OK, enough of the training, it’s time to go for a proper trip before the snow melts! That was my reasoning on Friday night, snug and warm at home with a mug of cocoa handy. The ridge from Pustevny to Radhošt isn’t difficult and the views are good, so what better place to start running with the big dogs? Or at least skiing with grown-ups.
All available information on the internet said that the trip up to the car park is impossible without snow chains, so I purchased a heavy-duty set that looked more than good enough for my purposes, loaded flasks of hot water and coffee, packed a shovel and lots of warm layers and headed off bright and early to beat the crowds.
I didn’t need the snow chains, as it turned out, which was probably just as well because I hadn’t had time to practice fitting them and that’s the sort of thing best learned before your well-being depends on it. The car park was half-full already, despite the early(ish) hour and Our Dog had to be steered carefully between the crowds of brain-dead tourists who seem to congregate everywhere there’s a tourist attraction.
The attraction in question was an exhibition of ice sculptures. I’m not sure if there were any hidden in the many marquees which had been set up but there were certainly only three on show outside and they were rapidly being buried by the snow.
If you grew up in the shelter of the Gulf Stream, the volume of snow up here can be quite breath-taking. Words like ‘beautiful’, ‘picturesque’, ‘fairy-tale’ and ‘winter wonderland’ jostle for attention at the front of your mind, whilst crowding out words like ‘hostile’, ‘environment’, ‘hypothermia’ and ‘remains were found by hikers the following Spring’.
No matter. I am highly trained in the art of navigation, in possession of hot coffee, chocolate bars, innumerable layers of clothing, a dog and can regularly balance on skis for extended periods. What could possibly go wrong? Well, finding the start of the ski path was a bit of bother. With typical Winter unpredictability, the cloud had closed in again and ski trails are not marked as such on hiking maps so it wasn’t until I had wiped the snow off a signpost and followed the arrow to some grooves conveniently machined in the snow that I could even start. How embarrassing would that be? First ski trip cancelled due to basic inability to find the trail.
The prepared trails are a delight to use; two pairs of parallel grooves, one each side of the trail, guide the skis and in the middle is a strip of smooth snow which can be used when climbing the hills or to come down using a snowplough technique. After climbing a while, the trail dipped down into clearer air and I could start the real business of skiing, i.e. the bit which hardly requires any effort. Some of the layers of clothing had to come off as well, in future I’ll try starting out uncomfortably cold and see what happens but better safe than sorry, I suppose.
In Summer, the trail is an ‘Educational Trail’, a category you can find on maps which, on the ground, features regular information boards telling you about the natural history, flora and fauna of the area. Once I had learned to look ahead, rather than just in front of my ski tips, I really began to appreciate why cross-country skiing is so popular over here. The view wasn’t much due to the forest and the low cloud but gliding over the surface of the snow, rather than floundering through it as I used to do in my pre-ski life, gave me a whole new way of enjoying the mountains in Winter. Just like surfing and white-water paddling, here was a way of working with Nature on her own terms to get something that wouldn’t be possible without understanding the environment. We spend far too much of our lives fighting against nature and there’s no future in it. We’ll never win.
Our Dog had found a spring and was having a little rest, so I used the excuse to check the map and get my breath back. The educational trail was about to turn downhill but a hiking path led back up to the main trail along the ridge. No problem, right?
Well, wrong, obviously. Somebody had been up the hiking trail the day before me, by the look of the tracks and the tracks didn’t lead back out again so I presumed the trail to be passable. At first it was fine, the snow deadened all sound, including my rather laboured breathing and was so peaceful and relaxing. Unlike in the summer, there were no birds having noisy territorial disputes in the trees, no rabbits or deer tempted Our Dog to go racing off under the influence of that small piece of Wolf-brain she keeps buried at the back of her sofa-dog mentality.
Soon though, it got steeper and I was starting to slide backwards more and more. I knew that as soon as I took the skis off I would sink in the snow but there seemed little choice. I barely managed to get under a small tree which had collapsed under the weight of snow when in front of me I saw the hole where my predecessor had fallen over, followed by footprints and the marks of skis being dragged.
As I feared, I was back to floundering again. For the next three hundred metres (twenty minutes) I floundered up the slope wondering how to make snowshoes. According to the map, I should have come out of the woods about two hundred metres from the main ridge path but what I could see of the treeline didn’t seem to be going in the right direction. Also, once out of the woods, a vicious wind made itself known, cutting through my sweaty clothes like a knife. Even Our Dog was looking at me accusingly because I had extra layers to put on and she didn’t.
The tracks which I’d been following now veered off further to the left than I reckoned they should and although they hadn’t ended with a frozen skier collapsed in the snow, that was no guarantee they wouldn’t! Time for some proper trail-blazing, I thought. There was no way I could be more than two hundred metres from the ridge, probably more like fifty, and by going directly North I would have to cross the trail before going down the other side of the mountain. What could be easier? As long as I was roughly where I thought I was, it couldn’t go wrong.
The problem, as I discovered, was simply one of self-confidence. It was like being in a ping-pong ball a lot of the time but if you can handle night navigation, this is actually easier because you don’t need a torch to see the map (unless the visibility’s REALLY bad!). What I’ve never tried before is judging how far I’ve moved in deep snow. I tried to go directly North but despite the skis, I just sank up to my waist. Worse, when I tried to turn round, I found that some awful snow-dwelling monster was grabbing my skis and pulling me down. Eventually, I fell over and got freezing snow up my sleeves and down my collar. Now shivering violently, I found I was tangled up in tree branches! How deep was this bloody snow???
Our Dog came over and gave me a look that said ‘Get a grip now or I swear I will leave you here!’. To cap it all I could have sworn I was getting a whiff of freshly cooked goulash now and again. Hallucinating? Surely not? Now trying to keep warm as much as anything else, I floundered back to the tracks I didn’t want to follow and followed them. If I didn’t go too far downhill I should at least hit the Mountain Rescue building on the map. Within seconds, I heard voices. Less than twenty metres away, a group of people went past on the ridge path. When I got there, I found the sign pointing to the Mountain Rescue building which was the source of the goulash smell. After all that stress my navigation had been spot on and I was probably never more than sixty metres from the path; I think I need to get out and practice more often!
Soon after the Mountain Rescue building, you come to the end of this ridge and the beautiful wooden church of Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius. Half-buried though it was, it was a wonderful shelter from the wind! Our Dog had developed silver eyebrows and whiskers and actually looked like she might be getting cold. A thermometer on the wall of the church showed a paltry -2C, which it may have been out of the wind but I seriously doubt it. I had a quick cup of coffee from the flask and put on a GoreTex layer to keep the wind out but apart from a few quick photos to prove I’d been there, I bowed to peer pressure and we set off back to the van. This time I stuck to the ridge with no fancy cross-country navigation tricks. Just keep the trees on your left and follow the compacted snow, then you know you’re in the right place.
At the statue of Radegast, a small kiosk was doing a roaring trade in hot drinks and potato pancakes. There was quite a crowd because this sort of weather is perfectly normal for the locals and not everybody has to drive up. From the other side of the mountain there is a ski-lift so the crowds were similar in size to the summer months. In fact, there were so many people on the path back to Pustevny that I eventually had to abandon the skis because I can’t yet steer and stop at will on downward slopes. I had managed to avoid most people but when I saw a gaggle of people crowded around one of the ubiquitous bottles of fire-water, I knew the time had come to dismount. I told Our Dog to stop, steered myself over to a snowdrift and with all the panache I could muster in front of fifty or so spectators, fell over sideways into it. Several people clapped and one woman even came over with a camera and asked me if I could do it again.
So ended my first mountain ski trip and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Our Dog and I fought our way through the crowds around the ice sculptures and the local tin-pot radio station tent blasting out inane road-show rubbish to buy frgaly and medovina to take home to Our Lass and Our Kid, whilst the people who live and work up here tried to drive supplies to the hotels and restaurants on Ski-Doos and converted 4x4s without running anyone down.
Now the only question I have is whether I can make it back up there before this bizarre weather pattern shifts back to summer mode and all the snow melts!