WINTER ADVENTURES IN THE KARKONOSZE MOUNTAINS

WINTER ADVENTURES IN THE KARKONOSZE MOUNTAINS

Łabski Szczyt: We left the warm and comfort of home and headed out into the wintry semi darkness, thick snow had already started falling. Today the plan had been to climb Łabski Szczyt however the freezing temperatures and blizzard conditions that had set in as we donned our packs had lead us to the decision to climb to an alpine level and judge then whether it was going to be an ascent or a winters ramble along the treeline. The side of the mountain we were headed to had plenty of routes traversing below the steeper slopes. So, sure that it wouldn't be a wasted day and wanting to be out rather than cooped up indoors we headed off into the very white morning.

We were dropped in a small town called Szklarska Poręba, it looked as though it had seen far worse winters and people seemed to be getting on with their day despite the drifts creeping in the shop doors. A snappy hike straight up a fairly open trail brought us to the Wodospad Kamieńczyk (Waterfall) and just beyond that the first of a string of mountain houses, Schronisko Kamieńczyk. This one was particularly busy as people dropped in for shelter, waiting for a clearing in the drive outside to head out again with better visibility; stragglers yet to leave stuffed packs with dry gear from the firesides and hot pipes. We popped in to shed some layers, with a steep stretch ahead to the tree line and the next snow shelter we'd make better time and be more comfortable without the bulk.

A slight break in the cloud cover and we headed out again. Branching off from the forestry track we climbed up, gaining height quickly, we looked back just in time to glimpse Szklarska Poręba nestled in the valley, soft plumes of smoke rising from the chimneys. Our path leveled after a while and started to traverse across the side of the mountain. The blizzard ebbed into a light flurry and we wandered peacefully on. Beautifully still, with the mountain to ourselves we were reminded just how good it can be and how free you feel in this space and stillness.

We approached the ski slopes that zig-zagged down one stretch, fortunately the weather had meant lifts were shut today which also meant that the mountain was by far quieter than usual, only a single skier crossed our path as we skirted the Szrenica Ski Arena, where below 12km of trails wound their way down the mountain side.

The snow cleared, for a moment, almost completely and we enjoyed the beautifully scenic rocky trail to Końskie Łby (Horse head Rocks). From there it was a short trudge across an open expanse (in summer a beautiful wild flower meadow) to the next mountain house Schronisko Pod Łabskim Szczytem, except that it was no where to be seen. As quickly as it had lifted the blizzard was back with driving force. We joined another couple with a toddler asleep in a toboggan, also heading for shelter, together we pushed forwards to where the house should be. Only meters before arriving it loomed out of the swirling white and we slammed against the solid wooden door that was frozen shut. Another hard shoulder and it burst open and a wall of warm air, the smell of soup and mulled wine greeted us. Crampons off, wet layers draped over the hot vents and pipes and off we went in search of food.

Something about being in the mountains makes you hungry and grateful for stew at any hour. With a wad of bread and a steaming mug of stew we leaned against the stove side and warmed through, content and gazing out into the storm.

If you've not visited Schronisko Pod Łabskim Szczytem, literally translating as Shelter at the Elbe Summit, it's well worth a visit. A traditional mountain house with all its charms, offering wholesome mountain food to break a journey with or to stay over in one of its many bunks if you're planning a longer trip.

With cloud cover staying low and the driving snow persisting we decide to stay a little longer and then head back out along the treeline. This decision was confirmed the right one to have made when we met two climbers, who had started out this morning for the peak and had been turned back due to the conditions. Veering off to the right we followed the blue trail which descends fairly rapidly to the steep valley down, from there we followed the watercourse to Szklarska Poręba arriving to the twinkle of lights from the village just as night fell.

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During the summer months the approach to Strzecha Akademicka can be a lovely long walk if you approach from beyond Punkt Widokowy nad Kotłem Małego Stawu (view over little pond) or cross over from Czech refuges and the picturesque Wielki Staw (Great Pond); with possibilities to further lengthen this by staying nights at the treeline (in one of the many mountain houses) so you don't need to climb up each morning from base. Considered the pearl of Karkonosze, one of the most beautiful places in the whole of the Sudety Mountains. Samotnia is one of the oldest mountain refuges in Poland, located within the Karkonosze National Park it can only be reached on foot. The refuge is situated halfway between Karpacz and Mt. Śnieżka, making it an excellent starting point for a swift early ascent of Mt Śnieżka and continuing on to another refuge before your descent.

In the winter months this can still be a lovely circuit to complete without being rushed for daylight hours and rather than taking the lift up you can follow woodland trails to the treeline. Starting in Karpacz, where we had parked, we followed a very pretty winding trail from the ski slopes which took a steep route across the face of mountain and straight up. We warmed up very quickly as we left behind the tobogganers on what was an old toboggan race track.

After a pretty good slog up a particularly steep section of the trail, our path opened with impressive views back across Lower Silesia. We continued on to one of my favourite mountain houses Strzecha Akademicka (thatched house), where you could happily move in for the summer months and treat it as a base for a handful of very different excursions and climbs from. However, in the winter you just want to stay glued to it's beautiful old ceramic tiled stove and never leave the comfort of its wooden clad interiors and bowls of steaming mountain soup.

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After a very pleasant break we took the path down towards Samotnia, a beautiful mountain house on a frozen pond, Mały Staw. The trail had disappeared in the winters fall of snow, markers and steps were only just visible at times with drifts meters deep. Slowly, like a mirage in summer, the house danced tantalizingly through the icy air: just in, then out of sight, then it was gone in a flurry of fine snow whipped from the dunes that had almost completely engulfed the house.

Mały Staw (the small pond) is a glacial cirque at the foot of sheer cliffs. It is the second largest lake in Karkonosze (2,9 ha), after nearby Wielki Staw (8,5 ha). Towering above are Śnieżka (1603 m) and Smogornia (1489 m). Most of the year the lake is ice covered, in the hottest summer months the water temperature reaches about 10 degrees Celsius, clean and clear blue. Today Samotnia seemed to be trapped in a snow hollow and tricks of light and dusting snow played with perceptions of distance and clarity.

As beautiful in winter as it is in summer, we waded through the final dunes to its warmth and friendliness. From there it is a pleasant descent following the valley closely as it drops away from the lake edge, back down to Karpacz passing by Dolina Pląsawy (rocks over the valley of Pląsawa) and home.

Thank you Karkonosze for anther magic day.

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