In a decorative wooden building in the town of Starý Smokovec, at the foot of the High Tatras mountains in Slovakia, a collection of picture frames leans against a wall. They look a bit like slides except they have shoulder straps, and a few are so high they go all the way to the ceiling. Some of the executives have attached backpacks.
50 reasons to love the world – 2021
Why do you like the world?
“Because being a carrier [in Slovakia’s High Tatras] is not a job, it is a way of life. For a true porter, money takes second place, the first is being on the mountain. “- Peter Petras, porter
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These are the load-bearing frames that the bearers of the Tatras, known locally as the horský šerpa (mountain sherpas) or horský nosi (mountain carriers), allow heavy loads to be transported to mountain huts or chalets that provide refreshments and, in some cases, overnight accommodation for mountain hikers. Although mountain bearers are also referred to locally as Sherpas, they are not related to the Sherpa ethnic group of Tibetan origin in the Himalayas and Nepal. Frames are on display here at the Sherpa Museum, but those like these are still used to haul supplies along these rugged mountain trails.
The High Tatras range runs along the border of northern Slovakia and Poland. In summer, visitors enjoy picturesque forests, sparkling lakes and wide valleys, admiring flora and fauna while exploring hundreds of kilometers of hiking trails between mountain huts. In winter, rocky ridges and jagged mountain peaks that rise to 2,500m take on a mysterious air, covered in snow and ice and standing out sharply above the tree line.
Europe’s last sherpas climb rugged and dangerous paths through these peaks to huts at elevations of up to 2,250m, carrying skis and crampons in snow and ice and using chains in places to pulling themselves and their heavy loads on vertical slopes. The special carrying frame, itself weighing up to 8 kg, is attached to their backs and secured with heavy shoulder straps. With that, they secure food, drinks, firewood, and any other materials the cabin needs, such as fuel, gas cylinders, and bed linens. Loads often weigh over 100kg in total and sherpas work in all weather conditions, from hot summers to cold, stormy winters where temperatures can drop to as low as -20 ° C and the mountains are frozen with snow and ice.
When I visited on a cold January day, the Swiss house where the Sherpa museum is located was surrounded by snow. One of the oldest Sherpas, 75-year-old Peter Petras, drank tea in the nearby Sherpa Caffe. He still carries heavy loads to a mountain hut several times a week. And he’s not even the oldest transporter; ages range from 17 to 79.
Petras told me that he was doing this job because of his love for the mountains, not for money. “Being a porter is not a job, it’s a way of life,” he said. “For a true porter, money is in second place. First place is to be on the mountain.”
Each hut has a keeper and up to eight Sherpas, who take turns to work and stay in the huts. Tasks vary from cleaning and maintaining the cabin to preparing meals, organizing fuel and heating, or clearing snow around the cabin. Sometimes porters help tourists with directions on the trail. There may be up to 60 Sherpas working in the mountains during the summer season; in winter, it is half. Some are full-time, others are students or have another business.
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Petras was first inspired to become a sherpa at the age of 10 when he saw his older brothers, Jožo and Ivan, do the job. Jožo was one of the strongest – he once carried an oven weighing 137 kg to the Zbojnička hut at 1,960 m above sea level in the Veľká Studená Dolina valley. Petras became a porter when he left school, but later left for military service and then to study, eventually earning a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Bratislava.
However, his love for the Tatras brought him back to the mountains, working as a teacher in the morning and as a porter in the afternoon. It was the perfect balance. “At the end of my lesson at school, I could forget about teaching and couldn’t wait to be alone in nature. I rested mentally; and at school, I rested physically, ”he said.
When he retired he continued to be a sherpa. He has restored and now manages the Rainerova Hut – the oldest in the mountain range, built in 1863 for visitors to find shelter in bad weather.
Rainerova does not have accommodation but hikers often stop at the small stone building to cool off and see Petras’ collection of old climbing gear and skis. In winter, he sculpts snow sculptures. He still carries loads of 60 or 70 kg to the hut, or 1,301 m, five or six times a week. On the way down, he takes the garbage. The hut is only a 20 minute walk to the cable car so it wasn’t a long ride to haul loads, but it worked in one that was a two hour hike. “In winter, it could take eight hours because of bad weather,” he said.
When tourism started in the Tatras in the mid-19th century, people paid porters to carry food or drink for the group. Then, as the hiking trails were laid out and overnight shelters were constructed, porters carried building materials for the construction and later food, drink and fuel for the guests. It was similar elsewhere in Europe, such as in the Alps, but when cable cars and roads were built there, porters were no longer needed and employment disappeared. In the Tatras, the same type of development has been kept to a minimum as it is a nature conservation area and a biosphere reserve, so porters still have to carry loads to the huts. . Petras says the Sherpas will always be replenished, even if the weather is bad. “The Sherpa knows the chalet is under his control, so he has to bring the load anyway.”
“It is a very dangerous job,” he added. Twenty years ago, a Sherpa was killed by an avalanche. “Two porters were killed by the weather; one guy froze. It sounds romantic because we love it, but it can be very dangerous. You have to live. [through] a lot of things – being alone, being cold, being afraid. Thunderstorms can occur. You can freeze. “
In his book, Na Chodníku Chodník (Path on the Path), Petras writes about the skills required: bearers need “a good physical foundation focused mainly on endurance, willpower, resilience, balance, l mountain experience, the ability to realistically estimate one’s strengths and capacities, dedication, humility and faith “.
Under the communist system, working as a sherpa was like living in freedom
Števo “Pišta” Bačkor, who founded the Sherpa Caffe and Museum with his wife Martina, has been a professional sherpa for over 20 years and still works a few times a month to keep a connection with the mountain carrier community. “I miss it,” he says. “Almost all the activities of my life are focused on this community, on the mountain huts”. Bačkor and Martina met in the mountains while she was working in a cabin.
Bačkor says that going to the mountain hut brings a feeling of freedom – but also a mixture of emotions. “You like it but you are a little worried about the weather. You will start in the sun and an hour later you will be in a storm with a wind speed of 150 km / h with heavy snowfall.” Even in weather when the tourists turn around, the Sherpas continue.
Petras remembers his worst experience one winter when he got wet on the mountain and started to snow. When he got to the hut he was frozen over. “It’s not a matter of temperature, but rather a rapid change in weather,” he said. When he got to the chalet, he ran into the kitchen and put hot tea on his head and hands to thaw. “Some things you can describe and a lot of feelings you can’t describe,” he said.
According to Petras, the strongest sherpa currently working is Viktor Beranek, 69, who carries to the highest hut in the Tatras, Chata pod Rysmi (Rysy) at 2,250m. The oldest, Laco Chudík (79), still transports once or twice a week – not for money but for fun, Bačkor said. “It’s a machine, it doesn’t stop.” Bačkor added that he only knew one female Sherpa; she died at age 92 in 2017.
Many carriers say that the most important thing for them is the feeling of liberation, and that this was especially true in the Communist era when life was restricted elsewhere. “Each mountain hut is like a free island,” Bačkor said. “Under the communist system, working as a sherpa was like living in freedom. After one weekend everyone went down to work in a factory or office, then looked forward to the next weekend and two or three days of freedom. . “
Petras loves the Tatras because they are not crowded. As it is a national park and a Unesco biosphere reserve, vehicles such as snowmobiles and quads are prohibited (except for rescuers). The wildlife the reserve protects includes endangered brown bears, lynxes, wolves, foxes, marmots, snow voles and Tatra chamois. Petras is keen to ensure that the unique work of a Sherpa is also protected.
Petras says lifestyle is what keeps it vital: “When people ask,” but what about your health? “I say, ‘I don’t know because I haven’t been to the doctor for 20 years!’ He said.
Petras often heads to the peaks alone to relax, telling me that what he loves most about the Tatras is the night hikes. “It’s the best relaxation for your soul,” he says.
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