Updated: Sep 19, 2019
As Katarina Kuba and I toed to the start line of the Bokami Zapadnych Tatier, a well recognized Slovakian ski mountaineering race, a wide mix of excitement and angst flowed through our minds. Several months earlier the thought of travelling to Europe racing four disciplines at the Ski-mo world championships then spending three full days of skiing and climbing in Chamonix just one day prior to a three day 7200 meter stage race seemed like a doable idea. We had planned to use the day prior to the Bokami race as our “rest” day but…. this is what ensued, an alpine 3:30am wake up in Chamonix to catch a bus to the Geneva airport where we then flew to Krakow, Poland. Another bus shuttled us to Katarina’s cousin who was happily willing to drive us and our gear to the race accommodation below the stunning western Tatras mountains. We finally lay our weary heads down just to be awake a few hours later to be ready for the start line.
Rest day, Ha! Travelling is exactly that! Realizing that we now had a 2000 meter plus day in the hot sun was definitely daunting! To my surprise I was thrown into a very hospitable, boisterous culture. Prior to the race I had very little idea of what was ahead of me. Luckily Katarina speaks fluent Slovak and has been to Slovakia racing and visiting family several times prior to this trip. I was completely lost in translation but soon learned how to pick up on facial expressions and gestures giving me a general idea of the jist of things.
They love healthy portions of sausage, bread, soups and pastries. They are always up for a good laugh accompanied by their favourite alcohol. Mountain culture runs deep. People have been living in the Tatras mountains for thousands of years. Many of the high mountain huts have been in place since the early 1800’s and are cared for with pride.
There we were at the start line. Fatigued but still buzzing with excitement for the next three days of racing with two hundred other excitable Slovaks. With a packed course of technical skiing, bootpacking and a new cultural experience I was ready to give it a shot!
Day one of Bokami was hot, windless and tough just like we had expected. During the first climbs of the day it wasn’t uncommon to engage in simple conversation with other Slovak racers who were very enthused to see the first ever North American team at Bokami. Not to mention sticking out like a sore thumb with our team Canada suits. Unlike the majority of North American Ski-Mo races, nearly all of Bokami is off piste in full on mountain terrain. This really gave the race a rugged feel even with 100 other teams in our midst. With day one done and dusted we sipped tea at the finish line and discussed the many amusing and intense moments throughout that day.
Day two came too fast after inhaling dinner and hitting the pillow. Due to the race occurring in the spring and low snow levels at valley bottom, stage two started with 1 km of awkward running in ski boots on spongy trail. Stage two like stage one, was technical with stunning views in every direction. Spring ski conditions was consistent for most of the descents making it enjoyable. Although our day did end with a gruelling descent traverse entailing loads of skating and double poling. With day two behind us we made way back to the hotel, proceeded with our gear explosion then passed out in the afternoon sun.
Day three rolled around and to our dismay we thought we had understood the pre race information. Thinking that the start line was only minutes from the race accommodation we took our time getting ready. 7:30 arrived and we noticed that the hotel had become very silent. Unusual for the boisterous Slovak conversations that usually echoed up and down the hallways. As we slowly made our way out of the hotel we were told that the start line was 2.5 km down the paved road! Without much thought and 20 minutes to spare we ran up the road with our thumbs out. Sure enough two friendly Slovak spectators happily gave us a ride to the start line with a few minutes to spare for the 8:00 start! Stage three consisted of 2 long climbs and two long steep couloir bootpacks in a the heat of the day. It was by far my favourite stage with views of the whole Western Tatras Mountains range.
The spectators were out in full force lining many sections of the race course. It reminded me why the locals consider Bokami to be like a lesser known Pierra Menta of central Europe. Katarina and I both felt the effects of the strong spring sun on stage three making the 2750 meter day quite a challenge. Three days of racing and just over 7000 meters of elevation gain slowly came to an end as we trickled in across the finish in 42nd place overall. You could see the relief on racers faces as they flaked out in the afternoon sun at the finish line. Looking around at the finish offered a show of comical tan and burn lines covering every racers face. Many had already started their pre-drinking for the afterparty later that evening. Like many post race parties this one was no different with the exception of more high energy dancing, and a mix of rock classics with some traditional Slovak folklore music. Oh yeah, and the colossal portions of food was highly appreciated!
I would highly recommend Bokami to anyone seeking a real ski mountaineering experience that is hosted by hospitable people who welcome other countries with open arms. My first intro to Slovakia will certainly be one to remember for a long time or should I say until next time.