Racing the sun down a mountainside

Trip Start Nov 15, 2005
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Trip End Aug 15, 2008


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Flag of Czech Republic  ,
Wednesday, May 3, 2006

After 3 months of living in Prague, I finally made the decision to leave. Small problem - when booking my bus ticket, I couldn't get a reasonably priced ticket until a week and a half later, which left me with plenty of time and nothing much to do to fill it. Simple solution - go hiking for a few days! This also allowed me the opportunity to try out some new gear before my next month of hiking around various parts of Europe (I'm taking a small diversion from what I (increasingly inaccurately) refer to as my route). So I bought myself a hiking map of Krkonose (Giant Mountains) National Park, packed a bag and headed off into the mountains.

It felt so, so good to get out of the city! As much as I have enjoyed staying in Prague, I have felt a little trapped here recently, and there are just far too many people around for my liking. For three days I was able to enjoy some solitude and clean air, and have come back feeling so refreshed. Or maybe it was just getting away from the beer that did it.

My plan was to set off on the Wednesday morning, be in Janske Lazne by about midday and then walk for as long as it took to reach Harrachov, some 60km distant on the border with Poland. I figured it might take about three days. I was slightly off in my estimate - it only took a day and a half.

The park is just beautiful, if mountains are your thing. My walk started with the ascent of Cerna Hora (Black Mountain), which wasn't the easiest way to begin in the midday sun, but at least it was out of the way quickly. The views from the top gave me a good idea of what was to come - in the distance I could see Snezka, the highest peak of the park and due to be climbed the next day. It would be rude not to! The "path" down the other side of the moutain took me away from the daytrippers (I think I saw maybe a dozen other people outside of the towns in the rest of my time there) and into the snow that would be quite a feature of the walk. I think for about three quarters of the walk, the paths were covered with at least a foot of snow. It made life a little hard going at first, but I soon got used to it. I'm not sure how well the one person was coping - he had to be at least 60, was dressed in nothing but a pair of shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt, and was pushing a bike through the snow up the mountain. Crazy Czechs.
The rest of the first afternoon took me to Pec pod Snezkou, a modest 16km distant, and was pleasant if not spectacular, taking me through sprucey type forests with no major climbs. Though not strictly permitted, I camped a little way outside the town that night. Who would have thought that camping on a mountain could be so cold?! I discovered my new tent, costing a whopping 350Kc (about 9UKP) from Tesco, wasn't the best insulator in the world.

After having covered the distance slightly faster than anticipated, I considered the possibility of making it to Harrachov by the end of the second day, so set off as soon as I could on the second day, which was about 6.30 in the morning. I don't think I ever get up that early, let alone intentionally so! Still, it was an incredible morning - bright blue skies, not too cold, and after a couple of hours of walking I caught the most amazing sight as the sun appeared over the peak of Snezka when I was halfway there myself. It's moments like that that really make me appreciate the fact I don't have the same old, same old 9-5!
By 9.30, I was standing atop the highest peak in the park, having already climbed about 700m that morning. The views were incredible, just a pity it was so cold up there I couldn't linger around too long to properly appreciate them. That'll teach me to dump my bag (with my coat inside) halfway up the final ascent!

For the next few km past Snezka, walking along the Polish border, the snow covered paths turned into snowfields. Apparently, there were some lakes there. The only way I could tell this was when a bridge would rise out of the snow at random, and occasionally when I would tread on some snow only to have it disappear beneath my feet. I'm glad my new hiking boots were properly waterproof! These snowfields led me to lose the path for the first time; the trails were incredibly well marked for the most part, but it becomes a problem when the markers are beneath the snow. This turned out to be a good thing, as it meant I had to follow another route I hadn't intended to take, which led me through the most astonishing valley to Spindleruv Mlyn, my intended stop for the night.

I say intended stop, as it was only 1.30 by this point. I rested my feet for a little while and had some lunch, and then made what was probably quite a bad decision. I figured Harrachov was only about 15km distant, and I could make it by nightfall. I overlooked the fact that there was a bloody big mountain in the way, by the time I set off I only had 6 hours before dusk, and it was actually over 20km to go from where I was, not 15. I should learn to pay more attention to the map!

The first 8km of the walk wasn't too difficult, even if I was still trudging through snow. The problem came when I reached the mountain, with an ascent of 300m over 300m horizontal distance (as the crow flies). This took the form of about another 2.5km of rather painful, steep switchbacks. It was slightly later than expected when I reached the top, though I couldn't complain about the views. Still hoping to reach the town before dark, I set off quite quickly. Then I lost the trail again. Not the best timing in the world.

Up until this point, even when the path had not been obviously marked, I could usually follow someone elses footprints to the next visible marker. this time, no-one had walked the path for a while - there were no footprints. After a half hour of dithering and trying to find a marker, I realised I had to get down off the mountain before the sun went down, so set off in the vague direction I thought the path followed, and had to hope I would come across a marker. If you remember the scene in Lord of the Rings (forget which one) when they're walking across the top of a snow covered mountain, it felt much like that. Very adventurous/foolish, I'm sure you'll agree. You can't imagine the joy I felt when I finally found the path I was after!

It was now 7.00. Sun set was at about 8.30. The sun was beginning to drop. In my ecstatic state, probably due to the desperation of losing the trail markers, the relief of finding them again, the lack of oxygen on up there and sheer physical exhaustion, I figured it would be a good idea to try to race the sun down the mountain, to try to find somewhere a little less chilly to camp for the night. So, after 12 hours of walking with about 10kg on my back, I decided to jog down a mountain. What an incredible experience it was too! I think I had a huge grin on my face the entire time; kind of hard to explain why, it just felt good.

The exhaustion came back when I reached the bottom, though there was still some light. I slowly made my way for as long as I could, but eventually had to admit defeat and set up camp for the night. As it turned out, I was only 2km away from the town - so close! It did mean the walk into town and to the station the next morning (where there was a train ready and waiting for me, how convenient!) was a short one, which was nice as my shoes and socks were cold and soaking by this point - there's a limit to just how waterproof things can be, and walking through snow for 13 hours is slightly past that limit.

It was a fantastic couple of days, and I'm really looking forward to the next month, which is going to be a lot more of the same :) I have to say thanks to those who provided me with: thermal t-shirts and socks, the fleece and hat, the compass and the emergency blanket. they all came in so useful, especially the blanket - that thing is amazing! I wasn't at all cold on my second night!

Woo, that was quite long!
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