21.09.2019 - 07.10.2019
“It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might be swept off to.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
...But if you hope to experience the pleasure of sudden discovery it is obligatory to silence the voice of reason and just let things work their ways. I signed up for the Chornohora trek out of plain explorer’s interest – if it looks nice and if I can get there, why not? My expectations weren’t sky high, as I’ve already walked more physically demanding and, arguably, more spectacular routes. But there’s a thing about mountains, any of them – no matter how much you’ve seen, you’ve never seen it all. I got so much more than I hoped for that I just had to write it down. What you are about to read are my recollections of this truly soulful and inspiring journey.
As a group of strangers starts gathering at the Ivano-Frankivsk train station in the morning, the sun gradually becomes scorching hot, proving all the forecasts wrong. That is a good sign, but we still have to make it to the starting point, which is a several hours drive from here. Not much communication is going on, as it usually happens. People just stand around, eyeing each other’s faces and equipment, waiting for the command to move out. Eventually, a group of 17 gets seated in two minivans and so it begins. A couple drowsy, shaky hours later (the roads leave much to be desired), we’re loading out our backpacks in Kvasy, a charming tiny village that marks the route start. The guides distribute food packages that would sustain us for the next 5 days. Some of the group members examine the sublimated meal bags suspiciously, probably thinking “So I should eat that? No way”. As it turned out later, almost everyone liked the contents, which, to me, make for a pretty diverse and nutritious diet. In the afternoon heat, we make the first steps towards the mounts and valleys of Chornohora. At the very first ascent, the group splits into the leading pack and the followers, so it is convenient to have two guides, one of which trails behind and makes sure nobody gets lost. This day is more of a warm-up, so there are no grueling ascents and most people have chance to get used to being on the trek. Having covered about 5 miles of the route, winding through forests and bare hills, we stop to set the camp at the ruins of an edifice which probably combined living quarters and cattle pens and now stands abandoned, slowly collapsing under its own weight. The locals can be heard in the distance, celebrating a sort of an obscure local holiday. Sometimes the faint chimes of cowbells are also audible, their bearers grazing at the nearby plains. Soon after the tents were put up and the firewood gathered, a stunning sunset was bestowed upon us, coloring the world around deep mellow pink. Sitting around the bonfire, we finally got to the getting-acquainted part, which was quite shy at times, but still brought the group closer. The roster sure was motley, including people of all crafts and trades – you do not normally have a chance to get into a conversation of a baker, a sales manager, a journalist, a construction worker, a university tutor, an IT guy and so forth. More importantly, all of them turn out to be nice people, which is sort of rule of thumb for the mountains – you do not usually see many jerks around.
The wake up call doesn’t sound before 8 a.m. – this is not some extreme tour with inhuman distances to cover. Still the guides try to keep the group organized, so that we start moving before it gets hot. Yes, once again, contrary to all the forecasts, we’re welcomed by spotless skies. It’s sheer luck, the guide explains, for this region is infamous for weather unstable and unpleasant. Anyway, today we have to conquer Petros, the first 2000m+ peak on the trail. More and more tourists cross paths with us, which doesn’t come as a surprise – Petros is followed by Hoverla, the highest and most popular peak of the Ukrainian Carpathians. The southwest ascent of Petros is nothing to write home about in terms of difficulty, so you have a chance to enjoy the gradual elevation and change of view as you follow the route. Reaching the peak is indeed a climactic moment, since here you are presented with one of the best landscape views of Chornohora. Take your time and walk around the small plateau for a brief moment.
Once the group was all there, we went through obligatory procedure of making a group photo – a nice way of keeping those moments for posterity if you’re not into making a ton of selfies, like myself. The following descent was quite a challenge for the inexperienced hikers, for one has to tread carefully down the steep, rocky slope to keep the balance. Often the guides had to help the group members pass some truly daunting parts of the path – luckily, there was no rain to make our life completely miserable. Otherwise the way down would have taken much more time and effort. Just as we all descended, nasty drizzle kicked in for half an hour, but we were already on a level, solid road that took us to that day’s camping, located at the post of the National Park rangers. A cozy cottage accommodated the exhausted but elated group, so we rolled out our sleeping pads on the squeaky wooden floor and prepared the supper. A chef’s special was a cake of a sort, made by one of the guides and dedicated to the birthday of one of the group members. If you happen to taste one, you’d never believe a mixture of pulverized cookies and chocolate held together by condensed milk can make for such an exquisite dessert. The rangers reaped their profits by selling us a remarkable amount of local bottled beer, and we had a heart-warming night inside the cottage, which was only spoilt a little by thunderous snoring of male group members that you couldn’t really escape.
In the morning of day 3 many of us were relieved to hear that the hardest part of the trail was already behind. The celestial deities still favoring us, the group rolled out for Hoverla, occasionally passing by large sheep herds and watchful shepherd dogs. By the dinner, we reached a small hut at the foot of Hoverla, where we dropped the backpacks to alleviate our ascension. Sadly, unlike Petros, the topmost peak of Ukraine doesn’t have much to offer in terms of picturesque views, so after a half-an-hour walk upwards we were at the plateau, scratching our heads and exchanging bewildered phrases like ‘That’s it? You sure we’re done? Can we get any higher than that?’. Besides, the peak was filled to the brim with weekend warrior tourists and souvenir shops, so you literally get your regular uptown bustle in a totally irrelevant place. Certainly not one of the tour’s highlights.
After the dinner, our trekking was spiced up a bit by a change of weather. We couldn’t stay lucky forever, so the next several hours our coats and raincovers were put to test by a chilling, monotonous rain with occasional thunder clasps and wind gusts. That was quite unfortunate for those who planned to take a dip in the Nesamovyte lake, which was our destination for the night stay. However, as soon as we descended into the valley harboring the lake, the cloud depleted itself and we were given a generous gift of not just taking a swim, but also of drying out in the last rays of the evening sun. Apart from being unspeakably fabulous, the camping site at Nesamovyte is one of the most favored by hikers in this region, which brings about the problem of garbage and firewood. The former can be seen in small heaps scattered all around the site – many of the comers still need to be educated in terms of proper tourist behavior. As for the latter – there’s none. Spend this night without a campfire and save the dwindling mountain pine fields that are being ruthlessly cut out around the lake. Not only does it give little to none heat, but it also belongs to endangered species. Unsurprisingly, without a fire the group was quick to say goodnight to each other and retire to the tents, yet the most enduring of us still stayed around long enough to do a little stargazing while playing simple word games and enjoying an unobtrusive conversation.
This day is my personal favorite in terms of ogling the visual candy that surrounds you on the trail. We walked on top of the range, occasionally entering thick, vapory clouds and stopped to take photos on a number of 2000+m peaks, out of which I liked Hutyn Tomnatyk the most. This mount proudly stands aside on a relatively small distance from the others and offers breathtaking landscapes to see. Underneath it lies lake Brebeneskul, which is even more attractive than Nesamovyte. Afterwards, we stumbled upon some grim remnants of World War I, including stone-reinforced trenches and rolls of corroded barbed wire. The guides were visibly concerned as per the chances of rain, but it never happened and we merrily trotted on to another thing of indescribable beauty. What I’m talking about is a rare phenomenon, when a cloud ascends the mountain slope from the valley, then, at the range top, gets blown back by wind of opposing direction. It looks very much like steam and smoke surrounding an eruption and needless to say, we were left speechless at the sight of it. But more was to come. When we approached the cloud in question, nothing could be seen to the left because of it, but to the right the sky was clear, so I turned my head to gaze into the impenetrable fog and suddenly noticed a vague rainbow halo around my head. How cool is that? When the cloud was lit by direct sunlight, the halo even doubled and that, I have to say, is a spiritual experience. I had more of that in the evening, when we set our camp at the foot of Pip Ivan mountain. The place was all covered by a cloud and navigating through it at night, even with your headlight on is a hell of an ordeal, but it is uncannily, mesmerizingly beautiful. I got my aesthetic chills when I observed the beams of other people’s headlights gliding through the vapor veils, which gave me a strong feeling of being in Carpenter’s The Thing movie. I dare say it was the pinnacle of the whole journey.
Little by little, we approached the final part of the route, which included visiting the top of the Pip Ivan mountain and finally descending into the nearest village. Pip Ivan is famous for the White Elephant observatory resting on its top, once abandoned and now slowly refurbished by joint effort of Poles and Ukrainians. As per now, it is forbidden to enter, which is quite disappointing, yet you still can enjoy a couple of nice views from the peak itself. Of memorable things, there is a tradition of laying out stones that form words on Pip Ivan’s slopes, so there are hundreds of such constructions, so to say, lying around.
To get to the village, one has to deal with the last tricky descent, filled with treacherous stones and rubble moving under your feet. Whenever there’s a clearing, though, stop for a moment and look around to see a number of oddly-shaped rocks that may tickle your imagination. At the end of the descent you get rewarded with a sight of a small, yet powerful cascade waterfall, which is followed by a serpentine road in the woods, which makes you think of the Appalachians or alike, a segment with a unique, serene atmosphere. The village greets you with a couple of signboards indicating the presence of a guesthouse and a shop. Having satisfied our gastronomical needs in the latter, we passed the settlement and reached the final camping site, nicely furnished with a stove, an alcove and wooden benches around the fireplace. Life was good.
Not much to say about this one – the bus picked us up at the camp and took back to Ivano-Frankivsk, where we had some time to walk around the city and exchange our emotions, photos, contacts and plans for future travels. Also, lots of wine. It was extremely nice of the guides to stay with us and show us around until our transport departed.
It would be an understatement to say that I thoroughly enjoyed each and every day of the journey. Such experience is rare to come by in ordinary life, and the good part is – you don’t need much to make it a regular part of your existence, again and again. I wish to express my gratitude to Pohod V Gory company, particularly to everyone who took part in organizing this trek, to our awesome guides Anya, Yurii and Nata and to the fellow tourists that walked this trail with me.