Every so often a day will pass when circumstance conspires to bring you adventure. So it did for me one snowy winter morning not long past.
I rose early, around 5AM, with hopes of catching the dawning sun against the Tatra peaks. Regardless of the temperature, these steep and snowy alpine hikes inevitably leave me overheated, so I opted for jeans and a lighter jacket over my set of snow-gear. However, I was unable to locate these items, forcing me to don the my heavy, winter set instead (a fortunate turn of events as we will later see).
On the path towards the tram station, falling flakes added to already significant drifts, forewarning that the, as of yet, still dark sky would likely remain grey through the day. Dull skies (usually) make for dull landscape and architecture photos and as I had set out hoping to explore the scenic villages and lovely mountain vistas within Vysoké Tatry, this dreary weather would cast a literal haze over my shots.
Knowing all this and climbing the first daunting hill of my hike, my mind began to consider turning back. The thought of retiring to my bed had an almost magnetic pull and, as it was still so early in the morning, no one would even notice that I’d left and given up!
“What would I be missing anyway?” I thought.
The adage, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” flicked through my mind. It is a philosophy which has seen me through some amazing experiences over this exchange and I knew in my heart that this trip would be no different. My resolve solidified and strength returned to my legs. Moreover, my hope for a good photographic outing rebounded as I recalled several lessons from my studies. Weather is a limitation, but not one that cannot be overcome. I would make the conditions my good fortune! Oppressive grey clouds are only as much of a limitation as you allow them to be. By shooting creatively, a overcast sky’s soft diffused light can become an invaluable asset for the right subjects.
So on I marched. My commitment to exploring the villages of Vysoké Tatry restored! I would stretch my creativity to the limit, exercising a skill which—
My tram departed seconds before I set foot on the platform.
There I was left to sit, resting beneath the patio roof of a nearby pub and watching the intensifying snow. My mind mulled over the day’s plans once more, reconsidering what I wanted to shoot under the intense snow. I stumbled across the memory of a couple words which had adorned a sign at the nearby resort of Štrbské Pleso:“Symbolický cintorín” (The Symbolic Cemetery). That sounded familiar. A documentary on Slovakia which I watched many times before visiting the nation depicted such a memorial, high amid the peaks, dedicated to all the souls which have tragically perished within the Tatras, those unknown and forgotten, and those who spent their lives within.
I had yet, however, to hear a word spoken of this place since my arrival. I glanced around Vyšné Hágy Station. The snow appeared to be falling in clumps the size of dimes and faster than ever. Instead of daunting me though, I simply wondered at what a marvelous atmosphere must surround that quaint cemetery. What remoteness must shroud it too! Visitors discouraged by what they might find to be foul weather. My ever romantic eyes could not see it as such.
Half an hour later, the tram was carrying me into the grayscale world of a Tatra winter, opposite the direction I had intended to go at the start of the day, but towards much greater adventure. Stepping off the train, the first moments of my hike were spent closely accompanying this orange-garbed man who I happened to fall in line with. We exchanged nothing but a couple ‘Good-day’s, but by chance he happened to be in a good spot for this photo.
In time, I outpaced him and the woods and I found ourselves alone. As I walked beneath the snow-burdened boughs, the only noise arose from the crunch of fresh snow beneath my boots and the paced breathing one assumes on a long hike. I stopped to change lenses and those sounds, in my stillness, slipped away, leaving me with only the soft tapping of each snowflake against the material of my coat. Mesmerized, I listened for sometime. I felt, in the calm silence, that I was somehow a part of the landscape myself.
A bit farther ahead, I took a brief rest within a small shelter that, itself, was half-buried beneath the drifts. I enjoyed the almost cozy feeling of being in something like an igloo and settled there to snack and review the photos I’d taken up to that point. The noise of me unpacking my bags, cleaning my camera, munching away at a Horalky bar, and messing on my phone was constant. That is, until I was startled out of my repose. It grabbed my attention more than any clamor could’ve. I happened to become motionless for a moment—the exact reason escapes me, though likely I stared at photos on my camera—and around me fall an utter silence. A gentle silence. Nothing like I had experienced before.
I listened, letting my ears adjust and believing that surely something would break the illusion. Nothing did. In the coniferous forests of the Tatras, even the slightest breeze produces a sigh between those evergreen needles. Yet, not so much as a whisper escaped the placid branches overhead. This total muteness was made all the more surreal by the millions of flakes which descended in feathery spirals. The world seemed more wholly in motion than ever, yet it made not a sound. (See for yourself below.)
The tranquillity of that spot pained me to part from, but I knew my destination was shortly ahead. Branching off from the road which leads to the cottages around Popradské Pleso, a small trail ascends the mountains towards the enchanting cemetery above… Which currently is sealed behind a wooden gate and a sign “DO NOT ENTER”. There I stood, gaze flicking between the warning and the clear tracks of hikers and skiers that looped around it. O, the horrible indecision…
No! I’d come to far to leave it behind!
I sped past the barrier and tried to walk in the footsteps of those that went before me. Here, I realized my aforementioned fortune at bringing snow-gear. I would have been soaked through and frozen trudging through those drifts in regular clothing. Properly equipped, it took me only a few minutes to reach the foot of the cemetery. There two skiers passed me and in their wake stood the first cross. They would be the last people I saw until much later, for as I had hoped the snow discouraged visitors. (More likely the seasonal limitations kept them at bay, but one option is less guilt-inducing than the other.) Just beyond, a grove erupted with the most chromatic display imaginable. Amid the woods, piled under mounds of snow, each cross stands unique. Covered in snow and tilted at odd angles, each remembrance had such a natural and solitary aura about it, as if I had stumbled across an ancient site undisturbed and forgotten for centuries. I wonder who their creators thought of while they labored over their creations?
I’m still not sure how it happened, but I somehow descended on a different path than I had come up on and ended up beside the lake, Popradské Pleso, opposite the cottages and main road. A few trails encircle the water and it should’ve been easy to return, but each one was buried knee-deep in snow and impossible to follow, leaving me with one option.
Evidenced by tracks through the snow, two skiers and a pair of hikers had crossed the frozen lake. The plesos of the Tatras are known to safely freeze over every winter. However, the past two weeks had been rather warm and, despite the assurance that others before me had safely crossed, my worry eased little. Nevertheless, I cautiously began to pace across snow-covered ice. Mere inches below frigid water still flowed, yet beneath the dense layer of powder I couldn’t even see the surface on which I tread. I closely followed the hikers tracks, as if they knew some secret about crossing that I was not privy to. With a bit of will, I paused at the center of the lake and knelt to take this photo, an impossible perspective most of the year and proof I was there.
Once safely on shore, I decided to pack my camera and simply enjoy the walk back home. It had been a long, worthwhile trek, but I wanted out of a photographer’s mindset for a bit. Without concern for light and composition, I wished simply to enjoy a beautiful winter’s day.