VMK Attempt (Východokarpatská magistrála)

About 2 weeks into the TTNV challenge I received a message from Silvo asking me if I am into some multi day stuff. The idea was to follow the red trail from Ubľa on Slovak – Ukraine border, then along the Polish border to Minčol some 240KM away. After some very short period of thinking I decided to join. With that in mind I took the last week of TTNV easier and more less rested my legs for 2 weeks later.

The first challenge was to pack for the journey. There are very limited options when it comes to refuelling on the way so no matter how hard I tried with all the food, equipment, sleeping back etc the best I could do was about 7kg heavy backpack + water. And included were for the very first time since Andorra 2019 my poles.

We started on Thursday evening around 8pm from Ubľa after about 2 hours long drive from Košice. The plan was to do the first about 30km section and then spend the night in the shelter that hopefully would be somewhere there.

Silvo had the route in his watch so we followed his lead. I felt we perhaps started a bit too fast but the opening section was rather flat and all the excitement got better of us 🙂 . When we entered the wooded section we made few wrong turns but we rectified all of them quickly. Although the trails are marked well once it got dark it was quite difficult to find the right direction while crossing the bigger open spaces where the markings are hard to see in the night. During one of these crossings two lights jumped at us from the bushes. Border police.

Attention, border.

This was no surprise as this part of our route was still very close to Ukraine border , a guarded Schengen border. After some polite greetings they led us to their car for documents check. This was on our route so no detour, no detour = no worries 🙂 . While they were looking for some pen and paper in the car we had a chat with them. When they were done they wished us good luck and ten fifteen minutes later we were again on our way.

Not far after this we were on the road, the actual road. This was the last part of the route that was on the road. Few kilometers crossing one village, the second last we would pass. All quiet and sleepy as it was midnight already except for two policemen at the entry to the village who came out of their cozy car when they saw three headlamps going their way. Behind the village the route took us off the road for a bit only to spit us back on it after some not much sense making loop and a bridge crossing. A bit later we were at Nová Sedlica.

At the other end of this village we deviated from our route and took about a kilometer plus long detour to where we hoped to find the shelter. It was not exactly straightforward but just as we were about to turn back and head to a cover we spotted in the village we passed one of the other two guys got a genius idea to cross a bridge that was next to us. And there on the small open space next to even smaller lake was the shelter we hoped to find.

that shelter as seen the next morning

We quickly settled in, got rid of 2 wasp nests inhabited by one wasp each, ate some food and tucked into our sleeping bags. I did not sleep too well as my inflatable mat somehow deflated under me and I spent most that short night sleeping on the hard wooden floor.

Our shelter as seen in the morning

Few hours later we woke up, perhaps few more hours later than when should have. But after some warm breakfast courtesy of mini stove and gas bombs we had we were on the way by about 7am. I optimistically hoped that we may pass some place where we could grab a coffee or whatever when passing Nová Sedlica again but that was not to be, We only passed a house where an early bird was mowing his lawn to some lively tunes and then just outside the village a local guy returning from early dog walk asked if there was any way he could assist us. I saw zero chance of him having a coffee maker on him so really not much he could do for me.

Soon the first and quite a big climb begun. About 1000m of elevation gain to reach Kremenec – the eastern most point of Slovakia, a tripoint where Slovakia, Ukraine and Poland meet. Maybe because this was just the start I did not find this climb particularly difficult. The heavy backpack was a bother but other than that I climbed very comfortably and my companions seemed to be handling this climb without any issues too.

Climbing up on the borderline between Ukraine (left) and Slovakia (right)
where 3 countries meet

After short break for food and photos we turned left (west) and started our long journey on the ridge that separates Slovakia and Poland. The trail here is very obvious. Blue mark on the right (Polish trail marking), red mark on the left (Slovak trail marking) and border stones in the middle. Really hard to miss.

The border trail with border stones every few meters

The weather was quite cool and windy at times as the ridge was wrapped in the cloud. It was not too bad when we were under the tree cover. But the open sections were pretty windy. We were running quite a lot the flats and downhills. It felt fine so far but I was beginning to feel the effects of carrying the heavy backpack. We met some people too. Some Slovak trekkers on long multiday treks and several day trippers from the Polish side. There was obviously easier access to this ridge trail from Poland. But overall we were mostly on our own surrounded by nature only.

It is interesting what effect on your day spotting a few pieces of unidentified animal crap can have. Me spotting some shit triggered a chain of events that led to us being quite exhausted before our day was over…

So we are running, I am chatting with Silvo and dropping a bit behind Lukáš when I see this animal shit a bit ahead on the ground. Me being me I tripped while my eyes were focusing on those droppings and with the heavy backpack on my back I was face down on the ground in no time. No damage done, and I also missed all that poo while falling but by the time I got up and we got going we lost Lukáš from our sight. So we decided to speed up to catch up. We spotted him again for a moment in the fog ahead but soon we lost the sight of him again. We kept steady pace but quite a bit faster than earlier in the day hoping that eventually, soon, we would catch up with him. It was not happening. Up and down on the bumps on the ridge, we crossed some windy fogy open spaces, we were not getting any closer to Lukáš nor could we see him anywhere ahead.

After quite a few km we started to wonder if we had passed him somewhere somehow. We had no idea how and where it could happen. But perhaps during some off the trail toilet break? We tried to call but finding signal was a challenge and when we managed to do that Lukáš would not pick up.

Finally we saw a Polish hiker. We asked if he saw another runner somewhere ahead of us. The answer was pretty confident no. This was a sign that we maybe chasing full on someone who is now behind us 🙂 .

After another kilometer or so we reached a trail junction. This was the earliest point where that Polish hiker could have joined the trail. We knew that there was no way Lukáš would be that far ahead of us that the hiker would not cross paths with him. We were now sure we were ahead of him. So finally after 2 hours of pushing too hard we slowed down to allow him to catch up. We could not call as again there was no signal or it was too weak to make a call. Eventually we arrived at another trail junction and decided to take a short break, take those damn pack off our backs for a while. That place also had some phone signal. After a while we made another call, this time Lukáš picked up, he was just walking in where we were. Reunion finally 🙂 .

and here we reunited, while resting on the bench on the Polish side of the trail

As we expected we passed him while he was making a short off the trail pit stop. And we also failed to notice the poles he left on the trail for us to see and realize we are passing him …

We got going again still keen to run but it was becoming more difficult at least for me after that not so easy paced few hours with heavy pack on the back. On top of it we started to run low on water. The ridgeline is not exactly rich on streams and springs. If there were any springs they were always few hundred meters down the hill and one could never be sure in what condition the particular spring would be. We hoped to refuel and eat something at Balnica, a place at about 50km mark for the day, where something is supposed to be open all year round. As we were 10-15km away I began to visualize sitting down over a plate of proper food and nice cold beer. Then we bumped into a group of Polish hikers coming from the other direction. We asked if Balnica is open. The answer was a confident no. Train station closed, all the kiosks closed, nobody there, well it is only May … Hopes brutally crushed… They did ask us though what we hoped to find there. And once hearing that we needed water these guys pulled out yet unopened bottle of sparkling water and offered us half of it.

The others from the group were also waving their own drink bottles offering to share but in these Covid times I found it more prudent to filter stream water than accept a drink from bottle someone else had already drunk from.

I will not lie, meeting these guys and learning the one and only place where we could buy some food on the first 140km of our route is closed was a very low point for me. I felt like lots of energy was suddenly drained from me. I was counting on getting some food there so I had to quickly in my head recalculate the supplies in my backpack. I still had lots of food but would it be enough ?

Our pace slowed and now we were on lookout for water. We had some dried meals with us but to cook them later we would need water. We also started to contemplate to call it a day in Balnica and stay the night there as if nothing else the shelter there should be better than the next one some 20km further.

About 2km from Balnica we found few streams. The water was clean but as the stream itself had lots of forest debris and mud in it we took some time to filter the water before continuing.

Then soon we saw a little arrow Balnica pointing right. When we walked out of the forest we saw this:

Balnica, station closed, kiosks empty

It looked like the hikers were right – everything was closed. But then we noticed right behind the station a bit up the hill a cabin, a half dead dog, two cars and two people. That moment we knew we are going to be fine.

the cabin and 2 cars, signs of life 🙂

The ministore was open, the kitchen too, shower, place to sleep, well with fresh water all available to us. The decision was quick, we could not say no to all this comfort, we were to stay here for the night. I ordered soup, pirogi, beer, while this was being prepared I had a can of Pepsi and took 2 more with me for the next day. And when I spotted my favourite chocolate on the shelf I took one bar too, for breakfast :-). The food was great, the beer tasted heavenly. Not sure why the lady serving is was apologising that she only has Polish beer… We were in Poland after all and the beer was great. The only thing missing now was cup of coffee but I rectified that quickly after another visit to the store.

nothing, nothing was wrong with this beer

After all the food, showers etc we went to sleep early planning 3:30am wake up and 4am departure. That 3:30am wake up we managed but it took us a bit longer to handle breakfast, water refills etc. At about 5am we were again on our way.

We still had about 160km to cover. We were contemplating to do these hundred miles in one go. With this on our minds we agreed to reduce our pace. We switched to power hiking. The pace was not too bad and the big benefit was that less bouncing made those heavy backpacks more bearable, literally. Overall we were in my opinion not moving any slower than the day before when we ran a lot and then had longish rest breaks.

We passed several signs warning us we were in the brown bear territory but none made an appearance. All we met were some deer and we did spot a footprint that looked like it could have been from a wolf. The only menace however were the ticks…

a gentle reminder

After about 20km we reached the place where we originally considered spending the previous night. A middle of nowhere with a tiny shelter that could barely barely fit 3 people. And that middle of nowhere was full of tall grass that was full of ticks. We forgot to apply the repellent in the morning. After maybe 100 meters through that grass we stopped near that mini shelter to check our legs. The tally was 10, 4 and 1 tick, all already attached. So the first break of the day and tick removal. The guys looked like tick pros, they got rid of theirs quickly and helped me with mine. We applied plenty of repellent before continuing and I am happy to report that whatever we used did the job. No more tick issues.

The day 3 went generally smooth and uneventful, The main issue we had was to figure out how long it will actually take us to get to Dukla, where we planned to refuel. The signs were showing 9h30mins, then soon after 8h45mins, then suddenly 12h30mins and so on. They were all pointing in the right direction but the time info seemed to be either totally random or whoever placed those signs there had them mixed up…

After 30-35km if I recall correctly we reached a road with border crossing and one of many war memorials. The area we were passing was a major battle area in both WWI and WWII and the signs were visible all along our route. At this road crossing we took a short break to remove our windbreakers. The sun was up and it was getting quite warm. All looked bright.

Welcome to Poland
Welcome to Slovakia
This border crossing closed to road traffic at the moment

The sunny weather did not last for too long though. Soon the sky darkened, light drizzle filled the air and quickly escalated to full on rain. The tree canopy above us offered some protection. But I decided to put on the water proof jacket and to cover my backpack with rain cover. The heavy rain stopped soon and the waterproof jacket became a hot burden. So off it was again but I decided to keep that rain cover on the backpack. It looked like the on and off rain was on the cards for a while.

one of many WWII memorials along the route

We were not super fast but we were moving steady. Thanks to those confusing signs it looked like we are never going to reach Dukla 🙂 but we long stopped bothering with those. We just kept going. After struggling a lot towards the end of day 2 I was feeling surprisingly fresh on day 3. That comfortable sleep and good food obviously did the job. Setting off 2 hours earlier in the morning than on the previous day was also good psychologically as we have covered quite long distance while the day was still young. However with still long way to go to the end we started to wonder if we would be able to finish it before end of Sunday (the next day)… It was now clear that to have any chance of doing that we would have to keep moving over the night.

Soon we reached pretty sobering spot. A war cemetery area full of graves from World War I. I took a short break to look around. A small chain fenced space with sign saying 127 soldiers buried here. And that was one of many…

127 soldier buried on the area as big as perhaps 4 parking places…
war cemetery on both sides of the border

On the gate of the cemetery on the Polish side was a text – a bit hard to read, perhaps that’s why the wars keep happening over and over…


Here we were already quite hungry and our lunch break was overdue. We decided though to keep going until we find a suitable shelter where we could sit down, start our mini stove and boil water for some warm food and drinks. We found some stream from where we had water so all we needed was a shelter like this one I am approaching:

towards the shelter, the skies not looking too friendly any more
the shelter

From here we only had about 15km left to Dukla. This we were quite confident was quite accurate number after consulting all the available sources of information on our hands 🙂 . Plan still was to get there, do some shopping and go on to the night. We had by now around 55km done for the day and almost 130km in total. We crossed another open space, quite a bit up the hill, got a bit lost in forest we entered but nothing major, we were back on the correct border trail in no time. As we kept going the trail was getting more and more muddy. There were also more and more fallen trees and branches that we could not climb over. Instead we had to keep making detour after detour off the trail through the woods. Nothing major when you are on a day hike. But when you still have 100+km to cover this sort of conditions slows you down a lot and adds quite a lot to the time you will need…

And then the sky darkened quickly and it started to rain again. The conditions of the trail from here on and the weather that we now had suddenly raised the question whether it actually makes sense to continue beyond Dukla. From Dukla we could get picked up by the car. If we continued the next place where an exit would be possible would be the end, further 100km away… The discussion kept going on. It sounded to me that each of us kind of wanted to keep going but we were slowly accepting the fact that it would not make much sense…

Silvo was familiar with the first 20-30km of trails after Dukla from last year plus we had intelligence report that near the final mountain of our planned journey there are many fallen trees. So we knew that the terrain would be even in worse condition than what we were dealing with now. The decision for now was to reach Dukla and once there assess the situation, check the weather forecast for the night and the next day and then make the call.

Dukla Pass

Once we made it there we gathered at the bus stop or whatever it was right by the main road. It did not take long to make that decision we probably all hoped and expected to make. We stopped some 100km short of our target. Really can’t remember when was the last time I abandoned a run or a challenge or a race while I was feeling totally fine. But even with benefit of the hindsight this was the right call. Continuing in the conditions that we would face for the final 100km did not make much sense.

moments after stopping our watches, notice the happy faces 🙂

We stopped our watches, took the obligatory end of the road photo and walked down to the nearest town to wait for the car to take us to Košice. We had about 1.5 hour till the car would come. So we sheltered in another comfortable bus stop at the edge of the town (or village?). We had the last supper of our expedition and changed to dry clothes not necessarily in that order. Then Lukáš pulled 3 wooden medals from his bag. They say 240km. Wet failed to do that distance but at least I have a nice reminder of the unfinished business 🙂 .

the trophy that is the reminder of unfinished business 🙂

We may have failed but I have no regrets. We had fun 3 days, covered over 140km in a really wild and remote area with very little civilization along the way. We also learned lots of valuable lessons that would surely come handy when planning another attempt sometime in the future. To do this route in self support fashion is extremely challenging. Not because of the route itself but because of the remoteness of the area. Limited access to water and food along the way requires to carry a heavy backpack with supplies. That means moving slowly. Moving slowly means spending several days (3-4) in the mountains. That gives you almost 100% certainty to run into bad weather eventually. And that means the need to carry bad weather gear that adds to the weight and further reduces the speed. We discussed some alternative and lighter ways how to approach this challenge in self support fashion. We did find some that may be feasible. Time will tell if we give it a go again…. For now it is time to put feet up and have some beer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *