Praise the lord and pass the sunglasses – the seasons have finally caught up with the weather! After an autumn which lasted all winter and several false springs, Nature has finally got bored with messing us around and hiking trips in the Czech Republic are about to become enjoyable again!
To celebrate this glorious event, I dragged Our Dog off of her sofa and headed for Smrk in the Beskydy Mountains. Smrk is not far from Lysa Hora, which is another good hiking trip destination. Many local hikers condemn Lysa Hora as a tourist trap though, and recommend Smrk as a true taste of the beauty of the Beskydy Mountains.
Unlike Lysa Hora, Smrk has no hotels, restaurants or meteorological stations at the top. And although not as high as Lysa Hora, it is a physically more demanding hike. All of these factors mean there are not so many people trying to climb it and you can be at one with the surroundings. The last time we went to Lysa Hora, there were so many people coming down the path that we had to wait ten minutes to get up the last section and in the end, Our Lass used her elbows to force a way through!
Here’s a map and height profile of the route, with some photos and notes on the walk below:
This time of year is good to start hiking trips in the Czech Republic because the weather has usually decided to start being Spring. There will still be patches of snow and ice higher up and it’s a good idea to pack some spikes for your shoes to deal with this. On this trip, I forgot and Our Dog and I paid for my mistake!
Some Czech mountains have paved roads leading all the way to the top. These are the ones with restaurants, hotels weather stations or transmitters on the summit. If you are not the type of person who wants to fight their way up a rocky slope, these mountains are perfect. You can enjoy a relatively long walk with good exercise but you don’t have to be a dedicated hill-walker. I have often seen overweight people in their forties and fifties on mountains like this, getting the benefits of fresh air and exercise, not to mention the view, which would be denied if such roads didn’t exist.
Often there are holiday cottages on the lower slopes of the mountains, with paved road access. These roads tend to become stoney tracks used by logging vehicles further up the mountain before petering out into hiking trails. It is quite possible to have a long walk from one town to another without going all the way up any of the mountains at all.
Smrk, however, is for the more adventurous among you. The trail starts steeply and pretty much stays that way until you run out of up. Occasionally it levels out for a little while but don’t let it lull you into a feeling of false security!
As you make your way up, the view is mostly restricted by the thick spruce forests which are characteristic of Central Europe. There is plenty of Beech and Oak mixed in at lower levels and at this time of year their bare branches allow you a view out over the plains of the Moravian Gate below. When these hardwoods are in leaf, the paths are bathed in a cool, green light which provides a welcome and refreshing relief from the heat of the sun.
The path zig-zags its way up the slope, which is around 1 in 3 in most places. There are often signs of serious mountaineers here and there, such as the insanely steep shortcuts to the top. I came down one of these paths (at about 9.5 km on the height profile, above), almost on my backside! The people coming up were often using their hands to help themselves climb. I’ve also seen memorials to Czech climbers who have died in the Himalayas or similar ranges. Smrk has one such memorial and I also came across a Tibetan flag decorating the trees. An embassy, perhaps?
Our problems began when we reached the snowline. There’s been next to no snow this year for the first time in decades and what little there was quickly froze. It was further compacted on the trails by walkers until it became a treacherous glacier meandering absolutely everywhere horizontal enough to walk on.
When even Our Dog, with four-paw drive engaged, could go no further, I realised we couldn’t turn back. I had been hopping from one exposed rock to another but I didn’t fancy trying it going downhill. Our only alternative was to walk on the snow directly up the slope to the path along the summit ridge. This turned out to be a lot harder than I thought, not least because the snow was mostly a thin crust on top of blueberry bushes! In these places, transferring my weight onto my uphill foot, I eventually crashed through the crust and ended up waist deep in bush with a skin of ice around me. The next step might be onto more solid snow or another bush. There were regular fallen trees in there as well. Lying hidden under snow and bush, the semi-rotten remains of their branches poked up like a medieval mace, waiting for some idiot like me to break through the ice and land on them.
Those last 300 metres to the top took 45 minutes of careful balancing, testing handholds and regularly sliding back almost as far as I’d climbed. After a few minutes, Our Dog wisely hung back and waited until she was sure I wasn’t going to fall back on top of her. At the top, she gave me a look of one part pity and two parts disgust and wandered off to sniff the piles of rabbit, deer and pig poo lying around.
Once at the top, the trail turns into one of those ridge walks which make the Beskydy Mountains so attractive for hiking trips in the Czech Republic. After a while, I came to the memorials to John Lennon and Jan Palach which were marked so enigmatically on my map.
I have found no confirmed information for these memorials anywhere. I can only assume that they were built in isolation up on Smrk to be away from the prying eyes of secret policemen before the Velvet Revolution. Both of them were symbols of resistance against the brutal oppression of Communism and the wonderful hiking trails of the Czech Republic represent the only freedom people could get their hands on back then.
From the summit, there are some lovely clear views out over the Moravian Gate, with the villages below doing some serious nestling. The most prominent feature is the huge golf resort at Čeladna, spread out like a place of worship to the new gods of money and flashy toys.
The route I took up was on the North side of the mountain, hence the lingering snow and ice. Once I got on the Southern side, it immediately warmed up and became boggy from melted snow and ice. Here too was a section of forest devastated by freezing winds a few years back and left in place to hold the soil together. Once erosion sets in on exposed hillsides like this, it doesn’t take long for the whole local habitat to be destroyed. Czechs take their environment seriously and it’s rare to see so much as a discarded banana skin on the trails.
So, there ended a lovely morning in the Beskydy Mountains. The route down was bathed in warm sunshine and the few people I ran into were relaxed and friendly. Czech is one of those languages with formal and informal ways of addressing people, like French or German. Generally speaking, you should be formal with anyone you don’t know but all that goes out the window in the mountains. Up there, you’re all equals united by your love of nature and desire not to be in a city!
If you like the sound of the Beskydys and would like to spend some time here, get in touch and we’ll organise a trip for you. If you’re more independent, you can find accommodation within 10 km of Smrk here.