On the Way to Dolina Pięciu Stawów
We fashioned makeshift packcovers out of cheap ponchos and set out into a steady rain. Dressed in my dry ducks, I looked as though I’d donned a hazmat suit to go for an alpine walk. I didn’t care. We had a long walk ahead, and no time to wait for the elements to feel cooperative.
The morning was already more complicated than I’d wanted. I had simple enough intentions. We were just going to hike from our home-for-the-night in Morski Oko to a similar lodge in Dolina Pienc Stawow. The late-season snow had closed off two possible paths to the shelter, but there was one left accessible and we set out confidently toward it.
To say that the trail was wet would be an understatement. Even as the rain let up, and the afternoon sun began to push its way out, water cascaded over the path. It was not merely a matter of rainy residue. We were walking through a tireless course of snow runoff. Paths became streams, and our way forward lay through them.
But, we were making it. Through impromptu stream beds and over rocks, we were making it. Not only making it, but devouring the whole experience. This was was no thankless tramp through the wet woods. It was rushing rivers, alpine forests, gorgeous valleys with mountains soaring up the sides. It was clear air, birds singing, the-sun-can’t-possibly-look-this-beautiful-in-the-city kind of hiking. And it was ours to conquer.
He was a growl before he was a person. The low rumbling of Polish accosted us from below the eaves of a primitive hut. A grizzled hiker, the apparent the source of the grumbling, sat gnawing an energy bar and appraising our group.
“Słucham?” This from Steve, a request for the man to repeat himself.
Again, the same gravelly pronouncement.
“You can’t take those kids up that mountain.”
The Polish version of that, but it was the message, clear enough.
He did not offer it as a helpful caution or a piece of neighborly advice. He spat the words at us, as he might spit a wad of tobacco.
Steve tried to question him a bit more but he had no interest in expository prose. He said simply that we, as a group, would never make it to the lodge. I don’t know if he meant it as a prophecy or a prohibition. Either way, he was unwavering in his certainty.
He roused himself from his rock and stumped down the trail the way we had come.
We called an impromptu recess and settled everyone in with cheese crackers and granola bars, while Steve and I convened a quick Emergency Parents Counsel. First item on the agenda: What to do about the creepy old man’s warning.
It played out roughly as follows. Steve thought his caution deserved to be heeded. Steve was as convinced as though the Old Man was Minerva, in disguise, sent to warn us of impending danger. Clearly, when Roman goddess deign to become gnarled and grizzled simply to interfere with hiking plans, one does well to listen. In short, he was ready to turn back.
I, unfortunately, have a mean stubborn streak that is none too keen on grouchy old men telling me what to do. I reasoned that this interfering stranger did not know my children, or what they were capable of. Moreover, we had consulted—at great length—with the Mountain Search and Rescue guy at Morski Oko the night before. We had gone over our route. We had discussed trail conditions, experience levels of our hikers, and gear we were packing. I’m pretty sure there was even a conversation about horoscopes and the position of Mercury in relation to Jupiter in there. If, at the end of that thorough discussion, we felt clear to go, I couldn’t imagine why we should worry about the ramblings of a random naysayer.
In other words, we were at an impasse.
We did what any reasonable person would do, high up in the Tatra Mountains on a nearly deserted trail. We took a straw poll. Which is to say, we stopped every single group that was coming down the mountain and asked everything we could think of: How steep is it? How much snow is there? How does the trail look? Would it be feasible for little legs?
Really, we were asking, “Can we make it?”
There weren’t many to ask. And, the answers we got were as varied as the hikers. Some reported an easy climb. Others were more measured, saying conditions were tough but doable. Some suggested it would be difficult for the children. No one categorically ruled it impossible.
And then, I learned a new word. As Steve spoke to a woman in Polish, I heard her repeat a word I had heard that was close to one I knew.
“Spokonja,” she said.
When she moved on, I asked Steve about the word, that was so close to the word I knew—calm.
He said it means, literally, “Be at peace.” But, it isn’t that simple. It’s more than that. It is:
Maybe it was because that’s what I wanted to hear. What I wanted to be true. I wanted to do this. I wanted to show my children that they could do it. I wanted to see a difficult thing and overcome it, together. And, I think, with every doubter we passed, I wanted to prove all of them wrong.
All of that wanting mixed around in my heart to turn this word into more than permission. It seemed a talisman to me. Spokonja. It filled my heart with hope, smoothing over all the crags of doubt. With Spokonja ringing in my ears, we resumed our climb.
The rushing streams had long since given way to snow covered paths. It was, I admit, a great deal of snow. I began to see where some of the cautions were coming from. But, it wasn’t difficult hiking, just snowy. Snowy and stunning. We were creeping our way through a valley worthy of immortalization in any Johanna Spyri tale.
We came around a bend, and two things happened in close succession. First, I realized that we’d never left the rivers that were spilling over the path. We were walking over them.
A section of the snowpack had washed away, revealing the water rushing over the rocks below. When we got back onto the snow, we could still hear its burble underneath us, cascading down the mountain and eroding the ground we stood on.
And then we looked up. Perched on the ledge of the summit above us was the lodge. I was equal parts thrilled and terrified. We were almost there. So very, very close to being there. But why, in heaven’s name would they put the lodge there? Perhaps, in milder seasons, it would have seemed less extreme. But, despite our planning, we were not here in milder seasons. We were climbing up a mountain in the snow. That meant the switchbacks were abandoned. The ascent was straight up.
For the first time, I began to question the wisdom of our endeavor.
But still. There had to be a way forward. I wasn’t ready to abandon this quest. Yes, the way forward was steep. Ridiculously steep. Yes, we were making our way over a crust of snow that was rapidly melting into a pouring stream. Yes, it was difficult and slow progress. But, we were making it. Snowy, slippery step by snowy slippery step, we were making it. Kicking stairs into the snow pack. Sometimes kicking straight through, drenching our feet up to the calves. Scrambling on all fours when needed, we were inching our way toward the lodge. It did not feel precarious. Our way forward felt safe, only bone-achingly arduous.
Crunch. Church. Crunch.
From behind us came steady, firm steps. I realized, with a jolt, that this was the first person we’d encountered who was going our direction. There’d been those handful of people descending, but no one else climbing. This struck me, suddenly, as a bit ominous.
The owner of the footsteps rounded the corner and revealed himself to be a mountain rescue worker. He stopped and asked where we were headed. That seemed abundantly obvious to me. We pointed to the lodge. Headed there for a few nights.
He looked apprehensive. He expressed his concern about path conditions and our ability to make it to the lodge.
It seemed to me that he eyed my hazmat-inspired attire warily. I drew myself up a little higher. Granted, it was a semi-reclining, acute angle to the ground sort of higher. But, it was a bit higher, nonetheless. There was no call, after all, for outerwear-judgment.
He explained that his concern is that, though conditions were good now, the mountain was unpredictable. Weather could change dramatically and precipitously. Though we may make it up safely today, there was no guarantee that we could make it back down in two days. There was just too much uncertainty with so much late snow.
But, he said, it was our decision.
“If it were up to you, you’d rather that we went back down.” I said.
He inclined his head ever so slightly. “It would be difficult for the children. Especially, in those boots.”
Here, he flipped his hand dismissively toward my boots. Newly acquired, thoroughly waterproof, official hiking boots, I’ll have you know. And he just dismissed them as though they were a pair of flip flops. I was liking this new messenger of doom even less than our first.
With that, he wished us luck, and bounded off as though this climb was nothing more than a casual meander in the park. I felt a personal affront at how effortlessly he ascended the slope.
I was roiling. Who was this man, with his nonchalant “I’m just strolling up a mountain” air. What does a inexpensive-rainwear-disparaging, children-underestimating killjoy know anyway?
The more I thrashed around in my own frustration, I knew the answer. He knew this mountain. He knew how to get around in it. He knew that it was fickle. And he knew what it was capable of. But, I wasn’t ready to hear any of that. I was still a fighting spitball of determination to make it to that lodge.
I looked at Steve. In his mouth was a quesion, “What do you think?” But, his eyes were not uncertain. His eyes said, “I will never, never forgive myself if anything happens to one of you. Even if we make it to that lodge, I will not be able to rest or relax until I see each of you down at the bottom of this mountain safe and well. I will spend the next two days on edge every moment for a change in the weather, a deterioration of conditions, anything that might keep us from a safe descent. If you insist that we continue, I will be there beside you to help and to do everything we can to make it to the top. But, for me, there is no view and no vista I would trade to put any of you in danger. I think we’ve been warned, and it would be foolhardy to ignore it.”
I’ve seen that particular look in his eyes only a handful of times before. But, I knew that it knows its own mind.
Those eyes are why we turned around. Yes, in the very shadow of the lodge. On the cusp of our goal, we turned ourselves around. Because of those eyes. They are neither a demand nor a plead. They are simply the uncensored truth of his love for all of us and the very real obligation he feels to protect us. And that, my friends, is worth yielding to.
Later, I would learn just how cruel this mountain could be. The story that was most harrowing to me was of a group of hikers, a few years ago, who were even closer than we’d been to the lodge. A sudden fog rolled in and they were utterly lost in it. They were found some time later, frozen to death.
Later, too, I would recount our experience to afriend of ours. With mighty indignation, I would explain about this unwanted message, so close to our goal. This friend, an ex-mountain rescue worker himself, asked, his voice drenched in admiration, “And you listened? You turned around?” When we agreed that we had, he looked proud to the bursting point.
For the first time, I could see, not only the wisdom in calling it off, but the bravery in turning around.