Avalanches would try job's patience

A group of hikers, panting with effort, moves slowly up the steep trail to Rysy Cottage in the High Tatras. At their head is a short, stumpy figure who carries a massive load on his back - a keg of beer, several cartons of milk, sacks of coal and potatoes and a package of wrapped meat. Despite the load that dwarfs him, Viktor Beránek is scarcely breaking a sweat.

Beránek is the manager of the popular Chata pod Rysmi (Rysy Cottage), the highest inn in Slovakia at 2,250 metres above sea level (7,380 feet). Barely 170 cm (5 foot 6 inches) tall and 80 kilograms in weight (176 pounds), Beránek has carried loads of 118 kilograms up the four-hour trail to Rysy, and every day manages at least 80. A naturalist, Beránek refuses to let a helicopter do the work, and with a team of volunteers supplies Rysy literally on foot - or at least he did, until a massive avalanche virtually destroyed the cottage in February 2000.

Since then, Beránek has had his share of bad luck - a provisory cottage, erected for 400,000 Slovak crowns ($8,000) on the site of the demolished Rysy, was itself again wiped out by an avalanche this spring. "I predicted it wouldn't be the last avalanche, but I had no idea such a disaster would happen again so quickly," Beránek says. "We have to build a new cottage, out of the path of avalanches. Chata pod Rysmi is the only building in the High Tatras which is situated in the middle of a mapped avalanche route."

Beránek has secured approval for the new cottage project from Rysy's owners - the Club of Slovak Tourists, the Iames Slovak Mountain Climbing Association and the Slovak Skiing Association - but is still waiting for the go-ahead from local state offices and government ministries. If built as planned next year, the new Rysy Cottage will be about 150 metres higher up the mountain, at a total projected expense of 16 million crowns.

In the meantime, Beránek has managed to again open a temporary cottage on the original Rysy site. It can sleep 40 at a pinch, supplying mattresses and blankets; a small kitchen prepares hot food, while a slightly larger bar serves draft beer. One night's stay goes for 120 crowns ($2.40); advance bookings are not required.

He's the closest thing Slovakia has to a Mountain Man - a rugged, cheery individual who feels uncomfortable in cities and who has never owned a TV set. Spectacular Slovakia 2001 spoke to Beránek on July 16, one month after his beloved cottage had again been opened to the public.

Spectacular Slovakia 2001 (SS 2001): You were born in the Czech Republic. What made you decide to spend your life in the Slovak mountains?

Viktor Beránek (VB): It was a coincidence, as often happens in life. My parents moved to the High Tatras when I was seven, so it wasn't my decision. But later, mountains came first for me, and when I turned 18 I started to work at mountain cottages. I went to secondary school in Kežmarok [in northern Slovakia], but I went there only after work at the cottages was done.

SS 2001: After so many avalanches, aren't you starting to lose heart? Just last year you carried over 20 tonnes of material up that four-hour trail, and now it's all wiped out.

VB: (Sighs) It's very tiring, that's true, always to be starting over. It doesn't do the cottage foundations any good, either, constantly to be smashed by avalanches. It's a miracle that the cottage is even still functioning. It was buried by snow in 1947, twice in 1955, then again in 1965, 1982, 2000 and this past February - seven times altogether.

SS 2001: Will you continue to supply the cottage on foot?

VB: We will never use helicopters or cable cars. We carry everything on our backs up to the cottage, like the Himalayan carriers do. This is a matter of our lifestyle - we try to protect nature, and helicopters are not so compatible with that lifestyle. They are too noisy, and they scare the chamois and the woodchucks. The cottage environment therefore remains typically high-alpine. There are very few cottages in the world of this kind, where people carry all the supplies up the mountain.

We have some tourists who help us with these things. We prepare the packages, and people who want to help us can take packs from the Popradské Pleso Cottage weighing from five to thirty kilograms. Those who help usually get tea when they get to Rysy. We do this with all supplies, like potatoes or coal or anything that we need. And people like to help.

SS 2001: What is it about the Tatras that made you want to spend your life there?

VB: When you look at them from down below, many people don't understand why we go to the mountains in storms, why we deliberately put ourselves in danger. But for me it's much more frustrating to cross the street in Bratislava. I love the Tatras because nature here is so harsh and clean. There is this feeling of self-satisfaction and peace that you get when you climb to the top. It's a great contrast to me with the hurry and never-ending stress in cities.

People don't understand it, but it's this feeling when you are completely exhausted but you have made it to the top, and somewhere behind you, you can hear a mountain bird, the sun is going down, and you sit there on the top with a beautiful view of the mountains. I can't describe the feeling, it's something you have to experience. It also helps you relax in your head. With the hard physical work, you forget about your problems. Or maybe you just have time to really think about them.

SS 2001: How have the Tatras changed or developed over the last three decades?

VB: I started to carry in 1969, and since then the atmosphere in the Tatras and at the cottages has changed. During Communism, it was not so important to offer good service to customers. People were happy when in the evening they could dance and get drunk. So the atmosphere was jollier, but the poor customer was not served as he should have been.

Now the tourists are more at the centre of attention, but unfortunately many people care only about profits. There are many who privatised Tatra cottages and saw only the gold mine behind them. Many of the fine hotels here are closed now because their owners realised that they would have to work and improve many things. Some hotels have improved, and really are trying to offer better services, but we still have a long way to go until we can compare ourselves to western-style services. This is the saddest part of this era, that there are many people in the Tatras now who don't have any relationship with the mountains.

SS 2001: Slovakia applied in the mid-1990s to organise the Winter Olympics in 2006, but in the end didn't get the games. Many environmentalists protested against the bid, saying that the games would have had an enormous impact on the High Tatras National Park protected area. What was your opinion?

VB: I personally think that it could have been done. Everything can be done well, ecologically and economically, if there is the will. But enthusiasm is not enough. I would say yes to the Olympics, but it would have to be a quality project. They could build hotels not directly in the National Park, but in nearby towns or villages. If the environmentalists got everything they wanted, not even Rysy Cottage would have stood where it did.

SS 2001: Do you think that enough efforts are being made in the High Tatras to preserve the environment? Are there any endangered animals in the national park?

VB: The only animal whose numbers are dramatically declining is the chamois, but this is not because of the environment, it's because of poachers who hunt them, especially on the Polish side. Another problem for the animals might be acid rain, which I think is even worse than if 100 tourists come to my cottage at the top of the mountain. On the other hand, there are growing numbers of wolves and bears, and there are families of lynx in almost every valley. However, there is only one-third the number of chamois that there were 10 years ago.

SS 2001: Do you have any vision on where development in the High Tatras should go?

VB: I think nothing should be built in the High Tatras because it is a small area, and if they want to build more hotels, they should do it in the surrounding villages or towns. I would also improve services in the existing hotels. I think to preserve the serenity of the Tatras it is important not to build more roads. If they want to build ski centres, they should do it in the Low Tatras, and I would even recommend banning car transport in the High Tatras, and using small electric trams instead.

SS 2001: Where is your favourite place in the Tatras?

VB: I like the West Tatras, they're very peaceful and not a lot of people go there. You find the occasional forgotten, fallen-down cottage, which is open but has no owner, and has blueberries growing where the floor used to be. There are still many bears living in areas like that.

SS 2001: Do you have any advice for tourists on how best to enjoy the mountains?

VB: If they want to get the most out of the Tatras, I would suggest they stay away on national holidays, when the mountains are full to bursting. Perhaps I would also add the suggestion that people act modestly and decently. I think some people lack modesty.

By Tom Nicholson and Martina Pisárová, Spectator Staff

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