By: Michael Welsch
Our alarms rang and we rolled out of bed in the predawn hours of a chilly early September morning. Fall had already arrived in Zakopane, Poland; located in the extreme south of the country, close to the border with Slovakia. My friend Tommy and I didn’t say more than 5 words to one another as we robotically brushed our teeth and packed our “supplies”, trying to shake the sleepiness from our heads. I put supplies in quotation marks because they weren’t anything more than a few bottles of water, a couple granola bars, & some fruit. We were woefully under prepared for our adventure that day – climbing Rysy, the highest mountain in Poland.
However, ignorance is bliss and our naivety would serve us well on the day. So we lumbered out of our AirBnB, the sun creeping over the mountains around us, and started what would be a 12+ hour escapade and one of the most physically taxing days either of us had ever endured. Rysy is part of the Tatra Mountain range, which forms the border between Poland and Slovakia. The Tatras are the highest mountain range in the Carpathian Mountains which spans the majority of Central and Eastern Europe. Stretching from the Czech Republic to Romania. Rysy can be summited from both the Slovakian and Polish sides of the mountain.
We climbed from the Polish side and stayed in Zakopane, a picturesque mountain town, referred to as “the winter capital of Poland.” The small city is known for its proximity to skiing & hiking, Goral culture, and nightlife.
Tatra National Park – A Hike to Remember
We headed over to the Zakopane train station where we caught a bus to Palenica, the entry point to Tatra National Park. The small Euro bus rambled along the windy and narrow switchback mountain roads. The sun was up by the time we arrived at Palencia, which is nothing more than a parking lot, but it’s the closest you can get to Rysy by automobile. From there it is around a 4 mile walk to Morskie Oko at the base of Rysy. It’s a relatively dull walk on a paved road, however there are a few waterfalls and nice vistas along the way. The incline isn’t too steep but the entirety of the walk is uphill.
There are a few shortcuts through the woods that I’d recommend taking to save time. For those who wish to save their legs, you can pay to hop in one of the horse drawn carts that go back and forth from Palencia to Morskie Oko. We decided to hoof it the whole way and peeled off our sweatshirts as our blood got pumping and the weather warmed as the sun rose higher in the sky.
Eye Of The Sea
After about 1.5 to 2 hours we reached Morskie Oko, the largest lake in the Tatra Mountains. And let me tell you, it does not disappoint. An oasis nestled in the mountains. The crystal clear water shimmering in the sunlight. The term Morskie Oko means Eye of the Sea in Polish, and the name is derived from an old legend that the lake connects to the ocean via an underground river. There is a chalet that has a bathroom, restaurant, and gift shop. Morskie Oko is a very popular tourist destination and you’ll be sure to see a lot of families and seekers of cool instagram photos.
Tommy and I pushed forward, leaving behind the playing children and wannabe instagram models. We walked around the rim of Morskie Oko to the opposite side of the lake and were met with a short but very intense hike up to Czarny Staw, the second lake we’d encounter. The Czarny Staw water is stunning – one of the deepest turquoise blues you’ll ever see. Following a quick break to hydrate and snap a few photos, we pressed on.
Turning It Up A Notch
The real hike up Rysy starts from Czarny Staw. The trail is clearly marked and mostly well maintained, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The incline gradually increases the higher you go up the mountain. As we progressed, Tommy & I noticed how underprepared we were. All the other climbers had legit gear: hiking boots, trekking poles, heavy duty backpacks. Some people even had helmets. And then there was Tommy and I plodding along in our sneakers and JanSport backpacks with some lite snacks and water. However, we didn’t let our lack of preparedness deter us, and we continued forward.
As we climbed higher there were fewer and fewer people on the trail. Many only go half way up. There are some good spots to stop for a rest and take in the fantastic views. As you near the summit the climb is much tougher, the incline increases further and there are chains that have been bolted to the mountain that can be used for support.The last scramble to the peak requires a side shuffle across a ridge. The mountain comes up about waist high and is a straight drop down both in front and behind. It definitely isn’t something for the faint of heart. I remember Tommy and I joking that our mothers would have heart attacks if they knew what we were doing.
Rysy, Crown Of The Polish Mountains
Upon reaching the apex of Rysy, we felt like we were on top of the world. All the tiredness from the past 5 hours of physical exertion dissipated. The views from the peak are absolutely breathtaking. On the Polish side there is a stunning panorama of Morskie Oko, Czarny Staw, and the surrounding mountains & valleys. On the Slovakian there aren’t any gorgeous lakes to gaze upon but the view is still spectacular.
Tommy and I hung out on the peak for a while; taking in the beauty around us and snapping photos. There was even cell phone service so we FaceTimed some friends and family so they could briefly share in the moment with us. Our only regret is that we did not pack a couple beers to pop open on the summit. It would have been awesome to have a celebratory toast and enjoy a cold one while gazing out at the captivating views all around us.
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Descent and Exhaustion
The drawback to it all is that eventually you have to leave the peak and head back down the mountain. I firmly believe that the descent is harder and more dangerous than the ascent. By that point you’re fatigued and working against the mountain. You end up putting all your weight suddenly on your legs and knees when going down. Whereas while climbing up it happens gradually. All it takes is some loose gravel or a poor foothold to send you tumbling downward. Tommy & I managed to descend the mountain without any major mishaps. Side shuffling back across the ridge. Using the support chains to lower ourselves down the steep inclines. Past the cool blue waters of Czarny Staw. Back around the astonishing Morskie Oko. And finally down the boring 4 mile road to the Palencia parking lot.
Tommy and I boarded the bus to take us back to Zakopane. We were exhausted. Literally falling asleep on the 20 minute ride back to the train station. All in, from the time we left our AirBnb before the sun had risen, to returning to the AirBnb after dark, it had taken around 12 hours and we had hiked well over 18 miles. Our legs were cooked and a shower had never felt better. We went out to a quick dinner, too tired to have a conversation or even taste our food. At long last we collapsed into our beds and were fast asleep before our heads hit the pillow.
Rysy Climb Disclaimer
Although quite strenuous, you do not need to be an experienced hiker to navigate Rysy. It’s demanding on the body and a formidable challenge, but anyone in good physical shape can manage. There is a need to be careful, a handful of people die every year on the mountain. However, most deaths occur during the winter when snow and inclement weather makes the journey much more dangerous. I would highly recommend hiking Rysy to anyone physically fit enough to handle the demands of the climb. It’s a fantastic experience and one that I look back on fondly.
Breakdown of the Climb:
- Palencia to Morskie Oko = 1.5 to 2 hours
- Morskie Oko to Czarny Staw = 30 – 45 minutes
- Czarny Staw to Rysy Peak = 3 to 4 hours
- Total time to climb up = 5 – 7 hours
- Total time to climb down = 4 – 6 hours
- Total time Palencia to Rysy Peak and back = 9 – 13 hours
- Note: All times above do not include stops for rest / food / pictures
- Elevation = 8,212 feet
For more from Boundless on mountainous adventures, check out this article from our Colombian paragliding experience in Medellin! For more information on hiking Rysy, check out this informative blog post!