As I mentioned before and will quickly reiterate again, the Carpathian Mountains is the third longest mountain chain in Europe, contains her largest populations of brown bears, wolves, lynx, and chamois, and reaches across 11 countries, though my mountain guide Taras says 4. Never being one to tolerate exploring on someone else’s schedule or whims, I have avoided tours in nearly all 15 countries I’ve visited. Whether it’s in a museum, through a cathedral, around a city, or in a park, the idea just never appealed to me. Well maybe in poor weather, in a country that doesn’t speak or spell English, in the middle of a pandemic, on a short timeline, it would be the moment to enlist the help of a local. And that’s fine to be honest because mountain guides are cool people.
We left Lviv in the morning as a threesome: myself, Taras, a grizzled mountain climber with a heart of gold and a sense of humor, and an always-cheery interpreter, Krystyna. Our aim was the frozen summit of Mount Lopata, one of the handful of peaks 1,200 meters above sea level in the Ukrainian Carpathians. A local told me earlier in my trip that what is presumably climate change is altering the position of winter on the calendar. Snow is now not uncommon in April, while in November you can still go outside in a t-shirt. So with a week of continuous precipitation down in the lowlands, we knew the mountains would be cloaked. The drive down was the first chance to see rural Ukraine, and I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I have been in former and currently-communist countries, and the sticks can range from anywhere between isolated and apocalyptic in appearance. Having had such a good time in Lviv, and understanding the violence and the potential for war hanging over the country, I didn’t really want to get more depressed thinking about the state of the countryside. I did understand that Ukraine was the site of one of the industrialized world’s greatest famines, following the collectivization of the farms by the Bolsheviks when four million residents starved to death. I also have seen how those kinds of tragedies can linger far beyond their physical affects, but to my great relief the Ukrainian countryside is simply poor farmers with land, houses and cars.
The snow indeed became thick on the mountainside almost immediately upon climbing out of the valley we left the Renault in. However it was a lot of fun, with Taras constantly switching between several languages whenever one wasn’t getting through well-enough. I’m definitely not like I was when I was younger, when I needed layers upon layers to keep away the cold. Now I feel far more at home in the cold and wind than even some of the Ukrainians who always go about with hat and jacket. I did most of the climb in nothing but my base layer and a spare flannel. Winter was all around us, with snow crystals forming a full two inches off the ends of the tree branches, and virgin snow drifts covering either side of the trail. The wind whipping around the mountain shook the perfect mixture of pine, spruce, birch, and beech trees, such that snow would fall for minutes as if the heavens had opened, sometimes with ice mixed in that would leave a welt on an exposed neck! At the top we broke for a lunch of spreads, salami, and bread, all prepared by Taras in his home in Lviv. At no point did I remember I hired the pair of them, such was the quality of the companionship. We talked about travel; but not always, and discussed marriage, mountains, work, and other topics as completely at home in the catching up of close friends over coffee.
Lopata Mountain had been the sight of combat during the Second World War, when the Ukrainian insurgent army fought against encroaching German forces. A memorial for those who must have endured many a cold-fingered lunch, as we had, during their struggle, stands on the highest point. Our climb down saw us make good time, and we concluded our friendship outside of a hotel in the nearby mountain town of Skole, where I was to stay so as to make an excursion up the mountains the following day.
We in the west are different from people elsewhere in that far more things make us want to de-couple ourselves from interactions with strangers. As I neared the start of my trailhead, a Boykos woman, who looked not so unlike certain American Indian nation folks, started yelling at me incessantly, no matter how hard I tried not to notice that I was the target of her yelling. I had already explained to her, when she tried to sell me jarred foodstuffs, that I understood nothing of what she was saying, but nevertheless, there was something I had to hear that she had to tell me. My thoughts are that she was making sure I wasn’t getting lost, as my trailhead was not through the main gate of the Skolivsky Beskydy National Park, though it was obvious I was a hiker. I showed her on my map that I was going beyond the entrance gate, thinking that would land her in checkmate, but when she couldn’t remember the path to the peak I wished to summit, she called some man on her mobile phone, and soon he was shuffling me towards the entrance of the park regardless of my wishes. Not speaking any English himself, he attempted to pass me off yet further to another hiker, who like the past two, didn’t speak any English, and seemed adamant I was going the wrong way. I must have stared at him for 10 minutes while he attempted to explain his piece to me, and eventually I just caved into ordinary societal pressure and went on the hike they all wanted me to go on.
But boy am I glad I did, as it passed through what could only be described as an enchanted forest.
With the aforementioned perfectly soothing, magical, and colored mixture of trees surrounding me, a shallow ascent gradient, and wooded clearings that make one feel as if they’re due somewhere, the hike was quite simply one of the three best I’ve ever done, with the other two being the hike up Qian Shan in China, and the back country circuit behind the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. It was the warmest day of the week, and much of the snow on the lower slopes had receded. It arrived gradually, and some parts were made tricky with the wet snow compacted by footprints. After climbing above the tree line, I followed a snow-covered ridge from peak to peak with breathtaking views out across the mountains on one side, all the way to the Polish border, and the Ukrainian country side on the other. Having to make a train at 6:20, I was prevented from reaching the summit of glorious Parashka, but bathed in sunlight, I sat on Zelena, a smaller peak just across a ridge line from it, and admired it as I ate my own plowman’s lunch of bread, sausage, cheese, and apple. A glorious two days, and an adventure worth sharing with any lover of mountains and forests.