The Yorkshire Vet, Julian Norton remembers a challenging climbing trip to Slovakia

Stary Smokovec is the closest I have come to visiting the Ukraine.
A hotel spared the climbers from sleeping in a snow hole.A hotel spared the climbers from sleeping in a snow hole.
A hotel spared the climbers from sleeping in a snow hole.

At the very Eastern end of a long, cold and (as it was at the time) distinctly Soviet-style train journey from Prague, this was the village from which two friends and I would launch our winter mountaineering forays into the Tatra mountains.

This was thirty years ago, and things were very different then.

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The mountain village was situated in Slovakia, just a few miles from its border with Poland. It was the winter of 1992-3, and for some reason we decided this was the time to explore some new mountains.

The Tatra are part of the Carpathian mountain range and offered us something mid-way between the hills of Scotland and the alpine giants, reaching 2,655m at their highest. We left Yorkshire and headed east, with huge rucksacks full of warm clothes, ropes, crampons and ice-axes.

Clumpy plastic winter climbing boots gave us the appearance of Power Rangers and an air of invincibility. We decided we were so invincible that we would spend some nights in mountain refuges and the rest in snow holes, carved out of the snowy mountains.

We eventually arrived in Stary, having endured a long night with a Slovakian would-be author, who had written a series of stories, in terrible English, which he hoped to publish. He couldn’t believe his luck to be sharing a sleeping compartment with three Brits.

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Into the small and dark hours, he recited one dreadful story after another. He had, apparently, even sent some to the Queen to seek Royal approval.

Our first mountain night was in a refuge on the Polish border. Heated solely by candles – or so it seemed – it was pretty basic, cold and lacking in any sensible conversation between us and the other guests.

Needless to say, we couldn’t speak Polish or Czech, nor Slovakian. As soon as we could, we bade our farewells, in the international language of a wave and descended the snowy valley in search of a suitable place to build a snow-hole. Luckily, a large hotel quickly came into view, perched on the edge of a very big and frozen lake.

It seemed infinitely preferable to a snow hole so we agreed that, while the three of us were obviously mountain men, we would really rather prefer to stay in a warm hostel. There was more lucky news: there was a free room!

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Later, there was more good news, because this particular evening was New Year’s Eve and a party was planned. And what a party it was! It coincided with the day that Czechoslovakia separated into two countries – the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Without being able to communicate in a single word, we had the best evening and enjoyed the most fantastic hospitality, sipping from the hip flasks of almost every reveller and singing all the wrong words to their national anthem.

The friendliness and inclusion was so palpable that evening and touching. I still remember it with clarity. The three of us were outsiders, aliens in weird, oversized winter climbing boots, with no words to communicate.

Yet we were welcomed as friends and with open arms, not as foreign intruders. It’s no surprise to see that the communities in this part of the world are doing such an amazing job of helping refugees from their neighbours in the Ukraine, fleeing something a whole lot worse than two nights in a snow hole at minus 20.

The Yorkshire Vet is back this week on Channel 5 on Tuesday night, for its 14th series.