My Experience Climbing Zawrat (2159 m) in the Polish Tatra Mountains
Zawrat is a pass lying at a busy junction – it connects two valleys (Hala Gąsienicowa and Dolina Pięciu Stawów) and is the beginning of the most difficult trail in the Tatra Mountains (Orla Perć). From Zawrat, you can also reach Świnica, another Polish peak. Expect crowds in the high season (July/August).
The path from Hala Gąsienicowa is a difficult, alpine trail, and the route from Dolina Pięciu Stawów is a family-friendly walk for a Sunday afternoon. Many hikers, lulled into a false sense of security by the easier trail, attempt to get down on the more difficult one.
Don’t make this mistake if you’re an inexperienced hiker. Zawrat has claimed many lives over the years. If you don’t have any scrambling experience in alpine terrain, Zawrat from Hala Gąsienicowa is NOT for you.
If you’ve got some experience in alpine terrain, you know that it’s easier and safer to go up on the more difficult side (Hala Gąsienicowa) and get down on the easier one (Dolina Pięciu Stawów). I’d recommend this direction, but you are free to go the other way round.
The route from Hala Gąsienicowa to Dolina Pięciu Stawów:
Kuźnice – Hala Gąsienicowa 1h 50m
Hala Gąsienicowa – Czarny Staw Gąsienicowy 35m
Czarny Staw Gąsienicowy – Zmarzły Staw pod Zawratem 50m
Zmarzły Staw pod Zawratem – Zawrat 1h 05m
Zawrat – Dolina Pięciu Stawów – 1h 45m
Dolina Pięciu Stawów – Palenica 2h 10m
Kuźnice – Hala Gąsienicowa
We left for the hike at 6 am. The path was still muddy after a thunderstorm at night. The weather forecast wasn’t great but wasn’t abysmal either. Cold and cloudy with sunny spells. We weren’t counting on any views but we hoped it wouldn’t rain either. Knowing how changeable the weather in the mountains can be, we were ready to turn back at the slightest sign of drizzle or wet, treacherous rock higher up. The path ahead of us was demanding.
The route to Hala Gąsienicowa is normally crowded. But not that early in the morning in late August. We were among the very few people who enjoyed the pallid sun lurking from behind the clouds. The clouds themselves moved quickly, away from the mountains, and it gave us hope for good weather and dry conditions.
After a nearly 2-hour walk, we reached Hala Gąsienicowa. Although I’ve been there hundreds of times, it never fails to stun me with its beauty. That morning, it was deserted and looked like a place from a fairy tale.
Hala Gąsienicowa – Zmarzły Staw pod Zawratem
The path to Czarny Staw Gąsienicowy (Gąsienicowy Black Lake) is easy. A gentle slope led us to the lake, which this morning fully merited its name. The clouds hung low, covering the summits of the nearby mountains and lending the whole place a menacing feel.
The trail leads along the lake for roughly 15 minutes. We took some dramatic, Scandinavian-looking pictures.
Czarny Staw Gąsienicowy – Zmarzły Staw
When we skirted the lake, the trail went up the austere, craggy terrain. The path was slightly wet but still easy. Another photo opportunity arose with the dark lake making for an awe-inspiring background.
At one point, I slipped and fell down. It happened on a wide rocky path but still left me slightly shaky. What if it happened higher up where precipices abound?, I thought. From then on, I paid extra attention on wet rock and mini puddles. No anti-skidding soles can provide 100% protection.
Finally, we reached Zmarzły Staw (Frozen Lake). Halfway through.
Zmarzły Staw pod Zawratem – Zawrat
The path became steeper. There were hardly any people. We came across the first rock formations to scramble. They were easy and well-carved, but the trail wasn’t well signposted, so we stopped from time to time to make sure we didn’t get off the trail.
We were now immersed in the low-hanging clouds. They danced around us, sometimes burying the views behind us completely and sometimes revealing them in sudden sunny spells. The atmosphere was pleasantly dramatic.
When the path got even more steep and craggy, the first chains appeared. I began to feel a rush of joy and excitement.
Shortly after, we came across an exposed ledge with three metal handles attached to the rock to help hikers. This is where my hiking buddy suffered a short-lived crisis, so we took a break before tackling the obstacle and talked to two nice men who were descending from Zawrat.
Fortunately, the crisis passed quickly, and we could go on. The ledge was more of a psychological challenge than a technical one. We managed to get to the pass without any more crises, even though the exposure and difficulties were greater.
Shortly before reaching the pass, there is a moment that can be tricky for short people. The bit isn’t exposed, so you can safely try a few positions. In case you get stuck, you can carefully scramble the nearby rock (slightly exposed but more accessible to short people).
Now just a short, wide path separated us from the pass. We walked quickly through it and stood on Zawrat.
Zawrat – Palenica
And we were left speechless. The weather forecast lead us to believe that there would be clouds all over the place, and yet the view of Dolina Pięciu Stawów (The Valley of Five Lakes) was sharp as a razor. The weather in the mountains is, indeed, unpredictable.
We spent nearly an hour on Zawrat, eating, taking pictures, and relishing the sights. Then, we went towards Dolina Pięciu Stawów, descending along a gentle slope towards the breathtaking views.
It took us over an hour to reach the shelter in Dolina Pięciu Stawów. Then, we went via Dolina Roztoki towards Palenica.
Dolina Roztoki is a valley which boasts the biggest waterfall in the Tatra Mountains. But the descent was annoying, tiring, and inconvenient. The waterfall made the steep rocky stairs wet. On top of that, my muscles were screaming, and the path seemed to have no end. Honestly, all the precipices and technical difficulties on Zawrat were nothing in comparison with Dolina Roztoki.
But we finally reached Palenica and caught a bus to Zakopane for a well-deserved respite.
Practical Tips if You Want to Reach Zawrat
- Don’t attempt the trail from Hala Gąsienicowa without previous experience on other alpine trails. In Poland, you can climb Kościelec, Świnica from Przełęcz Świnicka, or Rysy to prepare.
- Hiking boots are an absolute must, as the rock is often wet and exposed.
- Although there weren’t crowds in late August, expect many people on Zawrat in July and August.
- Remember that the trail from Hala Gąsienicowa is difficult and the one from Dolina Pięciu Stawów is easy.
- From Zawrat, you can continue your hike to Orla Perć or Świnica – both are difficult.
- Reaching Zawrat can take longer than the average time on the map, depending on the queues on the trail and your level of fitness. Go on the trail as early as possible.
- Be careful when passing other hikers and do it only in safe places.