“Lie back and relax”, our mountain guide Piotr said to me as I teetered at the top of the mountain on a fluorescent green rope.
“Easier said than done,” I thought to myself through gritted teeth, peering down and imagining myself falling head first onto the jagged rocks below.
I was about as far from relaxed as was possible. Not only am I a novice at rock climbing, I’m also petrified of heights. So rather than taking Piotr’s advice, I dangled inelegantly like a conker on a string and tried to cling onto the rocks.
My partner Alastair and I were climbing in Poland’s Tatra Mountains near the holiday resort of Zakopane. Piotr had picked us up from our guest house early that morning and we had driven up a winding mountain road flanked by densely-needled pine trees and traditional wooden chalets.
Our ascent began from an eerie, desolate car park just inside the national park. Piotr told us that during the communist years little thought was given to conserving this area’s natural beauty and a busy main road had cut right through it.
We stopped briefly at Morskie Oko, a clear, icy lake whose name, suffused with folklore, means ‘eye of the sea’. From here we could see the mountain we were going to climb: Mnich (or ‘monk’) which stands at just over 2,000m above sea level. A steady hike took us to the part where the only way up is with ropes.
After an energy-boosting lunch of sandwiches and chocolate, along with some sugary cinnamon tea and a spicy sausage supplied by our guide, we began to climb. Piotr led the way, expertly picking his way up the rocks like a squirrel, while Alastair followed confidently behind. I, on the other hand, was decidedly more wobbly. And it didn’t help that as we were climbing, clouds had started to surround us, making it feel like we were in a smoky cauldron.
But when we reached the summit, the cloud cleared, revealing spectacular views of the brilliant blue Morskie Oko and the valley below which, as a mere hiker, you would not get to see. Still, I can’t say I wasn’t relieved when my feet were planted firmly on the ground again, with the thought of dumplings and a cold Żywiec in front of a blazing log fire to keep me going as we made our way down.