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The extreme life of the last Sherpas of Europe

Monitoring Desk

In Slovakia’s High Tatra Mountains, porters still carry large loads of up to 100kg up and down rugged and dangerous mountain trails using skis, crampons and chains.

In a decorative wooden building in the town of Starý Smokovec at the foot of the High Tatra Mountains in Slovakia, a collection of frames lean against a wall. They look a bit like toboggans except they have shoulder straps, and a couple of them are so tall they go right up to the ceiling. Some of the frames have rucksacks attached.

These are the carrying frames that the porters of the Tatras, known locally as horský šerpa (mountain sherpas) or horský nosi (mountain carriers), use to take heavy loads up to the mountain huts or chalets that provide refreshments, and in some cases, overnight accommodation for mountain hikers. Although the mountain carriers are also called sherpas locally, they are not related to the ethnic group of Sherpas of Tibetan origin in the Himalayas and Nepal. The frames are on display here at the Sherpa Museum, but ones like these are still used to carry supplies up and down these steep mountain trails.

The High Tatras range runs along the border of northern Slovakia and Poland. In summer, visitors enjoy the scenic forests, sparkling lakes and wide valleys, admiring the flora and fauna while exploring hundreds of kilometres of hiking trails between the mountain huts. In winter, the rocky ridges and jagged mountain peaks that soar up to 2,500m take on a mysterious air, covered with snow and ice and standing out starkly above the tree line.

Europe’s last sherpas climb rugged and dangerous paths through these peaks to huts at altitudes of up to 2,250m, wearing skis and crampons in snow and ice and using chains in places to pull themselves and their heavy loads up vertical slopes. Strapped to their back and secured with heavy shoulder straps is the special carrying frame, itself weighing up to 8kg. On this they secure food, beverages, firewood and any other materials the hut needs, such as fuel, gas cylinders and bed linen. The loads often weigh more than 100kg in total, and the sherpas work in all weather, from hot summers to cold and stormy winters when temperatures can descend to -20C and the mountains are frozen with snow and ice.

When I visited on a cold January day, the Swiss House where the Sherpa Museum is located was surrounded by snow. One of the oldest sherpas, 75-year-old Peter Petras, was drinking tea in the Sherpa Caffe next door. He still carries heavy loads up to a mountain hut a few times a week. And he’s not even the oldest carrier; ages range from 17 up to 79.

Slovak sherpas deliver supplies and food that can't be transported by cable car (Credit: Credit: Štefan Bačkor)
Slovak sherpas deliver supplies and food that can’t be transported by cable car or helicopter due to strict habitat regulations (Credit: Štefan Bačkor)

Petras told me that he does this work because of his love for the mountains, not for money. “Being a porter is not a job, it is a way of life,” he said. “For a real porter, money is in second place. First place is being on the mountain.”

Each hut has a keeper and up to eight sherpas, who take turns to work and stay in the huts. Tasks vary from cleaning and maintaining the chalet to preparing meals, organising fuel and heating or clearing away snow from the hut surrounds. Sometimes the porters help tourists with directions on the trail. There can be up to 60 sherpas working in the mountains in the summer season; in winter, it is half that. Some are full-time, others are students or have another business.

Petras was first inspired to be a sherpa at the age of 10 when he saw his older brothers, Jožo and Ivan, doing the job. Jožo was one of the strongest – he once carried an oven weighing 137kg to the Zbojnička hut at an altitude of 1,960m in the Veľká Studená Dolina valley. Petras became a porter when he left school, but later went away for military service and then to study, eventually earning a Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Bratislava.

However, his love for the Tatras brought him back to the mountains, working as a teacher in the mornings and as a porter in the afternoons. It was the perfect balance. “When my school lesson ended, I could forget about teaching and look forward to being alone in nature by myself. I got rest mentally; and in school, I got rest physically,” he said.

When he retired, he carried on being a sherpa. He restored and now manages the Rainerova hut – the oldest in the mountain range, built in 1863 for visitors to shelter in bad weather.

Mountain huts or chalets provide refreshments and overnight accommodation for hikers (Credit: Credit: Jan Gallo/Getty Images)
Mountain huts or chalets provide refreshments and overnight accommodation for hikers (Credit: Jan Gallo/Getty Images)

Rainerova doesn’t have accommodation but hikers often stop at the small stone building for refreshments and to see Petras’ collection of old climbing equipment and skis. In winter, he carves snow sculptures. He still carries loads of 60 or 70kg up to the hut, which is at 1,301m, five or six times per week. On the way down, he takes the rubbish. The hut is just 20 minutes’ walk from the cable car so it is not a long route to carry loads on, but he worked at one that was a two-hour hike. “In winter, it could take eight hours because of the bad weather,” he said.

When tourism was starting in the Tatras in the mid 19th-Century, people paid porters to carry food or drink for the group. Then, as hiking trails were developed and overnight shelters were built, the porters carried the building materials for construction and later supplies of food, drinks and fuel for guests. It was similar elsewhere in Europe, such as in the Alps, but when cable cars and then roads were built there, porters were no longer needed and the job disappeared. In the Tatras, the same type of development has been kept to a minimum because it is a nature conservation area and biosphere reserve, so porters still need to carry the loads up to the huts. Petras says that sherpas will always go up with supplies, even if the weather is bad. “The sherpa knows that the chalet relies on him, so he has to bring the load anyway.”

“It’s very dangerous work,” he added. Twenty years ago, a sherpa was killed by an avalanche. “Two porters were killed by weather; one guy froze. It looks romantic because we love it, but it can be very dangerous. You have to live [through] many things – being alone, being cold, being afraid. Thunderstorms can happen. You can freeze.”

Sherpas carry food, beverages, firewood and fuel in massive loads that often weigh more than 100kg (Credit: Credit: Štefan Bačkor)
Sherpas carry food, beverages, firewood and fuel in massive loads that often weigh more than 100kg (Credit: Štefan Bačkor)

In his book, Na Chodníku Chodník (Path on the path), Petras writes about the skills required: carriers need “a good physical fund focused mainly on endurance, willpower, resilience, balance, experience in the mountains, the ability to realistically estimate one’s strengths and abilities, devotion, humility and faith”.

Under the Communist system, working as a sherpa was like living in freedom

Števo “Pišta” Bačkor, who founded the Sherpa Caffe and Museum with his wife Martina, was a professional sherpa for more than 20 years and still works few times a month to keep a connection with the community of mountain porters. “I miss it,” he said “Nearly all activities in my life are fixed on this community, on the mountain huts.” Bačkor and Martina met in the mountains when she was working in a hut.

Bačkor says that setting off for the mountain hut brings a feeling of freedom – but also a mix of emotions. “You enjoy it but you’re a little bit worried about the weather. You will start in the sun and one hour later, you will be in a storm with wind speed of 150km/h with heavy snow.” Even in weather when the tourists turn back, the sherpas still go on.

Petras recalls his worst experience one winter when he got wet on the mountain and it started snowing. When he got to the hut, he was frozen. “It’s not about the temperature, it’s more about the quick weather change,” he said. When he reached the chalet, he ran into the kitchen and put hot tea on his head and his hands to defrost. “Some things you can describe and many feelings you can’t describe,” he said.

The High Tatras range is home to hundreds of kilometres of hiking trails (Credit: Credit: TomasSereda/Getty Images)
Running along the border of northern Slovakia, the High Tatras range is home to hundreds of kilometres of hiking trails (Credit: TomasSereda/Getty Images)

According to Petras, the strongest sherpa currently working is Viktor Beranek, 69, who carries to the highest hut in the Tatra mountains, Chata pod Rysmi (Rysy) at 2,250m. The oldest, Laco Chudík (79), still carries once or twice a week – not for money but for the enjoyment, said Bačkor. “He is a machine, he doesn’t stop.” Bačkor added that he only knows of one female sherpa; she died at age 92 in 2017.

Many of the carriers say that the most important thing for them is the feeling of liberation, and that this was especially true during Communist times when life was restricted elsewhere. “Every mountain hut is like a free island,” said Bačkor. “Under the Communist system, working as a sherpa was like living in freedom. After a weekend, everybody went down and worked in a factory or an office, and then looked forward to the next weekend and two or three days of freedom.”

Petras loves the Tatras because they are not crowded. As it’s a national park and Unesco biosphere reserve, vehicles like snowmobiles and quad bikes are prohibited (except for rescuers). The wildlife that the reserve protects includes brown bears, lynx, wolves, foxes, marmots, snow voles and the endangered Tatra chamois. Petras is keen that the unique work of a sherpa is protected, too.

Petras says that the lifestyle is what keeps his vitality: “When people ask, ‘but what about your health?’ I answer, ‘I don’t know because I haven’t been to the doctor for the past 20 years!’” he said.

Petras often heads to the peaks by himself to relax, telling me that what he most loves about the Tatras are the hikes in the night. “That’s the best relaxation for your soul,” he said.

Around 60 sherpas work in the High Tatra mountains in the summer season (Credit: Credit: photocay/Alamy)
Around 60 sherpas work in the mountains in the summer season, carrying supplies to huts at altitudes of up to 2,250m (Credit: photocay/Alamy)

Courtesy: BBC