POLAND’S LYING KNIGHT: Climbing Giewont in Tatra National Park

Tatra National Park, Zakopane

I woke up to the sound of my alarm at 4am.  I climbed out of bed and put on my shorts, shoes, and a singlet, trying not to wake Anna.  The sun wasn’t up yet, and I fumbled around for my water bottle.  I filled it with hot tea and set off.  I’d spent the previous day reading up on Giewont, Zakopane’s sleeping knight, and planned to wake up first thing reach the top before the mountain filled with other travelers.  It was raining out, so I put on my yellow raincoat and set off into the national park.

After spending weeks between cities, it was refreshing to be in the Polish Tatras.  Anna and I had taken a bus from Krakow just a few days prior, knowing little about the region.  As I reached the empty ranger booth, I took down a few little details from the map, trying to discern the best path to the top via the six or seven red, yellow, blue, green, and black intersecting walk trails.  I began my ascent – the first hour was a steep climb littered with stones for extra grip.

Broken Shorts, Zakopane

As the detour to Zakopane was impromptu, I didn’t have time to bring any hiking shoes.  I slipped on a wet rock and tore the button off my shorts.  I rummaged through my bag for anything to secure the loose waist, and settled on an empty bread bag tied in a loop through the holes.  The beauty of the rolling fog and shimmering river kept my spirits high, and I continued to the first plateau.

The map pointed me down a hardly visible path through high grass, so off I wandered.  As I emerged soaked in dew and covered in grass stains, I pushed through through the last of the leaves to see a vast green valley.  I sat on a rock and drank some tea, which was already ice cold.  I jumped when some birds flew overheard, breaking up the silence.  Still hoping to beat the crowd, I put away my bottle and trudged through the valley.

Tatra National Park, Zakopane

After a mile or so, I reached the base.  It was marked with a yellow strip, painted on a vertical rock.  Here goes, I thought.  This part of the climb was the most difficult so far.  I didn’t know at the time, but the trail I’d chosen had no distinct path, just jagged rock upon jagged rock, marked occasionally with a yellow stripe to let you know you were on the right track.  The trail I’d departed from was at the opposite end of the town, far from the designated tourist path that led directly from the center. The sun was coming out and through the fog I could see the peak of Giewont.  At the top of Giewont was a steel-framed cross, said to have been constructed piece by piece by a Christian man who carried each part up the mountain alone.  It suddenly looked so much further up than it had in the photos.

Tatra National Park, Zakopane

Giewont was said to be a giant sleeping knight, slumbering on the Slovakian border, poised to wake when Poland was in dire trouble.  While the myth may have been well and truly debunked, the reverence for Giewont’s mystical figure remained.  I continued my climb.  I’d walked one and a half hours, and I was still only at the base.  I climbed through the low fog and looked down, taking a moment to gaze at the valley I’d just been in.  I was now sick with hunger and sweating, even in the Polish cold.  I slipped and stumbled on the stones, stepping lightly to avoid falling.  At the eventual divergence of four paths, I spotted the walkway to the peak.  The fog layer was rising, so I raced it up the peak.

Giewont, Tatra National Park, Zakopane

As I got closer and closer, I found a pile of lengthy sticks left for hikers, and I took a sturdy one, and held a chain in the other hand as I pulled myself along the narrow path.  As I grappled up the final few rocks, I looked up at the thirty foot cross.  I climbed onto the platform and touched its frame.  I was the first up the two kilometer high mountain, so I sat alone under the worn steel.  I swallowed the last few drops of my tea and watched the fog swallow my toes.  I thanked the giant and left the torn-off button in the corner of its cross as tribute to the man who climbed a hundred times before me.

Cross, Giewont, Tatra National Park, Zakopane