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Return To Poland

In July 2008 my brother my father and I set about the slightly morbid task of returning my grandfathers ashes to his mother’s grave in Poland. Not the most obvious choice of holidays but we hoped to get some climbing in while we were there. My grandfather, Jan Babiczuk, was born in Poland 25 November 1916. Thanks to a false passport and a change of clothes organised by the resistance my granddad was able to escape from a POW camp with two of his brothers and some friends after the German invasion of Poland in 1939. An epic journey ensued, dodging guns and living in the hulls of ships for weeks until eventually they found themselves in France and subsequently the UK and safety. As they were all originally Polish air force they automatically became instrumental in the UK’s air defence stationed at various RAF bases about the country. My grandfather never returned home, never saw his parents again who had become slaves on the railways for the Nazis during the war and only saw one or two of his siblings on very rare occasions for the rest of his life. Lvov, his home town became Czech territory after the war. It was for this reason that he vowed never to return to Poland until the borders are put back as they should be. At least that’s what he told us. However it seems that he may also have been part of some resistance movement during wartime in Poland as he also harboured an overwhelming fear of being arrested if he ever returned home. I guess we’ll never know the truth about what these people, our grandparents truly experienced during those dark years. It was written in his will that he would like his ashes to go home to his mother’s grave so we felt this an important task to honour, it’s the least we could do really!

So we found ourselves in a hostel in the beautiful city of Krakow planning our ten days. The plan was to locate the grave, scatter the ashes, take a picture then head out to the High Tatras for a week of climbing and camping. We had a contact in Poland, some woman who could tell us where to find the grave so we gave her a call. She turned out to be our cousin and to be ‘expecting’ us!! This is where the plans started to go out of the window. We now spent the next two days meeting for the first time Polish family that we never knew we had! We located the grave and attempted to scatter the ashes to the horror of our polish family who explained that it must be done the catholic way with a ceremony and a priest. This was organised for right in the middle of our designated climbing time but we couldn’t argue, we were there to do a job after all.

We made our arrangements to come back for the ceremony and headed to the Tatras for only two days climbing. There are no guide books to climbing in Poland so we were not really sure what to expect. Conveniently one of our new cousins currently works in a mountain chalet and was able to accommodate us. We had only a scrap of paper that we printed off the internet back home. It showed a photograph of a granite face with route lines highlighted and very little other information. With this bit of paper and some gesturing we were able to establish the location of this face and plan the climb for the next day. Most people advised us that a 9am start would be sufficient but I wasn’t convinced. Just a gut feeling I guess. Sure enough in a strained conversation with the chalet owner I managed to decipher that in fact a 5am start would be much more advisable and that he would drive us to the start of the walk in.

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We arrived at 6am at the start of the walk in. It was a wide gravel forestry track that from 9am onwards would be frequented by a horse and cart taxi service ferrying tourists up the valley. At this ungodly hour it was completely abandoned. What followed was the single most boring 8 mile walk in I’ve ever had to undertake.  But it did lead to another high mountain chalet where we were able to get a quick cup of tea and slice of toast before starting the 2nd stage of the walk in. Slightly more interesting this time, consisting of single track rising out of the forest and gaining height into beautiful mountain scenery much like being in the Alps. We could now see the object of our climbing mission. It turned out to be a free standing granite spire rising like a horn out of the side of a larger scrambling peak. Not bad so far, to find our selves with our objective in sight having got here on the strength of a photograph alone. All that remained was to get up to the face and see how it looked. Our chalet owner had given us a shaky idea of the difficulty of each of the routes marked (i.e. ‘this one hardest... this one easiest’). On approach to the start of the routes I could clearly see that the hardest line also happened to look like the best line by a long shot. I was psyched. I could see before me 5 or 6 pitches of perfect blank granite slab with bolts just where they may be needed. We racked up and I threw myself into the first pitch like a heroin addict about to get his next hit. Blank granite slabs are quite simply the best climbing in the world, flat hands padding the rock like a lizard, precise and careful foot placements onto any slight imperfections or dimples. That buzz of excitement when you realise you can actually stand up and progress on absolutely nothing. The rush of excitement as the slab steepens and you realise just how far you can push it using this unbelievable friction. I progressed fast and efficiently loving every second of it. I found myself chuckling quietly when occasionally I would be stopped in my rhythm and having to move so incredibly delicately just to stay adhered. Perfect!

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My brother followed but unknown to me had never climbed on this sort of high mountain granite before and actually had no concept of padding so was a little uncertain at first. Eventually he picked up the knack and we moved swiftly.  We progressed with little difficulty aside from a couple of overhangs that proved extremely challenging. Equivalent to a V7 Fontainebleau top out we were completely unable to get over and had to skirt around after many exhausting tries. The summit was just about big enough for two people, a real pinnacle. We stayed for a quick summit shot then rapped off a very straight forward and friendly descent. A perfect granite fix that left us running down the descent path out of sheer joy!  When we got back down to the high mountain chalet we were greeted by thousands of tourists that had been ferried up by horse and cart. We didn’t stop here long. But we did take a horse and cart back down that boring walk in and were down in time for some Polish hunters stew and pint of Zwiech beer!

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That night the rain came in monsoon style and remained for the rest of the trip. The ceremony in Bochnia at my granddads mothers grave went ahead as planned and his ashes now sit back at home next to his mom and dad and a few of his siblings. He has a name plate up there with his family. Mission accomplished. We were then left with a day or so spare to entertain ourselves in the rain. This involved many beers in Krakow and a trip to Auschwitz. Hmm, yes not fabulously entertaining I must admit but probably a place that everyone should see at least once. These things have to be remembered less they happen again. But be aware if you go that it’s probably the only tour you’ll ever take where your tour guide is crying at the end!

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So that was the end of one of my most unusual trips yet, I wonder what the next one will be. Probably something a little more aesthetic like riding a Royal Enfield bullet to Nepal!

– Paul Martin


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