Hiking Hoverla. Ukraine's Highest Mountain.
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Hopefully time has placed some changes on hiking this beautiful mountain but when I hiked it in July 1994 it was a nightmare of red tape to make it from the base to the summit. Hoverla is the highest mountain in Ukraine at 2061 meters, or 6761’. It’s also the high point in the Chornahora, or the Black Mountains, a block of sandstone peaks that runs south into Romania. The Chornahora are part of the Carpathians which form a longer arc from central Romania to Poland and Slovakia crossing Ukraine as they make a hard turn to the west. The highest peaks of the Carpathians are in the High Tatra, astride the Slovak-Polish border. Gerlachova on the Slovakian side rises to 8737’.
Getting to the vicinity is not that difficult except for a little patience with the under-performing and very functional train service. There are a number of former Soviet resort-towns, many now empty, that are along the main Lviv-Rakhiv train line. The town which we headed to was Vorokhta. Vorokhta has a number of white elephant hotels which were virtually abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We were able to find a room in one of these that was otherwise devoid of a human soul. The water did not work and it was a bit creepy, but there were also a number of private houses that rent rooms out too. If you are fortunate to hire an outfitter that specializes in hiking tours, it’s probable that the accommodations will be better.
Our quest to reach Ukraine’s highest peak was somewhat like Frodo’s adventure in the Lord of the Rings, except we weren’t pursued by an evil force, or at least one that was physically recognizable. The amount of barriers, false-starts, and obstacles I, and my wife Oksana, encountered before getting to the base of the mountain was only overcome by subterfuge, goodwill, and luck. We arrived in Vorokhta and checked into that aforementioned empty hotel, half-maintained and probably dilapidated by now. When we woke up the sun burned off a thick layer of fog that typically settles in the deep and damp Prut River valley. Crossing the street we were told that a bus usually comes by and picks people up at such and such a time and goes to the gate of the zapovidnik, or preserve, wherein lies the base resort, or turbaza, at the foot of Hoverla. After waiting and asking for close to two hours, all the time being reassured that a bus would soon come, we finally decided to walk up the road and just try our luck at flagging a bus heading in that direction. Eventually we caught a bus that brought us to the start of a long village road. We got off there and my wife asked a local if there was another bus that led up to the turbaza. That was the tricky part. In order to gain access to the turbaza, inside the zapovidnik, you had to cross a gated checkpoint and either be a part of a state-sponsored tour group, or a local that was heading up the road to tend the behives on the collective farm. Shit. We were neither. Lucky enough the villager knew the bus driver who was heading up the road with the farmers and we hopped aboard. That took us through the stupid checkpoint and the bus wound its way up the road to the turbaza. It was already late in the morning.
Jubilant, we immediately caught the trail and started the hike through a forest of tall fir trees. Beautiful beech trees, something the Chornahora is famous for, also formed part of the sylvan canopy. The trail was steep, and it was clear it was not designed by someone who had recreation in mind. It simply beat a path of least resistance, which meant it was switchback-challenged. Hoverla is not a brutally steep mountain, some might not even describe it as rugged, but it didn’t help that the trail made a beeline for the summit. It was steep. Eventually we cleared the forest and headed over a meadow with a beautiful field of flowers. Then up it went, seemingly ballistic, to the domed summit above. I finally made it to Ukraine’s highest point physically exhausted. Hoverla was little different in dimension and elevation than the scores of New England peaks I had climbed. I shouldn't have felt like I just completed a death-march. The views of the Chornohora's ridges unfolded south towards Romania. But we had to head down if we were to have any chance of making it back somewhere that resembled civilization before nightfall. We raced down the mountain, taking small breaks to desperately shoot photos of the landscape. At the base we were faced with the real possibility of having to walk down the road that led from the turbaza to the village row where we caught the behive bus that morning. That was a long walk and I was already dirty, sweaty, and tired. Luckily we hitched a ride with a chartered bus carrying Belgian tourists. That brought us down to the hotel where they were staying. We tried to find lodging at that place but as usual the Ukrainians like to play mind games with foreign tourists when it comes to lodging them. The manager explained they had no rooms available. Strange, it looked half-empty to me. Too tired to argue and plead we started on foot and hitched down to Yaremcha. A truck driver gave us a ride and we offered him cigarettes as a token of appreciation. Yaremcha is an older more established resort that predates the Soviet Intourist nightmares, so we thought our prospects of finding a room were good. We tried one place but they wanted to take our passports. My wife refused and she was right to do so. If they took our passports they could have easily extorted all the money out of us come checkout time. Exhausted, we headed to the train station and ate dinner in a cafeteria next door. An old, drunken Hutsul approached us and stood over our table muttering something ominous. Eventually he left us alone to eat in peace. We finally caught the train which did its milk-run before arriving in Ivano-Frankivsk, a small city 75 kilometers or so away. It was already late in the afternoon, approaching darkness. This is not a situation you want to find yourself in Ukraine, but it wasn’t the first time it happened. We were lucky enough to catch an overnight train to Lviv. It was hot, stuffy, and crowded. I couldn’t breath and Ukrainians have this thing about closing windows on moving vehicles, train, bus, car, whatever. My wife explained to me that they were afraid of the draft. Nevermind the draft I thought, we could die if we didn’t get any oxygen! It didn’t phase the locals. It never does. Just do like the Romans …or die like the Romans, I thought. Did I mention the windows are bolted shut on these trains anyway. We finally arrived in Lviv train station at about 2 am. I was glad to sit outside and breath the cool, fresh summer air before catching our 5 am connection to Chervonohrad. The militzia came by and interrogated all the other people waiting outside – telling them to move on. Where were they supposed to go? They were simply waiting for their connections. They left me and my wife alone, fortunately. It’s easy to tell the foreigners from the locals. About an hour before our final connection departed we boarded and closed our eyes. I woke momentarily as the train jerked forward – it was 5 am and at last we were headed home. Hoverla had been something halfway between an adventure and a nightmare. The peak is clearly worth the climb but some advanced planning is necessary. Hiring one of the many adventure outfitters that now cater to western tourists is also a good idea. Those barely existed when I climbed it but had they I would not have had these great memories. In that regard it is one of the most memorable peaks I have climbed.
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