To Priecne Sedlo and Back
I was really looking forward for this trip to Priecne Sedlo. It looked genuinely promising, a real adventure out in the High Tatras. And, I wasn’t wrong. This mountain hike proved to be extremely challenging for me, with all the good and bad things real adventures come with!
The plan was to start hiking some smaller trails till the fourth day when we would go for the one we really came for, the Priecne loop — a circular hike whose highlight was Priecne Sedlo, a high pass south of Maly Ladovy peak. We would start from Stary Smokovec (1010m), early in the morning and from there, we’d take the funicular to Hrebienok (1290m). The first half of the route runs along the Mala Studena (valley) all the way to Teryho refuge (2015m)There, after a short break, we would carry on to climb Priecne Sedlo (2352m), the highest point of our trail.
Descending to Velka Studena valley from the other side of Priecne is not necessarily easier and demands caution. After a brief stop at Strelecka veza for lunch, we would continue our descent all the way back to Hrebienok.
It sounds challenging, and it is. The loop of Priecne sedlo is a high-difficulty trail and if you want to hike it without spending the night at Teryho chata or Zbojnicka chata, it means 9 hours of rough terrain with steep uphills and downhills plus three hundred vertical meters of scrambling at Priecne Sedlo, many of them exposed.
We were confident though. And by we, I mean me, my partner Veronika and her father, Marian. I suppose I was the weakest link since they had climbed the same route before, plus they were much more experienced mountaineers than I was at the time.
I was no slouch by any means. I had completed half a marathon in 2 hours flat less than five months ago. So, I thought it would be fine. Actually, I was more worried about Veronika because she had had the flu for the past 3 days. How wrong was I?
Video from our last hike of Priecne loop in 2022
Arriving at High Tatras
On the first day, we arrived at the foot of High Tatras late, so the only trail we could go for was a short one to Plesnicev chata and back. It took us 2 hours, and it was barely a warm-up. After returning to our rooms, we checked the weather and discovered it was changing for the worst, a common theme in High Tatras since the weather can be very unpredictable. After discussing it, we agreed to go for Priecne Sedlo the next day. If we delayed more, Priecne could be prohibitively risky or even impossible to cross.
The next morning, after a meager breakfast, we arrived at Stary Smokovec by eight o’clock. Having just missed the funicular, we had to wait another thirty minutes for the next one. The Slovaks have great hiking culture, and it’s so easy to see. Tens of families with small kids and senior people were present everywhere. They were looking eager to step on their beloved mountains. This broad range of mountaineers is not something you commonly encounter around the world.
The trip to Hrebienok took us less than ten minutes, and there, I had the first real glimpse of the High Tatras’ majesty. High Tatras’ tree line is at about 1600m. That’s the highest altitude that a tree can grow in the region. And even though a very destructive windstorm had destroyed at least one-third of the forest back in 2004 and left massive scars, the ecosystem was slowly recovering with the help of the locals.
The Privitzers leading the way in Mala Studena dolina
We took a deep breath of fresh air and got started. Our usual formation is Veronika and Marian at the front, and me constantly falling behind shooting photos. So, basically, they have a steady pace and I always run behind them to catch up. Tiring, but the scenery was stunning, the weather slightly cloudy but warm, and the day perfect for hiking and photography.
We were walking through a forest, on a mountain, next to a stream, passing small waterfalls, small wooden bridges, and, all kinds of flora! There were moments I really stopped to gaze at the towering mountains above the tree tops on the sides of the valley. Stripped from most vegetation, their granite figures looked overwhelmingly formidable.
As we kept walking, the trail became steeper, and the temperature went higher. Having dressed in layers, I had to take some off because I was getting sweaty. Other than that, everything went as I hoped it would. The weather was still fine, and our pace was good.After an hour’s trekking, we left the forest behind. It was then that I started to feel a small discomfort in my stomach. I was so absorbed that I didn’t pay attention. Teryho chata could be seen maybe 350m above us, and I could tell that the final section would be brutal. This is one of the steepest parts of the route and it would take us another hour and a half. So we marched on.
As the trail became steeper, my discomfort was getting greater and greater with each passing minute. Even though I knew we were almost there, I told Marian and Veronika that we had to make a stop because my legs were really stiff, and I had started to experience a little dizziness, along with the upset stomach. Marian told me it was probably the altitude that got me, and I agreed because it did feel like altitude sickness.
While catching my breath, two mountain porters passed by, hauling their fully-loaded wooden backpacks. Probably more than 50kgs each. High Tatras is the last place left in Europe where the refuges are still supplied by porters instead of helicopters or mules. I took a look at my little 10kg backpack that felt like a ton, and my heart sank. I wasn’t willing to quit yet, but I couldn’t stop thinking that the Priecne Sedlo was next…
For the remaining fifteen minutes to Teryho chata, I was trying to make a decision. Should I let the others go ahead, and turn back to Hrebienok, or should I soldier on? Yes, it was that bad, and I didn’t want to ruin it for the others as well. At least Veronika was in great shape and feeling better than all the previous days. In such conditions, you have to work with your psychology. If you succeed, the body hopefully will follow.
The ascent to Priecne Sedlo is demanding. Once you commit to it there is no turning back, you have to climb it to the end. Often, hikers need to be rescued. And that’s a happy ending, people have died here in the past.
With my legs burning, I eventually made it to Teryho chata. I was feeling exhausted and Marian proposed to stop for 45 minutes to eat something. I probably looked like a corpse as I was laying on a flat rock, trying to get myself together.
When I felt better, I raised my head and looked around; what a place! Terry’s cottage, as it translates in English, is a mountain refuge located at the end of Mala Studena valley on the edge of a cirque at 2015 meters. Five lakes called Pat Spisskych plies are scattered around it, and it is engulfed by tall peaks from every direction but south.
Me disintegrated on a rock
Since it’s a middle-stop for many trekkers, it’s crowded. But at the same time, it is peaceful, serene, and quiet. People mostly sit by the lakes and watch the surrounding nature in silence. You can spend your night there if you book early, but even if it’s fully booked you can crash on their floor for a small fee. I can only imagine the beauty of the place at night, under a starlit sky, and the majestic sunrise in the coming morning. Maybe next time.
After a light lunch and some tea, I felt even better. I wasn’t at my best, but my head was recovering, and so was my stomach. I discussed my situation with Veronika and Marian, and they encouraged me, telling me that this would be a rare opportunity and I should go for it. Inside me, I knew that if I backed off, I would regret it bitterly, so I decided to carry on to Priecne.
Thirty minutes later, we were at the base of the gully, looking up at the chain lines disappearing into a thick layer of clouds. Many people were already climbing or waiting around to start. There wasn’t a queue, but still, it was impressive to see so many people. As I said, Slovaks have a healthy mountain culture. Veronika climbed this pass for the first time when she was twelve. All by herself, with Marian climbing behind only to give her instructions here and there.
Veronika went first, with me in the middle, and Marian right behind me. The steepness of the climb rised gradually so I had some time to warm up and find my feet on the rock. There were many spots where the chain wasn’t really necessary, but Marian advised me to always keep one hand on it just in case. He also told me to lean back while using it, which really made life easier. It’s better to put the tension on the metal than on your muscles.
As I was scrambling my way up, I felt rather confident. I’d never attempted climbing at such height and without a safety line before, but everyone was so casual about it, and that provided me with a level of comfort and a false sense of safety. I even looked down on many occasions, but shooting pictures was next to impossible. My Pentax was attached to my backpack with two carabiners at the shoulder straps and I had dropped it behind my head so that I wouldn’t scratch the lens on the rocks.
We were half an hour into the climb when the clouds started to dissipate. For the first time, I could see where the saddle approximately was. My legs were pumped, but nothing could stop me from reaching the top. Well, almost nothing…
Somewhere at the third quarter of the gully, I lifted my left leg to place it on a foothold and suddenly felt this intense pain going through my leg bicep like a knife. I instantly knew it was a cramp. I had one many times before, but never while scrambling exposed boulders of granite. I’ll just stretch my leg and it will pass, I thought. And indeed, after 10 seconds it did go away, but only till I tried to get to that foothold again. OK, this is not an ordinary cramp…
In the meantime, all 30 people climbing the same line as me came to a halt. I thought to try another move with my right foot this time. The moment I did it, my right bicep turned into rock, and the pain made my whole leg go numb. Alright. Now I could visualize the rescue officer handling me a 10.000€ bill. Not to mention the embarrassment.
So there I was. No way to go up and, of course, no way to go down. I could stretch one leg at a time, but any attempt to bend my knee turned into agonizing pain and numbness. Marian suggested to take it easy and just wait for it to pass. I tried to massage the muscle but to no avail. Veronica kindly reminded me that there was a bunch of people queuing up. She pointed to a ledge above me that I could try to climb to, in order to finally get out of the way. There, we could sit and think about what to do.
She was right, but, to get up there, I had to climb around three meters, and I couldn’t lift myself even half. To everybody’s credit, no one complained or said anything at all. They all waited patiently and nobody rushed me into anything. However, there was no choice, I had to move. If I could get past that relatively smooth granite surface in front of me, then, probably, I could climb with small steps.
Eventually, I had to do something that I shouldn’t, under normal circumstances. I grabbed the chain with both hands, and pulled myself up the chain with great effort, lifting all my weight and my ten-kilo pack. That was enough for me to clear the hard part and start using my legs again. Painstakingly, with short moves, and after several pauses, I managed to get to the ledge and out of the way.
A man in his late forties stopped to ask what was wrong. After explaining the situation to him, he suggested that I was dehydrated and had the cramps due to the lack of Magnesium. He was right, but how did this slip my attention entirely? That’s because you don’t have to sweat all the time in order to dehydrate completely. I was used to high-intensity activities in hot environments, but up there, I failed to see the signs. What probably started as a mild case of altitude sickness developed into serious dehydration. And after that, I couldn’t even think straight. Now what?
“My father always carries magnesium tablets with him, but you have to wait because he is climbing last, behind the whole family,” the man said, and shouted a question which got transmitted a couple of times down the line till it reached his father. The answer came back positive, he thankfully had the tablets, and after wishing us farewell, the man went on his way.
It was a big family, and it took around ten minutes for the old patriarch to reach us. He seemed to be in his early seventies, but he obviously was in top shape. “Don’t worry, it happened to me once, and ever since I carry magnesium with me,” he said in a reassuring tone, and dissolved a couple of tablets in a small bottle of water, along with one vitamin supplement. “Drink this, and after twenty minutes, you should be able to start moving again”. I thanked Vladislav heartily and sat down to rest. “Don’t start before the twenty minutes pass,” he shouted as he grabbed the thick chain, and I assured him I wouldn’t.
Vladislav really saved the day
Ten minutes later, I began to feel my muscles unstiffen. The spasms got milder, and the pain retreated. I wouldn’t need that rescue after all! Shortly, I felt good enough to stand up, but It wasn’t easy. My legs had gotten cold, and I could still feel numbness in both of them, plus they were a bit shaky. I should have covered them with my windbreaker.
Anyway, I started some warm-up on the spot, and that improved the situation enough to get me going. The others were getting cold too. They offered to carry my backpack, but I only gave Marian a thermos full of tea to lighten a bit.
So we started climbing again, and it wasn’t long after that we set foot on top of Priecne Sedlo. I was feeling broken and depleted, but what a view! It was spectacular in both directions. I was thrilled that I’d made it, one way or another. I had this calm, warm feeling that you get when you overcome something bigger than yourself.
Me and Marian at the top of Priecne Sedlo
From there on, it was mostly downhill, but there were almost five hours of trekking left, and I was already struggling. There was only one way, keep walking. On the way down, I came across Vladislav and his family once again. They were taking a break on the side of the trail. We had a small chat, I thanked him again, took his picture, and went on our way. What a nice fellow.
Veronika smiling at the top
The way to the bottom of Velka Studena valley was steep, slippery, and not much less intensive than the ascent. On the way, we stopped at Strelecka veza for lunch — a jagged peak with countless granite boulders layered around, many looking like menhirs. They were covered in the characteristic green moss that grows on granite and gives the landscape a pistachio color when observed from a distance.
Our scenic lunch had to be earned though. We had to go uphill for a bit to get on top of Strelecka, but it was worth it, the view was staggering. On the top, there was a flat rock no bigger than 4 square meters, and with just enough space for the three of us to sit. The menu was typical — sausage, cheese, and bread. We ate surrounded by moving clouds and towering mountain peaks. In the southeast we could see the belittling valley unfold towards the plains of Stara Lesna.
The next stop, was Zbojnicka chata, another refuge down the valley. There, we had tea and a shot of rum — Marian’s tradition. Is it advisable to have alcohol after serious dehydration especially when you still have two hours of walking in front of you? I don’t think so, but I went for it anyway.
The next hour and a half was a relatively easy hike to Hrebienok. Fifteen minutes before getting there, we came across a small trail leading to a beautiful waterfall called Vodopad Studeneho potoka. We had planned to make this small detour and see the place, but now I wasn’t sure. In the end, I thought that since I had gotten so far I could go on for another half an hour.
The trail snaked through the forest before ending up in a series of whooshing waterfalls which were indeed amazing. There was not a single leaf stirring, and the last light of the day gave trees a mystical appearance. We just sat there and took it all in. It was a fitting end to a great adventure, but we still had fifteen minutes of walking back to Hrebienok. It was uphill, and it was brutal. That was my coup de grâce. Within five minutes, my powers had abandoned me entirely. I had to stop every five steps and gasp for air as if I was climbing Everest. I couldn’t even reply to Veronika when she asked me if I was alright. I had given it all, there was nothing left.
My ego was also dead, so I gave them my backpack and my camera. It was with a strong effort that, after twenty miserable minutes, we reached the funicular station. When I saw the bear statue outside, I took a deep breath because I knew our trip was finally over.
I will only say that next morning, when I woke up, my heart was still racing at 100 BPM and I had one toenail less. I took a huge breakfast and went to bed for another 3 hours.
The fact that my legs were perfectly fine, and I had no muscle fever the following days just proves that my main problem was dehydration, and consequently, I had brought this to myself. I completely misjudged my liquid consumption. When I finally realized that, it was too late. My body was in shock, heat fatigue had kicked in, and the heavy sweating had depleted my levels of minerals and electrolytes. Consequently, no matter how much water I consumed, I couldn’t retain it, and things were going downhill.
I skipped the worst for two reasons: The first is that I was in top shape, so I was able to stretch my limits. And second but not least, I had two great companions who helped me a great deal. Psychology is everything in a situation like this, and the fact that they were with me reassured me and gave me confidence.
The whole gang posing outside Teryho Chata
My first hike to Priecne Sedlo was one of the best and, at the same time, worst days of my life. In this order. It saddened me when I heard on the news that two Latvian hikers died ten days later, probably from hypothermia. Mountains are no playgrounds. You have to respect them, otherwise you may pay dearly. Would I do it again? Absolutely yes!