Last winter 15 tourists died in Tatra Mountains. What to do, to not share their fate and be safe in winter in this mountain range? Read few things, I learned on winter mountaineering course.

Tatra Mountains isn’t very high range. The highest peaks are between 2000 – 2600 m a.s.l., but they have alpine character and sometimes are very dangerous. Every year many people underestimate Tatras, which sometimes ends dramatically.

I didn’t have plans to hike in high mountains in winter, but one year ago my friend asked if I wanted to go with her to winter mountaineering course. I thought “why not? It will be some adventure.” and it was! I learned few interesting and useful things, and saw the most amazing views I have ever seen.

It was a 4-day introductory course, for people who don’t have any climbing skills and experience in hiking in winter. I highly recommend to do such a course if you plan to hike in High Tatras, Western Tatras or other mountains of alpine character.

What equipment do you need for hiking in winter in Tatra Mountains?

If you plan to hike only on the easiest trails, not higher than mountain huts, you don’t need a course and special equipment. I would recommend only small crampons and gaiters. However if you plan higher trails, you would need the following:

  • crampons
  • ice axe
  • climbing rope, harness, carbines etc.
  • helmet
  • avalanche equipment (transceiver, shovel and probe)

What abilities do you need for hiking in winter in Tatra Mountains?

Only equipment would be insufficient. To lower a risk of death or serious injury, you also need specific abilities.

How to use an ice axe

An ice axe is not only for climbing. It’s also for stopping falling in case you slip. On the course we were learning how to stop using an ice axe (or how to do it without it) and it’s not so easy. We were training on a mild hill and I needed few times to master this skill on a basic level. I don’t feel well trained. If I plan to go to high steep mountains in winter, I would train it more.

Climbing skills

Many trails in High Tatras are secured by chains which help in hiking during summer. However in winter, chains are under snow. If you want to be safe, it’s good to secure by your climbing equipment. Of course, you have to know how to use it. Before I came to winter mountaineering course, I had some climbing skills which I gained on climbing walls. On the course I learned more but now, after almost one year, I’m not sure I remember everything. I would go in high mountains in winter only with someone who is more advanced than me. I wouldn’t go with someone whose abilities are on the same or lower level than mine.

Avalanche knowledge

Instructor adviced us to not go to mountains if avalanche risk degree is higher than 2 and I’m going to stick to it. You can check a current degree on topr.pl (polish mountain rescue service) and hzs.sk (slovakian mountain rescue service). However, beside checking a degree, you should be able to judge on your own, what is a risk in a particular place. It’s also good to have an avalanche equipment. In case you find yourself in an avalanche, a time is very important, because usually people die after about 15 minutes because of lack of oxygen. Transceivers and probes would help your friends to find you quickly (of course if they wouldn’t be also covered in snow) and a shovel would be necessary to dig you out quickly.

Evaluation of conditions in mountains and your abilities

Avalanches are not the only risk in Tatra Mountains in winter. One year ago, soon after I returned to home from the course, a serie of deaths occured in Tatras. 12 people died in only one week, although there was little snow and there wasn’t any avalanche. Why? Because there was a thaw followed by a frost. Melting snow changed to ice. Some people who died even didn’t have a proper equipment but some of them did have and it didn’t save their lives. That’s why it’s important to be able to evaluate a risk and to judge if you have enough abilities to make some trail in particular conditions. And evaluation of your abilities it’s also ability which has to be gained. Also note that in Slovakia all hiking trails above mountain huts are closed from November to mid June (of course some tourists don’t obey it). In Poland trails aren’t closed but this doesn’t mean they’re easier and safer. Another thing you should know is that in the highest trails, mainly on northern slopes, snow can remain to July. Two years ago I didn’t know about it and I had a hard time in Slovakia (read: Polish Comb at Slovakia).

In case of emergency

Both Poland and Slovakia have very well trained and well organized mountain rescue services. Of course, they’re not able to save a life in every circumstances.

In Poland, emergency number is 985 or 601 100 30. In Slovakia – 18 300.

It’s good to have a smartphone app Ratunek (in Poland) and Horská záchranná služba (in Slovakia). The apps give to rescuers your exact GPS coordinates which can be very helpful in case of emergency.

The best in winter – landscapes

The weather in mountains in winter is various (actually in summer also). We were lucky having perfect weather during our climb to Świnica. I’ve never seen so spectacular views! At lower altitudes a sky was covered by clouds but higher it was beautiful sun. Mountains covered by snow and clouds just below the summits – perfect :)

Watch it on my photos or a movie made by my friend :)