Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Soaking in the Splendor of Sněžka

Our journey to the highest peak in the Czech Republic was preceded by a full week of meetings in Prague, and concluded with one of the most unique and outrageous experiences that most people in North America have likely never heard of. An experience which some would only imagine in their dreams.

Before I get to the outrageous experience, business first. The entire reason for our trip to Eastern Europe (including our tour of Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Montenegro) was to visit the Czech Republic, the homeland of both of my parents. My grandparents had some real estate interests in Prague which were passed on to my dad and his siblings. As a result of my dad‘s passing last summer I joined my aunt and uncle to sort out and help manage some of these matters. Along the way I got to meet some second cousins, longtime family friends and even the Portuguese Ambassador to the Czech Republic! Czechs are of course passionate about their Pilsner, so as not to offend any of our guests at dinner meetings all week I was obliged to drink my share!
Once the meetings were all complete on Friday, my uncle Ian, Denise and I headed 2 1/2 hours north to the Krkonoše Mountains, the “Giant Mountains” which aren’t very giant at all. Sněžka, meaning the Snowy One is the highest in the country at a whopping 5,260 feet. Pec pod Sněžkou is a quaint resort village at the base of the mountain which could easily be mistaken for a scenic alpine retreat in the Swiss or Austrian Alps. We tested the limits of our Czech-made Škoda rental car by driving all the way up a steep single lane road in first gear, and then checked in to the Hotel Emerich. Not only did it have stunning views and excellent service, in the winter the hotel is only accessible by snowcat and sits in the middle of the ski runs. Our kind of place! 
View from the deck at Hotel Emerich with Pec pod Sněžkou below and Sněžka peak on the horizon (right).
The next morning Ian, Denise and I met our Prague accountant, Pavel Kuře who joined for the hike along with his family and two-year-old son on his back. We also met our friends Eva and Antoine who we got to know last year in Vietnam climbing Fan Si Pan (Good Morning Vietnam blog post).
Together we all had a pleasant walk socializing as we hiked up an easy path to the summit. Along the way we crossed the border into Poland for a short while and before we knew it, in less than three hours we were at the top. 
With Eva Beranova and Antoine Kermarec
Pavel Kuře with one of the Sněžka Sherpa Cup competitors carrying 132 lbs on his back.
It was great fun to cheer along the strong and determined Czechs who were reaching the summit finish line of the annual Sněžka Sherpa Cup. Some of the participants hauled 60 kg loads (132 lbs) all the way from the base almost 3,000 vertical feet below. Their reward: a shot of Slivovice (Czech plum brandy, or as I refer to it “devil water”). Next year maybe we’ll have to sponsor a team of our Sherpa friends from Nepal and see what happens! At least we know the big Czech guys will be sure to win any drinking competitions afterwards.
June 8th at the summit of Sněžka, the highest peak in the Czech Republic.
Speaking of which, we are finally now at the point where we had our most unique and outrageous experience which was definitely one for the memory books. Upon completing an 11-mile loop over the course of seven hours, we returned to the trailhead area and the Pecky Pivovar brewery. About a year and a half ago the brewery decided some of its patrons might enjoy (perhaps ecstatically) the idea of soaking their entire body in a beer jacuzzi! So they built a beer spa, adjacent to the big brew tanks where weary skiers and Sněžka hikers like us can rejuvenate their bodies in a jetted tub of warm beer. It even has a self-serve tap to supply copious amounts of cold beer to the inside of the body for a full restorative effect! 
After a day of hiking, toasting our Sněžka summit in a tub full of Czech beer!
Forget Prague Castle and the Charles Bridge, the beer spa at Pecky Pivovar in Pec pod Sněžkou is reason alone for a trip to the Czech Republic! I am proud of my people for bringing into existence this great contribution to human happiness. ...and I suspect it would also bring a smile to my dad’s face if he could see us enjoying the fun!

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Montenegro’s Zla Kolata: The Evil Mountain

Also known as the “Accursed Mountains” in Prokletije National Park (the highest part of the Dinaric Alps stretching across Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo) Zla “Evil” Kolata lived entirely up to its foreboding names. It wasn’t because I took a wrong step onto a slick wet rock, slipped, fell and drew some blood from my shin and scraped my hands. It wasn’t because of an arduously long day climbing 4,833’ in elevation covering 12 miles over the course of 11 hours. And it wasn’t because of the rocky terrain with very few clear trail markings or the steep snow covered slopes with many exposed sections where falling would be ...”bad.” Normally we would have enjoyed all of this (except for the falling part) in the course of a challenging adventure. But in our case the “accursed” and “evil” mountain was fitting due to the simple fact that it rained on us ALL DAY!
We started hiking early at 6:15 hoping to get at least a bit of dry weather ahead of the forecasted showers, but we only had 15 minutes before the first raindrops arrived and they became increasingly more intense until we were thoroughly soaked. Even our boots couldn’t repel the continuous onslaught of water. 

It was a stark contrast to the Beautiful Bosnia weather we enjoyed a few days earlier climbing Maglić. Another difference here in Montenegro was having a “true” mountain guide with us, which eliminated the need to constantly be checking our GPS track in the wet and cloudy weather and wondering if we were going the right way. Instead we simply followed Binak, an incredibly kind man who lived in the tiny village of Vusanje a few houses away from the quaint lodge where we were staying.
With Helga on the back porch of our lodge, the Moonlight House the day before our climb (while the weather was still nice).
Another nice treat was to be accompanied by our good friend Helga Hengge who flew in from Munich to join us for this part of our Balkan journey. Helga is the first German woman to summit Mt. Everest and we had the pleasure to first meet her in 2009 in Antarctica while climbing the Vinson Massif. Helga also joined us last year in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco for our Jbel Toubkal adventure for those who may recall reading some of those blog posts. Helga frequently speaks to large corporate clients like BMW, Airbus, Siemens, etc. and as luck would have it she was able to squeeze in a few days to join us right in the middle of two of her previously scheduled talks.

As the wind picked up chilling our rain drenched bodies, and as the cold wet snow we were hiking through made our wet feet feel numb, I asked Helga if this might be the point when she was regretting her decision to fly to Montenegro for three days for this type of punishment!
She laughed and reminded me that this wasn’t nearly as cold as Antarctica! After nearly six hours we reached a saddle and briefly crossed into Albania in order to reach the summit ridge. Within 30 minutes or so we were standing on the 8,317 foot summit of the “Evil Mountain” Zla Kolata (aka Kolatta e Keqe in Albanian). The views from the top in the midst of the rain storm were ...less than stunning. But we made it to the summit and it was particularly meaningful (and completely unplanned) that on this same day May 27th in 1999 Helga stood on the top of Mt. Everest! We wished her a happy 20-year “summit anniversary” and promptly began our 4,800 foot descent towards a warm, dry lodge and a hot meal waiting for us back down in Vusanje at the Moonlight House! 

Despite the ominous sounding names Prokletije National Park is an incredible place to visit and still relatively undiscovered (it only became a national park in 2009). We didn't see any other people at all on the trail all day, and even in the height of the summer season, we understand that not many people come here.
Summit of Zla Kolata: Highest Peak in Montenegro
In front of the Moonlight House with Binak, Helga and on the right Lilly, who manages the lodge with her family.

Sveti Stefan and the Aman Hotel
Kotor, Montenegro hiking the city wall to the fortress above the bay