The trail leading up to the rocky peaks of the High Tatras is steep and loose. Stevo Backor places one foot in front of the other, swiftly and carefully, but with solid determination. On his back is a homemade wooden frame – it’s as long as a ladder and loaded like a heavy goods vehicle with barrels of beer, bags, glass bottles etc. While others enjoy a hike through this region of the High Tatras national park, Stevo is ‘hauling’ around 80 kg up to the Zbojnícka hut, at an elevation just below 2,000 metres. He is one of more than 60 Tatra hiking Sherpas who supply the mountain huts in the smallest alpine range in the world, in just the same way it’s been done for 100 years.

“As young men, we did this to train our muscles, to test our limits… maybe we wanted to impress the girls too,” says Stevo with a twinkle in his eye. He grew up in the town of Poprad, Slovakia, at the foot of the High Tatra, and not far from the border with Poland. His mother, a climber, took him into the mountains from an early age. And they’ve been his life ever since. Now, the 45-year-old with a degree in Ecology and Environmental Biology, has worked as a park ranger in the National Park for 10 years, is a hiking guide (UIMLA) and is also part of the mountain rescue team.

“Most of it’s in your mind.”

Indispensable helpers for the High Tatras mountain huts

Fully focused: Just like mountaineering and climbing, working as a porter can bring a near meditative flow state. “Good for the head”, according to Stevo.

But what Stevo enjoys most is his work as a Sherpa. Twenty years on, the reasons for doing it are different. It’s not about physique. “You just have to block out the physical strain,” says Stevo. “Simply put, Sherpa work is good for your head.” Some people meditate, some practice yoga. Števo hauls stuff up mountains. What might seem like slave-labour to some, he perceives as “sheer freedom”. It’s a very intense way of getting closer to nature.

There is a long history of High Tatra Sherpas. On the southern slopes of the High Tatras, in Stary Smokovec, Stevo lives together with his wife in a wooden hut called the ‘Sherpa Caffe’. Here, he’s set up a small museum that documents how these porters helped discover the Tatra Mountains in the early days. With the arrival of tourism and the establishment of the first mountain huts in the Tatras in the 19th century, some of the locals started to work full time as porters – similar to the Himalayas. To this day, the Tatra Sherpas are still indispensable for the mountain huts in Slovakia’s oldest national park. “It’s quite common for the weather to close in for weeks at a time, making it impossible to fly helicopters”, explains Stevo.

Even for pack animals, the trails up to the huts are too steep and treacherous to negotiate. However, Stevo is still unsure how long the tradition will last. Together with some colleagues he has already submitted an application for UNESCO World Heritage status. “Maybe in the future, it will be drones doing our work!?” Stevo ponders and laughs sheepishly. But really, he’d prefer not to consider that option. His work as a Sherpa has meant so much to him. Looking contemplative, Stevo takes a few more steps and says quietly: “I’ve found many answers to the meaning of life while doing my Sherpa duties.”

Watch the video: On the way in the High Tatras with Stevo Backor

4 Questions for Stevo

Sherpas in Europe – sounds like folklore …?

… yes and no. We Sherpas look back on a long history. But our work is much more than some traditional custom to entice tourists to the area. It’s still highly relevant – an indispensable service. Several hard-to-reach mountain huts in the High Tatras can only be serviced by porters carrying drinks, gas canisters and fresh supplies on foot. Here, it’s not just cable cars and goods supply cables that are in short supply, but roads too. Mountain culture has evolved differently here than in the Alps. And us Sherpas really want to keep the tradition alive. And then there’s our annual ‘Sherpa Rally’ – racing with heavily laden carriers. But it’s not about who gets the best time, it’s much more about the social get-together.

How long did you have to train to be able to carry such huge loads?

As young lads, we didn’t train at all. We spent lots of time in the mountains anyway.  And so it came pretty easily to us. The heaviest load I ever carried weighed 121 kilograms, a generator for the Téryho hut. But I’ll tell you something. It’s not all to do with muscles. Most of it’s in your mind. One of my Sherpa friends once said: “This job would only suit one in 300 people”.

You studied ecology and environmental protection, and have worked as a ranger in the national park. Do you think the Sherpas are part of a more sustainable approach to mountain tourism?

It’s definitely better for the environment than building mountain roads or supplying the huts by helicopter every week. But the question is how long the hut stewards are willing or able to carry on paying us. Currently, the huts are supplied once or twice a season by helicopter, in particular to transport heating fuel. The rest is carried by us Sherpas. But the cost of a helicopter isn’t that high these days and they can transport so much stuff. Helicopters have become a more convenient and cheaper option for hut wardens. But luckily, there’s still the weather to contend with. And that makes it impossible to fly a helicopter sometimes for weeks at a time.

Working as a Sherpa involves a lot of drudgery. Is it worth it?

Definitely. Nothing compares to having a hot cup of tea in your hands and the human companionship you experience up at the hut after battling the elements for hours on end. If you ever forget what’s really important in life… this is where you’ll remember.

Reading tip: The big report on the Sherpa Rally

Photo Hanwag Tatra II trekking boot

Stevo's Favorite Shoe: HANWAG TATRA II

“They’re comfortable and versatile. I’ve got two pairs. Because here, it can rain for days at a time. And of course, I spend a lot of time outdoors. And the huts need to be supplied. So while one pair is drying out at home, I can use the other pair to head back up the mountain.” (Stevo Backor)

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