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Viktor Beránek: High Tatras "harsh and clean"

A group of hikers, panting with effort, moves slowly up the steep trail to Rysy Cottage in the High Tatras. At their head is a short, stumpy figure who carries a massive load on his back - a keg of beer, several cartons of milk, sacks of coal and potatoes and a package of wrapped meat. Despite the load that dwarfs him, Viktor Beránek is scarcely breaking a sweat.
Beránek is the owner of the popular Chata pod Rysmi (Rysy Cottage), the highest inn in Slovakia at 2,250 metres above sea level (7,380 feet). Barely 170 (5'6") cm tall and 80 kilograms in weight (176 pounds), Beránek has carried loads of 118 kilograms up the four-hour trail to Rysy. A naturalist, Beránek refuses to let a helicopter do the work, and with a team of volunteers supplies Rysy literally on foot - until, that is, an avalanche virtually destroyed the cottage in February.


Beránek visited Bratislava in March.
photo: Martina Pis8rov8


"With the hard physical work, you forget about your problems, or maybe you just have time to really think about them."

A group of hikers, panting with effort, moves slowly up the steep trail to Rysy Cottage in the High Tatras. At their head is a short, stumpy figure who carries a massive load on his back - a keg of beer, several cartons of milk, sacks of coal and potatoes and a package of wrapped meat. Despite the load that dwarfs him, Viktor Beránek is scarcely breaking a sweat.

Beránek is the owner of the popular Chata pod Rysmi (Rysy Cottage), the highest inn in Slovakia at 2,250 metres above sea level (7,380 feet). Barely 170 (5'6") cm tall and 80 kilograms in weight (176 pounds), Beránek has carried loads of 118 kilograms up the four-hour trail to Rysy. A naturalist, Beránek refuses to let a helicopter do the work, and with a team of volunteers supplies Rysy literally on foot - until, that is, an avalanche virtually destroyed the cottage in February.

He's the closest thing Slovakia has to a 'Mountain Man' - a rugged, cheery individual who feels uncomfortable in cities and who has never owned a TV set. The Slovak Spectator spoke to Beránek on March 15, one month after his beloved cottage had been destroyed.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): You were born in the Czech Republic. What made you decide to spend your life in the Slovak mountains?

Viktor Beránek (VB): It was a coincidence, as it often happens in life. My parents moved to the High Tatras when I was seven, so it was not my decision.



In this shot of Mount Rysy taken a month ago, the lower circle shows the now-buried Chata Rysy, while the upper circle is where the new cottage will be built.
photo: Courtesy Viktor Beránek

TSS: Did your parents appreciate your passion for mountains, or did they try to make you attend university, to study for some profession?

VB: My parents never forced me to do anything. Mountains were first for me, so when I turned 18 I started to work at mountain cottages. I went to secondary school in Kežmarok [in northern Slovakia], but I went there only after work. I was always drawn to the mountains.


TSS: In February your cottage was flattened by an avalanche, but not for the first time. After so many accidents, will you reconstruct the cottage at the same place or will you try and move it to a safer place?

VB: The cottage was buried by snow in 1947, twice in 1955, then again in 1965, 1982 and this past February - six times altogether. But this time, I estimate that the avalanche destroyed 80% of the cottage.

We are already collecting money for a new cottage, but have not received much so far. Some people are offering construction material for free. We were promised support by our mountaineering friends in Italy, while Germans who visit our cottage are collecting money. But we will see how much our friends can help us and how much we will be able to collect by ourselves, not just in money but also in building material.

The insurance will pay part of the damage caused by the avalanche, but if we want to build a new cottage, that money will be only one tenth of the whole sum needed. The reconstruction is estimated to cost about ten million Slovak crowns ($240,000).


TSS: Will you continue to supply the new cottage on foot?

VB: We will never use helicopters or cable cars. We carry everything on our backs up to the cottage, like the Himalayan carriers do. This is a matter of our lifestyle - we try to protect nature, and helicopters are not so compatible with that lifestyle. They are too noisy, and they scare the chamois and the woodchucks. The cottage environment therefore remains typically high-alpine. There are very few cottages in the world of this kind, where people carry all the supplies up the mountain.


TSS: Will you even carry up building supplies to the new site?

VB: There will be some parts, like the heavy concrete beams weighing several hundred kilograms, that we would not manage to carry up there by ourselves. We will have a helicopter to carry the heaviest parts for us. But materials like sand and gravel will be carried from Popradské Pleso [a four hour journey below] in plastic bags. We have some tourists who help us with these things. We prepare the packages, and people who want to help us do it for us, and of course we carry it ourselves. Those who help usually get tea when they get to the cottage. We do this with all supplies, like potatoes or coal or anything that we need. And people like to help.


TSS: What is it about the Tatras for you that made you want to spend your life there?

VB: I don't know. For me there is nothing special about the Tatras, maybe because I have lived there my whole life and I take the Tatras as they are. When you look at them from down here, many people don't understand why we go to the mountains in storms, why we deliberately put ourselves in danger. But for me it's much more frustrating to cross the street here in Bratislava. I love the Tatras because nature there is so harsh and clean. There is this feeling of self-satisfaction and peace that you get when you manage to climb up to the top. It is a great contrast to me with the hurry and never-ending stress down here.


TSS: Could you imagine ever living in a city?

VB: I guess I couldn't. It's hard to say, because a man can get used to the gallows if he has to. But if I had to I would probably go and work at that Kamzík Cottage that you have here [in the Small Carpathian mountains overlooking Bratislava].


TSS: You have spent your life in Tatras, and worked there for more than 30 years. Have you been able to see the Tatras change or develop in some ways?

VB: I started to carry in 1969, and since then the atmosphere in the Tatras and at the cottages has changed. During communism, it was not so important to offer good service to customers. People were happy when in the evening they could dance and get drunk. So the atmosphere was jollier, but the poor customer was not served as he should have been.

Now the tourists are more at the centre of attention, but unfortunately, many people only care about profits. There are many who privatized Tatra cottages and saw only the gold mine behind it. Many of the fine hotels here are closed now because their owners have realized that they would have to work and improve many things. This happened to the Low Tatras' Hotel Kosodrevina, Srdiečko, and to Sliezsky dom in the High Tatras. Before, the hotels were managed by some central institution and people at least cared about keeping them in good condition. Some hotels have improved, and are really trying to offer better services, but we still have a long way to go until we can compare ourselves to western-style services.

So this is the saddest part of this era. There are many people in the Tatras now who do not have any relationship with the mountains. I don't care if I have money or if I am broke. For me it's worth everything just to be able to spend the day skiing and wandering around the mountains.


TSS: Slovakia applied in the mid-1990's to organise the Winter Olympics in 2006, but in the end didn't get the games. Many environmentalists protested against the bid, saying that the games would have had an enormous impact on the High Tatras National Park protected area. Were the people who lived here in the Tatras asked whether they wanted the Olympics?

VB: I think that it was a decision from the top, nobody asked what the people thought about it. Some people would have supported it, some wouldn't. I personally think that it could have been done. Everything can be done well, ecologically and economically, if there is the will. But enthusiasm is not enough. I would say yes to the Olympics, but it would have to be a quality project. They could build hotels not directly in the National Park, but in nearby towns or villages. If the environmentalists got everything they wanted, not even Rysy Cottage would have stood where it did.


TSS: Do you think that enough efforts are being made in the High Tatras to preserve the environment? Are there any endangered animals in the national park?

VB: The only animal whose numbers are dramatically declining is the chamois, but this is not because of the enviroment, it's because of poachers who hunt for them, especially on the Polish side. This might be one problem in the Tatras, but I have never met with a Polish poacher on the Slovak side. Another problem for the animals might be acid rain, which I think is even worse than if 100 tourists come to my cottage at the top of the mountain. There are growing numbers of wolves and bears, and there are families of lynx in almost every valley. However, there is only one-third the number of chamois that there were 10 years ago.


TSS: Many young people have been getting into new sports like 'extreme' skiing and snowboarding, and recently have been holding competitions in the High Tatras. What do you think about these new kinds of sports activities?

VB: I used to do alpine skiing a few years ago and I think that it's a sport like any other. Alpine skiing is one of the ways people get around in the mountains, and if you are a skilled skier, you are also a better rescuer in case of avalanches. In the winter, we always carry supplies to the cottage on our skis.

Snowboarding is worse, because it's difficult to get around. They usually organise their competitions near Štrbské Pleso, and I think snowboarding is not very harmonious with nature. Our drug is nature, and their drug is something else - maybe loud music. You can hear their music in a five kilometer radius around Štrbské Pleso. These young people are different from people who live in the mountains - they are noisy while people who live in the mountains are usually calm and unobtrusive. Mountain people don't speak too much and sometimes just communicate with gestures.


TSS: Do you have any vision on where development in the High Tatras should go?

VB: I think nothing should be built in the High Tatras because it is a small area, and if they wanted to build more hotels, they should do it in the surrounding villages or towns. I would also improve the services in the existing hotels. I think to preserve the serenity of the Tatras it is important not to build more roads. If they want to build ski centres, they should do it in the Low Tatras, and I would even recommend banning car transport in the High Tatras, and using small electric trams instead and connecting this line with Poland. They should create a zone of relaxation and calm like they did in Zermatt, Switzerland.


TSS: The High Tatras are the highest Slovak mountains. What is the symbolism of the mountains for the Slovak nation?

VB: They say that Slovakia is a country under the Tatras, so I do think that it's a symbol for our country. The Tatras stand for cleanliness and nobility.


TSS: Given that the Tatras are Slovakia's national symbol, do you think enough attention is being paid to them by the Ministry of Environment or the politicians of this country?

VB: I think they do what they can, but I realize that the situation is difficult these days and they probably can't afford to do more. The biggest drawback I see for the regular people that come to visit or work in the Tatras is that in many hotels the service is sub-par, and the customer is ignored. They should be more outgoing to the tourist and be able to help with advice and recommending places to go and see. This willingness doesn't cost a single crown. Some politicians come to the Tatras regularly, like Parliamentary Speaker Jozef Migaš, but it's not my style to go and ask for money. Migaš and his friends come every summer to climb Rysy Peak where Lenin was. Peter Weiss [of the former communist SDĽ party] also comes occasionally. Migaš even donated 20,000 crowns for the reconstruction of Rysy Cottage. I also want to go talk to the Prime Minister, who is himself a former mountaineer.


TSS: You and some of your friends organize the so-called Sherpa Rally here, every year in the summer. The competition consists of racing to the top of a mountain with a full rucksack. How did you come up with the idea of organizing such races?

VB: When two mountain carriers meet in the valley, they tend to compete with one another, to see who will be the first to the top. It's like when you jog with somebody. You always try to be faster than your companion. So 17 years ago we decided to ogranize a competition. It started with eight people in 1983; the next year there were 25 competitors.

Today it's a tradition where about 50 people come every year. Men carry 60 kilogram loads. We also have girls and women taking part. They carry 20 kilograms. The elevation is about 750 metres, which usually takes a tourist two and a half hours. The best mountaineers can do it in 1 hour 20 minutes with the 60 kilo load.

People don't understand it, but it s this feeling when you are completely exhausted but you have made it to the top, and somewhere behind you you can hear a mountain bird, the sun is going down, and you sit there on the top with a beautiful view of the mountains. I can't descibe the feeling, it's something you have to experience. It also helps you relax in your head. With the hard physical work, you forget about your problems, or maybe you just have time to really think about them.

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