Gerlachovsky Stit (8,707ft) – Highest point in Slovakia
Eric and Matthew Gilbertson
August 14, 2014
“Did you hear that?” I asked Matthew below me as I clipped the rope to a small cam.
Matthew pointed up and above, then put his finger over his mouth to tell me to be quiet. A few hundred feet above us I saw three climbers carefully downclimbing the gully towards us.
Guides, I thought. Dang it. There was no way they hadn’t already seen us, though, especially with Matthew in his bright red jacket.
“It’s no use trying to hide,” I said. “They’ve already seen us, and looks like they’re descending this same route. Let’s just try to be polite and hope they don’t get mad at us.”
We were on a two-week road trip through Europe climbing a bunch of country highpoints to celebrate me handing in my PhD thesis, and were now working on our eighth highpoint, Gerlachovsky Stit, the highest mountain in Slovakia.
We had already climbed some tricky mountains like Mt Blanc in France/Italy and Dufourspitz in Switzerland, but Gerlach was the most intimidating for multiple reasons. According to our guidebook and some online research, anyone wanting to climb Gerlach is officially required to hire a guide. But Matthew and I are experienced enough to not need a guide on any mountain, and moreover didn’t have the money to hire a guide.
Also, potentially more intimidating, Gerlach involved some technical rock climbing that would be tricky if wet, but the only day we’d given ourselves to climb Gerlach it was supposed to rain.
We figured we could probably avoid the guides by hiking an approach trail that avoided the popular Sliezky Dom refuge where all the guides and clients spent the night. Then we would at worst encounter a guide en route, and they would likely be more concerned with giving their clients an enjoyable experience than trying to check the credentials of other climbers on the mountain.
It would be hard to avoid the rain, but we figured we’d get as high as we could and if it started raining we could always rappel back down.
To try to beat the rain we woke up early from our car-camping spot at the trailhead to Rysy (which we’d climbed the day before) and drove a few miles down the road to park at Vysny Hagy. The skies were cloudy as we started hiking up the small yellow-dot-marked trail, but luckily the rain from the previous day had let up overnight. We hoped the rock would dry out before we got to it.
We brought our 30m glacier rope, a light rack of cams and slings, and harnesses and packed them all in one backpack, which we took turns carrying. Matthew led the way up through the woods, and before long we broke out above treeline near the edge of Batizovske Pleso tarn. The sky above us looked like it could start raining any second, but it mercifully was still holding off. We were treated to an awesome undercast below us, so that we were sandwiched between cloud layers.
I led the way as we skirted the right side of the lake and scrambled up to the base of the west face of Gerlach. Following a gps track I’d found online we reached the base of the climbing route, marked by well-worn rock and a few pieces of metal sticking out about 30ft up a rock face. It looked like some via ferrata metal rungs had been removed. I could easily imagine that there used to be a via ferrata route all the way to the summit here, and it was probably very popular, but perhaps attracted inexperienced people that got themselves into trouble. That might explain the remnants of metal rungs, and the requirement to hire guides.
Matthew and I were experienced and equipped enough to take care of ourselves, though, so weren’t worried. We roped up and I led the way up the cliff. I climbed up some low-5th class rock, putting in a few pieces of gear, and belayed Matthew up to a metal rappel bolt. From here the terrain eased, and we started simul climbing to move faster. There were some metal ladder rungs on a few steep spots, but otherwise the terrain was mostly 3rd or 4th class.
Midway up we encountered the guide and two clients. As they approached I nervously waved and said hello, trying to be very polite. The guides and clients all waved back as Matthew and I stood off to the side to not slow them down. They passed by without giving us any trouble, which was a big relief. I guessed they were pretty excited to have successfully summited before the rain, and didn’t want to concern themselves with me and Matthew.
We continued simul-climbing up the gully, weaving around a few late-season snow patches until we crested the summit ridge. Here we cut left, and soon found the small metal cross marking the summit. I body-belayed Matthew to the top.
Somehow the rain had held off just as long as we’d needed. Unlike the previous day on Rysy, where we were stuck in the clouds and pouring rain all day, today we could actually see all the Tatras Mountains around us. It was impressive how many technical peaks there were. Very few of the mountains looked like they would have a hiking route up, but were likely similar in difficulty to Gerlach. A few patches of snow hid on the north faces of mountains, even though it was mid August. To the south the valley was undercast with clouds, and above us the clouds were thickening.
I snapped a few pictures, then heard a few small objects hitting my helmet.
“Looks like it’s finally starting to rain,” Matthew said.
“Wow, that was within minutes of us reaching the top!” I replied.
We didn’t delay any more, but quickly started climbing down. I led again, and this time we simul-downclimbed, with me putting in a piece of gear once in a while on the steep parts.
We carefully retraced our steps, at last downclimbing the steep bit to reach solid ground. If we’d brought a longer rope we may have rappelled in a few places, but with a 30m rope it was actually fastest to just simul-downclimb the whole route since it wasn’t very steep.
The rain we felt at the summit had stopped midway down the climb, and luckily the rocks didn’t have a chance to get very wet. We were still a bit worried about guides getting mad at us, so we quickly put our gear in the backpack and hustled back to the lake and down into the trees. Once in the trees we connected to a normal hiking trail, and could believably tell anyone we saw we were just hiking (as opposed to climbing). Finally, we could rest at ease that we wouldn’t get into trouble.
We descended the same trail back to Vysny Hagy, and just as we reached the car the skies let loose and it started pouring rain. Amazingly, despite the terrible forecast, we had just barely beat the rain to the summit, and now beat the downpour to the car.
We spent the next hour sitting in the car relaxing through the downpour outside. The next mountain on our list would be Kekes, the roof of Hungary.