Team: Mark Synnott, Artur Pasczak When: January 2004 Where: The High Tatras, Poland
In the Tatra Mountains of Poland, the climbers are fanatic and the steep walls of their winter dreams are made of frozen grass. Is the author man enough to master the turf — and the vodka?
It all started with a picture. I was sitting on my couch flipping through an issue of Alpinist. In an article by Voytek Kurtyka I came across a photo of a scrappy-looking dude climbing what appeared to be grass.
Normal climbers who saw this photo probably had a good chuckle, then forgot about it. I, for some dark reason, became curious. I did a little research and discovered that the guy in the photo was Jan Muscat, the father of”free” grass climbing in the Tatras of Poland. This, I surmised, as opposed to the “aid” grass movement. Hmm …
I began exchanging emails with a Pole named Artur Paszczak of the Warsaw section of the Polish Alpine Club, who knew Muscat. If I wanted to comeover, he said, he’d introduce us, let me stay at his house, and give me a tour of the grass climbing in the Tatras. Unfortunately, my curiosity continued to grow, and a couple of months later, I found myself shuffling my half-frozen feet at a bus stop on an icy street in Zakopane.
Zakopane is a trendy ski-resort town, kind of like the Aspen of Poland, and sits nestled below the Tatras near the Slovakian border. The town is so hip that a saying goes, there are three categories of Poles: those who have just returned from Zakopane, those who are soon going, and those who are currently staying there. It was bitterly cold and the snow banks lining the sidewalk were waist high. Artur had warned me not to come at this time of year. “January in the Tatras is very, very cold and bad grass conditions. Lot’s of combi,” he had written in an email. I ignored his warning, and the mysterious term, thinking, It’s grass climbing — it’s going to be bad conditions regardless.
A few minutes later Artur pulled up in a small van and we shook hands. Art spoke perfect English and maintained an interesting conversation even as he gunned his little van through the narrow, snow-covered streets. “So, he asked, taking his eye off the road to give me a knowing look, “you want to climb grass in the Tatras?” What he didn’t add, but I know he was thinking, was, “Dude, you have no idea what you’re in for.”
The Tatras stretch for eighty kilometers along the border of Poland and Slovakia. On its far eastern edge, the range blends into the Carpathian Mountains which extend southeast across Ukraine and Romania. To the west there is only one small range between the Tatras and the Alps. The Tatras are broken into three main areas: the limestone Bielskie Tatra (up to 2100 meters); the granitic High Tatra, which includes the tallest peaks in the range (Gerlach, at 2655 meters); and the Western Tatras, which are also limestone and up to 2200 meters in elevation. Climbing has been banned in the Western and Bielskie Tatras since shortly after the formation of Tatra National Park in 1954.
From a distance, the Tatras look like many of the ranges you find in the eastern Alps. The rock is much older and more eroded than the rock in the Alps, however, which makes it easier for vegetation to gain a foothold. The mountains also are relatively low in elevation, and the summer weather is rainy and humid — ideal growing conditions. What makes the Tatras unique is the fact that many of the faces, particularly between 1400 and 2000 meters, are blanketed in grass.
Art explained that climbing conditions are best when snow has melted down into the grass and then hardened into a neve-like matrix. When the grass conditions are poor, like when I arrived, you get what Art calls combi — which roughly translates to, “That which you can comb.” I imagined an ice tool gliding smoothly through without purchase. “The combi, it’s a bit of a problem, really,” Art explained, “because the grass needles don’t hold very well.” Needles being an already questionable form of protection to which I would soon be trusting my life. Art lives in Warsaw but he’s done well enough that he can afford a ski chalet in the hills outside Zakopane. His place sits in an open field with a view of the Tatras to the south, and is typical of the area’s unique Highlander style: log construction of locally harvested spruce trees, long, steep-pitched roof, hand-carved doors, windows, and trim. Just above the front door sits a small wooden statue of a contemplating Jesus. Inside I met Art’s wife Alicja, his three-year-old daughter Anielka, and his three huge dogs. I was cooked from my long journey, and nervous about the combi, so I went to bed in a small guest room upstairs after only one beer.
The next morning, we headed out to spend a couple nights up at the Sea Eye Hut in Tatra National Park. The Sea Eye gets its name from the alpine lake above which it sits. According to local legend, it produces its plentiful supply of fish because it is connected to the ocean through underground passageways. “This is where everyone else has to park,” said Art as we drove past a gate in a dark coniferous forest. As one of the committee chairs in the Polish Alpine Club, Art had a pass enabling us to avoid two hours of hiking on a snowpacked road.
It was dark by the time we arrived at the hut, but I could clearly see the craggy outline of the High Tatra against the star-filled sky. The biggest face in the range sat directly in front of us, the grassy, 3300-foot north wall of Wielki Mieguszowiecki. To the left of it, smaller but still impressive, sat Posredni with its 1200-foot north face. Perhaps the most interesting of all the faces in the High Tatra is the vertical 1900-foot north face of Kazalnica, sometimes called the El Cap of the Tatras. In the 1960s, this dark, grass-sprinkled face was the training ground for the first generation of Polish big-wall climbers. Without exception, every great alpinist to come out of Poland over the past forty years — including Voytek Kurtyka, Jerzy Kukuczka, and Wanda Rutkiewicz — has cut his teeth on this face.
The “hut” was massive: four stories tall, constructed of dark-stained wood. The huge hut had the air of a medieval castle, much enhanced by the two climbers we met inside. The friendly, warm-hearted caretaker, Tadeusz Targalski, was a reformed drug user and a hunchback. Jarek Caban, with whom he was playing checkers, had a severe dent in the center of his forehead. Jarek and Art struck up a conversation. As they chatted away in incomprehensible Polish, they kept glancing at me with serious looks. I heard Jarek say the word combi several times.
Later, back in our room, I asked Art about Jarek’s head. A few years back, he told me, Jarek fell fifty feet while soloing and landed on his head on a rock, leaving a lasting dent but doing little to slow his climbing. Three years after his accident, Jarek traveled to Yosemite and climbed South Seas (A5) for his first El Cap route.
I asked Art how had he done so well for himself. I’d always thought of Poland as a country with a severely depressed economy, yet Art was clearly better off than most climbers I know in the States. “I was very, very lucky,” he explained. “I just happened to graduate from the Warsaw School of Business when the Berlin Wall came down. Whereas before there were no jobs, suddenly the multinational companies were arriving in Poland and were hungry for Poles who understood marketing and could speak English.” “It’s different now,” he went on. “People graduating today can’t find work. They have to go to other countries to find a good job.” Low wages act as a barrier for young Poles who want to get into alpine climbing, because, in a throwback to the communist era and the strict mountaineering regulations that were developed in Russia in the 1950s, you have to be licensed to climb in the Tatras. To get the license you must take a ten-day course and pay $300 — almost half the average monthly income in Poland. One good thing for climbers about the process is that the courses require guides, such as Jarek, who otherwise could not make a living from guiding in Poland. Many of Poland’s top climbers make their living in this fashion.
The previous director of Tatra National Park was notorious for his controversial bans. Among these: mountain running — because sweat from the runners disturbed the marmots; and paragliding — because baby goats were mistaking the kites for giant eagles, and becoming so terrified that they were hurling themselves off cliffs. The regulations have recently been relaxed somewhat and the new director is a climber. Art and I were still chatting away at five a.m. when it began to get light. We had spent the entire night talking, covering subjects from Polish prison conditions, to police brutality, politics, communism, Russians, the gay and lesbian scene, and Art’s dream of a bolt-free Tatras. The tiny window next to my bunk was completely frosted over, but did not hide the howling wind that was chilling conditions to minus thirty Fahrenheit. I hadn’t slept a wink and crawling out from under the comforter to climb combi was almost unthinkable.
Yet two hours later I found myself at the base of High Noon, A two-pitch practice route, UIAA grade V (approximately M5), that Art had chosen as my introduction to the sport. I gazed up the scrappy, grass-sprinkled dike, it was plain to see that this wasn’t sport-style mixed climbing; there are practically no bolts anywhere in the Tatras, and this climb was no exception.
Key items in a grass-climbing rack are “grass needles,” ten inches long with an eye on one end and a sharp point on the other, designed in Poland specifically for, you guessed it, protecting grass. Picture (if you can) an old-school Wart Hog with most of the threads ground off. The other interesting item on Art’s rack was something he called a “one,” a very untrustworthy looking beak-type piece. The saying goes in Poland, “When you don’t know what to do, hammer in one. ” I boldly offered to lead the first pitch — a snow gully leading up to the real climbing. Above my belay at a detached block, Art moved up onto a seventy-degree ramp pockmarked with tiny pods of grass. He moved upward on tools worked into husks of combi that grew out of weaknesses in the granite, and I never saw him get a good stick. The combi would typically split in half when he hit it, the chunks then raining on my head. Art whaled in a grass needle shortly above the belay, then got a pin and a couple small nuts on his way up to a vertical headwall. I noticed that he looked a little bit sketchy as he pulled this bulge.
Soon after my rope came snug, I knew it had been smart to let Art lead the pitch. Almost every move found me pulling on sticks that felt like they could blow at any instant. Once in the crux bulge, I marveled at Art’s lead. Locked off with one tool in a sketchy grass pod, I reached up and removed a TCU from a dirty, flared crack — Art’s only pro for the section. I then slotted a tool in the crack, pulled up into a layback with my monopoints gingerly placed on two tiny edges, and reached high for the next patch of combi. I combed and hacked in vain, and finally just hooked my pick over the grass clod. If one of my feet slipped, I would fall. Amazingly, the grass hook held. I imagined leading this, ten pitches up one of the “real” Tatras grass climbs, and shuddered. When I joined Art at his belay, I was horrified. The main piece in his anchor was a grass needle. “Don’t worry, it’s solid,” he said, bouncing up and down on it a few times for emphasis. I watched in disbelief as the needle flexed like a cheap butter knife. Still panting, I craned back my neck to take in the dark 2000-foot north wall of Kazalnica that loomed over our heads. Art insisted that we would climb it the next day. If I can get Art to drink heavily tonight, maybe he won’t want to go, I schemed, as we hiked back to the hut.
I made a point to keep Art up late again, and sure enough we missed our four a.m. wakeup. With our late start, we only made it three pitches up the Spur, a classic grade VI on Kazalnica. Though technically more difficult than High Noon, the grass conditions and the pro had been better, and I even led one of the pitches. The high winds, driving snow, and sub-zero temperatures, however, only reinforced what I already knew: grass climbing is not for the faint of heart. We had planned to spend another night at the hut, but when Art cell-phoned his wife she informed him that his friend Wiesiek had just arrived at their house. Frozen grass was about to take second place to the Polish climber’s other winter passion: partying. “Tonight, we eat raclette and drink vodka,” announced Art.
A snowdrift had blocked Art’s driveway in our absence. Clearly, no one had been through in a car for a couple days, but there were fresh ski tracks heading out from the door. Inside it was a madhouse. In addition to Art’s family and the three huge dogs, there was Wiesiek, Alicja’s friend Ela and her two kids, and Ela’s boyfriend Jacek. We unloaded our frozen gear by the woodstove while Alicja cracked open two Zywiec beers. The special stove for the raclette — a local melted-cheese-and-potatoes specialty — was already on the table, as were bowls of steaming potatoes, jars of pickles and onions, and numerous bottles of beer, wine, and vodka. After we had stuffed ourselves with raclette, beer, and wine, Art poured out three shots of vodka. I took a sip of mine. Art and Wiesiek looked at me as if I was from another planet.
“What are you doing?” asked Art, wide-eyed. “You drink like a girl. It’s not hard. See, watch how I do it.” Art proceeded to give an elaborate demonstration of the proper Polish technique for downing vodka shots. When he poured out my next one, I downed it like a proud Pole. Wiesiek, meanwhile, was putting back shots with military precision. Soon the bottle was almost gone. “And what if vodka was good?” said Art, raising yet another toast. “And what if vodka was good?”
In the morning, Alicja woke me up to go skiing as she had promised. “Art is dead,” she said, shaking her head, as we hopped into the family van for the ride to the tram. When we got back at midday, Art was just getting up, and he did not look well.
“I just spoke with Muscat,” he said. “We’re meeting him tonight with some of the other guys.”
Jan Muscat’s hilltop house has a panoramic view of Zakopane and the north face of Giewont. It took us a couple of tries to get up the mud-slicked precipice of Muscat’s driveway. When he met us at the door, I had to do a double take to make sure that he wasn’t Jim Donini. At fifty-four, Muscat was tall and thin, with a chiseled face and close-cropped gray hair. His eyes were a gray blue with that sparkle you often see in climbers who are crazy.
Inside, the walls were covered in bizarre, Picasso-like pencil drawings. “Muscat originals,” said Art. “Jan built every inch of this house by hand,” he added, noticing my admiration for the millwork around the windows and doorways. Sitting in front of a bright red radiator was Jan’s partner Zajac, cradling their new baby. Muscat also has a teenage daughter from a previous marriage. We slid in behind a handmade wooden table and Jan poured us mysterious drinks from a tall blue bottle with the word “Muscat” on the label. Muscat is a type of wine grape, but the drink we’d been poured tasted more like hard liquor.
Muscat, speaking in broken English, with some occasional translation from Art, began to describe the “free grass revolution” which he started back in the early 1980s.
“Back in the early days,” he explained, “no one really thought about free climbing in winter. We just climbed, and it was very normal to pull on gear. It was not unusual to climb five meters or more of dry tooling above questionable pitons. When you finally got in a one, of course you grabbed it. What scared us the most back then,” he continued, “were the routes rated AO, because this usually meant it was too hard to free climb, but the gear wasn’t good enough to call A1.”
Muscat claims his early inspiration for freeing the Upper Chimney On Raptawica (M6+) in 1981 — the first free winter grass route in the Tatras — came from the Scottish. He read about what they were doing up on Ben Nevis and realized that he could do the exact same thing in the Tatras. Twenty-five years later Muscat is still the leading climber in the western Tatras, and his enthusiasm for grass knows no bounds. “Grass climbing,” he beamed, bringing his fingers to his lips and giving them a big kiss, “I absolutely love it.”
The phone rang constantly during the evening, mostly calls from Muscat’s disciples, a crew of up-and-coming young climbers who look up to Muscat as almost a spiritual leader. “Who’s this?” said Muscat gruffly, picking up the phone. “OK, good. What did you climb today? Good, good. And what was your time? OK, good. Tomorrow, we meet at seven a.m.” After several calls, Muscat had his troops in order for the next day. Originally, the plan was for Muscat to take me up the Directissima On the north face of Giewont, a 600-meter, fifteen-pitch, grade IV route with one pitch of M6+, first climbed in the 1930s. Apparently it had entire pitches of vertical grass. I was more than a little relieved when Muscat disappointedly told me that it was out of condition due to avalanche danger.
At the trailhead in the morning, half a dozen climbers were milling about. “Jan and his troops,” remarked Art, with a chuckle. I was impressed to see that some of them, including Muscat, had leashless tools. As we headed up the trail under heavy clouds, I noticed Jan keeping a wary eye out for rangers.
Climbing is forbidden in the western Tatras. According to Art, it’s the dream of every ranger to catch Muscat. Muscat has penned articles in the Polish climbing press about his numerous illegal first ascents, and his brazen disregard for the rules has turned him into the self-described Bin Laden of the Tatras.”
One time, Jan was heading up to climb a route on the Great Tower when he noticed several rangers on his trail. The rangers, suspecting it was the notorious Muscat, called for backup, and the outlaw was soon surrounded by seventeen rangers carrying radios and guns. As the law carefully closed the noose, however, Muscat – and his dog — vanished. To this day the rangers can’t figure out how he got away. “They’ll never catch me,” said Muscat, grinning mischievously.
After an hour’s hike we emerged from the forest into the Little Meadow Valley, surrounded by the looming limestone walls of the Great, Zagonna, Middle, and Siodlowa Towers. Dark clouds obscured the tops of the peaks, but I could see that some of the walls were 2000 feet tall and almost completely covered in grass. “Welcome to my grass-climbing paradise,” said Muscat with a grand sweep of his hand. But as Muscat basked in his love for the little valley, Raffi, an ambitious newcomer on the grass scene, pointed across the meadow. A lone figure was heading our way. Raffi and the troops shot each other nervous looks as Muscat, unperturbed, set off across the field. When I caught up, Muscat and the ranger were sizing each other up.
“Idziecie si_ wspina_?” (“Are you up here to go climbing?”), asked the ranger.
“Nie, idziemy si_ przej__, said Muscat, “No, we’re just out for a hike.”
“Then why all the axes and ropes?” inquired the ranger.
“Oh you know,” said Muscat, “we just want to be safe.”
The ranger gave Muscat the eye. “Hey, aren’t you that Muscat fellow?”
Muscat paused, then said, “Tak, jestem Muskat — Yeah, I’m Muscat.” The ranger’s eyes widened. Then, he extended his hand. “Great to meet you. And have a good day.”
We arrived at the base of a 100-meter-tall cliff called Olejarnia, where a single strand of ten-mil static line already hung from the wall. Some of the troops had set it up the day before because I had told Muscat that I wanted to get some photos. As I jugged into position, Muscat led the easy approach pitch of a two-pitch grade VII (M7) route called Small Is Beautiful. Unbeknownst to me, he had decided that today was the day for young Raffi to lead a grade VII — his first. Muscat pounded in a couple pins and began belaying up his men. Looking down, I could see that troops were literally coming out of the woodwork. Four more guys, in addition to the three who Muscat was belaying, came out of the woods.
Raffi began the crux pitch. Though only vertical at the start, the limestone was compact and there was hardly any pro. Small pods of grass sprinkled a diagonalling dike. Raffi swung his coveted Grivels into the grass with authority. Oftentimes he hit rock or the grass crumbled away, but he got some decent-looking sticks every once in a while. By the time he was thirty feet up the pitch, the only pro Raffi had was a wobbly TCU in a flared pocket. It had taken him three or four tries to get the piece even to hang in the rock, and there was no way it would have held a fall. Fortunately, by the time Raffi reached the base of the overhang, seventy feet up the pitch, things were looking better: He had clipped two aged fixed pins and placed a Czech cam in a wet crack. I situated myself to the side of the overhang and began shooting as Raffi dry-tooled out to the lip — and then completely ran out of gas.
“I pump!” he croaked. His arms unlocked and he went airborne, soaring twenty-five feet and swinging into the wall with a loud oomph as the air in his lungs was forcefully expelled on impact. Absolute chaos broke out on the ledge below.
“Lower him! Lower him immediately!” yelled Art over the din of voices.
“No!” yelled Muscat. “He is going back up!”
“Are you OK,” I asked a shaken-looking Raffi.
Raffi gamely gave the bulge another go, but his heart wasn’t in it. “Take me down,” he called to Muscat. I swung over and removed the gear on my way down. With the photo shoot over, I joined Art and Wiesiek who were a pitch up a new route that Art wanted to call A Trip to Poland, in honor of my visit.
A couple hours later, Art, Wiesiek, and I shared a belay ledge with Muscat and his troops about fifty meters below the top of the wall. Art was scratching his way up the third pitch of A Trip to Poland, While Muscat was leading an M5 variation to our left. Once again, Art had climbed himself into a bad spot; a factor-two fall was looking frighteningly possible. Raffi, hanging off a separate belay a few feet away, saw me eyeing our sketchy anchor and offered to clip me into theirs as a backup. Soon our two teams were combined into a giant safety net of rope that encircled the entire top section of cliff. Art finally found a piece from which he could lower off, and Marcin, Muscat’s photographer, rapped in from out of nowhere and retrieved the piece. All together, there were seven of us of interconnected through a magnificent spaghetti of ropes.
When I finally topped out, I found Muscat, sitting on a comfy patch of grass, pulling in rope and gazing contentedly across the Little Meadow Valley. I’ve climbed with a lot of different people over the years, but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone with a greater passion for his sport than Jan Muscat. His enthusiasm was rubbing off not only on the troops, but on me as well. Grass climbing is one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, but deep down, I had feelings of attraction.
“Next time,” said Muscat, offering me a seat. “You and I will climb the Directissima on Giewont.”
“Yes,” I told him, “I think I would really enjoy that.” This time, to my surprise, I actually meant it.
Mark Synnott’s unquenchable THIRST FOR ADVENTURE has driven him thoughout the world’s great ranges, from Patagonia to Pakistan to the Arctic. He is a Senior Contributing Editor at Climbing.