Monday, 12 April 2010

Scaling Sněžka

Peaking at 1602 metres above sea level, Sněžka is the highest mountain in the Czech Republic. The name is a derivative of the old German 'Schneekoppe', which means something like 'snowy peak' or 'snowy head'. Shaped roughly like a three-sided pyramid, Sněžka's north face slopes down into Poland, the south-east towards the rolling hills outside Trutnov and the west into the valley of the River Úpa.

The nearest town is Pec pod Sněžkou and that’s where I based myself for the hike to the top. Actually, I stayed a little outside town, about halfway between Pec and nearby Velka Úpa. It wouldn't be quite truthful to call Pec a resort town, but most of the businesses there are involved in tourism in some way. There are ski schools, adventure equipment stores, restaurants, pubs, hotels, and at least a dozen pensions.

Pec is the Czech word for furnace and gives a clue to the reason for the first settlement in such a high and remote part of the Krkonoše mountains. In the early 16th century German colonists settled in the mountains to mine iron, copper and arsenic and after 1566 they were joined by woodcutters felling timber to be floated downstream to the silver mines at Kutná Hora. Pec pod Sněžkou's importance as a mining colony gradually faded but the furnace for arsenic (nicknamed the poison furnace) functioned until serfdom was abolished in the mid-19th century, and small scale mining continued as late as 1959.

There’s not much left of historic Pec but the most useful facilities for travellers are close to the intersection of the roads that run along the base of the river valleys. The supermarket, the best pub in town and the information office that deals with accommodation are all within a few metres of the intersection. Finding accommodation shouldn’t be too difficult; almost every second building is a pension.

The tourist information office in town helped me arrange a room at the cottage Eliška. For less than the price of a typical hostel dorm bed, I had my own room with a writing table and access to a balcony, garden and a kitchen equipped even with recycling bins. The owner told me that most of the people who visit Pec are Czech, Polish or German, and those three nationalities in roughly equal numbers. The busiest season is winter, but the summer holidays are not far behind.

To get to the top of Sněžka from Pec, you can either walk or take the cable car. The cable car started operation in 1949 and covers the 700m of altitude between Pec (864m above sea level) and Sněžka in two stages of about two kilometres each. The base station is along the valley of the Úpa at the edge of town and operates from 8am to 7pm in the summer months. The fare is 180Kč for adults, with discounts for children, pensioners and groups of more than 20 people.

To walk to Sněžka from Pec, you can choose either the yellow marked trail that leads up from the edge of town near the cable car, or the green trail that leaves from behind the pizzeria about 200m from the big intersection. It doesn’t matter too much which one you choose, because they join together less than ten minutes into the forest. I went up on the yellow and came down on the green.

The first part of the trail is steep and leads out of the river valley through thick pine forest up to the ridge that runs south from the peak. The undergrowth is of moss and ferns, but as you approach the ridge they give way to grasses and the trees thin to a clearing with wide sky and a view of Sněžka’s barren peak.

There are two cabins up here and they offer accommodation and have restaurants open to the public. If the weather is good, it’s hard to resist joining the other hikers sitting at the outdoor benches and admiring the view, and if the weather’s bad, I’m sure it would be hard to resist zipping inside for a warm drink and a sit around the open fire.

From the cabins the hiking trail flattens out and leads past the cable car relay station. The cable car seems to be used mostly by people who are too old to climb the mountain without endangering their health. Or groups of school kids who couldn’t climb the mountain without endangering the mental health of their teachers. Towards the treeline, the trees get smaller and smaller and there are glimpses of cable car passengers swinging through their tops like the shopping bags of an invisible giant.

When the trees come to an end, so does the gently sloping trail along the ridge. This is the base of Sněžka's bald head and the hiking trail becomes a steep staircase covered in loose rock. I found this the most difficult part of the hike but there are a handful of benches on which to catch a breath and the peak is in sight, so it's too late to give up no matter what your legs and lungs might tell you.

Approaching the peak there's a view over the other side down into Poland and there will no doubt be hikers heading up that way too. There are a couple of reasonably large towns down in the valley on the Polish side, and Sněžka suddenly doesn’t seem nearly as remote as it looks from the Czech side of the border.

The knee-high concrete markers with a P on one side and a C on the other mark the international border that runs precisely across the peak of Sněžka. Right at the top there a flattish area about twice the size of a tennis court, with three or four buildings on it. The square ones are on the Czech side of the border and the round ones are Polish.

The small, round, wooden building is the Chapel of St. Lawrence. The large one that looks like a comic-book space station or a clump of huge, metallic mushrooms is a restaurant, souvenir store and weather station. When I visited Sněžka there were two buildings on the Czech side of the peak (not counting the cable car terminal which is a few minutes' walk downhill) but there's now only one.

The small wooden hut that functioned as a post office and cafe was up for sale very cheaply on the condition that the purchaser remove it. Its role as a post office and meteorological station has been taken over by a modern, louvre-clad building with a raised observation deck that was getting its finishing details in June of 2008.

Public transport connections to Pec
Accommodation in Pec

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