The Necessity of Crampons

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Mountains are out to kill us. They are steep and jagged and icy, and I don’t know why we attempt to climb them. Nevertheless, I spent most of Friday falling up and sliding down a particularly nasty one in the Tatra Mountains, which is how I later found myself grasping onto my friend’s hoodie pocket for dear life with a hand wedged between a boulder and a mound of frozen mud to keep her from flying off a cliff a hundred meters high.

It had already been a long day leading up to that. Rewind 14 hours to 4:30am, and I was in an outright battle with my phone alarm. After punching all the buttons ten times over, accidentally increasing the volume, knocking over my metal Constantine bust, waking up my roommate, and lying on top of my phone to muffle the sound, I finally rose to the occasion and victoriously switched it off. Success #1.

I had been planning a mountain adventure to Morskie Oko with my friend, Kat, (the one with the Birkenstocks), and we agreed to catch the early morning bus to Zakopane. We were there by 8, so we dropped off some stuff at the hostel, split an assortment of pastries, and debated if we were ready or not gear-wise for the mountains (we weren’t).

In all honesty, I didn’t like the hike to Morskie Oko. It was two hours of crowds, paved roads, and porta-potties. Dissatisfied with the first leg of the trail, we decided that Morskie Oko wouldn’t be our final destination. We had done our research and knew that there was a lesser-known lake (Czarny Staw) behind Morskie Oko. We were determined to reach it, so we continued on our way.

In retrospect, this was a poor decision. You see, you have to climb a pretty steep ridge to get to Czarny Staw. In summer, I’m sure this would be no problem. It’s steep, but doable, and the view from the top is incredible. On the other hand, this is not a simple feat in early May. The 45+ degree angle climb with several drop-offs is completely iced over and unless you have crampons, you will most likely fall to your death.

*Side note* This is where I let you know that despite an extremely close call, neither Kat nor I fell to our deaths.

So what do we decide? Like most irrational, oxygen-depraved minds, we’re all for climbing it anyway despite our lack of crampons. We had seen a couple other idiots climbing up before us with sneakers, so we followed suit. Monkey see, monkey do. Going up wasn’t too bad, but coming down was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done. We should have accepted our fate and set up camp at Czarny Staw until the ground thawed a bit, but we had already paid for our hostel.

After stalling as much as possible and brainstorming the best way to make it down in one piece, we figured we might survive if we slide down on our butts. We were in no position to attempt looking cool, and considering we were the only ones left, it didn’t matter anyway.

About halfway down, we faced the steepest and iciest part. There weren’t many trees or boulders to keep us from going off the edge, so unless we kept complete control, we would face major trouble. I elected to slide first and managed to aim myself straight at one of the boulders. Success #2.

Kat’s turn. I looked back at Kat, who was approximately two stories above me and wished her luck. She started sliding, but she lost control, rolled over and started flailing like a pill bug on its back, barreling towards me faster and faster. She was heading straight for the drop off and I saw some hikers from below look up at us in sheer horror. I went into full Mama Bear Mode. I dug my hand into this crevice, secured my footing, and took one swipe at her as she sped past me. I managed to grab her stomach hoodie pocket and felt my wingspan stretch painfully longer as she slowed to a stop.

We both lay there for a bit, equally astonished that I grabbed her. We started giggling profusely, which probably wasn’t the appropriate reaction, but I think we were both so panicked and happy to be alive that we didn’t know how else to react.

The rest was easier, but we were trembling like a Chihuahua’s legs on an early winter’s morn’. We finally finished the descent after an hour and once we were on level ground, we collapsed, hugged it out, and compared our battle scratches and bruises. It would be another 2.5 hours until we got back to the bus stop, but the worse was over.

We started the long journey back, and of course, we were among the last hikers left. The sun had gone down, and our clothes were completely soaked from an hour of sliding down ice and snow. When the bus station eventually appeared before us at 8pm, we had never seen a sight so beautiful. (Until we realized the last bus had departed an hour earlier, and now we were stranded in the forest, an hour by bus from our hostel. Amidst bears. And port-potties.)

Luckily, we randomly ran into another group of Polish students heading back to Zakopane, so we hitched a ride with them. As soon as we got back, we collapsed in the first restaurant that would take us and ordered the largest and cheapest meal we could find on the menu (the XL BBQ chicken special), delivered by two young, handsome suitors who hard-core judged the way we each inhaled an entire chicken without coming up for air once.

We had another mile-long walk back to the world’s sketchiest hostel. Besides the fact that it was an old, haunted mansion, Kat and I shared a bathroom and bedroom (no locks) with a bunch of older bald men in their underwear. In fact, there was no lock on the entrance and no person at reception either. I also found a half-eaten pretzel in my bed that definitely wasn’t there when I fell asleep the night before.

Waking up the next morning was the most surreal experience. We had survived 20 miles, and more importantly, we hadn’t fallen off a cliff, spent the night in our wet clothes in hypothermic conditions in the forest, or gotten murdered in the shower by a modern-day Norman Bates. Success #3.

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