The High Tatra National Park in eastern Slovakia boasts not only spectacular scenery and challenging peaks, but also a unique group of mountain workers in Europe: sherpas. Yet this trade is threatened and could die out.
Viktor Beranek and Jarda Sima are two of the few remaining sherpas in the Tatras
The High Tatra National Park is popular year round with hikers, skiers and mountain climbers seeking a challenge. Camping is prohibited in the park, but several mountain chalets are open for people to stay overnight.
Most have no running water, power or refrigeration, and there are no roads for vehicles to bring up supplies. So many chalets have to rely on teams of sherpas to haul literally everything up and down the mountain.
Viktor Beranek belongs to the most well-known sherpas in the region. The 56-year-old has been working as a sherpa for almost four decades. Beranek says he believes the work is good for his soul.
A sign welcomes visitors to Vicktor's kingdom high in the Tatra mountains
"Sometimes it's difficult to explain why we do it," he says. "It's a hard job, but it's like a lifestyle."
He says working in nature is completely the opposite of being in the city.
"It's different here -- it's quiet," Beranek says. "It's more of a spiritual life and you have to rely on your strength and mind."
Strength certainly plays a major role in being a sherpa.
"The first time I tried sherpa work, I walked 50 meters and thought, oh my God, this is harder than I thought," Beranek says. "It was 48 kilograms. I thought it was stupid and I realized you needed a lot of strength."
They call him the King of the Mountain
Outside a small mountain storage hut near the town of Stary Smokovec, Beranek is busy scraping ice from a full keg of beer. Securing a firm grip, Viktor crab-walks the steel cylinder towards a wooden frame leaning on a pile of packaged fresh meat, vegetables and frozen dumplings.
"That's my darling," he says, pointing to his beloved carrying frame. There's nothing fancy about it. Made of smooth birch wood, the lightweight frame support goods on the back and has an overhead compartment. Wide canvas shoulder straps made from old firehoses hang loosely from it.
Rysy Cottage is the highest inn in Slovakia
Before setting off up the mountain, Beranek carefully weighs the fully packed load on a set of scales. Viktor estimates he'll be hauling around 90 kilograms -- a fairly typical load for male sherpas to carry on the two-hour trek up to Chata Pod Rysmi. It's the oldest chalet in the Tatras -- and the highest at 2,250 meters.
For decades, the chalet has employed six sherpas during the main hiking season from early spring to late autumn, and as required during winter. Beranek might be the oldest sherpa in the Tatras, but they don't call him "King of the Mountain" for nothing: his best carrying weight is 122 kilograms.
"When you're young, you can get into shape really quickly, from 48 kilos up to 70 and 80 kilos," he says. "And you learn that you need to take some food or tea with you on the way."
The sherpa tradition is threatened
From the supply hut, sherpas ascend 750 meters during the two-hour trek to the chalet. Their route takes them through the tree line, across alpine pastures and up steep rocky sections that require hanging onto chains. The 23-year-old student Jarda Sima is working his first season as a sherpa this year. He says it's a dream job.
"I enjoy it very much because it's the sort of work that I've wanted to do for a long time," Sima says. "It's a great job in a great place."
How much longer sherpas will be working in the Tatras is anyone's guess. Sherpas are paid per kilo and some chalets have decided to use helicopters to bring up higher volumes of goods. Beranek hopes Chata Pod Rysmi does not go down that path.
Sherpas compete against each other in the annual rally
He argues that modern day sherpas are continuing a centuries old tradition of bringing food to people living and hunting in the mountains. Also, the helicopters scare the rare chamois, a type of native mountain goat, and tourists love to see the sherpas working in the Tatras, he says. But Beranek admits that it's not such an attractive job for young people today.
"The sherpas will die out because new technology will replace us," Beranek says. "Young people have different values. It's more than just a job and today, young people are not as enthusiastic about this work."
A rally tests the best
One thing that has kept interest in sherpas alive is the annual Sherpa Rally. In 1984, Beranek suggested to several local sherpas that they race to see who was the fastest.
Now, every year in late October, some 40 competitors from around the world gather to race. Men carry 60 kilograms and women 20 kilograms. Despite it's growing popularity, Beranek hopes the Sherpa Rally will remain a simple race and meeting among friends.
The High Tatra National Park is a hiking mecca
"It's important because of the people who want it and it's a tradition," Beranek says. "So long as people want to carry and race it will continue. If no one is interested to race it won't exist."
Beranek himself has won the Sherpa Rally on several occasions. Judging from his physical condition and energy, there are many more years in the legs that carry up the food chalet guests devour, the beer and wine they savor after a day on the mountain and the fuel that keeps them warm at night.
Viktor Beranek is an icon in the Tatras and his sheer enthusiasm for the work of sherpas will no doubt carry on this mountain tradition.