Stevo Bačkor has an unimaginably heavy load to carry. It weighs so much, he only speaks when strictly necessary and talks through gritted teeth. The strain and concentration show in the lines on his already weather-beaten face.
Stevo is a Tatra Sherpa and a member of the HANWAG Sole People. The Tatra Sherpas are the hut porters of the border zone between Poland and Slovakia – they named themselves after their Nepalese ‘colleagues’. Tins of food, barrels of beer and wood burning stoves all get carried on the backs of the Sherpas to the mountain huts of the High Tatras. There’s little chance of helicopter support in the area: the rugged terrain, fast-changing weather and National Park regulations make it virtually impossible to fly up supplies. The Sherpas’ shoulders are the most reliable solution – and they keep going in bad weather too.
Today, on the Slovakian side of the border, the mountains on the south of the High Tatra are magnificent. It’s late autumn, the air is cold and sharp, but a warm sun shines on the red leaves that contrast against the snow-covered cliffs. Stevo is carrying 60 kilos in his fully loaded wooden frame pack. But today is no work day – instead it’s the highpoint of the season…
Find out more about Stevo in the article about him here.
Every year, some 60 porters get together in a test of strength and to celebrate a successful summer without losses at the Tatra Sherpa Rally. It’s a competition with tradition. Some 40 years back, Viktor Beránek, Tatra Sherpa and landlord of the Chata pod Rysmi mountain hut, founded the event. The rally aims to bring people together – Sherpas, landlords, and local inhabitants.
“People need to know each other and to be able to rely on each other in the mountains,” explains the rally’s founder. “In addition, it means the hut has the luxury of being fully supplied every year before the onset of winter. More or less for free.”
It’s eight in the morning and the porters are gathering at the starting line in the Slovakien mountain spa resort of Starý Smokovec. Many of them have come a long way to be here. After handshakes and greetings, the wooden frame packs are carefully prepared. The male porters carry exactly 60 kilos, the women 20 kilos. Once loaded up, they are ready to compete against one another. The finish line is the Zbojnícka Chata mountain hut, the ‘Robber’s hut’.
Learning how to pack and load properly is important, says Stevo: “Every porter has his own technique. For me, I keep the heaviest item high above my head, to keep the load off my hips.” Today, the load on his frame pack towers at least a metre over the porter, who is already 1.79 metres tall. On a normal working day, the Sherpas carry varying weights – depending on what the hut has ordered. However, at the rally, everyone carries the exact same amount, which is carefully weighed down to the very last gram. This makes sure that everyone faces the exact same conditions.
The starting gun is fired, the race starts and the porters set out, their bodies straining under the load. The steep path leads up through beautiful autumnal woodlands. But no one has time for the surroundings. The brightly-coloured leaves on the trail are potentially treacherous – every step counts. Slipping with a 60-kilo load on your back could be fatal. You can see the intense concentration written all over their faces.
At the finish line, around one and half hours later, the porter in first place appears from behind a massive cliff, some 50 metres below the hut. Hot on his heels come three more Sherpas, their faces red with exertion. Some lean forward, some hold their bodies upright, some use trekking poles, everyone has their own way of coping with the heavy load.
The closer the towering, wobbling frame packs get to the finish, the louder the supporters and spectators become as they cheer them on. Over the final metres, there are cowbells and hooters to encourage the sweating bodies. With burning thighs and eyes focused on the path ahead, Braňo Karafa crosses the finish line in first place without batting an eyelid. The clock shows 1 hour, 31 minutes and 1 second. It takes ‘normal hikers’ three hours to walk the path with its 700 metres of elevation gain to the hut.
The winner has just enough time to catch his breath before a glass of beer is thrust into his hand. He’s certainly earned it – after all he’s just lugged a barrel containing 60 litres of the stuff all the way up to the hut.
Stevo has also made it to the finish. He might not be first this year, but he’s still just as relieved and just as happy. The porters raise their glasses to this year’s rally, the successful season and their work as sherpas in the High Tatras. Time to get the celebrations started. You could be excused for thinking that that the competition was actually a pretext. An elaborate excuse for a big party.
However, during the award ceremony the organisers remind us of the origins of the rally. And thank all the participants and supporters, who together have made it possible to supply the Zbojnícka Chata hut with hundreds of kilos of supplies and enough beer to see them through the whole of the winter season.
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