Hiking in the Tatras, in the south of Poland, is a spectacular treat. It’s filled with exhilarating vistas, invigorating paths, and spectacles of natural beauty. One of the most intriguing and well known trails, drawing those looking to experience the absolute best and extreme that the Tatra Mountains have to offer, is the Orla Perć trail, otherwise known as the Eagle’s Path – and with good reason. It’s easy to understand how Orla Perć got its name. You really are ascending where only birds will go. The views are breathtakingly glorious and you very much experience the ‘ridge’ of the mountains. The path, which in places is more of a scramble, or climb, is challenging and rewarding. It really is an enticing trail for adrenalin junkies, thrill seekers, and experienced hikers.
However, over the 112 years since it was first waymarked, 140 people have died on the Orla Perć trail. It is definitely not a trail for the faint-hearted.
The History of Orla Perć
Orla Perć was established 110 years ago in 1906. At that time it was set as a challenge to the very best hikers of the region. In many ways it was a local’s trail. It had status for those who sought to defeat it. It was an accolade for those already experienced in hiking the Tatras. Nonetheless, it was designed specifically to allow access to the highest peaks for non-climbers. Now, anyone can choose to embrace the trail.
The Tatra Mountains have long had a strong ‘fan’ base. The trail was the idea of a Polish poet called Franciszek Nowicki and Father Walenty Gadicki. Construction of the trail began in 1903 and was led by Father Gadowski. The route was finally completed in 1906. The current Orla Perć trail is somewhat shorter than the original, ending at Krzyźne instead of Woloszyn. The latter part of the trail was open for less than 30 years, and has been closed since 1932.
What Does the Orla Perć Consist Of?
The term ‘hike’ is probably an extreme downplay of what actually awaits the traveller on the Orla Perć. Yes, this is a waymarked route with a red arrow trail guiding the way. But also you will find steep and near vertical ascents, descents, scrambles and climbs. You’ll need to both ascend and descend metal ladders and strategically placed rungs, and use metal chains to traverse ledges and bridge sheer drops. It is, in many ways, similar in terrain to a ‘via ferrata’ that you might find in the Alps, but, in extreme contrast, you cannot attach to a continuous wire. The decision has been taken not to turn the Orla Perć in to a via ferrata, as this is an historical trail, and the consensus is that it should be preserved as such.
The trail starts at the Zawrat Pass at an altitude of 2159m. From here it traverses through the Zamarzla Pass, up Kozi Wierch, and ultimately ends at Krsyźnem, at 2122m. It is only 4.5km, but don’t be fooled by length, this will take you between 6-8 hours, or more, depending on your start point.
There are various intersections with other paths which head towards shelters and chalets. It is advisable to book at the shelters as they can get busy.
Why Are There So Many Fatalities on Orla Perć?
140 people have died on the Orla Perć trail since its opening in 1906. This accounts for one-fifth of the total number of deaths in the Polish Tatra mountain region over the same period. The majority of accidents occur as a result of either slipping on rocks, or ice. Much of the trail is high altitude, with jagged precipices, and loose scree.
One of the main reasons it is thought that there are so many fatalities on the Orla Perć is that often people come to the trail unprepared for what it truly involves. This is not your standard ‘hike’, and experience and a high level of fitness are essential. Preparation is key – in terms of both route and weather. Parts of the trail are extremely exposed. It must be remembered that the Orla Perć was designed for those who were already experienced hikers in this region, for those who knew the area well. Historically, several accidents have taken place when hikers are passing each other from opposite directions. In recent years steps have been taken to prevent any crossing on the most dangerous section.
What Do I Need to Know if I am Hiking the Orla Perć?
We cannot stress enough that this is not your average mountain hike. You must be both experienced, strong, confident, and fit. It is highly recommended, that if you don’t know the Tatras, that you use a guide. You will need appropriate hiking footwear, be able to carry everything in a small pack, and take a torch should your descent head in to the twilight. The Tatra Volunteer Rescue Service also now advise that you bring some basic climbing gear.
Most of all, you should carefully plan your excursion. Weather and personal wellness are central to success. Falling stones can be a real risk, as can avalanches, so do check local forecasts and news. Fog, wind, rain and snow all make for more perilous conditions.
In addition, don’t be foolhardy. Take care of yourself and other trail users. In busy times you may be waiting behind someone struggling with a section, and patience is important. It’s not unusual for there to be snow or ice on the trail during the summer months. Sometimes sections of the trail become harder to spot due to a recent avalanche or rock fall. Careful assessment and experience can be crucial.
There is a ‘one-way’ system at the trickiest spot on the path. This section runs from Zawrat to Kozi Wierch. If you want, you can start the trail from Zakopane, however the majority of people choose to start at the Murowaniec Hut, where pre-booking is highly recommended. Alternatively you can start at the Dolina Pięciu Stawów Hut (Five Ponds Valley).
Orla Perć – The Top of the World
It might have a history of danger, but a successful experience on the Orla Perć will leave you feeling as if you are on top of the world. The sense of achievement is immense, and there’s nothing else quite like it. This trail is as much as part of Poland’s history and culture, as well as staggering natural landscape. It’s unique and breath-taking, and something for the adrenalin junkie. If you’d like to have a little insight in to what awaits the hiker on the Orla Perć, enjoy this spectacular short video (link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtwJar_GE1I).
Be sensible, know your limits, and enjoy this spectacular historical Tatra trail. Alternatively, enjoy from afar at marvel at other people’s success!