aspect of climbing and socialising
  • mixed character of winter routes

My friend Don and I had been working in Warsaw for a couple of years, and were members of the University of Warsaw Alpine Club. That gave us the 'in' we needed to Betlejemka, the 'Glenmore Lodge' of the Polish Tatras; and being foreign nationals conveniently allowed us to bypass the usual requirements to get onto the Winter Tatra Mountaineering Course (Kurs Wspinaczkowy Zimowy). The Tatras are not an easy place to get to climb if you're a Pole. The TPN (Tatra National Park) boasts an impressively low accident rate amongst visitors to the Park, and one way this is maintained is by making Poles go through a series of PZA (Polish Alpine Club) courses before allowing them to climb off the tourist trails; from crag climbing, to the summer Taternik course (multi-pitch rock and mountaineering skills), through to the real nuts and bolts, the winter Taternik course. This was our goal, and we were thrilled when the e-mail arrived from Bogdan, the head of the Betlejemka school, telling us that there were two places on the February intake with our names on them, the first foreigners to do the course.

We spent the remaining few days before the course sorting out our gear, lining up the compulsory medical examinations to determine us fit to climb, and arranging the best insurance policy we could find in Warsaw; a dodgy skiing policy obtained at the travel agency from a woman who couldn't speak a word of English, but assured us that the policy covered roped up activities in winter. Feeling less than inspired by this, but full of anticipation about the course, we boarded the night train to Zakopane on the Friday night, and did our best to get some sleep.

The train reached Zakopane at about 7am. We walked out of the station in the chill morning, and crossed over to the bus station, where we hopped on the Kuznice bus as it was leaving. Ten minutes later we were at the entrance to the Tatra National Park at Kuznice. Straining under our rucksacks we made our way up the blue trail through the forest. In the summer this trail is heaving with overweight families heading for the Murowaniec hostel for a beer and a slice of szarlotka (apple cake), but in the winter you are the only ones. After months in Warsaw, the silence is overwhelming and the air pure, and as you move higher there is an increasing sensation of leaving the world behind. After about an hour and a half we reached the area that was to be our playground for the next few weeks; Hala Gasienicowa. We dumped our sacks against a wooden bench outside Betlejemka, and went in to meet Bogdan.

Betlejemka is a wooden hut, sparse and basic on the inside, and pretty from the outside, in the 'Witkiewicz' style that predominates in the Tatras. The ground floor houses the chief's quarters, the instructors' room, and a cramped vestibule area with shelves for wet boots, a gas stove for boiling water, and a bench that provided a communal chatting area whilst waiting for water to boil. Upstairs is the bunkhouse, complete with about 9 bunk beds and two tables. The place is a den of climbing gear, wet ropes and dripping clothing. Conversation is generally kept to a hushed murmuring, as there is almost always someone in bed recovering from a climb. This noble sentiment seems slightly absurd though, accompanied by the incessant clumping of boots and creaking of the old wooden floorboards as people clamber over rucksacks and piles of climbing gear to get to their bunk. On a warm sunny day, with the windows flung wide, the bunkhouse is a paradise and there can be no better place to while away a few lazy hours, intermittently dozing off and waking for cups of tea. However, when the weather is against you, and you are confined to home with zero visibility and sub-zero temperatures outside, cabin fever sets in remarkably quickly.